The Ministry of Jesus
The skeptic is right about one thing: Jesus did, in fact, NOT invent a new religion. He was very specific, in fact, that He came not to invent something new which invalidated Judaism, but instead to fulfill the Law and bring Judaism into its final form (Matt 5:17-18). He specifically said that the Law was still in effect, and that Jews were expected to follow them as God’s special people (Matt 5:19). In Matthew 15:24 and John 4:22, Jesus specifically states that His ministry is exclusively to preach to the House of Israel. In Matthew 10:5-6, He tells His followers to be careful only to preach to full-blooded Jews at that time—neither Gentiles nor partially-Jewish Samaritans.
Why is this? He tells us Himself, when speaking to a Gentile woman in Matthew 15:26: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” He does this not to be cruel, but because the Jews were chosen by God for this specific purpose. They had spent millennia achingly trying to bear the terrible burden of living up to God’s mighty standard, and had failed. Their reward for this, and God’s promise to the Jews throughout history, had been that they would be the ‘honored guests’ at God’s table.
(FYI: Although Jesus told the Gentile that He would not help her because it was time for the ministry to the Jews, not the Gentiles, He actually does help her anyway after being moved by her deep faith. Even though it wasn’t ‘the Gentile time’ yet, He can’t help Himself—see Matt 15:21-28).
Jesus was here to preach to the Jews. He was very clear on that.
However…He was also clear that this is not the way it would always be.
Parable of the Wedding Feast
In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus told the parable of the wedding feast. In this parable, the king gives a wedding feast for his son. (This symbolizes when God would grant eternal life in the New Kingdom for those who follow the Messiah.) The king called those who had been invited, but they did not come even though he sent multiple servants. (This is a reference to Jesus and the prophets, calling the Jews to salvation.)
The guests paid no attention to the servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. In response, the king burned their city to the ground. (This is a reference to the Jews’ history of killing prophets, and God sending judgment through Babylon and Rome.)
So, to fill out the rest of the wedding feast, the king sends his servants out through the roads, and gathered together a group of people who were not part of the original invite list. They were allowed in. (This is a reference to the Gentiles being invited.)
However, not everyone of the ‘replacements’ got in—those not clothed in wedding garments still were left outside. (Meaning, not all Gentiles get in, only those who are dressed for the wedding by their faith in Christ.)
So you see, Jesus said even during His ministry that He was giving Israel a chance to follow Messiah, though most would reject Him. When that time was done, those Gentiles who were willing to come and join together by following Him would be allowed to do so.
So it is not that Jesus preached to the Jews in order to exclude Gentiles—it is rather that Jesus preached to the Jews first (which was proper due to their relationship to God), and only at a later date, after the Jewish rejection, would the ministry expand to the rest of the world. (Incidentally, this is exactly what Paul says in Rom 1:16, 2:9-10, and 11:18-24.)
And this is precisely what we see after His death. The risen Christ, having fulfilled His hour, commands His disciples now to go and begin to preach to the entire earth, first to the Jews and then later to the Gentiles (Matt 28:18-19, Acts 1:8).
The Gentiles Are Invited to the Party
So yes, Jesus’ ministry was primarily to the Jews. But then something amazing happened involving the Gentiles—and despite popular opinion, it did not come from Paul. Peter, chief apostle of Jesus, received a vision at night in which God told him to violate ritual purity laws and eat unclean foods. Either nauseated or considering it a test, Peter refuses three times. But God rebukes him for it (Acts 10:9-16).
Puzzled, Peter was then sent by the Spirit to visit a Roman military commander named Cornelius. When he arrived with his fellow Jews, Peter was led by the Spirit to preach to them—not about converting to Judaism and the Law, but about following Jesus as they were. The Holy Spirit came down and was received by the group (Acts 10:17-44).
This was an amazing, unprecedented event—the event foreshadowed by Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast. The Gentiles were being invited to the table. Peter and his fellow Jews present were amazed and shocked to find that God was also going to pour out the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles. Up until this point, it had not happened and they did not believe it could. It was an eye-opening experience for them (Acts 10:45-48).
