Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Church History Lesson 7 (The First Council)

Note: I taught a Sunday School on Church History in 2004 in New Hampshire. Starting in February I'll be teaching the same course here in Virginia. So any posts, including the one below, and especially for the first half of the series, are more or less repeats.

Church History Lesson 1 (Introduction)
Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 1)
Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 2)
Church History Lesson 3 (The Start of The Church)
Church History Lesson 4 (The Life of Jesus)
Church History Lesson 5 (The New Community)
Church History Lesson 6 (The Church at Antioch)

(Note: generously adopting and lifting from F. F. Bruce's fantastic book: The Spreading Flame.)

The First Council

Samaria lies between the regions of Judea, in the south, and Galilee, to the north.

In the eight and seventh centuries B.C, when the elite of Samaria were deported by the Assyrian kings, they were replaced with colonists from other parts of the Assyrian empire. These imported peoples gave up their foreign worship and were assimilated into the Samaritan Israelites, but the Judeans always considered the Samaritans as half-breeds.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, in Luke 10:25-37, many (perhaps) incorrectly assume that the Samaritan was a practitioner of some other religion, but many Samaritans, while holding separate traditions and teachings, were still Jews.

When the Persian kings allowed the exiles to return, the Samaritan Israelites offered to cooperate with the returning Judeans, but their offer was rejected. This caused the Samaritans to build a temple at Mt. Gerizim to rival the temple in Jerusalem. Sometime around 130 B.C. the Hasmomean kings (recall the Maccabean revolt against the mad Macedonian king, Antiochus) conquered the Samaritans and destroyed their temple. Then came the Romans, and the Samaritans exchanged their Jewish yoke for a Roman one.

It was against this backdrop of this long-standing animosity that, after the persecution broke again against the Hellenists, Philip traveled to Samaria and proclaimed the gospel, and it was well received by the Samaritans who, like the "mainstream" Jews, had a Messianic hope, based mostly on
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. (Deut 18:15)
The Samaritans called this Moses-like prophet the "restorer", and Philip identified the restorer as Jesus, whom the Jewish religious leaders had turned over to the Romans for execution. One of those who followed Philip was a famous magician, known throughout Samaria, Simon Magnus.
9Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, 10and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, "This man is the divine power known as the Great Power." 11They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic. 12But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw. (Acts 8:9-13)
Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, the apostles heard of Philip's success in Samaria and sent Peter and John to investigate. They had an interesting encounter with this Simon:
15When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 17Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money 19and said, "Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." 20Peter answered: "May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin." (Acts 8:15-23)
Tradition teaches that Simon did not repent, and went on to start Gnosticism, which we will be discussing. Simon's attempt to buy spirituality is the basis for the word simony.

This is about the time when Gentiles are being converted in Antioch, and Peter is visiting the home of the Gentile Cornelius (at the council of Jerusalem, Peter claimed to be the first to speak the gospels to the Gentiles.) When Peter returned, as we discussed, he convinced the skeptical apostles that this was God's intent.

Political Intrigue

Here, in A.D. 40, we see some remarkable political developments. Since the time of Augustus, a daily sacrifice had been made in the Jerusalem temple for the Roman emperor. Gaius, better known as Caligula, who had become emperor in A.D. 37, had declared himself to be a divinity and was no longer satisfied with this custom. When a delegation of Jews told Gaius that daily sacrifices and prayers of thanksgiving were offered for him in the temple, he responded: "That is all very well; you have offered sacrifice, but it was to someone else, even if it was on my behalf. What good is that? You have not offered sacrifice to me." In Jamnia, in western Judea, the Gentile population built an altar to Gaius which the Jews, who comprised the majority of citizens in the populace, promptly tore down. Gaius responded to the news of this insult by ordering that a statue of him be erected in the Jerusalem temple. He knew, of course, the Jews would never comply so he ordered Petronius, imperial legate of Syria, to march to Jerusalem with two legions to enforce the command. Petronius marched south, making it as far south as Ptolemais on the Galilean coast. There he was met by a delegation of Jews who told him that the nation would die before allowing such an abomination, but Petronius allowed as to how he had no choice but to follow orders. Still, Petronius hesitated, knowing the consequences of what he had been commanded to do.

