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Acts 15

Scripture: Acts 15:1-41

Highlights:

  • Trouble comes to Antioch in the form of some Jews who think Christians need to be circumcised to be saved
  • Paul and Barnabas get into a fight with them (shocking)
  • P & B get sent up to Jerusalem to settle the issue
  • The Pharisees in favor of circumcision make their case in front of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem
  • “After much discussion” Peter gets up and says “God told me to bring the good news to the Gentiles, so I did, and guess what? God gave them the Holy Spirit. Yep. He purified their hearts by faith, just like he did with us. God doesn’t discriminate, so why do you gotta be like that? We can barely keep the Law, and we’re Jews! All people are saved by faith in Jesus. Done and done. Any questions? Didn’t think so. Cephas out (drops mic).” (paraphrase)
  • Paul and Barn get the chance to relay all the awesome things God did on their missionary journey (i.e. the previous two chapters)
  • James now gets up and says, “What Peter did (bringing the good news to the Gentiles) is what the prophet Amos meant when he said God would rebuild David’s kingdom to include the Gentiles. So, if God wants them in, let’s make it easy for them to get in. The only rules that we follow that they also need to follow is that Gentiles can’t eat meat associated with idol worship, oh, and they can’t go about fornicating”
  • Then the group writes a letter reiterating James’ advice and sends Silas and Judas back with Paul and Barnabas to deliver the decision
  • The letter is well received and all is a-okay (for now)
  • Then Paul and Barney decide to go back and visit the churches they started. Barnabas wants to take Mark, but Paul doesn’t like the fact that Mark bailed on their last trip, so Paul and Barnabas have a falling out
  • Barnabas takes Mark and they go to Cyprus, Paul takes Silas and they go to Syria and Cilicia

Historical Context:

Importance of Circumcision:

Jews consider the physical act of circumcision to be proof of one’s allegiance to God. It is the sign of the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17) and was considered so important that the need for circumcision would trump the need to keep the Sabbath sacred (i.e. if the eighth day fell on the Sabbath, they were to circumcise the child rather than wait one more day). To not be circumcised was considered to be an act of apostasy.

First century Jewish philosopher Philo said that the practice of circumcision was instituted for the following reasons, it: helped protect against disease; was a sign of cleanliness; was a symbolic connection between the heart and the reproductive process; helped males be more prolific  (reproductively); symbolically cut off “superfluous and excessive pleasure”; and was “a symbol of a man’s knowing himself”. (Wikipedia)

A more modern interpretation is that circumcision was intended as a literal inscription on the Jewish body of the name of God in the form of the letter “yud” (from “yesod”). Another perspective is that the act of bleeding represents a feminization of Jewish men, significant in the sense that the covenant represents a marriage between Jews and (a symbolically male) God. (Wikipedia)

Circumcision vs. Faith Debate:

Luke says Paul and Barnabas got into a “sharp debate” with those who believed Gentiles had to be circumcised, and later at the Council in Jerusalem there was “much discussion” on this topic. Assuming Paul’s letter to the Galatians is representative of his point of view in this debate, below is an outline of what the main points of the opposing parties might’ve been:

Jewish Christians Advocating That Gentile Believers Must Be Circumcised  Paul’s Argument for Salvation of All People Through Faith
Gentile believers must be circumcised to partake in the blessings promised to Abraham. God’s covenant with Abraham was ratified by circumcision (Gen 17). To be one of “his people” a man must be circumcised. If anyone refuses circumcision, that person is to “be cut off from his people” A person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. If righteousness could be gained through the law then why did the Messiah need to come? Why did Jesus need to die?
Jewish Christians, who say they are saved but eat and drink with uncircumcised Gentile believers, are committing a sin. Paul is promoting sinful behavior by saying it is okay for circumcised believers to intermingle with those who are uncircumcised When one becomes a Christian, he dies to his old self, including the need to follow the Law. The Law can no longer be used as the basis for judging behavior. The gospel has destroyed all essential distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, so to maintain those distinctions (i.e. uphold the Law) is to defy the gospel.
God’s promises are eternal and unchangeable. He promised Abraham that his descendants would be heirs of his blessing, and his descendants are members of the Jewish nation (i.e. circumcised). God didn’t change the rules. Before there was the Law there was the covenant, and before the covenant there was a promise. Scripture says God made the promise to Abraham based on his faith, which came before the covenant (circumcision) and four hundred years prior to Moses’ Law.  Belief is what makes people “children of Abraham” (children of the promise) not circumcision and not the Law.
The only way to get God’s blessing is to follow the Law (Deut. 28). Following the Mosaic Law leads to a curse because failing to keep all the laws results in curses (Deut. 27) and no one is capable of keeping all of the laws. Faith in Jesus is the only path to blessing because he took all the curses we deserved on himself and made us right with God.
 Abraham’s “seed” (plural) are heirs of his blessing. Therefore one must join the Jewish nation. Jesus was the sole heir of Abraham’s blessing (his “seed”, singular) and it is only when we are “in” Jesus (through faith) that we can become Abraham’s heirs.
The Law was given so that we could achieve righteousness. If we follow all the laws, God will bless us. The Law is of primary importance to living life right. The Law was given a long time after the promise (thus, it’s secondary to God’s redemptive plan), and was given to show that no one could measure up to God’s standards. We can only be saved by God’s grace. The Law was given to teach us that no one can save themselves.
The Law was given by angels to Moses, our greatest leader, (Deut. 33:2) so it must be really, really important  Angels and Moses were mediators (secondary messengers) of God’s will. Through Jesus we have direct access to God.
God’s words are eternal. The Law will never go away. The Law was an important step to God’s plan, but not the final step. Jesus was God’s plan all along, and now that he is here the usefulness of the Law is complete.
 If the Law isn’t there to restrain human behavior, how will people behave?  The Law is needed to insure morality. The Holy Spirit living inside people will keep them in check
In the end God will rule all people via Israel. Believing in Jesus just perfects the Jewish religion. God has united all people through Jesus. Those who believe in Jesus are the true “Israel”. Jesus is not beneath Judaism, he is above all things. In Jesus there is neither Jew or Gentile. Christians are not to become Jews, Jews are to become Christians.
 You have to be born of Abraham (or at least become circumcised) to be an heir  You have to be born of the Spirit to be an heir. Look how God sent the Holy Spirit to Gentiles without them needing to practice Jewish laws, all they had to do was believe. Isn’t that proof that God doesn’t require Gentiles to follow the Law?

Amos

James quotes Amos 9:11-12 in his decision to describe how God had intended from the beginning to let Gentiles into his blessing. James also implies that the “Israel” God is letting the Gentiles into is the church, not traditional Judaism.

The prophet Amos (a contemporary of the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, c. 750 BC) described the calamities that should come upon the nation of the Jews. He foretold that they would be scattered and driven away, that the city of Jerusalem, and the temple, and the walls of the city, would be destroyed. But he also predicted that after that “on that day” (that is, the day when the Lord should revisit them, and recover them) God would restore the Jewish people to their former privileges (God would “rebuild David’s fallen tent); he would rebuild their temple, their city, and their walls. And not only would God’s blessing descend on the Jews, but it would also extended to others. The “remnant of Edom,” (i.e. “the heathen upon whom” his “name would be called”) would also join in on the mercy of God, and be subject to the Jewish people; and a time of general prosperity and of permanent blessings should follow. (Barnes)

The Ruling of the Council:

Luke states that the council decided that they “should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” by requiring them to follow all of the Mosaic Law. Instead, the Gentiles were simply to “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood”  because “it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we [Jews] are saved, just as they [Gentiles] are,” and that “God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles.”

The question is, why these four requirements?

One theory is that these restrictions ares based on the Noahide Law, or the seven laws of Noah, which come from Genesis 9:4-6: “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”  It is proposed that this covenant with Noah was used as a template because it was given prior to the Abrahamic covenant and therefore applied to Gentiles and Jews alike.

Another theory is that these commands are based on Leviticus 17 and 18 which outline the need for both Jews and the Gentiles living among them to abstain from eating meat with blood still in it and sexual immorality (particularly incest).