Not everyone was happy about this. Some of the Jews were downright furious, confronting Peter directly. They felt as though the process was being short-circuited in an unholy way: up until this point in Christian history, a Gentile had to first become a Jewish proselyte, be circumcised, live according to the Law, study the Torah…and then could be accepted into Christianity, be prayed over and baptized, and accept the Holy Spirit. You must become a Jew first in order to become a Christian—or at least that’s what they thought (Acts 11:1-18).
The conversion of the Gentiles separate from the Mosaic Law—as prophesied by Christ—had already begun, not by Paul but by Peter. Only after was Paul recruited to join these efforts by his friend Barnabas (Acts 11:20-30).
(Note: It is sometimes said that Paul was once named Saul but then his name was changed to Paul after he followed Jesus. This is false. Paul is the Roman version of his name, since his father was a Roman citizen; Saul is the Jewish version of the same name. He is called Saul and Paul interchangeably, both before and after conversion. For clarity I will use the name Paul exclusively.)
Paul was an observant Jew and former persecutor of Christians, who had first believed Jesus to be the Messiah due to a miraculous vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19). After his conversion he went to Arabia to reflect on his experience, where tradition holds that he prayed at Mt. Sinai, just where the Law had been handed down to Moses (Gal 1:17, 4:24-25). He returned to Damascus and began attending synagogues in the region and proclaiming to the Jews that Jesus was in fact Messiah (Acts 9:20-22). Over the course of three years (Gal 1:13-24), he eventually became a rabbi in his own right and having his own disciples (Acts 9:25a). This lead to an assassination plot against him (Acts 9:23-25), from which he was rescued by Barnabas. In the first fourteen years after his conversion, Paul visited Jerusalem at least twice, learning from Simon Peter (Gal 1:13-24) and the rest of the apostles (Gal 2:1-10).
So Paul was an observant Jew, and remained one after conversion. He spent fourteen years preaching exclusively to Jews about Jesus being the Messiah. He spent time with Peter and the apostles, and for fourteen years he was well known as a Christian with orthodox beliefs.
This gets us up to the time where Peter starts preaching the Gentiles. Shortly after that event, in around 44-45 AD, his old friend Barnabas takes Paul back up to Antioch and they preach there for a whole year—Paul’s fifteenth year of preaching Messianic Judaism (Acts 11:25-26), and the first year of his preaching after Peter’s vision begins the spread of Christianity out of Judaism and into the Gentile realm.
A famine comes, and Paul and Barnabas support this and eventually depart on their first missionary journey. Barnabas is the leader of the first journey (Acts 13-14), with Paul and Mark as his helpers. They preached to Jews and “God-fearing” Gentiles—a term which means Gentiles who accepted the Law and had converted to Judaism. This lasts from 46-49 AD.
Only now—half a decade after Peter started spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles—Paul and Barnabas announce that the time has officially begun for the Gentiles to be preached to. Paul announces that his ministry will be primarily to Gentiles, rather than the Jews and Law-abiding Gentiles exclusively (Acts 13:46-49).
This comes in the year 49 AD. Paul returns to Antioch and begins teaching the Gentiles—and, like Peter did, he is teaching that Gentiles need not convert to the Law in order to become followers of Messiah. This angers the Jewish Christians around him (Acts 15:1-5). Paul, Barnabas, Titus, and the others who were teaching the same message are sent down to Jerusalem to hold a conference (Gal 2:1-2).
The Council of Jerusalem – one of the most important events in Gentile history
In 49 AD* the leaders of the Jesus movement, all orthodox and observant Jews, meet together to discuss the “Gentile problem.” There is no concern about the Jews—it is well understood that they will all adhere to the Law. But the question is whether Gentiles are required to first become Jewish in order to become Christian, or if they can worship God “as they are.” And, if so…then what exactly are the ‘rules’ that are relevant for them? And how is everyone to co-exist?
