We all know that the motto of the United States is E pluribus unam – Latin for the idea of many becoming one … the idea of the varied cultures becoming one new land. That is really the vision for the church as the family of God. Prior to Christ, to be rightly related to God, a Gentile had to become a proselyte convert to Israel. But in Christ, all people are one new family regardless of previous background.
This was not obvious in the very earliest days of the church. The presumption of these Jewish Christians – from both Hellenistic and Hebraic backgrounds – was that something connective with Judaism would continue. But the gospel message was universal, not just an improvement on their old system. And the consequent community of followers was a totally new entity.
When I went to Dallas Theological Seminary, I stepped into the ultimate top-drawer academic environment in Christian higher education. Most of the guys there were from high-powered academic backgrounds: major universities, military academies, etc. I was a bit terrified by the atmosphere and credentials around me. I later found out that they were all terrified of me and the handful of us who came from small religious colleges. They presumed we had an insurmountable theological background already within us. And that was true … for one or two semesters!
And that is how it was in the early church, as the first Christians of Jewish background (with short-term advantages) were increasingly being outnumbered by the rising tide of Gentiles. Paul, though having the ultimate Jewish credential of education, understood that this gospel message was a bigger thing than the latest Jewish twist. And he understood that the church could not exist with varied strata of people representing varied backgrounds and ethnicities. The old uniforms, though interesting in some sort of historic/nostalgic way, had to be discarded for the new teaching of grace through faith alone. Hanging onto old stuff was going to stain and corrupt the clarity of the message and mission moving forward.
Paul saw this before others did, even folks like Peter and Barnabas. Consider this passage from Galatians 2 (which I believe likely happened just before the Jerusalem Council) …
Galatians 2:11 – When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
2:14 – When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
Paul went on in the verses immediately following to affirm the gospel message as faith in Christ alone. And then, just moments later in the letter he writes …
Galatians 3:26 – So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Returning to our passage this week in Acts 15, once the decision was made and a letter crafted to take back to the church in Antioch (and subsequently on to all the other churches from the missionary journeys, etc.), the group was sent to deliver it …
Acts 15:30 – So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. [verse 34 about Silas does not have good manuscript authority for us to believe it is original] 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
There was rejoicing and encouragement by the believers there, surely because the “weirdness” about having to think about others being from this group or that group was taken away. They were now all one new team, one new family – a new gathering of people of a common faith and truth, this thing called “the church.” What a great time this must have been to live out this freeing new realization, while also having a handful of incredibly gifted men with the gift of prophecy (this does not mean a predictive “fore-telling” of something, but rather a teaching ability of “forth-telling” the Word of God). It would simply have to be true that much of their teaching had to center around Christ as the fulfillment of (what we know as the Old Testament) Scriptures.
And there could be nothing quite so awesome for us even in 2017 as to look around on a Sunday and see people from all sorts of diverse backgrounds sitting around us. If God should so bless us, it would be my heart’s desire to see that increase in every way. I just think it would be the most awesomely rich experience of blessing for us to have multiple cultures and ethnicities of people with whom to be family together as brothers and sisters of faith. The world craves this sort of thing. But I believe it can only truly happen with greatest success when the common denominator is so much bigger than our differences. For it is then – in Christ alone – that we become E pluribus unam!