One of the key themes in Paul’s letters to the fledgling churches of the first century is the insistence that Jesus is enough. In Jesus, they have been granted all that is needed. Everything that the Old Covenant foreshadowed is found in Jesus. Everything that the pagan nations ached for and groped toward, has now been revealed in Jesus. All goodness, all pleasure, all wisdom, all blessing is found in Jesus because Jesus is God’s Eternal Son. Jesus is the Executor of God’s estate. He runs the whole show. He has access to everything, and therefore in Him, we have access to everything.
One of the greatest threats to the early church’s grasp of this came specifically from the Jews, the nearest relatives of the Christian Church. The book of Acts clearly shows that the Jews were the center of the persecution of the first Christians (witness Saul/Paul), and in every city Paul proclaims the gospel to the Jews first and then when they have had enough, Paul turns to the Gentiles and this tends to enrage the Jews and before long they have stirred up mobs and riots and chased the apostles out of town. Surely other pagans had their own axes to grind, but the pressure is coming in its most virolent forms from the synagogues.
This pressure included direct political/physical threat and force (beatings, imprisonment, trials), but it also included multiple layers of social force and threat below this: threat of excommunication from the synagogues, being cut off from friends, family, and inheritance, as well as enduring the frowns, the disappointment, the implicit and explicit signs of betrayal, disappointment, let down. And these pressures and tensions aren’t usually just theological or abstract. God made the world such that battles are usually pitched in particular places, on particular dirt. There is usually much more going on than what can be seen in a particular flash of conflict, but the location and occasion for the conflict are relavent.
In the first century, the key flash points were in circumcision, keeping cleanliness and food purity laws, sabbath days, and other traditional Hebrew practices that were more or less inherited from the law of Moses. So maybe somebody believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but what did that mean practically? Could you still send your kids to the synagogue school? Could you still eat dinner with your old friends? Could you still see your family’s old Hebrew doctor? Could you buy your meat at the pagan market? The gospel proclaimed the forgiveness of sins and the reunion of Jews and Gentiles. This is where it touched down. Was it necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised, for them to change their dietary habits? The New Testament is taken up with insisting again and again that Jesus has made the whole world clean. Forgiveness is for Jews and Gentiles, and the blood of Jesus is the last circumcision that matters, the last blood shed opening wide the family of Abraham to all who trust in Christ.
What the gospel proclaimed was on the one hand nothing is ceremonial any more, and at the same time, and in another way, everything is ceremonial. All the old Jewish ceremonies didn’t matter, could be done or not done so long as they were only an irrelevant personal preference or done in love for the sake of others. But this law of love simultaneously elevated the potential for all things to matter, for all things to be ceremonial, for all things to be holy. In Jesus all things became clean and common, and all things became holy and capable of serving God as acts of devotion and worship. But the key is love, the key is sacrificial care for others, and the reunion of broken and shattered humanity.
This is why Paul throws a fit when he finds Peter being duplicitous with the Gentile Christians in Antioch. First he was cool with eating with them, but as soon as some of the Jewish Christians showed up, he quickly withdrew from the Gentiles because he feared them. And we can be sure that those Christians of the “circumcision” — those who continued to keep the Jewish ceremonial code out of Old Covenant obligation — also acted out of fear, fear of the Jews who weren’t even Christians. You see, if you could believe in Jesus in your heart and just keep doing your Jewish thing, then maybe you could keep your head down and everybody would like you. You wouldn’t let anybody down. No one would get their feelings hurt. No one would feel betrayed. No one would get in trouble. But the problem is that this makes the death and resurrection of Jesus completely worthless. This is to pretend that Jesus came to pat everybody on the back and change nothing, fix nothing, heal nothing. But Jesus came to reconcile all things through the blood of His cross. He came to put the world and all the broken pieces of humanity back together.
And here’s my point: Most of the New Testament is taken up with these themes either explicitly or implicitly. Sometimes Paul is on a rampage (witness Galatians), and sometimes Paul is just generally giving pastoral exhortations and reminders aimed to beef up defenses against these temptations and pressures.
In other words, the Holy Spirit saw fit to fill the whole New Testament with teachings, warnings, rebukes, and encouragements specifically meant to address the dangers of Judiaizing, the temptation to be cowed by fear of what people think, fear of what respected teachers think, fear of the tradition, to form circles of orthodoxy, accepted beliefs and practices above and beyond Jesus, as though Jesus is not enough, as though Jesus is a good start, a helping hand, a pat on the back. But the gospel is that Jesus is enough. In Jesus, we have forgiveness enough, grace enough, approval enough, power enough, wisdom enough. We are not missing anything. We are not lacking anything.
And apparently, the Holy Spirit knew we would need this now, we would need this when it comes to health care decisions, education decisions, child rearing decisions, political affiliation decisions, facebook & twitter decisions. Who will “like” this? Who will rally around this? Who will object? Who will this offend? Who will affirm me? Who will feel betrayed by me? Who will gasp in unbelief? Who will cheer? What am I afraid of? Who am I afraid of? What makes me feel secure? What assures me that I’m doing a good job, that I’m being faithful?
The good news is that we are freed from all these fears, all these powers, all these threats. Jesus is enough, and we owe no one anything but love.