A reflection on Acts 15:1-19 for Sunday, November 15, 2020 at Mosaic Baptist Church
While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the believers: “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them, arguing vehemently. Finally, the church decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them—much to everyone’s joy—that the Gentiles, too, were being converted.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported everything God had done through them. But then some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and insisted, “The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses.”
So the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue. At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe. God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.”
Everyone listened quietly as Barnabas and Paul told about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
When they had finished, James stood and said, “Brothers, listen to me. Peter has told you about the time God first visited the Gentiles to take from them a people for himself. And this conversion of Gentiles is exactly what the prophets predicted. As it is written:
‘Afterward I will return
and restore the fallen house of David.
I will rebuild its ruins
and restore it,
so that the rest of humanity might seek the Lord,
including the Gentiles—
all those I have called to be mine.
The Lord has spoken—
he who made these things known so long ago.’
“And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
Acts 15:1-19 (NLT)
Perhaps Paul and Barnabas feel they deserve a break.
After all their travels through relatively unknown places they are finally back in Antioch. It was here that the Spirit – so long ago – called the church to set these leaders aside for an unknown work.
Since then they have travelled, preached, and healed in many different places and cultures. They have made both friends and enemies. They witnessed the conversion of multitudes and the establishment of numerous house churches.
So back in Antioch they could be forgiven for being a bit disappointed by what they encounter. A group have come from Judea – the land the barrier-breaking Jesus walked – with a message: “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
To be clear, Paul and Barnabas have not been declaring this hybrid gospel to the world. This faith in Jesus and the Law of Moses was never what they preached. They have always – and only pointed people to Jesus.
No wonder Paul and Barnabas find themselves ‘arguing vehemently’ with the visitors. It is only as our story unfolds that we discover that these people were not officially sent by the leaders in Jerusalem. We will also discover that they have historic connections with the Pharisees.
No matter who they are, it is clear that their presence caused some division. In time all this led to another journey for Paul and Barnabas. They are again heading from Antioch – only this time it is south to Jerusalem. They are to seeking the counsel of the apostles and elders.
Perhaps it was significant – and encouraging – for Paul and Barnabas to visit the believers in Phoenicia and Samaria on their way. There at least, the account of the conversion of the nations was received with ‘joy’.
It seems that this was also the story as they arrived in the Holy City, Jerusalem. The controversy that prompted their visit did not negate a genuine welcome by the entire church – and an eager audience to recount the story of God’s action beyond Israel.
Our differences do not need to set the tone for all our interaction.
As we have seen, within the early church there were believers who still held loyalties to the Pharisees. This may seem strange – but old habits and practices often die slowly. These ones raised the same controversial question as the visitors to Antioch raised: “The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses.” It seems reasonable to see a connection between the two groups asking the same question.
It all seems like a strange controversy two millennia on. Circumcision, however, carried connotations of cleanliness, hygiene, faithfulness, and, of course, holiness for Jews. The thought of a mixing of circumcised and uncircumcised was – for some – repulsive and beyond comprehension.
They are so used to this legalistic dividing wall that they cannot even imagine life without it. Even when God breaks it down, they are prone to build it up again.
The response of the leadership, however, is somewhat exemplary – and staggeringly gracious.
First, they met together and talked. If a solution were to be found it would be found in community. They chose not to simply go their separate ways.
Second, they gathered with a purpose – to find a solution to the problem of Gentile circumcision. This was not simply a nice get-together that avoided the elephant in the room.
And finally, they gave the necessary time to the discussion. I suspect everyone felt – and was – heard. This was no rushed job.
The apostle Peter seems to bring their thoughts together. He has clearly spent significant time among the gentiles. His purpose: ‘…that they could hear the Good News and believe.’
Peter’s is no theoretical argument. His experience has confirmed for him that God both knows and accepts all people. This has been dramatically demonstrated by God’s generous gift of the Holy Spirit.
The vital part of all this is that this grace is exactly the same as the experience of the Jewish church leaders. On top of all this, there is no good reason for adding the burdensome weight of the law when its inadequacies have already been proven.
Only then do Paul and Barnabas add their testimony to the listening audience – telling of the devine signs performed to draw the nations to God.
Of everyone present, James seems to me to be the one listening the most intently. He has heard Peter. He has heard Paul and Barnabas. If, as I suspect, he is addressing those with Pharisaic leanings, then he has also heard their concerns.
What he has heard most clearly, however, is scripture. Quoting from Amos, James is able to celebrate the fulfilment of the purpose of the House of David – the bringing together of the whole world under God.
The result of all this listening is beautiful: “And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
A life of listening to the word of God has prepared him for this moment.
Interestingly, Luke goes on to describe a letter written from the apostles to the church at Antioch. It is deliberately simple. It also looks something like a compromise – or a stop-gap – solution.
What I mean it this: although it may seem strange to us, the note asks for restraint from eating sacrificed meat, blood, and strangled animals. It also asks them to avoid sexual immorality.
None of these seem immediately related to circumcision.
What they are related to, however, is the shared meal. They avoid foods that will cause division and come to agreement on sexual morality – agreement on relationships. Essentially, they make table fellowship possible.
And perhaps that is all they are designed to do.
It has always surprised me that this letter is not cited again by any of the New Testament writers. Paul can later encourage the eating meat without raising questions about sacrifice. He even sees this as a sign of spiritual maturity.
Somehow the details of this letter seem to fade into the background as the church grows.
It leaves me wondering if this is simply because they have achieved their aim – to enable this diverse, God-initiated, international community to simply share a meal together. This letter enabled the early church to sit at the same table.
To sit – I suggest – at the Lord’s Table.
And once that has happened – once we have gathered around the Jesus who was given for the whole world – all these rules seem to fade into the background.
In Jesus, the law is simply swallowed by love.
What do you see as the dangers of compromise? Where have you found compromise helpful? Where has it hindered?
What are the barriers that prevent you from sharing life with others? What would you need to change to make genuine relationship possible?
Who do you think gives more here – the gentiles or the Pharisaic Christians?