The Promise Part I: The Controversy

Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” ~Acts 15:5

Does a believer need to follow the law of Moses to obtain God's promises? Does God really forgive every sin? These are important questions that stirred up controversy during the inception of the early church and caused divisions between the people and even the apostles themselves at times. The book of Acts tells the story of the various trials that erupted during the time that the apostles were debating the topic of sin and law with the Jewish people. Even 2000 years later, we see that many churches, preachers and people are still divided by the same topics.

In fact, much of the persecution that Paul experienced throughout his ministry came at the hands of those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Many Pharisees believed in Jesus but still debated with Paul about the necessity of keeping the law of Moses. When Paul was preaching the gospel in the temple at Jerusalem, the Jews had Paul beaten and arrested shouting, "Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place." (Acts 21:28) What was Paul preaching that made the Jews so angry?

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins... ~Colossians 2:13

When Paul preached the forgiveness of sins to the Gentiles, the Jews were enraged because he did not require the Gentiles to keep the law of Moses. The apostles preached that Christ conquered sin and fulfilled the law of the Jewish covenant and when they debated with the Jewish believers on how the Gentiles should be instructed to follow God in Acts 15, Peter spoke up and said:

"Now then, why do you [Jews] try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” ~Acts 15:10-11

Peter was referring to was the law of Moses when he spoke of the yoke that had burdened their Jewish ancestors. He tried to tell them that no one could be saved by keeping the law. This is why Paul wrote in Romans 9:30-32, "What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone."

"But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify." Romans 3:21

It was unfathomable to the Jews that a gentile could be made righteous by simply believing in Jesus. Paul became a marked man for teaching about a new kind of righteousness; a righteousness that is obtained by faith alone. To the Jew, the law was the way onto righteousness and in order to receive the promises of God made to Abraham, one needed to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses. However, Paul preached contrary to the traditional Jewish understanding and stated that the promise could only be received through faith.

It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. ~Romans 4:13

This is why Paul wrote, "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children...on the contrary, it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring." (Romans 9:6-8) Even John the Baptist warned the Pharisees and Sadducees not to trust in their traditional beliefs but to repent and believe in Jesus saying, "And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham." (Matthew 3:9)

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. ~Ephesians 3:6

The Jewish people believed that they were the children of the promise through the covenant that they had with God through Moses, and also the physical lineage they had through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The popular understanding was that the Gentiles had always been enemies of the promises made to Abraham. So when the Jews heard that God was now accepting the "unrighteous" Gentiles who never kept the law of Moses, they were enraged and plotted to kill Paul for blaspheming and sought out various ways to persecute the early believers of Jesus.

When the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. ~Acts 13:45

Even today it is considered blasphemous to teach that a person can be saved without following the 10 Commandments. However, Acts 13:45 shows us that it is actually blasphemous to say the opposite. To say that a person must follow the 10 commandments (or any law for that matter) in order to be saved, contradicts the message Paul preached and should be considered blasphemy. Nevertheless, he was repeatedly driven out of town and threatened by the religious authorities to stop preaching that Jesus was the Messiah and that the promise made to Abraham could only be received by faith and not by the works of the law.

But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” ~Acts 18:6
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