Regardless of their origin, the four prohibitions do not imply that other sins of dishonesty and immorality were permitted, these were probably referring to sins “which were so common among the Gentiles that they were not even recognized as wrong until Christian teaching denounced them.” (Coffman)

“The principal barrier to social and religious unity among the Jewish and Gentile Christians was the low standard of behavior so common among the latter. Idol feasts were shameful debaucheries, marked by the most vulgar and immoral behavior.” (Coffman)

It was commonplace for pagan rituals to “introduce indecent pictures and emblems into their worship, and for females to devote themselves to the service of a particular temples, and to devote the avails of indiscriminate prostitution to the service of the god, or the goddess.” (Barnes)

Additionally, the use of blood was common among the Gentiles. They drank it at their sacrifices, and used it to make covenants/contracts.

The meat that was used in pagan sacrifices was often put on sale in the markets, or served up at feasts. , It became a very important question whether it was right for Christians to partake of it. The Jews would contend that it was, in fact, partaking of idolatry. The Gentile converts would allege that they did not eat it as a sacrifice to idols, or lend their countenance in any way to the idolatrous worship where it had been offered. As idolatry was forbidden to the Jews in every form, and as partaking even of the sacrifices to idols, in their feasts, might seem to countenance idolatry, the Jews would be utterly opposed to it; and for the sake of peace, James advised that they be recommended to abstain from this.  (Barnes)

Clement, writing in the late first century shows that pagan worship was still an issue in the church when he says “The things which pollute both the soul and the body are these: to partake of the table of demons, that is, to taste things sacrificed, or blood, or a carcass which is strangled.”

Luke’s Account vs Paul’s Account:

It is interesting to have two perspectives on the same event. In Galatians 2:1-10 Paul (most likely) describes his version of the Council of Jerusalem. Note how they are similar/dissimilar.

Luke’s Account – Acts 15:1-35 Paul’s Account – Galatians 2:1-10
Paul and Barnabas and “some other believers” go to Jerusalem Paul, Barnabas and Titus go to Jerusalem
Paul and Barnabas were appointed to go to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles and elders Paul went in response to a revelation
Paul and co. were “welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders” and “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” were there to argue their case Paul and co. met privately with “those esteemed as leaders”
“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 matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” They were “certain men who came from James” who managed to lead both Peter and Barnabas astray
Peter tells about his experience with Cornelius, then James decides that “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” “As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message”
Peter declares that God had “made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe” “…they recognized that I [Paul] had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised.For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles”
The council writes a letter that states that they thought Barnabas and Paul were “men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and they sent Judas and Silas with the letter “to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing” “James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me”
The council letter outlined that Gentile converts should “abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality” “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along”

 

Observations:

