FORCEFULLY ADVANCING: The Church in Acts, Part 2

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For Everyone, No Strings

Acts 15

As we approach Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey has ended.  Thanks to the work of these two great missionaries, Christian churches were now flourishing all over Galatia.  In the face of opposition from people and the elements, the church of Jesus Christ was forging ahead into new territory thanks to this dynamic duo of Christ’s disciples.  You would think that the mother church back in Jerusalem would be thrilled to see this happening.  Yet the opposite was true:  all these Gentile converts in Galatia caused a controversy in Jerusalem.  Many of the converts in Jerusalem were Jews, and some were Pharisees who believed that Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism before they could become Christians.  In other words, to them, salvation included faith in Christ and observance of the Mosaic Law.   Today such thinking seems ridiculous, but in the very early years of the church, this controversy could have torn it apart.

The convening of the first church council occurred sometime around 49 AD, and although since then there have been many, many church councils that decided things like the inspiration of Scripture, the nature of God, and other doctrinal issues, the Jerusalem Council was one of the most important events for the early Church.  It was of vital importance to answer this question:  “Are Gentile Christians required to keep the Jewish Law?  The fate of the Church depended on a correct answer, for if the answer was “Yes,” then Christianity would have forever been viewed as just another sect of Judaism; if the answer was “No,” then the Church would be able to advance it’s Great Commission, free from any encumbrance.

1.  Troublemakers cause trouble, 15:1—12

(a)  The problem, verse 1

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

This is the crux of the issue and the reason behind the Jerusalem Council.  Of course, the question really had nothing to do with circumcision but rather what was involved with salvation.   The troublemakers were identified merely as “some men.”  They were Jewish Christians, probably Pharisees, who went to Antioch with no apostolic authority to impose their own style of Christianity on the believers there.

While these men clearly had a grasp on the teachings of Jesus, they clung to their old religion.  What they did, in addition to adding to the Word of God, was to dismantle what Paul and Barnabas had achieved in the Gentile world.  They had preached the Gospel faithfully and all of a sudden for some unknown men to march into a church and begin to contradict the Word must have been confusing, given the fact that believers did not possess a written Bible yet!

(b)  The delegation, verses 2—5

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….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 obey the law of Moses.”  (verses 2, 5)

The phrase “sharp dispute” is probably Luke’s polite way of describing Paul and Barnabas’ attitude to these men and their destructive teaching!  In fact, to be demanding that Gentile believers adhere to and fulfill the Law of Moses in order to be saved showed that they while they believed Christ to be the Messiah, they viewed the Law from a Jewish, not a Christian viewpoint.  Really, these Judaizers were practicing a form of racial discrimination within the Church.

The Antiochean believers showed great wisdom by appointing the apostles to go to Jerusalem to seek advice about this.  Decades before Paul would write his “Pastoral Epistles,” the leaders or overseers of this church were practicing Paul’s brand of pastoral theology—

[Qualification of elders]…not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.  (1 Timothy 3:3)

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  (2 Timothy 2:24)

Jerusalem was the center of the early Church; those who had lived and worked with Jesus personally were there and they had ultimate authority.  Jerusalem would remain the headquarters of the Christian church until 70 AD, when the base of power and operation shifted from the east (Jerusalem) to the west (Rome).  One always either “came down from” or “went up to” Jerusalem.

Luke does not tell us who the “other believers” were who made up the Antiochean delegation.   In Galatians 2:1, we have a clue, though, as to the identity of one of them—

Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also.

Since Luke never mentions Titus’ name in Acts, some scholars have thought Titus was Luke’s brother, and out of modesty the physician-historian-author refrains from mentioning him by name.  As they traveled “up to Jerusalem,” the group continued to the work of the Lord by testifying everywhere what God had done.  The result:  This news made all the brothers very glad. Obviously the only people who had a problem with the work of Paul and Barnabas were the Judaizers.

(c)  The debate, verses 6—12

A group of Christians had accused other Christians of adding something to the Gospel, and so the elders and apostles came together to discuss this divisive issue.  The “discussion” was likely hot and furious and Peter was the first to rise up and address it.  Considering the subject matter, it was obvious Peter should be the one to talk about it.  We cannot be sure how it had been since Peter’s experience in Caesarea, but it could have been over a decade since his experiences with Cornelius and his family.

