Friday, 8 June 2012

“FAITH SEEKING UNDERSTANDING” SERIES


LEARNING FROM THE APOSTOLIC CHURCHES: THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH IN JERUSALEM


By

S. ’Jide Komolafe


(Continued from “What On Earth Is The Church?”)


The Christian community in Jerusalem had a position of special privilege among the Jewish Christian communities of primitive times. As a parent-church of all the later communities, we gain insights into the beginnings of Christianity, not merely as a religion, but also as a system of life and action. It is, therefore, proper that we begin our discussion by setting the context of the church within its historical significance.


The Context of the Church

There is much dispensational distinction regarding the actual birthday of the church. While some scholars have ascribed the birth of the church to the Pentecost event, others see it as a significant event that functioned only as a “reconstitution of the church.” The latter view holds that the Old Testament sacerdotal kahal has been replaced by the witnessing ekklesia of the New Testament. Both arguments have been given considerable attention. However, there is need to place both the Old and the New Testaments in a larger perspective of redemptive history, with the beginning of the Church as the climatic point in that history.[1]
 

Pentecost and the Historical Significance of Jerusalem

When consideration is given to Luke’s account of Jesus’ valedictory charge to his disciples not to “leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised” (Acts. 1:4), and the response this elicited from the disciples about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (Acts. 1:6), Luke places the Church’s origin, and growth firmly in history. The promise of the Holy Spirit and the geographical framework of Spirit-empowered witnessing will start from Jerusalem and then progress to the “uttermost part of the world” (Acts. 1:8). In this scheme of salvation history, Jerusalem takes a central place in the salvation occurrence and also represents some kind of continuity between Israel and the Church.

In fact, New Testament scholars have observed that Luke “uses geography as a literary and theological instrument. The center of his story is the city of Jerusalem. The whole movement . . . is toward Jerusalem.”[2] For example, in the infancy account, Jesus is presented in the Jerusalem temple (Lk. 2:22), he was discovered there after being lost (Lk. 2:41-51), the Matthean account of the temptation of Jesus is reversed by Luke so that it climaxed in Jerusalem (Lk. 4:9), at transfiguration, Jesus’ journey and death is foretold to happen at Jerusalem (Lk. 9:31), and after resurrection, Jesus informs his disciples to remain in Jerusalem.

The same centrality of Jerusalem controls the book of Acts. The witnessing to Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth is away from Jerusalem (chapters 1-7), evangelization starts from Jerusalem (chapters 8-28), and circles back to Jerusalem (Acts. 12:25; 15:2; 18:22; 19:21; 20:16; 21:13; 25:1).

Events on the day of Pentecost left no one with any doubts that the time had fully come for the promised Holy Spirit. The arrival of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by miraculous manifestations such as the “sound like the blowing of a violent wind,” and a linguistic diversity that crosses the Palestinian borders into other native languages (Acts. 2:2-12). The tongues of fire that divided and rested on each of them not only suggested unity, but to a greater degree represented the universal scope of the new experience.

Peter’s interpretation of Pentecost in light of the eschatological event announced by the prophet Joel (Acts. 2:16-21; Joel 2:28-32) demonstrates further the continuity between Israel and the Church. It also carries an appeal that would influence the Jews in the direction of a favorable view of the church. The Pentecost experience brings to fulfillment under the present dispensation that which Yahweh had promised His people (Acts. 2:16). It also defines many of the Old Testament pre-exilic prophecies of the eschatological event of the “last days” when God’s rule will be established in all the earth, and all nations will worship the God of Israel (Isa. 2:2-4). It is a messianic future in the life of Israel when they will be saved under the rule of their king, which is the messianic King from the dynasty of David.

Part of this messianic Kingship was the coming of the Holy Spirit, and Peter’s sermon thus affirms that the last days of eschatological salvation have come “for all people.” The central motif of Acts in this respect is the development of the Church from an assembly of a Jewish sect to a universal Church through the exaltation and enthronement of Jesus, the messiah (Acts. 2:22ff.). In this Pentecostal reconstitution of the church, Luke places the Church in the context of redemptive history and the task to which it has been called (Acts. 1:8).

