The Intersection of East and West in Christ
Jesus was visiting the temple for the last time in His life. It contained three sectioned-off areas, the closest to the Temple being the Court of Israel. This area was reserved for the men of Israel and for teachers in the nation to hold forth on theological topics and to teach. Jesus engaged the Jewish leaders one last time; however, unfortunately, the leaders did not realize the priceless opportunity that was slipping from their grasp.
Jesus, the very Center of the Jewish economy, the main Theme of thousands of years of prophecy and Scripture, was standing before them. “Alas for those who knew not the time of their visitation!” wrote Ellen White (Desire of Ages, pg. 626). Jesus pronounced seven woes on the Jewish leaders and made his way towards the outer courts. On the surface, it appeared as if He had been defeated by the leaders of His day. Long before, as a child, He had sat at their feet and asked questions they couldn’t answer. Now, He was giving them answers they couldn’t question.
Christ was still in the sacred precincts of the temple when He was informed that some Greeks wished to meet Him (John 12:21). There had been other times before in His ministry that Jesus had come into contact with non-Jews (Mathew 15: 21-28, John 4). This encounter, however, was especially significant because God the Father spoke audibly to glorify His Name. Ellen White beautifully captures the significance of the event:
When Christ heard the eager request, “We would see Jesus,” echoing the hungering cry of the world, His countenance lighted up, and He said, “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified.” In the request of the Greeks He saw an earnest of the results of His great sacrifice. These men came from the West to find the Saviour at the close of His life, as the wise men had come from the East at the beginning […] The Greeks had heard of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Some supposed, and had circulated the report, that He had driven the priests and rulers from the temple, and that He was to take possession of David’s throne, and reign as king of Israel. The Greeks longed to know the truth in regard to His mission. “We would see Jesus,” they said. Their desire was granted…
The hour of Christ’s glorification had come. He was standing in the shadow of the cross, and the inquiry of the Greeks showed Him that the sacrifice He was about to make would bring many sons and daughters to God. He knew that the Greeks would soon see Him in a position they did not then dream of […] For a moment He looked into futurity, and heard the voices proclaiming in all parts of the earth, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” John 1:29. In these strangers He saw the pledge of a great harvest, when the partition wall between Jew and Gentile should be broken down, and all nations, tongues, and peoples should hear the message of salvation. The anticipation of this, the consummation of His hopes, is expressed in the words, “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified.” But the way in which this glorification must take place was never absent from Christ’s mind. (Desire of Ages, pg. 221-622).
The Intersection of East and West in the Church at the Jerusalem Council
On the day that the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and those that were gathered together, it became physically apparent to them that He had a worldwide mission in mind for them. The languages they were gifted with demonstrated that God’s mission extended beyond the borders of Israel, and must have brought to their minds again the words of Jesus’ Great Commission: “Go, Ye into all the world” (Mark 16:15).
The practical realities of this mission, however, had not quite yet descended on the disciples. By the A.D. 40’s, the church had truly extended past the borders of Israel, and questions began to arise regarding the Jewish economy and its relationship to the Gentiles. The writer of the lesson notes that the Jews had articulated roughly five categories of laws that pervaded every aspect of their lives:
- Moral Law
- Ceremonial Law
- Civil Law
- Statutes and Judgments
- Health laws
The “modern-day” reality of the Jewish people was that they were no longer a theocracy or a nation ruled by a monarchy, but were now a subjugated nation. The Roman Empire had uprooted much of Jewish civil law, and their Supreme Court—the Sanhedrin—could no longer render binding sentences based only on Jewish statutory or moral law. For the early Christians then, the question arose as to how much of the Old Testament covenant and the Jewish economy applied to the new Gentile Christians.
While the apostles united with the ministers and lay members at Antioch in an earnest effort to win many souls to Christ, certain Jewish believers “of the sect of the Pharisees” succeeded in introducing a question that soon led to widespread controversy within the church.
With great confidence, these teachers asserted that in order to be saved, one must be circumcised and must keep the entire ceremonial law […] They insisted that the Jewish laws and ceremonies should be incorporated into the rites of the Christian religion. (George Knight, 4th Quarter 2017 – Salvation by Faith Alone: The Book of Romans, pg. 17)
There are many lessons we can learn here, but one of the more significant lessons is to be careful where we place our confidence when it comes to the Word of God. These Jewish Christians “were slow to discern that all the sacrificial offerings had but prefigured the death of the Son of God, in which type met antitype, and after which the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic dispensation were no longer binding” (Ibid, pg. 17). They were greatly confident that their own interpretation of Scripture was correct, even though they failed to appreciate the impact of Christ’s sacrifice on their entire sacrificial system. The new reality was that a “better” Sacrifice had been offered, whose blood was superior to that of bulls and goats (Hebrews 10:4).
