Cultural and Ethnic Development
The first community of faith in Yeshua (Jesus) started on the day of Shavuot (Pentecost). There was an original core of 120 Jewish believers (Acts 1:14), made up primarily of native-born “Israelis” from the Galilee (Acts 1:11; 2:7).
A careful reading of the Gospels and Acts reveals a social, almost ethnic tension between the Galilean disciples of Yeshua and the more religious Jews of the Judean and Jerusalem area (Matthew 26:73, Mark 14:70, Luke 22:59; 23:6, John 7:1; 7:52). That tension between the “Galileans” and the “Judeans” finds significant parallels in the tensions between Messianic and Orthodox Jews today.
When the Holy Spirit was poured out, the core group immediately encountered a larger group of 3,000 (Acts 2:41). These people had come from outside of Israel to visit Jerusalem for the Holy Days. “And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven” – Acts 2:5. These were what we would call “diaspora” Jews today.
However, there were also people from other ethnic backgrounds: “… both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” – Acts 2:11. (Crete is a European island close to Israel.) So within the whole group were:
- “Israeli” (Galilean) Jews
- Diaspora Jews
- Proselytes to Judaism
- Europeans (Cretans)
The multi-ethnic international “church” developed later as the gospel spread into Asia Minor and Europe. However, the pattern of different types of branches grafted together (Romans 11:17) was already apparent and built into the foundation of the ecclesia from the first day. This mix of different languages, cultures and ethnic backgrounds caused stress within the community (Acts 6:1).
As the international visitors returned home, the gospel spread into their nations. Each national group searched for their own identity, and even a name. “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” – Acts 11:26. The Jewish disciples within Israel had not sought a separate “branding” because they saw themselves as an integral part of the Jewish community around them—not as starting a new religion.
As the number of churches among the Gentiles grew, two identities developed. Among the nations, they were referred to as “the churches of the Gentiles” – Romans 16:4; while, the Jewish believers were called, the remnant of Israel. “I have reserved for Myself in Israel… a remnant called by grace” – Romans 11:4-5. The international council of apostles (Acts 15) determined that these two groups could develop their own congregational subcultures.
Not only did the gospel spread into Europe, but it also penetrated the communities of “Orthodox” Jews in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of religious Jews came to faith and gathered around Jacob (James). They maintained their own lifestyle, faithful to the Torah and Rabbinic customs, in a somewhat different way from the original Galilean disciples. “Many myriads of Jews have believed and they are all zealous for the Law…and they walk according to the customs… – Acts 21:20-21.
This multi-ethnic diversity is a natural outgrowth of the original commission to preach the gospel from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). As the gospel is returning from the ends of the earth to Israel today, there is an amazing restoration of conditions somewhat parallel to those of the first century: Messianic Jews in Israel and the diaspora; and Christians from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 7:4, 9).
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