The Book of Acts is not, as is constantly and incorrectly asserted, a record of the birth and growth of the Christian church.
Instead, it is a record of the "apostasy of the favored nation," as stated by Robert Anderson in the "Silence of God".
What Did The Disciples Know About the Church The simple big question to ask when reading the Book of Acts is, at the Ascension (Acts 1:6-9), what did the Disciples know about the Christian Church? The answer is: nothing! Except for the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10), the Jewish believers in Jesus spoke only to other members of the Jewish nation for two-thirds of the Book of Acts.
Why? This question is answered by reviewing the common beliefs the Jewish people held during Christ's life concerning the role God had given the Jewish nation in human history.
The Judaism of Christ's day taught that God's plan was to spread the ideals of the Torah throughout the world using Jewish teachers and preachers commissioned by God.
Jesus never contradicted that idea.
In fact, in His final message to the disciples he instructed them, "...
that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
" Luke 24: 46-47.
We read into that statement the church.
But the church was not in view.
The acceptance of their risen Messiah by the Jewish nation and the fulfillment of Israel's mission was the essence of His commission.
Of course, almost every Christian church understands these verses as the "Great Commission" to the Christian church.
Jesus did not call it that.
In Luke 22, at the Lord's Supper, he told the disciples, "And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
" Luke 22:29-30.
The message of Christ in the Gospels and in Acts to the disciples was a kingdom message - a message to the Jewish nation.
In the Gospels and in the Book of Acts, Jesus works within the prophetic plan announced in the Hebrew scriptures.
He says nothing about the church, which is later revealed to be His body.
From the point-of-view of the prophetic plan, the church is a mystery revealed to Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.
So, when did the Christian church begin and how did the incorrect idea that Acts is a record of the birth and growth of the Christian church arise? The facts recorded in Acts can be graphically illustrated.
Imagine a pyramid, a three-tiered set of boxes.
At the top you have the Apostles' message.
In the second tier, just beneath the Apostles, are two boxes: one marking their message to Israel and one for Paul's message to the Gentiles.
Beneath those boxes, in the third tier, there are three boxes.
One box is for the rejection of the Risen Messiah by the nation of Israel.
The second is titled "Jesus + Law".
The third is titled "Jesus + nothing".
First level of illustration Here's how to understand this illustration.
- The apostles witnessed all that Jesus did, including his death, burial, and resurrection.
They presented that information, and its spiritual ramifications to the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 2: 5-41).
Peter's message is a Jewish message, very different from the message Paul preaches later in Acts concerning Gospel of the Grace of God (Acts 20:24, 1 Corinthians 15: 1-4).
- Paul's different message did not begin until after his conversion (Acts 9:6).
And Paul continues to follow the pattern of the Apostles in preaching only to Jews until, for the first time (Acts 13:46-48), he declares that he is turning from the Jews to direct his preaching to the Gentiles.
When the many of the Jewish teachers and participants in the synagogue finally reject Paul's message and oppose it (while many of the Gentiles attending the synagogue received it), that is the moment when Paul states he is turning to the Gentiles, citing Hebrew Scripture passages that justify that change of direction.
So the Apostles' message (at the top of the imagined graph) finds two currents: the message delivered to the Jewish nation, primarily by the Apostles in Jerusalem, and the message stripped of its Jewish kingdom content delivered to the Gentiles by Paul.
Second level of illustration But at the second level of the imagined pyramid, illustrated by two rectangular boxes, a new message begins: a new set of Jewish preacher/teachers begin taking the Apostles' message to the Gentiles.
These teachers are named the Judaizers (Acts 15).
These are a "sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them [Gentiles], and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
" They are called the Judaizers because they presented to Gentiles a gospel which included Jesus, but added the Law, including mandatory conversion to Judaism.
Most students of the New Testament realize that Paul spent a good deal of energy confronting this message to the Gentiles because it differed from his message to the Gentiles.
Third level of illustration The third level of the imagined graphic shows the Nation of Israel rejecting the Risen Messiah, as preached by the Apostles, but shows the message of the Judaizers running in parallel alongside the message of Paul.
Here's what happened:
- The Jesus+Nothing church (Paul) and the Jesus+Law/Tradition churches (Judaizers) overlapped for several hundred years.
The Apostolic Fathers (for the most part) followed Paul.
But, in the 300's Augustine and Origen publish teachings at variance with Paul and from the point-of-view of historical records, the Jesus+Nothing churches begin to disappear.
- While individual pastors and Christians continued to believe the Gospel Paul preached, the visible face of Christianity changed into the form of the Orthodox church.
Orthodox theologians followed the path originally blazed by the Judaizers of Acts of adding to Paul's Gospel, and began creating church history, arguing doctrine and theological positions, seizing visible control of the Christian church the until the Reformation.
- 70 AD, Temple at Jerusalem destroyed, Jewish nation scattered until 1945.
- Before 250 AD, Origen writes First Principles, among many other treaties.
- 313 AD Roman emperor Constantine declares Christianity legal.
- 392 to 428 AD Theodore of Mopsuestia is Bishop writes.
- 430 AD Augustine dies.
- 1054 Ad, Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church split along doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political, and geographical lines.
- 1300s, Wycliffe copies the Bible into English by hand.
- 1400s, first printed Bibles and the beginnings of textual analysis.
- 1500s, protests arise about discrepancies between the teachings of the New Testament and the traditions and doctrines of the formal churches.
- To present, numerous preachers and teachers, using various and sundry forms of Biblical interpretation, create various denominations.
the theology of the New Testament is not what Jesus and the apostles may have taught, but what the church has understood them to have taught.
" Contrary to Orthodoxy, the fellowship today's Christians have with apostolic teaching occurs because our doctrine is not in any way different from theirs.
We compare New Testament teachings, understood in context, mostly delivered by the apostle Paul, with current Christian teachings.
This is not primitivism, not fundamentalism, this is the only way to discern the correct Apostolic teaching.
Even though the Judaizing sect of believers in Jesus were denounced by the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15: 6-24) and by the Apostle Paul (See Galatians 1: 6-7), being denounced did not prevent them from continuing to teach and preach their message to Gentiles.
Eventually, with the support of the state, their doctrine of Jesus + Other Things dominated the visible church for 1,000 years.
By adding Jewish elements to Christian truth, they led the Gentiles away from the New Testament message of St.
Paul until the day came that readers rediscovered the text of the New Testament and observed a difference between the the teachings and practices of those non-Pauline churches and those plainly set forth in Paul's letters.
Unfortunately, while the additions the non-Pauline churches made to the gospel of faith included the observing of the Sacraments and Baptisms, one other mistake persisted, which was the acceptance of their teaching that the Book of Acts recorded the birth and growth of the Christian church.
This single mistake perpetuates the errors of the Judaizers formalized in the practice of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many protestant denominations.
Once we correctly understand the meaning and purpose of the Book of Acts, we can escape from a multitude of errors created originally by the believing Pharisees, scribes, and lawyers described in Acts.
A similar escape from error occurs when we reject a salvation of faith + works and return to a salvation of Grace based upon faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Understanding the distinctions drawn in the Book of Acts between the purpose and proclamations of the 12 Apostles to the Jews and those of the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, will deliver us from the false idea that God's promises to the Jewish nation are fulfilled in the Christian Church.