The micro ekklesia made up of the disciples of Jesus, the women accompanying Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers, has now become a new fellowship of a universal people, united in the Spirit. There is, therefore, more claim than to simply argue that Pentecost defines the birthday of the Church. Rather, one can argue that the coming of the Spirit and the Church are inseparable.

The Church, therefore, is not a religious institution but is a creation of the Spirit of God in which heterogeneous groupings are joined together in a fellowship with Jesus and with each other. As Ladd rightly remarks, “The baptism with the Spirit is the act of the Holy Spirit joining together into a spiritual unity people of diverse racial extractions and diverse social backgrounds so that they form the body of Christ, the ekklesia.[3]


Composition of the Jerusalem Church[4]

Studies on Jerusalem as an ancient city in the Roman period have expressed a common belief that it was a very diverse city both sociologically and culturally. How then did the Jerusalem church reflect this socio-economic and cultural diversity? Put in another way, how did the socio-economic and cultural character of the city, Jerusalem, correspond to the composition of the church in Jerusalem?

Drawing from the works of historians, theologians and archeologists, David Fiensy has observed, “the primitive church reflected to a great extent the rich diversity of Jerusalem itself.”[5] In other words, the church was pluralistic in character, drawing its membership from among the different socio-economic and cultural matrix of the society. There were property owners who, in our contemporary method of social stratification, would suffice for the middle class. Examples of this class include Barnabas, Ananias and Sapphira who possessed lands (Acts. 4:36f.; 5:1), Mary, mother of John Mark, owned a slave and a house large enough to serve as a place of assembly for the primitive church (Acts. 12:12-17).

The church also finds appeal among the outcast and marginal elements of society. For example, the beggars and the diseased people healed by the apostles (Acts. 3:1-10; 5:12-16). There were also significant numbers of impoverished people like the widows in Acts 6:1, other transient and destitute persons cared for by the church (Acts. 2:44f.; 4:34), and also servile members like Rhoda (Acts. 12:13).

There can be no question to the fact that non-Jews also had their place in the church. Among the perplexed crowd that experienced the Pentecost event were also Gentiles from different nations (Acts. 2:7-12) who believed and were baptized in response to Peter’s preaching that day—a total of three thousand (Acts. 2:41). In a few weeks the number had increased to five thousand men, not including women and children. Perhaps one of the best accounts of Luke was the brotherly recognition granted the uncircumcised Cornelius by the Jerusalem Council. Confronted by the Council over his table fellowship with the Gentile, Peter’s explanation of the Spirit coming upon the Cornelius brought a new reality to the Jerusalem church that God was now granting “even Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts. 11:18).

In spite of the socio-economic and cultural differences, the young church was a community bearing a family character, the members’ commitment to unity was inescapable, and thus was to an extent outwardly distinct group.


Contextual Issues in the Jerusalem Church

As I have already observed, the extended narrative of Acts provides for us a framework within which the church’s orientation and direct continuity with Israel can be situated. It also provides us with contextual issues that arose as a result of the church’s historical affiliation to Israel. Since the church’s conception of identity is rooted in specific salvation history, continuity between her Jewish roots and the fledging Gentile frontiers, therefore, depends largely on how well these contextual issues are reconciled.


Legalism Battle: Is Salvation by Law or by Grace?

A major and threatening contextual issue that had to be resolved can best be described in the words of James Dunn. According to him, it is one of “classic confrontation between old revelation, confirmed by centuries of history, and a new insight, given. . . in the course of an expanding, developing mission.”[6] Luke states very clearly that certain Jewish believers, allegedly representing the Jerusalem church, who believed circumcision as axiomatic for the salvation of Gentiles and a requirement for sharing in Israel’s blessings (Acts. 15:1).


Circumcision as Identity Marker

Circumcision is “Israel’s essential identity marker” and constitutes its distinctiveness as a people. Laid down in Genesis 17:9-14, it is an everlasting covenant in their flesh, reminding them of the covenant between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the patriarch Abraham and his descendants. To disregard circumcision, therefore, is to break the covenant and be deprived of the promises of Yahweh, losing in the process their sense of identity and ultimate status as God’s people (Gen. 17:10-14).

