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Acts 3-7

11.11.2010

(Disregarding the first part of chapter 5, which we addressed in the last post.)

The motif I want to discuss from this section is the conflict that arose between the religious establishment and the growing church.  I’m certainly not prone to the sentiment that all disagreements can be solved through better understanding, but I do think that the Sanhedrin and the church misunderstood each other.

I grant that 5:17 says that the Sanhedrin were motivated by jealousy, but I think that that jealousy is ultimately immaterial to the conflict that arose between them and the church.  These people are charged with maintaining the purity of the Jewish faith and regulating the behavior of the people.  They undoubtedly remember what consequences arose last time heresy ran rampant through Israel.  With the fervor of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion, not to mention the growing awareness of His resurrection and ascension, the conscientious Jewish leader would be compelled to try to silence the movement.

On the other side, the young church did not consider itself to be heretical, or even establishing a new religion (of course, what heretics ever do?).  My understanding is that the first generation of Christians did not see themselves as splitting off from Judaism (if they even conceived of Judaism as a system of beliefs rather than an all-encompassing identity*); rather, the considered themselves as leading a wave of reform and awakening within Judaism to rediscover the relationship between God and His people.  While there are significant differences, I think it’s helpful for this purpose to imagine the early church’s relationship to the Jewish establishment as that of the Reformation to the Catholic church.  In neither case did the ‘splinter’ group intend to go their own way, but instead wanted to be a force for reform in the established institutions.

What does this mean?  I’m not sure.  I think it’s easy, from 2000 years away, to imagine these opposing teams in a spiritual civil war.  Instead, I think it’s useful to envision a tug-of-war between a conscientious, conservative authority and a passionate, idealistic reform movement.  I do this not to excuse the Sanhedrin because they were ultimately on the wrong side, defending the wrong thing against the right one.  But I think it’s useful to humanize those that stoned Stephen so that we can see ourselves in them and recognize our own propensity to commit the same errors.

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* The modern view of religion as a subset of your beliefs that deal with the supernatural and afterlife is cripplingly deficient in helping us understand these movements and the power of faith and moral laws in the lives of modern people.

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