One of the very first challenges for the early church, some refer to it as the first crisis in the early church, was the reception of the gospel by the Gentiles. The apostles were all Jews who embraced Jesus as the promised Messiah, and who began to wrestle with the shocking and unexpected idea of a suffering Messiah who died on the cross for their sins and who was raised for their justification. The implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were staggering. All of the apostles, from Peter to Paul to the unknown writer of Hebrews, realized that the way to be made right with God was forever changed. A new and living way was made open into the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 10.20) and a righteousness from God was revealed, a righteousness by faith in the atoning death of Jesus (Romans 1.17).
But the apostles probably did not fully understand the implications of preaching a gospel that was for “you and your children and for all who are far off, for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2.39). For when the gospel was preached, even those who were not Jews began to believe upon the name of Jesus. Gentiles were accepting Jesus as the Promised Messiah, as the atoning sacrifice of God, as the way to be made right with the Eternal Creator. Naturally, to a group of people who were raised in the Jewish faith and who believed upon Jesus as the Promised Messiah, to believe upon Jesus meant to join the people of God. This meant for males to be circumcised and for all to obey the Law and tradition/customs of the Jewish Covenant with God.
But Paul, and others, began to think deeply about Good News. The righteousness revealed by God was given to those who placed their faith in the blood of Jesus and not to those who placed their faith in obeying the Laws and Traditions of the Old Covenant. In fact, Jesus instituted a new covenant with His blood (see 1 Corinthians 11.25) that made the old covenant obsolete (see Hebrews 8.7-13). With this new way of being made right with God, physical circumcision was now meaningless (see Romans 2.28 and Galatians 6.15). The only thing that mattered was becoming a new creation in Christ, to be born again, and this gift was offered to all who would believe, including Gentiles.
Consequently, as Paul preached the gospel to the Gentiles, he saw no reason for the Gentiles to conform to the laws and traditions that had been made obsolete in Christ. Instead, he led them to bypass the old covenant and to step directly into the new covenant. Paul did not primarily preach the gospel as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, though he surely argued this point in the synagogues and reasoned with the Jews from the Scriptures (see Acts 17.2-3). But when he preached to the Gentiles, he focused on the resurrection and how this proved to all men the way to be made right with God (see Acts 17.29-31). When the Gentiles believed upon the name of Jesus, they became followers of Christ but they did not become Jewish converts.
Hence, the first crisis in the early church was born. On one side were the Jewish Christians who were convinced that in order to accept Jesus as the promised Messiah one had to join the covenant people of God by submitting to the traditions and customs of the Law, of which circumcision and observing the Sabbath were of foremost importance (see Acts 15.1). On the other side were those who were convinced that Christ came to set us free from the Law and that we were made right with God by grace through faith alone. So, within 20 years of the resurrection of Jesus, the first church business meeting was held in Jerusalem to solve the problem (see Acts 15). Peter made a strong case for the salvation of the all peoples by the grace of Jesus Christ alone, which was demonstrated by the “giving of the Holy Spirit to them” (Acts 15.8). The result was that the apostles and elders of the church decided not to burden the Gentile believers with the Law that neither they nor their fathers were able to bear.
Now it was up to the theologians to flesh out the meaning of this grand departure, which is exactly what Paul seems to be doing in his letter to the Romans. In his letter, he describes the wrath of God that is revealed against all wickedness and godlessness (Romans 1.18) of which Jew and Gentile alike are equally guilty (Romans 2.1) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23). Since no one is able to be made right with God by observing the law (Romans 3.20), God in His grace and mercy sent His Son to be a sacrifice of atonement (Romans 3.25). And since there is only one God to be made right with, both the circumcised and uncircumcised are made right with this one God through the same faith (Romans 3.30). The blessings of forgiveness are not for the Jews alone, but for all who would believe (Romans 4.9).
In the decades and centuries that would follow the Jerusalem Council, the real issue began to change. At first, the challenge was whether or not to allow Gentiles to embrace Jesus as their Messiah. Over time, the challenge became whether or not Jews would embrace Jesus as their Messiah. As we know now, those Jews who did embrace Jesus were removed from the synagogue and were branded as “Christians” (see Acts 11.26), which was originally a derogatory term. The chasm between Christian and Jew was a great divide over one simple question: was Jesus the promised Messiah or not? And, if He was the promised Messiah, what does His life, death, and resurrection have to do with how we are made right with God?
As we fast-forward in church history a couple of thousand years, the application of the gospel in the world in which we live is meeting another challenge. According to adherents.com, the current day, worldwide Jewish population is around 14 million people, less than one half of one percent of the world’s population. They continue to reject Jesus as their promised Messiah. If the apostle Paul were alive today and traveling on the same stretch of earth as he did almost two thousand years ago, his presentation of the gospel and his writings would have taken on a whole different focus. When he wrote about walking in the footsteps of the faith of Abraham (see Romans 4.12), his challenge would not have been to explain the difference between Christianity and Judaism but to explain the difference between Christianity and Islam. His hometown of Antioch, along with the location of some of his first mission projects (Galatia and Ephesus), are all in modern day Turkey, a nation that is over 95% Muslim. When Paul preached of the faith of Abraham, he would be forced to distinguish between the faith of Abraham that led to the promised Messiah of Jesus Christ and the faith of Abraham that led to the Prophet Muhammad.
