Next we turn to Acts 15. The Gospel had been preached among the Jews up until Acts 10. In Acts 10 we get the story of the divinely orchestrated encounter between Peter and Cornelius. Peter acknowledges God’s acceptance of non-proselyte (Jewish convert) Gentiles by the evidence of the Holy Spirit coming upon Cornelius and those of his household. Peter baptizes them, adding them to the people of God again, apart from first becoming a proselyte Jew (which also would have required immersion along with circumcision of the males). Paul follows suit starting in Acts 13:46 with great success reaching out to the Gentiles with the message of Jesus (see also 14:27). All of this activity reaching out to the Gentiles raised the question of how Gentiles are to be ushered into the family of God as children of God?
How do you figure out what God’s will on this matter is? If you are talking about what God is expecting when it comes to our response to the Gospel it would help if you got your answer from an inspired source – either the teachings and instructions of Jesus or whatever scripture they had at that time, which was the Old Testament. Because most of us haven’t looked for these things in the Old Testament we don’t readily understand just how apparent these answers are in the Old Testament especially if that is all you had.
As in the last post we are reminded that they still viewed the OT as inspired scripture and taught Jesus directly from it (Acts 2, 2 Tim 3:16 along with the hundreds of OT quotes and allusions in the epistles. Read Acts 13:16ff to see how Paul uses the OT narrative to teach Jesus in the synagogue). There was continuity in the kingdom as long as the apostles were reaching out to Jews with the Gospel of Jesus but the inclusion of the Gentiles brought up a huge question among these early disciples. What do you do with the Gentiles? How do you truly determine what God’s will is in regard to how they are to enter the kingdom?
You find part of the answer in Jesus’ teaching. While it is hard to figure this out from Jesus because Jesus rarely had contact with Gentiles. He had more contact than is often recognized if you follow his journey and when he crosses into Gentile territory but still Jesus makes it clear his mission is to the Jews. To be clear, post-resurrection Jesus did give a few specific instructions that they followed. The first of those is in Matthew 28:19 where they apostles are told to go to all “ethnos” (most often translated nations and Gentiles) and make disciples – teaching them, baptizing them and teaching them (those in all nations, including the Gentiles) to obey what Jesus commanded. Then in Acts 1:8 again Jesus tells them they are to go into the ends of the earth.
The apostles followed these instructions. However, these instructions don’t give you everything you need to understand how those from the nations are to be included in the family of God as children of God. Is baptism it or is something more required? So how do you determine that? Either the Holy Spirit has to make it clear to them or else they turn to the Bible to figure it out. The Bible they had that was understood to be the inspired word of God that was fulfilled in Christ was used to make this determination.
This is the tension that is trying to be resolved in Acts 15. Different people had varying opinions based on their reading of the Old Testament about how this should be resolved. This is stated clearly in Acts 15:1,
“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.”
Their point is that they are just following what Moses instructed the people to do. I can hear them say, “This is what the scriptures clearly teach…how can you deny it?” Circumcision, to them, was a non-negotiable because it is stated as such in the Torah. This was always how the men became Jewish (along with a few other things like Kosher and Sabbath). The next verse tells us that it was this conclusion, reached from the OT itself, that Paul and Barnabas disagreed with and started a dispute.
We get this again in verse 5,
“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.”
It was the Law of Moses that instructed this. That is in the inspired word of God. In the view of these Pharisees there wasn’t anything in what Jesus taught that would tell them any other way to do this. What they are saying is that Gentiles must become Jews to be in the family of God. I would say Gentiles must be Jews to be Christians but I am not sure that was quite the terminology at this point. This is about “getting in” and what the requirements are and what you do with what the Old Testament had said about this.
In verses 6-11 Peter makes his case why Gentiles shouldn’t be required to proselytize to Judaism to be “in”. His first piece of evidence is the work of the Holy Spirit in giving the same gifts to uncircumcised, now baptized, Gentiles that he had given the apostles and other Jewish Christians (15:8). This demonstrated that God wasn’t making the same distinctions that were being made in bringing this debate up (15:9). In 15:10 Peter points out that it is pointless to require of Gentiles what the Jews themselves couldn’t do. Last in verse 11, Peter moves from the commonality of the Spirit from verse 8 to the commonality of Jesus for the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles.
Next, Paul and Barnabas make their case followed up by a speech by James who makes his case by saying what Peter, Paul and Barnabas are all testifying to is no surprise because the prophets themselves (in the Old Testament) spoke into this very situation (15:15-18),
“The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16 “‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—
18 things known from long ago.“
James point is, again, that the scriptures themselves aren’t thrown out to let the Gentiles in. No. Instead they are upheld because the OT pointed to this very situation. They are being faithful to the Law, the writings, and the prophets not tossing those out in some dramatic exception making ceremony where they throw their Bible away in order to take a new and different route. The point here is their conclusion of inclusion of the Gentiles is in line with the scriptures (read the Old Testament).
Last, there is James’ conclusion in 15:19-21,
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 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. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
A few points about why James chose those four things. First, James himself connects these four things to the Law of Moses being preached. That is because these four things come directly out of the Law of Moses (Leviticus 17-18). When you read those regulations you will find another connection point. These regulations in the Law of Moses were specifically given not only to the Jews but also to aliens and strangers living among them (the Gentiles living among the Jews…ring a bell?). That is not an arbitrary binding of random Mosaic laws. The reason aliens and strangers living among the Israelites had to keep these laws was because this would allow the alien and stranger (read Gentile) to remain in contact with God’s people by abstaining from activity that would push them out of the community of God’s people. The same is true not just in the Old Testament but is exactly why it will still be necessary for Gentile Christians to obey these four rules. Violating them would necessarily be a disruption in the church. This would allow the churches to be blended/integrated as the Gentile Christians abstain from those things that would keep them out of contact with their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters.
Back to the main point here. They needed to know what to do in order to please God on this matter and they went to the Old Testament to find the parallel situation and then transfer those instructions from the Old Testament into their context. The are literally binding applicable excerpts of the Torah to Gentile converts to Christ in the first century! Should they have done such a thing? Shouldn’t they instead have nailed it to the cross? Well, we already covered Col 2:14 in part 1 so there is no need to go over that one again. Point being the Old Testament was and is useful for training in righteousness was what Paul taught (2 Tim 3:16) and what the early church practiced even in making some of the most pivotal decisions of the first century on which the salvation of billions of Christians throughout the centuries including most of us reading this post would hinge.
Next up, Paul’s defense of his ministry in the later chapters of Acts.