Read: Acts 15:1-35
Acts 15 is a wonderful example of how the early church handled difficult issues. One of the key points for us to learn is their relentless search for unity. We read phrases like, “sharp dispute and debate” and “much discussion” to highlight the struggle. There is no doubt these intense conversations were covered with prayer and fasting to reach a decision. No power plays. No over-zealous leader charismatically controlling the crowd. Unity of spirit. Takes longer, more painful, sleepless nights, etc., but the result is a unified church. Amazing.
Some unnamed group began teaching that you have to be circumcised before you can be saved. While this was no doubt steeped in tradition and probably with good intentions, Jesus did not require circumcision. This was a very big deal in those days.
This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. Acts 15:2
These people came from Judea, the origin of Judaism, to push an agenda on a non-Jewish culture. Paul and Barnabas locked arms and fought against this idea. Most of this chapter unpacks the process they went through.
Paul and Barnabas, along with other believers, took the long trip to Jerusalem to put this issue before the apostles and elders of the church. As they traveled they told stories of Gentiles being converted. This might have been their way of practicing for the debate that was expected. The stories were well received, as we would expect, but there was no guarantee that they would receive a warm welcome in the heart of the Jewish cultural center.
It’s interesting to see that the church was getting seriously organized. Beyond the apostles named by Jesus, there are elders helping to manage affairs of the church. Given the number of people being saved every day, it seems they’re applying principals of Exodus 18 to the early church.
The apostles and elders welcomed Paul, Barnabas, and the believers who traveled a great distance to bring this debate to light. Let’s begin:
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.” Acts 15:5
Peter is the first to address this assertion. He reminded them (perhaps it was news to some) how God called himself to preach to the Gentiles and how they received the Holy Spirit (see: Cornelius and Peter Part 1 and Part 2).
God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. Acts 15:8
Further, and significantly:
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. Acts 15:10-11
This is huge! Testing God is not something anyone should attempt. This phrase would have cut the historical Jews to the bone. The reference to the “yoke” here emphasizes what Jesus taught the apostles firsthand (see: Matthew 11:29-30). Peter’s conclusion that we are all saved by grace — and this is sufficient. There are no other requirements.
The council was speechless. To support Peter, Barnabas and Paul provided many examples of God’s work among the Gentiles.
James, the brother of Jesus, takes the stage next.
“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 Acts 15:13-15
The fact that James holds a prominent position in Jerusalem is significant. He decides what will be done. I can’t wait to explore James’ conversion, but we’ll have to explore that at another time. For the moment, remember that though he grew up with his brother the Messiah, he was not quick to believe in Jesus!
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Acts 15:19
James provides a solution that’s amicable to all in attendance. I think it’s important to note that this was not a foregone conclusion. There was not political positioning. They were truly wrestling with a difficult question. God had set apart the Hebrews way back in the days of Abraham. Moses reminded everyone of just how special the Jewish people were to God. They were to be set apart for the world to see. It was difficult to let go of this “selected” status and accept that others were eligible to be chosen.
They agree to adopt three requirements that would reduce the tension between Jew and Gentile (Acts 15:20, 29):
- abstain from food polluted by idols,
- from sexual immorality,
- from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.
The letter included this caveat:
You will do well to avoid these things. Acts 15:29
The entire church gathered to hear how the letter sent by the church headquarters (my wording) and the letter was well received back in Antioch.
Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord. Acts 15:35
Teaching and preaching matters. It’s not the only thing, but it is important to consistently study the word of the Lord and hear what God is saying through those who are anointed to preach His message. It’s a complete meal. Discipleship and evangelism are all wrapped up in relationships completely immersed in love and pointed at God the Father, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and in the name of Jesus. This is how to grow His church.
The Problem was solved without bloodshed, without dividing the church, and on terms that helped spread the gospel even more. The church was strengthened through the debate. This is not a call to be contentious, rather, it’s a call to pray and fast to work out differences. I truly pray we are able to do this in every context: home, church, work, school, etc. The prize is worth the struggle.