Church History: A Biblical View
Part I - The Apostolic Age: Lesson No. 4 - Gentile Churches
The church was composed entirely of Jews, or at least those who adhered to the Mosaic Law, for about the first ten years of its existence. During this period (c. 30-40 A.D.), and for the next few decades, the Gentiles viewed the church as just another sect or offshoot of Judaism. Indeed, at first the church was in danger of becoming just that. Every Christian was a Jew and did everything the average Jew did. He still practiced circumcision and observed all the other precepts of the Mosaic Law (Acts 21: 20; 26:11). Even the apostles continued to observe the customs and laws of the Jews (Acts 3:1; 10:9-16; Gal. 2:11-13). It does not seem to have occurred to them that the death of Christ meant that they were no longer obligated to observe the Mosaic Law. They gave up none of their Jewish heritage. They were simply Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. They saw no incompatibility between professing obedience to Moses and obedience to Christ. Moreover, they expected any Gentile who wanted to become a member of the church to first become a Jewish proselyte. Of course, this was not at all what the Lord had planned for His church. Such views and practices not only missed the purpose of the Mosaic Law but also tended to make the church another exclusivistic, Judaistic sect rather than the universal body it was intended to be (Mt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15).
II. Conversion of the Gentiles
It was in God's plans to admit the Gentiles to the church, but not as Jewish proselytes. As usual, this significant event was preceded by preparatory measures. The first of these was the large-scale persecution of the church following the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1-4). Ironically, it was Stephen wo seems to have had the greatest appreciation of the fact
of the demise of the Mosaic institutions and the acceptability of Gentiles for church membership as Gentiles, judging from the accusations brought against him (Acts 6:13,14) and the defense he himself made (Acts 7). However, it may be that his death did more to bring about the fulfillment of his teachings than the teachings themselves did, for his death was the beginning of a widespread persecution against the church which scattered it beyond the confines of Jerusalem and Judea. At first, the gospel was preached only to Jews, but a step away from Jerusalem was a step away from Judaism. This Judaistic hold on the church was loosened somewhat in the conversions the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch.(Acts 8). This took the church half the way to the Gentiles, but something else had to occur before they were admitted: the conversion of Saul (Acts 9). This was necessary because Saul (Paul) was to be God's special apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:7,S). Saul's conversion is usually placed around 35 A.D. Then about 40 A.D. the apostle Peter was sent under the influence of special revelation and direct commandment from God to preach to the household of a Gentile named Cornelius (Acts 10). This was such a momentous event that the Lord saw fit to place His divine imprimatur upon it by giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles in a miraculous display prior to their baptism. This factor later figured heavily in the church's decision that the Gentiles did not have to become Jews to become Christians (Acts 11:1-18; 15:7-11).
III. Paul and His Journeys
The doors of the church now swung open widely, and Gentiles flocked into the fold. Making their way into Syria, some disciples preached to Greeks, and the first Gentile church was established in Antioch. Barnabas was dispatched from Jerusalem to tend to the needs of the new Gentile Christians, and, finding the need so great, he soon brought Paul to assist in the work.
Of all the apostles, Paul was the one best suited to be the apostle to the Gentiles. He was the only one of the apostles who was born, and had lived, outside the Jewish homeland. His home was Tarsus, the great center of Hellenistic learning. Even though he was sent at a rather early age to Jerusalem to be educated (Acts 22:3), he must have had some beneficial exposure to Greek thought, and his writings evidence this. He was also a
Jew par excellence (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:4-6), being a Pharisee and an ardent student and advocate of the Jesish law and traditions. This eventually led to his violent confrontation with the church. Finally, he had the unusual privilege of being a Roman citizen, a status of considerable importance in his later ministry as an apostle (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:10-12). All of these aspects of Paul's background combined to make him the most influential and dynamic personality in the history of the church. He wrote more of the New Testament than any other man and did more than any other to spread the gospel (I Cor. 15:10; II Cor. 11:23). Is it any wonder, then, that Paul says God set him apart from his mother's womb (Gal. 1:15)? He was a man who had been divinely prepared for a very difficult and important task. When the time came, He rose to the occasion and embraced his work with unstinting dedication.
Using Antioch as a base, Paul made three evangelist tours among the Gentiles. His first one (c. 45-48 A.D.-) took him to the island of Cyprus and into south central Asia Minor, where he established several churches. Between his first and second tours he attended a conference in Jerusalem (c. 50 A.D.), where his testimony was an important factor in the decision not to bind the Law of Moses upon Gentile Christians (Acts 15; Gal. 2).
His second tour (c. 51-54 A.D.) took him through Syria, Cilicia, Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia. The borders of the church were extended everywhere he preached. His third tour (c. 54-58 A.D.) did not cover any new territory, but he did enjoy a long and successful ministry in Ephesus. He also visited the Macedonian and Achaian churches twice during this tour, which ended with his arrest in Jerusalem. He was held in Roman custody five or six years (c. 58-63 A.D.) in Caesarea and Rome before he was released. According to Paul's epistles to Timothy and Titus he was then able to travel several more years among the churches of the Aegean area before he was re-arrested and taken again to Rome. Scripture indicates that his earthly life came to an end in that city. Tradition adds that he was beheaded along the Ostian Way right outside Rome in 68 A.D.
Paul had set out to open up the church to the whole world. He accomplished this task (Col. 1:23). As he put it: "I have finished the course" (II Tim. 4:7). His work was crowned a few years following his death with the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.) - an event which forever freed the church from the shackles of Judaism. Due to Paul's efforts the gospel was firmly planted in the Mediterranean world and was now poised to spring beyond.
(1) (T or F) In the early years of the church Christians kept the Old Law.
(2) (T or F) The Gentiles were accepted by the Jews into the church as they were quite easily.
(3) (T or F) Paul made four evangelistic tours.
(4) What two or three events were preparatory to the conversion of the Gentiles?
(5) What were three factors which made Paul an apostle especially suited to go to the Gentiles?
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