Paul and Barnabas have a private meeting to share what they have seen with Peter (the lead apostle of the movement), James (Jesus’ brother and elder of the Jerusalem Christian churches), and John (Jesus’ best friend and most beloved disciple). This private meeting took the testimony of Peter, Barnabas, and Paul to compare to what Jesus taught them, and determine what was going on (Acts 15:2-12, Gal 2:4-10).
These are the three men who know Jesus best in the world—the three men who spent years traveling with Him and learning from Him. They know better than anyone what Jesus taught and thought. They knew ten thousand stories about Jesus that we do not know—what didn’t make it into Scripture.
In this meeting, make no mistake who is in charge—and it isn’t Paul. Paul merely testifies as to what he has witnessed (Acts 15:12). He is still in “over his head” with this group—he is just a missionary, and he is talking to the people in charge. It is Peter who argues that salvation is by grace alone, and that the Gentiles should not be forced to take on a yoke that was placed on the necks of Moses’ descendents (Acts 15:7-11). And it is James, the elder and brother of Jesus, the one who knew Him longer than anyone else alive, who renders the judgment. James shows how this testimony agrees with the Old Testament, that the Jews would eventually be the light to the world who spread salvation among the non-Jews (Acts 15:13-18). From this he concludes that the Gentiles need not take on the Jewish Law, but instead should avoid only the major things which violate the spirit of moral law, such as idol-worship and sexual immorality (Acts 15:19-21).
And James then says a passage which every Gentile Christian should have committed to heart, for it is of critical importance to us. The men who knew Jesus more intimately than we ever will said this about Gentiles becoming Christians:
“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” (Acts 15:28-29)
But what do these commands mean?
If these commands seem confusing, it is because you did not read my series on the Covenants. :-) As I showed in this graphic, all men—Jew or Gentile—are bound by the covenants God made with Adam and Noah. These are binding on us still today. But only Jews are bound by the covenants of Abraham and Moses.
All that the Council of Jerusalem did here was two things: (1) affirm that the Noahic Covenant was still relevant to Gentiles, and (2) remind them that sexual immorality was a moral law not just part of the Mosaic Law (and thus, they had to follow this as well).
(1) Noahic Covenant
As I explain in more detail in the article here, God made a covenant with Noah after the Flood, and we are all subject to it. It is the only “Law” which is relevant to Gentiles—as the Jerusalem Council confirmed.
The Noahic Covenant focused on the importance of blood of animals and men. It stated that:
This last one is about a sign of respect for the animal being eaten. When animals were killed, their blood should be drained out before it was cooked—unlike many pagans, who drank the blood or strangled the animal and kept the blood inside it. This did not mean that any extraordinary efforts needed to be taken, it was just a sign of respect by returning the blood of the animal to the ground from whence it came.
This is not a problem for you today unless you are trying to do it. Blood draining is, frankly, the only sanitary way to prepare food. All meat in the US and UK, for example, must have livestock killed by exsanguination (removal of the blood), after being stunned in some way. When the animals are slaughtered the blood is drained from them, so this is not the "red" you see in your meat. Undercooked steaks are not actually "bloody" at all. The redness you see in your steak is not actually blood, but a protein found in muscle (myoglobin) and water. While myglobin is structurally similar to hemoglobin in blood, it is not the same thing and has no "blood" in it.
So unless you are personally strangling animals and cooking them whole, or collecting the blood to use it for drink or to cook, you are okay on this one. Doing so was not uncommon in pagan rituals, so this also helps ensure no idolatry is going on.
(2) Sexual Immorality
Interestingly, the Jerusalem Council does specifically pull out one part of the Mosaic Law—and only one—and apply it to Gentile Christians. That part is Leviticus 18, the laws defining Jewish sexual morality.
The clear implication here is that the Council felt that sexual morality is a part of moral law, not just ritual law (see here for definitions of these concepts).
