Last week's lesson on Saul's conversion prepares us for the opening of the missionary work to the Gentiles.
Clean and Unclean: Gospel to the Gentiles
Christ had specifically told the apostles to not go among the Gentiles, but only to the House of Israel (Matthew 10:5). This issue was so specific that the Lord also denied them preaching to the Samaritans, a nation of mixed Israelite and Gentile blood. While Jesus did heal a couple Gentiles in his ministry, it was uncommon and due to their great faith. Still, the gospel was not preached to them even after the healing.
Israel had always viewed itself as separate from the world. The Law of Moses gave physical laws to remind them of spiritual concepts. The special Israelite diet that separated animals out between clean and unclean was meant to help Israel keep themselves apart from the rest of the world. Lepers were unclean and were not allowed into cities. People who had sinned, or women who had her menstrual period were also unclean, and were to remain without until cleansed once again. The whole society was based upon clean and unclean.
Peter received a vision where the Lord showed him a blanket full of unclean animals. Commanded to eat, Peter insisted that he was not supposed to touch unclean things. Three times, the food was shown to him, with a heavenly voice explaining that which the Lord has made clean is no longer unclean.
Commanded to follow the servants of Cornelius who sought him, Peter went with them. This would be a learning experience for both Gentile and apostle:
“And he (Peter) said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
Peter could be stoned to death by the Jews for being entertained in the house of a Gentile, in this case, Cornelius the Roman centurion. Peter taught the gospel, particularly concerning the Messiah, Jesus Christ. As he taught them, the Holy Ghost fell upon all in the house. All of the Jewish Christians were amazed that the Holy Ghost would fall upon Gentiles. Peter saw this as God’s sign that Cornelius’ household had been cleansed. They were no longer “common or unclean.” He insisted they be baptized into the Church.
This moment creates a major change in the early Jewish-Christian Church. From this moment forward, it is no longer a Jewish sect, but will become a separate religion of its own. From Cornelius’ conversion onward, key decisions would be made in the Church that would cause an ever widening gulf between it and its Jewish roots.
Such a division can be compared to the break between Catholicism and Protestantism, or comparing traditional Christianity with the Mormon restoration movement. While each has similar roots, major changes and differences developed that cause a separation.
Circumcision and Gentile Converts
So huge of a change was this in the Church, that upon his return, the circumcised Jewish Christians demanded to know from Peter if he had eaten with uncircumcised people. Peter rigorously defended the change. Describing how the Holy Ghost fell upon Cornelius, they conceded that God had allowed the Gentiles to repent and receive of Christ’s atonement.
From there, the gospel went beyond the borders of the nation of Judah to other regions. Still, the work would begin among the synagogues in those areas prior to being taken to the Gentiles. In Antioch, the preaching would convert many Greeks. It would be in Antioch where the main split from Judaism would occur, with the converts taking upon themselves the name of Christian. These would be neither Gentiles nor Jews, but an entirely separate division: Christians who were baptized into a quasi-Jewish/Gentile-based religion.
While many members living in Jerusalem still worshiped in the temple, lived the Mosaic law, and circumcised - basically a Jewish sect with a Messiah; the Gentile churches were forming a very different form of religion, based solely on the teachings of Jesus. Eventually, the Gentile Church would grow so large that the Jewish portion would be subsumed by the expanding Gentile Christian church.
Barnabas took the new convert Saul to be his missionary companion. Antioch was their first stop and they established a strong foundation for the Church there. Among their works would be to gather offerings to help the poor and struggling Christians in Jerusalem. How did the Church handle Saul the former persecutor of the saints in Judea? They sent him to be a missionary to the Gentiles, far, far away.
Saul becomes Paul
Paul and Barnabas are called by the church leaders in Antioch (in Syria near the border with Turkey) to serve a mission.
“As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.
And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:2-3).
Again we can see the importance of inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and of laying on of hands to set someone apart in a specific work of God by those with His authority was required for this important mission. This laying on of hands gave him priesthood authority and power to preach and work in God’s name. Paul will display his priesthood authority and power many times in the Book of Acts, as he meets adversaries that claim to have the real power or knowledge.
Going to Cyprus and the Greek islands, the two preached with great power and fervor. They had the opportunity to preach to the deputy prefect of the country. However, a Jewish sorcerer in the area sought to prevent them from preaching to the deputy. This sorcerer’s name was Bar-Jesus, literally “Son of the Anointed” in Aramaic. He was also called Elymas (“Wise” in Arabic).
As Moses before Pharaoh’s magicians, or as Jesus once was compared/contrasted with Barabbas (Son of God) at his trial before Pilate, now we see that Paul will contrast the power of the priesthood he holds to that of the sorcerer’s power.
“And (Paul) said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?
And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand.
Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord” (Acts 13:10-12).
Neither the wisdom (Elymas), nor claimed power and authority (Bar Jesus) of the sorcerer were greater than the true wisdom, power and authority of God through Paul.
Interestingly, many of the Jews in the area initially believed on the words of Paul and Barnabas, until they saw that the Gentiles were also converting. The Jews did not want to share salvation with Gentiles, as it went against their understanding of the Mosaic Law. The Gentiles were not circumcised, and therefore were not in compliance; they were unclean.
Paul as Divine Being
When Peter first arrived at Cornelius’ door, the Roman centurion fell at his feet and worshipped him as a god. Now, when Paul and Barnabas healed a crippled man at Lystra, they were also worshiped. The Greeks believed that the gods had come down to bless them. Barnabas was believed to be Jupiter, and Paul to be Mercury. The priest of Jupiter’s temple brought oxen to be sacrificed as well. Paul and Barnabas barely restrained them.
