What were the Jewish believers in Jesus called in the New Testament?

messianic seal - 1st centuryIn the book of Acts, the Apostles chose seven men to serve, and amongst them was “Nicholas, a proselyte from Antioch” (Acts 6:5). This is a very interesting passage. The context was making sure the needs of the Hellenistic Jews as well as the Hebraic Jews were met, and of the Jews that were chosen, Nicholas was a proselyte; one who converts from one religion to another. The word here does not mean here that Nicholas was a convert to Christianity but that he converted from paganism to Judaism. At this point, there was no religion called “Christianity”; there was Judaism with its different sects (Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes etc.) and the pagan religions of the Roman Empire.

In the Book of Acts, the Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah were called “of the way” (Acts 9:2), “the Jews that believed” (Acts 10:45) or “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5), and viewed as a sect of Judaism.  Jesus was called “the Nazarene” (Matt 26:71) and Paul was accused before the High Priest of being a ring-leader of the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). “Nazarene” was also the term used by the Jewish lawyer Tertullus in Acts 24 who stated the case of the Jews against Paul, in the presence of Felix. A Nazarene at this time was simply a Jew that followed Jesus.

The disciples were first called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 11:26) where something new was happening. Gentiles were starting to believe, too. To fully understand this statement, one needs to look at the context in which it was said. All of Acts 10 and 11 are about a sovereign act of God where the Gentiles are brought into the kingdom just as had been prophesied from the beginning, and it is into this context that the term “Christian” is used.

Acts 10 is where Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a man described as devout and God-fearing had an angel of the Lord appear to him and tell him to send for Peter and so he did. Independently, Peter has a vision from God and understood that it applied to salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 10:34). This was nothing ‘new’ but God’s plan from the beginning [see Genesis Chapter 12 i.e. “in you all the nations [Gentiles] of the world will be blessed”]. Cornelius’ servants arrive and Peter heads to Cornelius’ house with them with other Jewish believers from Joppa. They walk in and find a huge crowd of Gentiles already there. As Peter is telling Cornelius about Jesus, the Spirit falls on all the Gentiles present (Acts 10:44). This is not about a sect of Judaism deciding whether Gentiles should or should not be included, but God doing what He said He would do from when He first called Abraham. Acts 15 addresses the details of inclusion (which incidentally is no different than the requirements of Gentiles living amongst Jews as outlined in Leviticus 17 & 18).

[Gentile Christians were not required by the Jewish believers to undergo circumcision or keep Kosher, but to “keep themselves from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from what is strangled and from sexual immorality”. This was the SAME requirement as Gentiles living among Jews under the Law. So nothing changed. Leviticus 17 & 18 lists these *same* things for “anyone from the house of Israel (Jews) or the foreigners living among you (Gentiles)”.]

The first 25 verses of Acts Chapter 11 is about the Gentiles coming to faith; it starts with Peter being questioned as to his interaction with non-Jews and him talking about them coming to faith. It then goes on to talk about the men of Cyprus and Cyrene who went to Antioch and spoke to the Greek-speaking non-Jews (i.e. Gentiles) and that many came to believe and then it goes on to say that the Jewish believers in Jerusalem heard about it and sent Barnabas, a Jewish believer from Jerusalem to Antioch to check it out. Barnabas went and found that indeed, the Gentiles there had become believers and encouraged them to remain faithful. He went to Tarsus to get Saul, who was also a Jewish believer and brought him to Antioch and they taught together. It’s not that Jews in Antioch didn’t also come to believe but that’s not discussed in this passage. The subject of all of Acts 10 and the preceding verses of Acts 11 is about Gentiles coming to believe and it is into this context that the term “Christian” is first used by Gentiles (Romans) to refer to these new Gentile believers at Antioch.  The term “Christian” was also used by King Agrippa (11 BC – 44 AD) when addressing Paul, who after being brought before Felix (Acts 24) for being ”a ringleader of the Nazarenes”, this new Jewish sect, was then brought before him.

[Note: Agrippa was a Herodian king, but not raised a Jew. His grandfather, Antipater the 2nd was an Idumean (Edomite) convert to Judaism and his father, Herod the Great (74/73 BCE – 4 BCE) embraced the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses.  Herod the Great is also the one that had all baby boys of Bethlehem executed (Matthew 2:16) as he feared that Jesus might supplant his political headship.] 

So, if you ask me if I am a Christian, I say ‘no’ because I am a Jew who believes, not unlike the early Nazarenes.

When you ask me when I converted, I say I didn’t, because I didn’t. I am still a Jew; just like the early Nazarenes. We are not proselytes to anything.

Just so I am not misunderstood in any way, Jewish believers and Gentile Christians are full and equal partakers in the kingdom. I am not better for being a Jew who believes nor are Gentile Christians in any way inferior. Jewish believers and Gentile Christians are equal, yet distinct just as men and women are equal in every way before God, yet distinct.

How that distinction is expressed (whether as woman amongst men or a Jew amongst Gentiles); doesn’t set one above others nor is it divisive. It is simply being who we are, who God created us to be.


messianic seal - 1st century

Rethinking the Sabbath – some reflections for my Christians friends

SabbathI have been doing a great deal of thinking about “shabbat” (the sabbath) the last few months and I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you here.

The whole idea of the Sabbath seems foreign to many; irrelevant even. Our society is geared towards ‘working hard’ and ‘playing hard’ but not ‘resting’.  Rest is seen at best as something we do only out of necessity after we have worked too hard or played too hard. Or it is viewed as a waste of time in a YOLO (“you only live once”) world — driven by the need to cram in as much as possible before one dies. But is it?