In the meantime, King Herod Agrippa, whose kingdom included Galilee (but not Judea) made a plea to Gaius, who was a personal friend. Gaius relented, sending a message to Petronius that if the statue was already erected it must stay, but if it had not been erected no further action would be taken. At the same time, Petronius had already sent a letter to Gaius stating that there was no way to carry out the command short of exterminating the Jews. Even though Gaius had already rescinded, he was not happy with Petronius’s hesitation, and replied with a letter ordering Petronius to commit suicide because of his insubordination. However, before that letter arrived, Petronius received word that Gaius (Caligula) had been assassinated and replaced by Claudius.

Claudius, like Gaius, showed great favor to Herod Agrippa, adding Judea to his kingdom. Agrippa was intent on winning the goodwill of the Judean Jews. The Mishnah relates that when, as required Agrippa read the law of the kingdom:
14When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, "Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us," 15be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite. (Deut 17:14-15)

Agrippa wept, but the Jews called out: “do not weep, you are indeed our brother.”

To summarize, it is ten years since the persecution against the Hellenists. Peter has witnessed to Gentiles, and a Gentile church has been established in Antioch, so the Nazarenes are no longer supported by any school of Jewry. Judea has a new king, one who seems to have found and assiduously seeks to prove his Jewishness. All these work together to precipitate the first persecution against the Hebrew Christians. With the approval of the Judean community, Agrippa moves against the church. In Acts 12, (where Agrippa is referred to as King Herod) James the brother of John was put to death by the sword (beheaded) and Peter was arrested, only to escape miraculously.

The Ascendancy of James, the Brother of Jesus

One of the first signs of the rise of James the brother of Jesus is when Peter escapes Agrippa’s prison, heads to Mary’s (the mother of John-Mark) house, which seems to have been an early meeting place for the community. Upon arriving, we read:
12When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, "Peter is at the door!" 15"You're out of your mind," they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, "It must be his angel." 16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. "Tell James and the brothers about this," he said, and then he left for another place. (Acts 12:12-17)

If this is only suggestive, then confirmation occurs two years later, when Paul and Barnabas arrive, during the famine, with their gift from the church at Antioch. When Paul relates his encounter with the Jerusalem church leaders (in Gal. 2) he refers to the pillars of the church: James, Peter, and John –in that order.

So James had assumed a leadership role, and his wisdom was needed in just a couple of years as the church faced a major crisis.

The Council of Jerusalem

Even after the incorporation of Gentiles in the church, some Jews, especially those with past connections with the Pharisaic school, still believed that Christianity was another Jewish party. They are called "zealous of the law" in Acts 21:20.

Theses "law zealots" did not argue that Gentiles should be excluded. Peter's experience with Cornelius had rendered the mere question of whether Gentiles should be part of the new community as "asked and answered." But they still believed that the Gentile proselytes should be circumcised and required to obey the ceremonial law.

While they accepted the ramifications of Peter's experience with Cornelius, they missed the importance of Peter's vision in which Peter learned that no food should categorically be considered pure or unclean (Acts 10). Moreover, when Paul and Barnabas visited with their gift, they were accompanied by a young Greek convert named Titus (who may have been Luke's brother), and none of the leaders raised the issue of his being uncircumcised.

So the picture is this:
  • The church at Antioch had adopted the liberal view that neither circumcision nor adherence to the ceremonial law was required. The new churches in Asia minor resulting from Paul and Barnabas's missionary journey followed suit.

  • The apostles in Jerusalem, influenced by Peter's vision, accepted this, at least by all the evidence we have. The acceptance may not have been enthusiastic, it may have been resignation, but it was there.

  • There was a rank and file of Jews that accepted the Gentiles, but still pushed for the usual requirements for conversion.

