The initial group of followers of Jesus that came to be known as his "apostles" were all Jewish. Did they later become Christians? How does "religion" work in the first century? Why does all of this matter to me if Jesus loves me, died for me, and I'll be with him forever?
If we want to live like they did in their dedication to the Lord and their hope for eternal life, we ought to understand the scriptures like they did.
Hey friends, Josh here. So one of the earlier videos here on my channel is called “Jesus was Jewish”. In that video I spent some time talking about the importance of seeing Jesus of Nazareth as a first century Jew - not just because he lived and ministered during that time period, but that he was Jewish in the full sense of the word - that his teachings, his interpretation of the Law and the Prophets, his manner of life, and his expectation for the future - all of those things can be placed within the same framework as his fellow descendants of Abraham. If you or I would have lived back in the first century, we wouldn’t have looked at Jesus as if he was a Christian pastor or a military commander or the ringleader of some sort of freak show circus. He was a Jewish rabbi and his teachings were similar in many ways to the Pharisees of his day. He prayed in the Temple in Jerusalem and celebrated all of the Jewish feasts according to the Law. And I made the point back in that first video that if Jesus was Jewish and came to the Jewish people in the land of Israel 2000 years ago, it’s important for US to read his words and see the events of his life through that lens.
There’s been a lot of scholarship and historical work done on this subject over the last number of decades - I think of scholars and historians like EP Sanders and Paula Fredriksen - and they do a great job of exploring Jesus, Paul, and life in first century Israel. Of course the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has contributed to a major shift in our understanding of that time period as well.
But I’ve noticed that while there’s a vibrant discussion among academics, the implications of those important historical discoveries don’t often make it down down decisively to the popular level in such a way that actually changes the way the average Gentile disciple of Jesus reads the scriptures and lives out their lives. I’ve seen this first-hand in so many of the folks I’ve been around now in my nearly two decades of full-time ministry.
One of the ways I’ve seen this is in the way we understand the original disciples of Jesus, the apostles. The guys like Peter, James, and John and Matthew the tax collector. When we read about “the twelve” in the gospels, we assume they are mostly ignorant, uneducated tradesmen who are childish and unrefined and therefore unable to grasp the complexities of the spiritual truths that Jesus is teaching them. I’ll explain more on that in minute. And the other difficulty we encounter in trying to understand the apostles is that we tend to read the bible anachronistically - meaning we take our lives and experiences and culture and superimpose those things on to Jewish people in first century Israel. We really do this so much without even realizing it. We can't read our Bibles and assume these guys were Christians just like modern believers who went to church on Sunday, and maybe a couple of times a month on Wednesday for the midweek service, and if they were really holy, they would go to the men’s breakfast or show up for pre-service prayer.
Friends, the apostles were Jewish, and remained Jewish even after their time with Jesus. What I don’t mean is that their “religion” was Jewish, and I’ll discuss this more in a second. They were raised in a culture with customs and an outlook for the future completely different from the modern world. They were deeply familiar with their scriptures which not only chronicled their history, but outlined the details of their culture and lifestyle and set firm expectations for the future. They were the people who had descended from Abraham, they were the family chosen to be the vehicle of blessing to all the other families of the earth. Their ancestors were the ones that met God at Mount Sinai and entered into the covenant with. They were the ones to whom the prophets spoke about their capital city, Jerusalem, and how a king from David’s line would one day rule from there, bring them all back to the land, and defeat their enemies once and for all.
Now one thing that historians and scholars have unpacked for us related to that is the fact that there was no “religion” in antiquity - at least in the way that we modern folk tend to think about “religion”. When we think about a religion, maybe what comes to our mind is a coherent system of belief and some kind of ritualistic behavior undertaken by a community or institution governed by a hierarchical leadership structure. For example, in Catholicism, you have the pope, then you have bishops, and you have priests, and no matter who you are or where you came from, whether you’re Brazilian or Burmese or British, you can be a Catholic. In the modern world, your ethnicity has little to nothing to do with your religion. But in antiquity, this was not the case whatsoever. As historian Paula Fredriksen comments, she says “In antiquity, all religions were ethnic, and all ethnicities were religious.” In other words, in the ancient world at the time of Jesus, your family group and your community - whether that be your city or your nation - was a major determining factor in your cultic practices - in the god or gods you worshipped. Maybe your city had gods that they worshipped - like in Acts 19 and the city of Ephesus, for example, they worshipped and housed the temple of Artemis, and maybe your family had a long history of ancestral gods they worshipped. Worshipping gods in the ancient world was utilitarian - it was like having an insurance policy. You’d want to make sure the gods remained happy - because happy gods meant for happy humans. If the gods were honored and worshipped, things would go well for your family and for your community. If things were going badly, if there was a famine or your nation was about to be invaded or your wife couldn’t get pregnant, you would offer sacrifices to the gods and garner their favor. Again, it was like an insurance policy for them.
