We have been following Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey through the central part of modern day Turkey. And yesterday we saw Paul and Barnabas return to Syrian Antioch and make a report to the leaders of the church in Syrian Antioch. However, we are going to see today the first big split in the church, because what we are going to see is that group of people come to Antioch from Judea and they begin to teach that in order to be saved that one must not only have saving faith in Jesus, but that one must also be circumcised. And as we all can imagine this brought them into direct conflict with both Paul and Barnabas.
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.—15:1-2
The Christian proclamation was not about God’s reformation of Judaism. Rather, through the actions of God in Christ, Gentiles were coming as Gentiles into the kingdom of God. Still, some professing Jewish Christians stubbornly held to old traditions. They insisted that a Gentile had to take on the whole of the old covenant (including circumcision) before they could be saved. These Jewish Christians were called Judaizers; their aim was to make practicing Jews out of ethnic Gentiles. With this issue the very nature of the gospel is at stake. Is salvation by grace through faith alone, or does it require works? This question created the first great theological crisis for the church. Jerusalem would be the place to settle the issue, especially since the source of the problem originated from there.
The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”—15:3-5
Along the way to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas shared with the churches the news of Gentile conversions, which caused the churches to rejoice. In Jerusalem, the party of the Pharisees took the side of the Judaizers in Antioch (suggesting at least a theological solidarity). We as modern Christians often have a negative image of the Pharisees (much rightly deserved from Jesus’ comments in Matthew 23). In his Gospel, Luke, does note the Pharisaic hostility against the faith and Jesus’ condemnation of them, but he also portrays some of them in a more positive light in his Gospel (Luke 13:31). The Pharisees mentioned here were more like the latter, not those who received the criticism of Jesus. As theological conservatives, it was their nature to resist change. Though clearly some continued in this vein, the conclusion of the council suggests a major concession by them.
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.—15:6-12
The apostles and elders intended to decide the question once the meeting started. The majority of the debate is reported in summary form. Peter’s testimony refers to the conversion of Cornelius and his family. Just like Paul when he ministered in Antioch, Peter refused to yield any ground in Jerusalem. He makes three observations and then draws a conclusion. First, God was the one who brought Peter and Cornelius together. Second, God confirmed the genuineness of their faith through the giving of the Holy Spirit. Third, God cleansed both Jew and Gentile by faith, without distinction. The conclusion is that the Judaziers would be testing God if they provoked him with these teachings and imposed a yoke on Gentiles that neither they nor their ancestors could bear. The Jew’s own experience with the Law of Moses should have led them to see the fallacy of their argument about salvation. After Peter was finished, Paul and Barnabas testified about their experiences in Galatia.
God’s knowledge of the hearts of the Gentiles means that he was true saving faith within them. God himself testified to the genuine of their faith by spiritually cleansing their hearts through the inward work of the Holy Spirit and by baptizing them in the Spirit immediately afterwards, with the accompanying sign of speaking in tongues.
The central question at the Jerusalem council was whether circumcision and obedience to the law God gave through Moses were required for salvation. The delegates concluded that Gentiles were spiritually saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, who forgave them and made them a new creation through their faith in him. God’s grace (his unearned favor and spiritual enablement) is extended to a person when he or she repents and believes in Christ as Savior and Lord. This response to God’s grace enables a person to become a child of God and to enter a personal relationship with Christ.
When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’ —
things known from long ago.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.—15:13-19
God’s purpose for this period in history is to bring people of all the nations into a personal relationship with himself and to separate them for his cause. This worldwide body of Christ’s followers, gathered out of separated from the corrupt world system, is being prepared as the bride of Christ.
James, supported by the prophetic word of Amos, agrees that Christ’s mission to restore people to a right and personal relationship with himself includes both Jews and non-Jews. “Davids fallen tent” refers to a portion of Israel that remains faithful to God and survives his judgment. Amos’ prophecy states the following: (1) God will judge Israel for rebelling against him, yet he will not totally destroy them as a people. (2) He will destroy all those in Israel who completely reject Christ and refuse to turn from their own way. (3) After the destruction of those who reject him, God will “restore David’s fallen tent.” The salvation of these faithful and spiritually purified Jews will result in other nations accepting and honoring the Lord.
Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”—15:20-21
The four prohibited items were part of pagan temple worship. First, food polluted by idols relates to eating in the presence of idols. Second, sexual immorality in a temple context means prostitution. Third, strangled animals refer to ritual sacrifice. Fourth, blood refers to the ritual drinking of blood. The point was not only prohibiting those things that were particularly offensive to Jews but renouncing idolatrous practices. So while the council at Jerusalem agreed that Gentiles came to Christ without becoming Jews first, Gentiles still needed to make a clean break with idolatry. There was no space for syncretism of any sort. The foundation for the prohibitions was that the Law of Moses (which had been taught in these cities for generations) specifically rejects idolatry and its accompanying contamination. If Gentile Christians ignored this reality for the sake of cultural assimilation, they would violate the Scripture, impede Jewish evangelism and disrupt fellowship. And that is where we will pick up tomorrow.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
Ezra 1-2, 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5, Psalm 27:7-14 and Proverbs 20:22-23
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