So based upon this reference to Leviticus 18, we can conclude that we Gentiles should also abstain from:
• Fornication (sex before marriage)
This finding of the Council, unsurprisingly, matches with Jesus’ clear teachings on divorce (Matt 5:32, 19:9). Only the issues above are legitimate reasons for divorce in Jesus’ mind.
Tying it all together
So to put it in simple terms, what have we learned?
Jesus did, in fact, minister primarily to Jews and teach primarily about Judaism. He was an observant Jew, and came to bring salvation—to the Jew first, and the Gentile later. The Jews, as God’s chosen people, have the first seat at the table. They are the special priests to the world, the teachers and rabbis of us all, those who have studied and loved and obeyed God for thousands of years.
Because of their special relationship, Jesus taught mostly to them—even though He did tell us that later, the Gentiles would have our time also. Jesus’ teachings, however, are not only valuable to Jews but to us. Why? Because He taught about the God and morality that underlies the rules, the concepts and vision of the world that led to the Law. Jesus taught us the spirit of the Law that is valuable to all of us—as well as clarifying the letter of the Law which the Hebrews were to follow.
After His death, Christianity was a sect of Judaism. The converts were Jews, worshipping in synagogues and obeying the Law. This continued for more than a decade. Then the time was right for Jesus’ prophesy to come true…the Gentiles were to be invited to the feast.
The first invitations came from Peter, then later from Barnabas. Barnabas’ assistant, Paul, became a particularly good teacher in this regard and had a special calling for it. In no small part to his thorough understanding of Greek philosophy, from his Roman education as a youth, he was able to reach Gentiles better than others.
Traditional Jews were unhappy, though, for Barnabas and Paul were not teaching the Law as necessary for Gentiles. They taught only the Noahic Covenant to be binding; other Christians believed that Gentiles must convert to Judaism first and then follow Messiah.
A council of leaders met to discuss, pray, and review the Scriptures. They concluded in 49 AD that Gentiles did not need to convert to Judaism to become Christian. Instead, all they needed to do was obey their already-required Noahic Covenant and embrace Jewish sexual ethics. Otherwise, they could go about their normal Gentile lives unburdened, as they were saved by grace. Paul continued to preach this message for years, and his particular ability to speak to Gentiles have led to his letters being the best-known source of this teaching.
Paul’s teaching was actually quite clear in this regard: he did not repudiate Judaism but instead simply clarified that Mosaic Law was inapplicable to Gentiles—which is precisely why, in Romans, he is forced to answer the question: “What’s the advantage of being a Jew, then?” (Rom 3:1). Jews, hearing this news, said that obviously it would have been better to be born a Gentile, if they could avoid all of the Law and be a Christian that way. Paul says no, it is still much better to be a Jew: it is a great honor to the Jews that they are the ones who are the authors of all of Scripture (Rom 3:2), that their work is necessary to demonstrate righteousness and unrighteousness (Rom 3:3-8), and that they are the support of the entire Christian system and the proper and natural tree of God's family (Rom 11:18-24). So while being the keepers of the Law is a tough life, it has the unique advantage of making a Jew special and holy and set apart as an example for all men. But, he does admit, being keepers of the Law does not give the Jews an advantage with regard to salvation (Rom 3:9-20).
In summary, Jesus and Paul did not disagree. Paul’s ministry was an extension of the teachings of Peter and Barnabas, and approved by James and the other apostles as legitimate—not something new that he came up with out of cloth. It is in fact the exact same plan Jesus shared during the Parable of the Wedding Feast: Jesus and the apostles preached to the Jews for Jesus’ entire life and over a decade afterward; when the time was right, they then extended the invitation for all of the ‘empty seats’ to the Gentiles to fill. Both Jew and Gentile filled the spots by faith in God and His Messiah Jesus Christ. All that Peter, Paul, Barnabas and James did was clarify that the Mosaic Law was only applicable to Moses’ descendents, and thus the Gentiles need not become Jewish before becoming followers of Christ.
* Or 51 AD, depending on the dating method used.