Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers:Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.Acts 15:1
In the fifteenth chapter of Acts is the story of a betrayal of the gospel. Here we learn of the clear emergence of what we can only call false Christianity. You will never understand Christianity until you understand that there are always present, in any so-called Christian gathering, manifestations and representatives of both true and false Christianity. Unfortunately, false Christianity is believed by millions who think they have understood the true, and have rejected the false. Therefore their minds are closed to the truth when it comes. Here we see the first emergence of that kind of false Christianity which is unthinkingly accepted by millions of people today.
It all began with the introduction of a very plausible and attractive heresy which came disguised as Christianity. Luke says that certain Jewish brethren, who ostensibly were Christians, came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. They came among the Gentile believers there, who had just come out of raw paganism, who had been idolaters, had been devotees of the licentious and sexually immoral practices of the pagan temples. These Gentiles had been hopeless in their outlook toward the future beyond this life and were sunken in despair and darkness, but then God had saved them. They were now rejoicing in Christ.
But these Jewish brethren came to them and said, as Luke quotes them here, verbatim:
Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved. This introduced an issue which split the church at Antioch wide open. They were really saying,
In order to become a Christian, you must first become a Jew. Unless you become a Jew, you are a second-class Christian, if a Christian at all. Thus they challenged the gospel of the grace of God. So the first really serious internal strife within the church was over race and ritual — over the question of Jews versus Gentiles, and of circumcision as the sign of acceptance.
This specific issue has long ago passed away as a concern to us; but the principle behind it is very present with us yet today. The enemy has simply changed the players on the program. I remember how shocked I was at the reply a young couple gave to my suggestion that they visit another couple who were newcomers to our church. They looked at me and said,
Oh, no, you don't want them. They're not our kind of people. That is a denial of the universality of the church, and of its inclusion of all types and ages and backgrounds and races. Not only people, but also rituals often become bones of contention today: Substitute baptism for circumcision and you bring the issue right up to date. There are many who think you cannot become a Christian unless you are baptized. These external issues are the kind of things that Christians are splitting over today. And that was what was occurring in Antioch.
Forgive me, Father, for those times I have denied the universality of the church. Teach me to accept and embrace those who put their trust in you.
What was the first serious challenge to the gospel of grace in the early church? How do issues of race and ritual continue to undermine authentic Christianity in the church and in our personal experience?