To the protagonists of this unbroken tradition, the Jewish character of Christianity not only has to be secured but its continuity and efficacy have to be linked to this unbroken tradition. This posed a threatening situation for both the young church and the Gentile mission, which by this time was experiencing an impressive growth. Would Gentile believers be required to be circumcised in order to be justified? If that became a requirement for church membership, how then was one to be justified before God; through circumcision or by the saving faith in Jesus Christ?

Two key issues are central to this contextual issue. First, there is the threat of division in the church and the possibility of one side becoming apostate. Second, and perhaps the more important, is the deep theological concern and the soteriological implications this raises for both the mother church at Jerusalem and for the fledging Gentile mission. The question arising in both issues is the future assumption that one has to change cultures in order to be a follower of Jesus.


The Ministry of the Jerusalem Church

The life of the primitive church in Jerusalem provides us with a paradigm for ministry. We gain insight into the nature and strategy for ministry issues that become the test case against which our modern conception of ministry stands or falls (Jude 3-4). The interpretation of the movement up to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem by many commentators as the story of Christian missions is not an inappropriate one. As important as this may be, however, it robs the book of Acts of its central theological purpose. As J.C. O’Neill has observed, “Acts is not primarily a history of the Christian missions. It is the account of how the Church discovered its true nature in the way God dealt with it on the path from Jerusalem.”[7] The Lucan narrative sets this ideal for ministry with three distinct characteristics: the liturgical life and worship of the primitive church, harmony and community sharing, and the charismatic ministry of the apostles (Ac. 2:42, 46; 4:32-35; 5:12-16).


Liturgical Life and Worship

The early chapters of Acts provide us with the primitive church’s patterns of behavior and piety that owe as much to pragmatic concerns as to dogma. In this embrace of a new life, the believers “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts. 2:42). Four elements appear to characterize a Christian gathering in the primitive church: devotion to the apostles’ teaching (didache), fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.

First, “the apostles’ teaching” or didache was central to the belief of the new believers and distinguished them from the adherents of other religions. Ladd summarizes this well when he remarks, “[the apostles’ teaching] included the meaning of the life, death, and exaltation of Jesus, his enthronement as messianic King and Lord inaugurating the messianic age of blessing, and the future eschatological consummation.”[8]

The second element was their sense of “fellowship.” The reference is not simply to the apostle’s fellowship or as something that the apostles were now opening up to accommodate more people; rather it denotes the common life shared by believers. The quality of their fellowship was one of active participation by all rather than merely a feeling of oneness.

The third element, “the breaking of bread” (Acts. 2:42, 46), was markedly an act of worship in the primitive church with a twofold expression. First, it recalled the Upper Room and other incidents in which Jesus resumed table fellowship with his disciples (Lk. 24:35; Jn. 21:12). Second, the common fellowship meals form a bond with the Lord and impose the obligation of holy service for his sake.

These fellowship meetings not only commemorate proximity and presence with the risen Lord, but also help to foster inner cohesion among the faithful. As Schnackenburg has remarked, “In this. . . the nature of the ‘Church of God’ as the holy ‘assembly’ of the Lord or of the people of God found particularly clear expression.”[9] Finally, prayer was an important part of their daily life, both in temple worship and in private meetings (Acts. 2:46).


Harmony and Community Sharing

The distinctive expression of fellowship in the Jerusalem community has been a subject of much controversy in New Testament studies. Some scholars have described the practice of sharing of possessions among the believers as primitive communism. It is, however, questionable if this is a fair assessment or the right word to use in describing the quality of fellowship among these believers. First, we know that to be considered a communist system, whether primitive or otherwise, requires a system of operation to be put in place to ensure continuity. This was not the case with the Jerusalem church. Second, donations and contributions were not enforced but voluntary as the case of Ananias and Sapphira clearly indicates (Acts. 5:1-11).