Now I say all that because we tend to read the New Testament through a different lens. We look at the apostles as just random dudes who practiced a religion called Judaism, and then after Jesus came on the scene, they became Christians and stopped going to the synagogue on Saturday and started going to church on Sunday. They used to think that they would go to heaven if they could just obey the Law enough, but because that was just so hard to do, they were so thankful that Jesus came to free them from their shame and release them from the heavy burden of doing the law. Unfortunately that’s how the Jewish apostles of Jesus are often characterized today. But that’s really modern and it’s pretty flawed. Historian and scholar EP Sanders and many others have shown that this is not at all what the ethnic descendants of Abraham believed about the Law or expected for the future. As I’ve said, in the first century, your ethnicity and the gods you worshipped weren’t separate subjects. And when we understand this about Jesus’ disciples, we ought to see them not as abandoning their ancestral customs and beliefs and future expectations because of Jesus, but rather firming them up, being more sure of them, and being even more deeply committed to them.
From day 1 of meeting Jesus, they had believed he was the messiah - the Christ. I have another video I’ll link in the description for you on the topic of “messiah” or “Christ”, but in short, messiahs were not the ones who would die on crosses and atone for sins. For the disciples of Jesus, they anticipated what Moses and the Prophets had spoken about over and over again - that God had made a covenant with their people and because of that covenant, he would restore the twelve tribes of Israel to their land, rebuild Jerusalem, raise up a son of David as king over them, and use the people of Israel as his servant to be a light to the rest of the nations. As Jesus’ ministry progresses over the next few years, the apostles become even more convinced of this. Instead of affirming their expectations, we typically understand them as ignorant and unlearned or unrefined and unable to grasp the complexities of a new spiritualistic de-ethnicized eschatology that Jesus was teaching, and that somehow they needed the spirit to see that their old nationalist hopes and everything they had learned and known from their childhood had actually been redefined and reimagined.
Friends, this isn’t the case at all. As we can see, after Jesus had risen from the dead, the disciples ask this all-important and all-revealing question in Acts chapter 1 verse 6:
Luke says: “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?””
After hearing Jesus’ teachings for several years and after having been taught directly by the Lord for 40 days following his resurrection, they ask “Lord, we know you to be that son of David we’ve been looking for, are you going to crush Rome and restore Jerusalem and bring back the twelve tribes now, just like we’re expecting you to do?” This was not an uninformed question. Notice how they’re still thinking in a very Jewish way. The burning thing in their mind wasn’t about heaven or spiritual gifts or revival or whatever other subjects Christians often think about - it’s about God doing what he said for Israel. Jesus of course answers by saying “I’m not telling you when that’s going to happen”. And throughout his ministry, Jesus had not corrected their apocalyptic expectations, but rather reaffirmed them - hence why they asked that question. So the disciples were either exceedingly dull and still completely ignorant at this point (which is again what the average modern believer typically thinks), or they actually believed Moses and the Prophets and what Jesus had said and taught. These guys were Jewish - their ancestral practices, their beliefs, their expectations for the future - these were what they were raised with, the context they understood Jesus within, and the very things they looked forward to with eagerness.
So why is this important? I mean, Jesus died for me, he loves me, and I’m gonna be with him forever, so why does it even matter if the apostles were Jewish? Well as I’ve said on many of my other videos, what we think about the future changes the way we live in the present. As it did for the Jewish apostles of Jesus, so must the return of messiah, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the restoration of Israel, the resurrection of the dead, and the blessing to the nations be what we expect as well. If we want to live like they did, we should read and understand the scriptures like they did. As we see in their own writings, they too continued to expect these things. They understood their place in God’s grand story, and they they expected its soon culmination. That’s why they lived with urgency, sobriety, and the fear of the Lord. I’m so convinced that our personal lives and interactions with one another and our missiology would be quite different if we understood the scriptures as they did, and we understood our place in God’s grand story.
Of course one short video can’t undo centuries of Gentile confusion, but I hope it can provoke you a little bit to maybe begin a process of asking questions about Jesus, about the apostles, about the Jewish story, and about what it means for the Gentiles in the 21st century. If anything, I hope you can walk away saying “there’s definitely some details I need to do some digging into.”
I’ve got a large number of videos here on my channel, and I co-host a weekly podcast exploring these things as well. I’ll link that in the description below.
Well, there’s more to come, so drop a like and leave a comment if this was encouraging. Until next time, God bless and Maranatha.