The Christian Church began with the highly subversive idea of being a religion equally for all nations.
The early church, meaning the church right after the death of Jesus, understood its place in history. In fact, they knew full-well they were not the beginning of a new thing, but a fulfillment of a very old thing. On the Day of Pentecost – which will function for this series as the official start date for the Christian Church – Peter’s first sermon was not on new material, but from the Old Testament Book of Joel. And in that sermon he referred to their time as “the Last Days” because he understood their place in God’s timeline.
If you were to ask a first century apostle when the church began, they would have likely said with Adam and Eve. They would have continued that God’s faithfulness was maintained to his people in the form of covenant to Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, and now most fully in Jesus. And for this reason, Jesus was not a surprise; he was the long-expected savior. Since the Protevangelium, or First Gospel in Genesis 3:15, God’s people had been awaiting the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. And now he is here; his name is Jesus.
Not only did the early church see itself as the continuation of Judaism, it was also almost exclusively Jewish, including Jesus and all his disciples. The earliest Christians had no trouble worshiping in synagogues and going to the temple, and outsiders viewed Christianity as a sect of Judaism. There were some early Gentile converts to the faith, but they were, as they had always been, a minority. But things were about to change in a major way.
One of the last things Jesus said to his disciples was “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18-20). This was a new directive: the people of God were to make disciples of all nations. Previously, Israel would only let converts into their one nation – there was no outreach. But Jesus’ command was also the fulfillment of an old promise: “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:5).
It was, in fact, the biggest paradigm shift in the people of God behind the introduction of sin into the world and the revelation they would be saved by a messiah.
The Day of Pentecost laid the groundwork for what was to follow. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on believers and enabled them to speak in languages they did not already speak, i.e. speaking in tongues. It is worth noting that these were languages people already spoke, not new, nonsense languages (Acts 2:8). The reason this is worth noting is the Day of Pentecost was a direct reversal of what occurred at the Tower of Babel, where God divided humanity’s sinful kingdom by having them speak different languages to curb their wickedness (Gen. 11:1-9).
Now, God was granting to these believers a supernatural ability to speak languages they didn’t know in order to reunite people around the power and goodness of his kingdom. Indeed, something new was happening. In one day and from one city, the gospel went international. As the converts left Jerusalem after the feast and returned to their far-off homes, they took their new-found faith in Jesus with them.
But the converts on the Day of Pentecost were still Jews. They had come to Jerusalem to worship the God of Judaism and they left believing Jesus was the God of Judaism. It would still take a while for the church to reach out to Gentiles. It took a vision from, and an argument with, God before Peter finally went to the house of Cornelius.
Previously, if you were a Gentile convert, you had to follow all of the covenant obligations that came with being an Israelite, most notably circumcision and the ceremonial food laws. But now God was saying something different. Now you could eat shrimp and still be in right relationship with him. God was welcoming the Gentiles, as Gentiles. These distinctions for Israel – the way God displayed for centuries that they were set apart from the other nations – were now no longer required to be covenant members. Faith in Jesus and baptism were now all that was required for acceptance into God’s covenantal community. God proved this by giving Cornelius and his household the same Holy Spirit he had given Peter (Acts 10:47).
The importance of this new welcome for Gentiles cannot be overstated. It was, in fact, the biggest paradigm shift in the people of God behind the introduction of sin into the world and the revelation they would be saved by a messiah. God was now reaching out to Gentiles – his long-standing enemies and the enemies of his people. Many of the very practices the Israelites were previously told to abhor were now acceptable practices in the church. Strange times indeed.
Paradigm shifts of this magnitude are never without controversy, and we will look at the resulting persecution in the next episode.