This sort of uneasy alliance came to a head when a delegation of the Jerusalem church visited the church at Antioch and exceeded the terms of their commission. They told the believers there that they must be circumcised in order to be saved:
1Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." 2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. (Acts 15:1-4)
The conflict went beyond the fundamental question of salvation. The Judiazers also considered the uncircumcised unclean, and would not have fellowship with them. This included the new meal instituted at the Lord's request to commemorate his death. It is easy to see the strain this must have placed on the church at Antioch.

Not only did these visitors introduce an awkward situation into the church at Antioch, they also precipitated one of the more amazing confrontations in the bible. Peter was in Antioch when the visitors arrived. Before their arrival, Peter ate freely with the Gentile Christians. After the arrival of the visitors, he withdrew from the Gentiles, no longer eating with them. This must have exacerbated the despair of the Gentiles in the Antioch church, especially when their beloved leader Barnabas, recently returned from his missionary journey with Paul, was inclined to join Peter.

Paul was clearheaded on this matter. He saw that requiring circumcision for salvation undermined the gospel, in fact it transformed it into a non-gospel.
11When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 14When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? 15"We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' 16know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:11-16)
Peter appears to have understood Paul's rebuke, for this is the only time that his appeasement to the party of the circumcised is recorded.

The problem was not confined to Antioch. Judiazers went to the new churches on Asia Minor with the same undermining message: you must be circumcised and obey the ceremonial law, initiating what was probably Paul’s first epistle, to the Galatians.
6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- 7which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Gal 1:6-9)
Here those "people" preaching another gospel, people who Paul states should be eternally condemned, are members in good standing of the Jerusalem church!

Something had to give. The church in Jerusalem is now politically vulnerable. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles has publicly rebuked the leader of the original apostles who walked with Jesus during his ministry. Emissaries from the Jerusalem church are visiting the new churches and telling the Gentile converts that they have to do something else to ensure their salvation, and Paul has written that these visitors should be damned.

The internal tension had to be released. The Antioch church charged Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem, and in A.D. 49 the council at Jerusalem convened. The Judiazers had their say, but the contrary arguments won the day. Peter reminded the conferees how God had shown His pleasure at the conversion of Cornelius and his household by His bestowal of the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabas told of the work of the Spirit among the Gentiles they saw converted.

But perhaps the coup de grace was delivered by James, the brother of Jesus. As leader of the church at Jerusalem (by this time, not only was he the leader, but neither Peter nor John were often in residence) it is likely that the Judiazers counted on his backing. If so, they were disappointed, for not only did James back Paul and Peter's position, he quoted the Old Testament (Amos 9:11-12) as if to say, and you ought to know better:
13When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16" 'After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things' 18that have been known for ages. 19"It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. (Acts 15:13-16)
The remaining question was one of practicality—how to deal with the fact that there were Jews and Gentiles worshiping together, and that the two groups had very different customs. The answer was the form of a letter written to the churches, and the tact taken by the letter is the basis for guidelines in the area of Christian liberty: the strong and mature should accommodate the less secure. In this first case, ironically, it was required of the "stronger" Gentiles to make concessions to the "weaker" Jews:
The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. 24We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul-- 26men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. (Acts 15:23-29)
While all acknowledge that the church at Antioch was delighted with this outcome, some have said that Paul would have been less than pleased with the mild "requirements" of the letter. This is wrongheaded. Not only were they presented as proper living but not salvific, but they were the very archetype of many of Paul's suggestions for proper lifestyle and compromise. He himself would later write that those who were strong but emancipated should curb their liberty in eating habit should it be a stumbling block to less mature believers:
1Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. 3But the man who loves God is known by God. 4So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), 6yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. 7But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. 9Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak (1 Cor. 8:1-9)
What Paul wrote to the Corinthians mirrored what the Jerusalem council wrote to Antioch.

The council at Jerusalem was a major success. It set to rest the false gospel of the Judiazers and gave the church the unity it needed to continue to grow through evangelizing to the Gentiles.

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