Acts Chapter 10 tells the story of the conversion of Cornelius, the first recorded Gentile to be saved through Christ. This event was to have great consequences in the early church. The central question became: does a person need to become a Jew before becoming a Christian?
When the news concerning Peter and Cornelius reached Jerusalem, a conference was held in which Peter was called to account. Many of the brothers there insisted that Cornelius be circumcised and follow the Law, even though they had already been baptized into Christ, for it was almost unthinkable to them that anyone other than a Jew could actually be saved. Peter recalled the events in Acts 11:1-18 and ended his account with this question: “So if God gave them the same gift that he gave to us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God? (Acts 11:17) This question put the matter to rest in the First Jerusalem Conference, but not for very long!
Second Jerusalem Conference: Crisis of covenant
Paul and Barnabas were reaping great results for the Gospel in Antioch and the Eastern Mediterranean area, and the old question soon arose: Must a Gentile become a Jew in order to receive Christ? Paul returned to Jerusalem to once again put the question to the Apostles. It is interesting, in light of the outcome of the previous Conference that so many still struggled with it.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”
Those Christians who had been of the party of the Pharisees had believed that Jesus was the Lord of Israel, and that the Torah was Christian Law. But Paul pointed out:
He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are
The assertions of Peter and Paul make it clear that not only can Gentiles be saved though faith in Christ without becoming Jews, but this is also the way Jews are to be saved. James was next to speak:
When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
”‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’
that have been known for ages.
Finally, the Conference determined once and for all (minus some naysayers who gave Paul problems later) that neither circumcision nor the Law of Moses were necessary for Salvation.
In this determination, backed up by the accounts of Peter and Paul, and discussed later, the matter was put to rest, and a very interesting Theology begins to emerge, that of two covenants. Is the Old Covenant still in effect? The answer is clearly “no”. Does being a Jew result in Salvation? Again, the
answer is “no”. If the Law cannot save you, and being a Jew cannot save you, then is Abraham’s covenant still in effect?
To answer this question, consider this: why did the Apostles determine that circumcision was not necessary? After all, circumcision is the sign of the Old Covenant, right? Wrong! It is the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant! If that Covenant were effective, then wouldn’t it be necessary to circumcise all males? If you say “no” because the Covenant only passed through Abraham’s seed, you would only be half right. Was anyone else, other than Abraham and his physical descendants in that Covenant? Remember that Abraham and his entire household were circumcised. A Christian is a member of the household of Christ! If the former covenant were in effect, then one could enter it through circumcision… but it wasn’t, because it had been entirely fulfilled through Christ.
At this time there was only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism for all (Eph. 4:1,2) As Paul would later write, and we will study next week, the true Israel was according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh. Jesus was the true seed of Abraham.
To prepare for next week, read the following: Romans 7, 10; 2Corinthians 3; Galatians 2, 34; Ephesians 2; and Hebrews 7.