The modern day discussion about the differences between followers of Christ and followers of Muhammad is complex indeed. In many ways, those discussions are more about culture than they are about religion. The way of life in the West and the way of life in the East are very different. In the West, we value ideas like democracy, gender equality, separation of church and state, and the freedom of religion and speech. These ideas are not part of the fabric of many nations in the East. Our national conversation has been ever changed since September 11, 2001. There are some nations in the Middle East, Iran in particular, who think of America as the “Great Satan” which needs to be destroyed. There are other movements in the Middle East, the Taliban in particular, who are not associated with any one nation but who are still committed to the task of destroying the West in general and America in specific. This new reality has changed the national conversation and most of us in the room have at least some level of concern that the values upon which our nation was founded are in jeopardy.
But beyond the political and cultural discussion of the differences between the West and the East, the religious question has not really changed all that much in the last two thousand years. The questions are the same: how are we made right with God? What does it mean to walk in the footsteps of Abraham and to share the faith of Abraham?
As most of you know, the Islamic faith traces its roots back to Abraham, just as the Jews and Christians do. But while the Jews and Christians see the lineage of faith through Abraham’s son Isaac, the Muslims trace their lineage of faith through Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. So Paul would not have had to face any arguments about the Mosaic covenant since it was the of the lineage of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Instead, Paul would have had to face the lineage of Ishmael, of which the most significant figure is the Prophet Muhammad who was born in 570 AD in the Arabian city of Mecca. Over the course of his life, the prophet Muhammad believed that he had received from God a series of revelations concerning many things, but the most significant of which refers to how a person is made right with God.
The religion he formed is called Islam, which simply means “submission to God.” The way to be made right with God, according to Islam, is to believe and accept the six major beliefs of Islam and to practice the five pillars of Islam. The six major beliefs are (1) a belief in Allah as the one God, (2) a belief in angels, (3) a belief in the prophets of which Muhammad is the chief and final one (Jesus is considered one of the prophets but not God and he was not crucified), (4) a belief in the sacred text of the Quran, (5) a belief in life after death, and (6) a belief in the divine decree of Allah. The five faith practices of Islam are (1) the confession of God (there is one God and Muhammad is His prophet), (2) daily prayers, (3) almsgiving, (4) fasting during the month of Ramadan, and (5) pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in the course of one’s life.
While we do not have time to discuss the six beliefs or the five pillars in detail, the primary point to realize is that the way to be made right with God according to the teachings of Muhammad is by observing the rules of Islam. At the end of one’s life, the good deeds are weighed against the bad deeds. If the scales are tipped in favor of the good deeds, then one is granted entrance into eternal bliss. If the scales are tipped in favor of the bad deeds, then one will spend eternity in hell. In this way, the Jews and the Muslims share a common faith: they both believe that one is made righteous by observing the law, one the law of Moses and the other the law of Muhammad.
The gulf that divides the Christians and the Jews is the same gulf that divides the Christians and the Muslims. Culturally, we stand closer to the Jewish people in regards to democracy, gender equality, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state, but in matters of faith, Christ remains the great stumbling block and rock of offense. The Jews remain offended by the idea that Jesus was the promised Messiah while the Muslims are offended by the idea that Jesus was God in flesh who dwelt among us and who was the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Faith in the blood of Jesus is no less “foolishness” (see 1 Corinthians 1.23) to the Muslims today that it was to the Jews and Gentiles of Paul’s day.
Most of you reading this post are followers of Christ and believe that you are made right with God not by your works but by placing your faith in the blood of Jesus who died for your sins. And you live every day liberated from the burden of earning God’s favor and the fear of wondering if the goods deeds of today will be enough to earn your way into heaven. You rest in the once for all sacrifice of Christ which has ushered you into the Most Holy Place of the presence of God, both for today and for all of eternity. However, you may not appreciate the freedom that you have, just as we do not appreciate the freedoms that we have because we live in America. You do not appreciate the freedom of religion until you live in a land where you are not allowed to gather together to exalt the name of Christ. You do not appreciate gender equality until you live in a land where women are not allowed to go out in public unless accompanied by their husband, father, or brother.
In the same way, we may not appreciate the freedom we have in Christ until we live in a land surrounded by those who live under the burden of striving to be made right with God by their good deeds and never knowing whether their efforts have been sufficient.
We are very fortunate this coming Sunday to have with us a special guest who can give us some insight into what it is like to live without the grace of God in Christ. Many of you know our special guest. She was a member of our church for many years while she was a student in seminary, and now she has devoted her life to living in the Middle East for the sole purpose of making friends so that she can tell them about the good news of Jesus Christ. She lives in a land surrounded by those who are striving to be made right with God by submitting to the ways of Islam, and she is seeking the opportunity to share the same good news that Paul shared with the Jews, that there is a righteousness revealed by God that is by faith. Over the last year, she has immersed herself in that culture and is personally aware of the hopelessness of a works righteousness approach to God and is also familiar with the reasons why it is so difficult for a person who is raised in an Islamic culture to come to faith in Christ. On Sunday morning, I have invited her to share about her experience in sharing the good news of grace to a people who believe that we are made right with God by observing the law and the reasons that those who are raised in an Islamic culture find it so difficult to place their faith in Christ.