  • At this point in history Christianity was in serious jeopardy of becoming just another Jewish sect (i.e. like the Pharisees, Essenes and Sadducees).  Many early Gentile Christians would’ve felt pretty alienated from their peers. They were not Jews because they didn’t practice Jewish customs, and they had stopped pagan worship (a large part of first century life). Thus, they were between worlds. It is no wonder that there was a strong appeal for them to join the Jewish community. Paul, most notably, fought hard for people to maintain their identity in Christ not Judaism.
  • Note how the council comes in the center of Luke’s history. “His book begins with the Jewish church, dominated by Peter in chapters 1 to 5. The book ends with Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, in chapters 16 to 28. Chapters 6 to 15 form a transition, alternating between Jewish and Gentile growth.” (GCI)
  • According to Galatians, it is likely that Peter was in Antioch when those promoting circumcision came to town and started an argument with Paul. It is also probable that they successfully (initially) persuaded both Peter and Barnabas to their side. It is interesting that Luke only portrays Paul and Barnabas coming into “sharp dispute and debate” with them.
  • It is likely that the Christians in Jerusalem got along with their  fellow Jews in their synagogs and in the temple because they keep the law – they were faithful to the covenant of Moses, even if they believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They probably wanted to avoid another persecution like the one that had been triggered in Acts 7 and 8.
  • Note how when Peter and the other apostles preached there was amazement, but everywhere Paul went there was a riot.
  • “The Jewish Christians were afraid that many Gentiles have grown up in a culture of loose morals. Their easy entrance into the church might weaken the moral standards. Thus, the circumcisers want Gentiles to become like Jews in lifestyle — as evidence of their conversion, if nothing else.” (GCI)
  • “In effect [those who advocated for circumcision] believed that not only were the Jews the peculiar possession of God but also that God was the peculiar possession of the Jews.” (William Barclay)
  • From the Jewish Christian’s point of view the entire Torah was still in force. There had been no clear teaching from Jesus to the contrary. In fact, he even seemed to teach the continuance of circumcision and various other rituals (Matthew 5:1823:1-223Luke 2:21-245:14). He certainly lived as a Jew. Why should they think otherwise?  It is interesting to note that neither the Pharisees arguing for circumcision nor those arguing against it use Jesus’ words or earthly actions as proof.
  • As in the synagogue, it was customary to determine questions by the advice of a bench of elders, there is no improbability in the supposition that the apostles would imitate that custom, and appoint a similar arrangement in the Christian church.  (Barnes)
  • Peter said that insisting Gentiles to follow Jewish laws was “testing God”  because it was challenging God himself on his actions. “It is questioning the rightness of God in his cleansing the Gentiles through the Spirit. The call for circumcision has the effect of putting God on trial. The Judaizers are saying that God is not doing enough, nor doing it right, in allowing Gentiles as Gentiles to be full participants in his body, the church.” (GCI)
  • James’ interpretation of Amos shows that “Scripture does not dictate how God should act. Rather, God’s action dictates how we should understand the text of Scripture.” (Johnson)
  • James’ decision regarding the practice of circumcision and the Jewish law by Gentile converts “is based on three vital factors. It depends, first, on the revelation of God. The decision is then confirmed in the experienceof the apostles. Finally, the decision is supported by a new understanding of Scripture.” (GCI)
  • Noting that the “Law of Moses” is widely preached, the apostles may have wanted to give a decree that clearly distinguishes their teaching from the Jewish teaching. There is an implied contrast between the two “laws”.
  • The churches written to in the letter are in Galatia. Paul would write his own letter to them a few years later and recount his own version the council meeting, as well as his own arguments to not add Jewish customs to Christian beliefs.
  • It is possible that Judas called Barsabas was the same man who was nominated to the vacant place in the apostleship, Acts 1:23. (Barnes)
  • Paul doesn’t want to take Mark because he knows that Mark left when it was a only a little hard and that their journey would be very hard.
  • There is evidence that Paul later reconciled withJohn Mark (Colossians 4:10;Philemon 1:242 Timothy 4:11.  2 Timothy 4:11) He even declares later in his life that Mark is “profitable to me for the ministry.”

Discussion:

  • Circumcision to the Jews was not just physical proof of commitment to God, but also an indicator to them that this person would adhere to the moral and ethical laws of Judaism. What “proof” of belief do we require of each other? What actions do fellow believers take that we are afraid might “weaken the morality” of the church?
  • The circumcision debate pitted the scripture written about God’s promises against God’s actions. How do we accurately interpret the Word and the actions of God?
  • In which ways do we want to make converts carbon copies of ourselves? What have we made law that is not law?
  • Given the ruling of the council that Gentiles should “abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals” how do we make sense of Paul writing to the Corinthians four or five years later and telling them they can “eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’”? (I Cor 10:25,26) Why the misalignment? Why the liberalization of this ruling?
  • Why do you think that Paul never mentions the ruling of the Council of Jerusalem (i.e. the four requirements), not even in his account of the meeting in his letter to the Galatians?
  • How much have we integrated American culture (or Western culture in general) with Christianity? What are some of the ways we expect people of other cultures to act  like American Christians? In what ways do we expect Southern “Bible Belt” Christians to act like “West Coast” Christians? In what ways do we expect 21st Century Christians to act like 1950’s Christians?

References:

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