Despite contemporary intellectual exercise, the more important thing is to recognize that an important element of early Christian behavior was the unity of mind and purpose. This signified the mark of spiritual unity in worship that transcended the bounds of private possessions. The primitive church was compelled by such an outward expression of love that none considered their property as their own. Instead, holders of property held their wealth at the service of the church, and lavishly used it for the good of all. In other words, the driving force was the recognition that the love of property was subordinate to the love of the Christian family.

The fact that Barnabas is especially commended for selling his field suggests that such generosity was a very rare occurrence and was completely voluntary. Similarly, the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:4 clearly indicates that the couple was not condemned for failing to turn all their proceeds to the church, but for pretending to be more generous than they really were. The misconduct of Ananias and Sapphira, therefore, introduces us to different aspects in the life of the primitive church. First, their action underscored the necessity for holy living required of those engaged in worship. Peter’s unassuming stand portrays a powerful impulse for moral uprightness in which sin is taken seriously. It also demonstrates the church’s responsibility to deal with misconduct and ethical issues among the body of believers.


The Theology of the Jerusalem Church[10]

The theology of the Jerusalem Church corresponds exactly to the contextual character of the church. I have shown that in Lucan scheme of redemptive history, Jerusalem takes a central place in the salvation occurrence and also represents some kind of continuity between Israel and the Church. I have also examined the context of the Jerusalem church as comprising both Jewish and Gentile believers. The key theological issue, therefore, is one that seeks to reconcile the significance of circumcision to Jewish believers with the conditions placed on Gentile believers by which they could be admitted to full religious fellowship. In this instance, I refer once more to the Jerusalem church Council.


The Jerusalem Church Council

The Jerusalem council required delegates from the conflicting parties in deliberations that were pivotal to the very existence of the church. On the one hand were the legalistic Judaizers who saw the continuity of Jewish tradition as essential to the Christian faith, while on the other were those of Paul and Barnabas leading the liberal Gentile delegation (Acts. 15:1-2). Two issues deserve special consideration here: Circumcision versus Salvation and The Apostolic Decree.


Legalism Battle: Is Salvation by Law or by Grace?

Here I want to revisit the issue of circumcision in the legislative battle between law and grace as the requirement for salvation and of admittance into the eschatological community. The issue of circumcision appears on the surface to be solely a contextual or cultural one. As much as it is a contextual issue, it is, however, one of deep theological concern with soteriological implications. Three factors make the circumcision issue a theological problem. First, the requirement of circumcision would greatly hinder the work of evangelism that had begun among the Gentiles (Gal. 2:2). Second, it poses a threat to unity, with the possibility of division and factions. Third, and perhaps the greatest, is the issue of justification by saving faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 5:2-4).

That the Jerusalem Council reached a genuine consensus “not to burden” the Gentile believers with circumcision as basis for admission into full Christian fellowship holds itself to the fact that God had taken an initiative which they could not gainsay. This is where the lengthy account of Cornelius’ conversion becomes the decisive precedent in the circumcision issue. Dunn here refers to Peter as “the bridge-man who spanned and held together the Gentile mission of Paul and the conservatism of the Jerusalem church under the leadership of James.”[11]

The initiative was that God had shown Peter through the vision of the sheet filled with animals that no person is unclean in His eyes. Consequently, Peter was forced by clear directive and approval from God to accept a Gentile, as a new member of the new movement (indicated in baptism), without requiring of him first to be circumcised (Acts. 10:9-48). The Cornelius episode was, however, not an isolated event when we take into account other similar incidents as confirmed by Paul and Barnabas with regards to their Gentile mission (Acts. 15:12). These occurrences were seen as having divine approval in that God had given the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles “just as He did to us” (Acts. 15:8; 11:15-17).

James alludes to the legitimacy of Peter’s experience with Cornelius and also considers it to be the fulfillment of God’s eschatological restoration of His people in the Messiah as prophesied by Amos (Acts. 15:15-18; Amos 9:11-12). More importantly, the gift of the Spirit was considered God’s testimony of the Gentiles’ acceptability to Him, as well as an indication of the new paradigm concerning His redemptive purpose in which the restoration of Israel would incorporate Gentiles as also His people.