By the time of the Jerusalem Council, the trend of growth favored Gentile Christians, and the Jewish Christians feared that many aspects of their identity would be lost. Helping both Jews and Gentiles recognize how Christ had ushered in a new covenant was Paul’s goal. The lesson does not dwell here in detail on the covenants. However, for more depth on this topic, you can read an excellent series on it here as it relates to Adventism. This does not mean that the transition was easy for either side in the church, or even for Paul himself—as we will later see. The lesson author notes what Mrs. White wrote about Paul’s reactions to the Jerusalem Council:
While looking to God for direct guidance, he [Paul] was ever ready to recognize the authority vested in the body of believers united in church fellowship. He felt the need of counsel, and when matters of importance arose, he was glad to lay these before the church and to unite with his brethren in seeking God for wisdom to make right decisions. (Acts of the Apostles, pg. 200)
The author notes here that, “It’s interesting that Paul-who often talked about his prophetic calling and how Jesus had called him and gave him his mission-was so willing to work with the larger church body. That is, whatever his calling, he realized that he was part of the church as a whole and that he needed to work with it as much as possible” (George Knight, 4th Quarter 2017 – Salvation by Faith Alone: The Book of Romans, pg. 17).
This is especially relevant in light of this week’s Annual Council at the General Conference. Sometimes finding consensus on issues can be frustratingly slow and difficult; however, the process that we use to arrive at our decisions is just as important as the decision itself because, along with Scripture, it is the process that legitimizes the decision.
We can see some parallels between the Jewish Council and our processes today. The entire church did not assemble in Jerusalem. Like our church, the New Testament church was a multi-national effort on at least two continents. The churches sent representatives to Jerusalem to debate, discuss, and pray for God’s leading. The decision reached by these representatives was accepted by most as binding on the church—most notably by Paul. Ellen White writes,
Paul had dedicated himself and all his powers to the service of God. He had received the truths of the gospel direct from heaven, and throughout his ministry he maintained a vital connection with heavenly agencies. He had been taught by God regarding the binding of unnecessary burdens upon the Gentile Christians; thus when the Judaizing believers introduced into the Antioch church the question of circumcision, Paul knew the mind of the Spirit of God concerning such teaching and took a firm and unyielding position which brought to the churches freedom from Jewish rites and ceremonies.
Notwithstanding the fact that Paul was personally taught by God, he had no strained ideas of individual responsibility. While looking to God for direct guidance, he was ever ready to recognize the authority vested in the body of believers united in church fellowship. He felt the need of counsel, and when matters of importance arose, he was glad to lay these before the church and to unite with his brethren in seeking God for wisdom to make right decisions. Even “the spirits of the prophets,” he declared, “are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” 1 Corinthians 14:32, 33. With Peter, he taught that all united in church capacity should be “subject one to another. 1 Peter 5:5. (Acts of the Apostles, pg. 200).
The church moved forward as both the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians found unity in the past teachings of Christ by interpreting correctly His work and its impact on the sanctuary system. This did not negate the sanctuary, but rather enhanced it. For them, present truth was the reality that Jesus was in the Heavenly Sanctuary interceding on their behalf (Hebrews 9:24).
It is this sense that likewise guides the Seventh-day Adventist church. Our understanding of the sanctuary leads us to proclaim that Jesus, as our High Priest, is conducting an investigative judgment to determine the extent of God’s finished work in the lives of each of those who profess to believe in Him. True unity is found in a shared understanding of what Scripture teaches us. By allowing Scripture to interpret itself, and letting it become the standard and rule for our faith, we can unite on our message and find in it our true basis for mission.
Unfortunately, just because we have a theoretical understanding of truth, it does not automatically follow that our practice of truth is perfect. Peter’s inconsistency perpetuated and undermined the Jerusalem Council’s decision, and led Paul to rebuke him publicly for it. Peter’s subsequent repentance was noted by Ellen White as further proof that Peter was not the Rock upon which the church was founded—as has been asserted by some in history.
Similarly, the record shows that some of these Judaizer Christians continued to reach out to new Gentile Christians in an attempt to convince them (in some cases successfully) to adopt Jewish rituals such as circumcision to “prove” their allegiance to God. Paul’s epistles to the Galatians and his preemptive epistle to the Romans is proof that such behavior was soundly denounced by Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. There may be ample lessons for us to apply from their experience.
The Impact of East and West on Paul
In later years, the same issue resurrected itself. As a result, mistrust regarding Paul’s work and his teachings widened the gulf between he and the Jewish Christians. Paul sought to resolve this issue via a trip to Jerusalem. In order to show that they were sympathetic to the plight of suffering Christians in Jerusalem, the Gentile Christians set aside money every first day of the week to give to Paul to take to Jerusalem.