For the Roman Empire, the concept of God being anthropomorphic (in human form) or even that humans could be gods (such as in the case of Caesar), was not out of the ordinary. By this time, however, the Jewish faith had changed from a belief in many divine beings to the belief in just Yahweh set the Jews apart from the rest of the world. As noted in previous lessons here, Jesus tried to restore the concept of man becoming divine. This concept caused the Jews to seek his death on many occasions for blasphemy.
Paul’s concern was that he was not a divine being, but mortal. Even if he were divine, he was not worthy of worship. Only God the Father and Jesus Christ were to be worshiped.
Jews came to Lystra and convinced the people that Paul was bad, and so he was stoned. Believing him dead, they took him out of the city for the wild animals to consume. However, Paul rose up and departed for another city. In this event, we are not certain whether he was actually killed and brought back to life or not. It seems that if he were not killed, the injuries sustained would have left him incapable to standing up later and leaving. If he were killed, then he was also brought back to life. Either way, it is apparent that a miracle occurred here, which was greater than the healing of the crippled man. In this moment, however, because the people did not believe, but rejected him, they were not present for such a miracle.
Returning to Antioch from their mission, they rejoiced in the number of converts and success they had. And they rested.
The Law of Moses and Circumcision - Jewish Christian vs Gentile Christian
In this chapter, we begin to see an ever widening divide between the Jewish and Gentile converts, as well as between Judaism and Christianity. Some Jewish-Christians from Jerusalem arrived in Antioch. They began to preach in the Christian church, saying that in order to be saved, the Gentile converts would have to be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas argued that salvation for the Gentiles did not come through the Mosaic Law and circumcision, but could not come to an agreement.
A delegation, including Paul and Barnabas, went to Jerusalem to have the apostles determine the correct doctrine. Some Pharisee converts stepped into the expanded conversation, insisting that the Gentile converts would have to follow the law of Moses and circumcision. In their view, Christianity was still a sect of Judaism, and so the Gentile members would have to not only be baptized into Christianity, but also circumcised into Judaism.
Peter finally stood up and shared his viewpoint as chief apostle and the servant through whom the Lord initially took the gospel to the Gentiles.
“And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them (the Gentiles) the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;
And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:8-11).
The Gentiles received the Holy Ghost without being circumcised. The yoke of the Mosaic Law, including circumcision, was no longer needed as Christ fulfilled the law. Instead, they would be saved by faith through the grace of Christ.
What does this mean? Does it mean we do not have to obey commandments or be baptized to be saved in Christ? Of course not. Many of the epistles of Peter, Paul and others will continue to emphasize obedience to the commandments of God. What is different is that we are not directly saved by those works. Instead, as we believe and repent, we will naturally desire to obey the commandments. They become a natural outgrowth of our faith. Unlike the Pharisees, who believed that circumcision and outward works saved men from hell, Christianity teaches that true faith and conversion saves us through Christ’s grace. We grow from grace to grace, receiving grace for grace (D&C 93).
If man could keep all the laws of God, could he resurrect himself? If he has but one sin, can he stand in God’s presence with that sin? No to both questions. Christ’s grace gives us free gifts. We must be willing and able to receive them. Resurrection is a totally free gift to all born on earth. Salvation from hell only requires us to believe and repent of our sins (see Alma 36).
Nephi taught that we are “saved by grace after all we can do” (2 Ne 25). What does that mean? When the righteous Lamanites buried their weapons of war, the Lamanite king told his people that it was “all that we could do to repent” (Alma 24:11). As we can see, for our salvation, all we can do is believe and repent. The rest is entirely through the grace of Christ.
Now, the level of salvation we receive is clearly based upon what we become. D&C 76 and 88 teach us that to be celestial requires us to become a celestial-like being. Even receiving a portion of the celestial allows us to be eligible for the fullness of the celestial glory. The same goes for the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms. In this instance, Christ’s grace continues to work with us. He takes us where we currently are guides us through the Holy Ghost from one level of grace/righteousness to the next.
Unlike the Pharisees, we will not be weighed by how many prayers or alms we’ve given, but the quality of our prayers and alms. Christ taught that the inner cup must be cleansed, not just the outside. Quality is something God can measure easier than we can, for we often cannot determine anything beyond outward behaviors of people. For this reason baptism and temple interviews ask about basic beliefs, Word of Wisdom, tithing, etc. Such are easier for men to measure than the intensity of a testimony. God, on the other hand, can measure the full worth of a testimony, and will do so in the final judgment. Commandments are important only so far as they are a sincere expression of the internal conversion.
We will return to this concept frequently in Paul’s writings, as he seeks to balance grace with the importance of keeping commandments, and putting them all in their proper perspective.
The apostles proclaimed that the Gentiles did not require circumcision, nor to live the Law of Moses. They were required to be obedient to guidance given by the apostles and other ordained leaders. They were required to repent, and live just lives.
Could a Gentile voluntarily accept circumcision and to live the Law of Moses? Of course. It was not prohibited of them. To this day, most American Christians still get circumcised for tradition’s sake, not for religious reasons. It just was not necessary for salvation.
James, Bishop of Jerusalem and brother of Jesus, stood forth and said,
“Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:
But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren” (Acts 15:19-22).
So, while the specifics of circumcision and the Law of Moses were not required of the Gentile Christians, there were still commandments expected of them.