Still, Peter was not the central figure of the Jerusalem church at this time; James had assumed a much larger role in leadership, but Peter’s word carried some weight among the Jewish converts.  Peter’s argument was that the conversion of Cornelius (though he doesn’t name him by name) had been a precedent established by God of His decision to reach out to the Gentiles.  Because of this, Paul and Barnabas’ approach was exactly according to God’s will.   In fact, in regards to the Judaizers teaching, Peter makes the amazing statement—

Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?  (verse 10)

That sounds a lot like something Paul would write, but it was Peter recognizing that God was doing a radical thing.  Furthermore, he reaches a conclusion that seems obvious to us but it was new to them; all people are the same before God, their Creator.

2.  Wise counsel, swift resolution, verses 13—21

(a)  Prophecy fulfilled, verses 13—18

James, our Lord’s brother, presided over the Jerusalem Council was the next to speak.   Down through church history, James was known as “James the Just” because of his piety and because of the fact that, though a follower of Jesus Christ, he carefully observed the Law.   Naturally, the Judaizers thought they could depend on him to support their cause.  What they found was that James, far from having a narrow view of things, was broadminded enough to realize that what Peter said was true; God does accept repentant man for who they are, and in fact, He always has.

He quotes from the book of Amos, applying the text to the conversion and acceptance of the Gentile Cornelius, affirming to all the Gospel includes all—

“In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,” declares the LORD, who will do these things. (Amos 9:11—12)

As James interpreted the passage, the first part refers to the death and resurrection of Jesus and verse 16 of Acts 15 relates Christ’s death to the phrases “David’s fallen tent” and “it’s ruins.”  His resurrection is illustrated in the phrases “I will rebuild” and “I will restore.”

Clearly in James’ mind, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the singular event that changed the direction of humanity; Christ was lifted up to draw all people unto Himself—

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.  (John 3:14)

But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”  (John 12:32)

The “all men” included Gentiles, which James indicated was part of God’s plan from then very beginning, verse 18.

(b)  Agreement, verses 19—21

Despite James’ devotion to the Jewish Law, he did not side with the Judaizers.  Verse 19 literally reads:  “Therefore I, for my part, judge…”   James’ words carried weight and authority in the early Church.  His decision was wise and simple:  the Gentile believers were to be free from keeping the Jewish Law.  In his decision, James uses a very rare verb translated “not make it difficult” which means literally, “stop annoying.”   The false teachers were pestering and bothering genuine Christians with their ideas.

Charles Erdman writes that James’s decision included three key points:

  • Liberty, verse 19
  • Purity, verse 20
  • Co-operation between Jews and Gentiles, verse 21

It is interesting that James said, “We should write to them…” That is exactly what Paul did.

3.  Affirming the Gospel, verses 22—35

Curiously, Luke does not describe the Council’s reaction to James’ proposals, but given the context and the collection of Paul’s letters, it seems clear that they agreed with and supported his ideas.

(a)  Letter of reconciliation, verses 22—29

In the letter sent to Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, some new men are mentioned by name;  Silas would become Paul’s partner in his next missionary journey.   Of this letter, some 200 years later Clement of Alexandria remarked that is was “the Catholic epistle of all the Apostles” and that is was conveyed by the faithful hands of Paul himself.”  What we read in these verses is most likely an exact, verbatim copy made by Luke, incorporated in his history.

This phrase is significant—

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…(verse 28)

This shows us two important aspects of church leadership.  First, there must be co-operation between God and man in the decision-making process.   Even though the Council was made up of human leaders, the true Head of the Council was Jesus Christ and He guided the men by His Holy Spirit.  Second, these human leaders set aside their own ambitions and agendas and spoke with one voice of solidarity:  it seemed good to US.  They were able speak in unity because they all paid attention to the Holy Spirit.

God sees all people as the same in Christ Jesus; and these men exemplified this desired unity be acting in unity.

(b)  The wonder of unity, verses 30—35

The entire congregation at Antioch, and maybe many of the outlying assemblies, gathered together to hear the letter read.  One can only imagine the scene of joy as the people heard confirmation of what they already knew, yet began to doubt because of the meddling of false teachers.  They must have also been relieved to know that they did not need to learn a whole new set of rules to live by.

There is freedom in the Gospel.  There is encouragement in the Gospel.  The Gospel is never a burden to anyone.  But the Law, and the rules of man, bring only confusion and condemnation.

The two new men, Judas and Silas, were preachers who jumped in to encourage the believers in Antioch.  Obviously, Paul and Silas worked well together, and some time later the two men would work even closer together.

It’s amazing how the Lord uses circumstances to lead people in and out of our lives to accomplish His eternal purposes.

Conclusion

There are many lessons to be learned here.  From the importance to discerning and obeying the leading of the Holy Spirit to discerning and overcoming our prejudices; may we all learn to see other people as God sees us.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd
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