Ellen White writes that when Paul collected these offerings, and arrived with his delegation in Jerusalem in time for the Passover, the apostles were amazed at the quantity of his gifts. This to them was proof that the Gentile Christians were united in their suffering and the great misunderstanding appeared to be put aside. However, the leaders in Jerusalem were under pressure from the Jews, and the Jewish Christians were insisting that Paul take some young men who desired to fulfill their ritual vows at the Temple. Paul knew that such practices were no longer necessary. However, as Ellen White writes,
This was the golden opportunity for all the leading brethren to confess frankly that God had wrought through Paul, and that at times they had erred in permitting the reports of his enemies to arouse their jealousy and prejudice. But instead of uniting in an effort to do justice to the one who had been injured, they gave him counsel which showed that they still cherished a feeling that Paul should be held largely responsible for the existing prejudice. They did not stand nobly in his defense, endeavoring to show the disaffected ones where they were wrong, but sought to effect a compromise by counseling him to pursue a course which in their opinion would remove all cause for misapprehension…
The brethren hoped that Paul, by following the course suggested, might give a decisive contradiction to the false reports concerning him. They assured him that the decision of the former council concerning the Gentile converts and the ceremonial law, still held good. But the advice now given was not consistent with that decision. The Spirit of God did not prompt this instruction; it was the fruit of cowardice. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem knew that by non-conformity to the ceremonial law, Christians would bring upon themselves the hatred of the Jews and expose themselves to persecution. The Sanhedrin was doing its utmost to hinder the progress of the gospel. Men were chosen by this body to follow up the apostles, especially Paul, and in every possible way to oppose their work. Should the believers in Christ be condemned before the Sanhedrin as breakers of the law, they would suffer swift and severe punishment as apostates from the Jewish faith. (Desire of Ages, pg. 403, 404)
She goes on to write that this decision by the brethren was not approved by the Holy Spirit. Paul, in his desire to be in unity with his brethren, acceded to the request.
Many of the Jews who had accepted the gospel still cherished a regard for the ceremonial law and were only too willing to make unwise concessions, hoping thus to gain the confidence of their countrymen, to remove their prejudice, and to win them to faith in Christ as the world’s Redeemer. Paul realized that so long as many of the leading members of the church at Jerusalem should continue to cherish prejudice against him, they would work constantly to counteract his influence. He felt that if by any reasonable concession he could win them to the truth he would remove a great obstacle to the success of the gospel in other places. But he was not authorized of God to concede as much as they asked.
When we think of Paul’s great desire to be in harmony with his brethren, his tenderness toward the weak in the faith, his reverence for the apostles who had been with Christ, and for James, the brother of the Lord, and his purpose to become all things to all men so far as he could without sacrificing principle–when we think of all this, it is less surprising that he was constrained to deviate from the firm, decided course that he had hitherto followed. But instead of accomplishing the desired object, his efforts for conciliation only precipitated the crisis, hastened his predicted sufferings, and resulted in separating him from his brethren, depriving the church of one of its strongest pillars, and bringing sorrow to Christian hearts in every land. (Desire of Ages, pg. 405)
Paul took a risk he did not need to take, and in doing so, he hastened his sufferings and imprisonment which ultimately resulted in his martyrdom. We can only imagine how many more books Paul could have written to enhance the church’s understanding of Christ and His Sacrifice had he not acceded to the Jewish leaders’ request. The good news, however, is that the Jewish Christians were eventually able to divorce the Jewish Temple from its sacrificial system in their minds.
The book of Hebrews was particularly directed at the underlying theological tensions that prevented the full acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice. When the time came, and the Romans surrounded the city, the Jewish Christians remembered Christ’s prediction, and presumably by then realized that the Temple built by hands was no longer central to Christianity. Mrs. White notes that not one Christian perished in the fall of Jerusalem (see Great Controversy, pg. 30). The Word has not only brought unity, but through prophecy and its teaching on salvation, saved the Jewish Christians from certain death.
The use of Scripture in determining truth must be paramount in the life of the Christian. The Ten Commandments were just as binding on Jews as they were on Gentiles. In Christ, both East and West were joined together. The church moved forward, with a few hesitant steps backward at first, toward fulfilling the mission God had entrusted to them. They took the full gospel to the world in their generation. Apostle Paul and Peter’s efforts to unite the church ultimately paid off.
Despite our own debates and occasional setbacks, we must remember that Christ is leading our church just as surely as He led the early Christians. True unity comes when we unite on Scripture’s teachings regarding our sinfulness and the need for a Savior. It is when we realize that we all are one in Christ that we find true clarity in our message and our mission.