Sabbath, in the Jewish mind is the focal point of the week; a holiday that is planned for, fiercely guarded and fully celebrated from sundown Friday night until sundown Saturday night. It is ushered in by the lighting of the two sabbath candles and separated from the rest of the week by “Havdalah”. By the lighting of two sabbath candles we welcome in Shabbat; the two candles remind us to ‘remember’ the sabbath day and ‘observe’ it, or keep it holy. They are kindled by the woman of the house and is one of the very important responsibilities given to her, along with the preparing of the challah, or braided sweet egg breads. The blessing on the challah and on the cup of sweet concord wine is said by the male head of the home. Then, the family dines on the best meal of the week; for which the choicest foods are reserved. The husband blesses his wife or in his absence, the eldest son blesses his mother and the father blesses each of his children. That evening is spent together as a family, sometimes in the study of Torah. There is a morning meal and late afternoon meal which is either prepared in advance before Shabbat started (or prepared before shabbat and simmered for 24 hours over a slow fire). Then, to mark the end of the sabbath, we have Havdalah. Havdalah is our final reflection on the ‘otherness’ of shabbat and is delineated by the smelling of fragrant spices, the lighting of a braided candle (kindling a fire after the day of rest) and the blessing on a cup of wine, in which the braided candle is extinguished.  During shabbat, no work is done. Wow! That sure does seem like an awful big fuss over nothing in a busy frenetic world.  But is it?

To many Christians, the whole idea of a sabbath is lost or at best confused.  Some think since the command to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy was given to the Jews it is of no relevance to them whereas others think that the sabbath was somehow ‘changed’ to Sunday and that is the ‘Christian sabbath’. The sabbath was never changed; the early Church gathered on the first day of the week because that was the day their Lord rose from the dead. Note: the first day of the week according to the Hebraic (lunar) calendar of the Scriptures is Sunday not Monday (Gregorian calendar)].

The first day of the week,Sunday is called “the Lord’s Day”; a day for gathering together and remembering His death and resurrection. Acts 20:7 says that the early Church met ‘on the first day of the week’ to break bread together and it is commonly held that this was the weekly celebration of what has become known as ‘communion’.  While many Christians recognize the the disciples waiting until after Shabbat to prepare His body for burial (Matt 28:1, Mark 16:1-2 and Luke 23:56) it is a commonly held misconception that Paul abolished the sabbath and quote a few passages in support of that (Rom 14:5-6, 1 Cor 8, Gal 4:9-10, Col 2:16). Let’s look at those passages a little more closely;

Romans 14:5-6, saying “no day is above another”, negating that the context of that verse is regarding the eating of meat or abstaining / fasting (see Rom 14: 2, 3 and 6), nothing about the keeping of the sabbath. Paul clearly had no issue with the Law (see Rom 7:12, Romans 2:13, Rom 7:22), but rather was addressing the diversity of practices in a body composed of both Jews and Gentiles — essentially saying that Gentiles are not second class citizens by not keeping the Jewish feasts or customs and neither are those believers that choose to abstain from meat (likely because they were concerned that the meat may had be offered to idols).

Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 8 was also not about the keeping of sabbath but about not causing another believer to stumble over whether we do or don’t observe – in this case, the eating of meat.

Some quote Galatians 4:9-10 as being about the baseness of celebrating the sabbath but one needs to look at the context of this passage to understand what Paul was saying,  Galatia was in Asia Minor and the believers there were Gentiles (i.e. uncircumcised, see Gal 5:2, 6:12-13). The “weak and beggarly elements” Paul was referring to was an exhortation for these Gentile believers not to turn back to the pagan practices they had observed before becoming Christians.

Some say Col 2:16-17 abolishes the sabbath, but it is more clearly understood as an addressing of Gnostic beliefs and practices that had been influencing the Colossian church. Paul was not referring to that the Colossians were celebrating the sabbath but how they were.  Paul’s conclusion in Col 2:16 is that no man should judge another with regard to how they observe the practice of eating meat, in drink, in keeping a holiday, new moon or sabbath. Paul says (Col 2:17) that these things are a shadow of things to come. This doesn’t make them obsolete, only exhorting us not to let others judge us in how we keep (or not keep) these things, but to let Him who is the living head, be the judge in that regard.

So what was Paul’s custom regarding the sabbath?

Acts 13:14 records that 10-15 years after coming to faith in Messiah, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. Notice that the Gentiles in attendance (!) wanted him to teach them more about Jesus being the Messiah on the following sabbath. Gentiles in Antioch were already gathering with Jews on the sabbath. Paul did not correct them or rebuke them for this practice.

About five years later, Paul “came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was went into them and for three sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead and saying “this Jesus whom I preached to you is the Christ” (Acts 17:1-3). This is 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and it is STILL Paul’s custom to go to the synagogue on the sabbath and discuss the Scriptures!

Several years later, Paul went to Corinth where “he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath (Acts 18:4) and later went to Ephesus in Asia Minor where “he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8).

Although Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles, neither his teaching nor his actions on the sabbath indicate that Paul thought the sabbath was abolished. Paul’s emphasis is that whether we are Jews or Gentiles, we are not to judge each other in terms of how we observe — whether it is the eating of meat, the drinking of wine or the celebration of new moons, festivals or sabbaths.

So why celebrate shabbat? We rest, because He rested.  He is our rest and we spend that time with Him, as well as those He entrusted to us as family (both by blood and by adoption).

When we find our identity in Him and delight in Him and His Word, we more easily let go of ‘our plans’ and the things we think are important.  We were created for fellowship with Him and on shabbat we get to enjoy it, unencumbered by the demands of our busy life. What a privilege! What a delight!

As a Jew, I am free to observe shabbat and festivals and do so — and with great anticipation, knowing that such things are a shadow of things to come!