By speaking of the Gentiles becoming “a people [laos]” for God’s name (Acts. 15:14), James articulates the new understanding in which God radically redefines peoplehood or the people of God as coming from among all nations. As David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen have observed, “it thus became apparent that salvation depended on the individual’s relationship to God rather than to the tradition and institutions of any particular ethnic group.”[12]

In summation, the results of the Jerusalem Council were a clear victory for the Holy Spirit. The Jerusalem church unanimously recognized that salvation was by grace alone, and that the Gentiles needed only believe (Acts. 15:14-21). In the words of Dean Gilliland, this “was a radical move toward . . . contextualization [because] it signaled to Gentiles, as well as to Jews, that salvation no longer belonged only to Jews.”[13] Dunn puts it equally well by interpreting the centrality of Acts 5:1-15 thus:

that the grace of the Lord Jesus is both the necessary and the sufficient means of salvation for Jew and Gentile. The denial of any significance for ethnic or ritual factors enables unconditional recognition of every one’s dependence equally on divine grace. Failure to acknowledge this is to ‘test’/resist God.[14]


The Apostolic Decree: Redefining the Covenant

The Jerusalem church Council did not make a total concession to the Gentile churches. Although the Council recognized that circumcision was not a requirement for full Christian fellowship, it did send out to the Gentile churches a decree that adopts some measure of Jewish legal prescriptions. The first three prescriptions mentioned in Acts refer to food restrictions: to abstain from food that has been offered to idols (Acts. 15:20, 29; 21:25), to abstain from meat of animals which had been strangled and from which the blood had not been properly drained (Lev. 7:26-27; 17: 10-14). The fourth prescription was an ethical one and bothers on sexual immorality in general (Acts. 15:20), or of sexual union forbidden in Scripture (Lev. 18:6-18).

There is much controversy in New Testament studies whether or not these restrictions are either ethical, ritualistic, or a combination of both. Even more important is the interpretation that the decree is a “defeat” for Paul’s teaching of “salvation through faith alone.” Such an interpretation takes the Scripture, especially Acts 15:21, out of context. For Luke the decree cannot be considered burdensome nor surprising for Gentiles or the resident alien who, through their contact with the Synagogues, had become familiar with the law of Moses and the sort of ritual provision found there which provided a basis for interaction between Jews and Gentiles.

The issue, therefore, is not so much a contention as to who won or lost at the conference, but rather of the terms necessary to facilitate social intercourse between Jewish and Gentile believers by encouraging at least a minimum of ritual cleanness. The decision of the apostolic church council, therefore, played a vital role as the basis of mixed churches. Not only did the church survive the greatest threat of division and of splitting into small groups, it solved the problem of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. The oneness of the Church was thus reinforced, bringing both Jewish and Gentile believers together around the one table of the Lord.


(Next series: The Church in Rome)

REFERENCES:

[1] In Luke-Acts history is divided into three stages: the period of Israel, the period of Jesus, and the period of the church, which is the greatest period of sacred history.
[2] Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (1999:220).
[3] George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (1993:384).
[4] I acknowledge David Fiensy, whose work has largely influenced the perspective adopted here. See his work, “The Composition of the Jerusalem Church” (1995:213-234).
[5] David Fiensy (1995:214).

[6] For details, see James Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (1996:198-199).
[7] J.C. O’Neill, The Theology of Acts in its Historical Setting (1961:170).
[8] George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (1993:386).
[9] Schnackenburg (1965:43).
[10] A full theology of Luke-Acts must necessarily deal with issues such as salvation history, Christology, the Spirit and the Church, missiological ecclesiology, and persecution. My aim in this series is not to attempt this comprehensive exposition but to focus my theological interpretation on contextual issues that arose in the life of the Jerusalem church.
[11] James Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (1996:200).
[12] David J Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Models (1989:11).
[13] Dean Gilliland, Pauline Theology and Mission Practice (1983:39).
[14] James Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (1996:201-202).

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