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Reflections on Acts

Chapter 15

To understand what happens in this chapter, we need to lay a little groundwork. Imagine that you attend a small church of, say, 50 people. You have been meeting together for quite a long time. You have a common set of beliefs and practice. You get along well together, you are comfortable together. Now imagine that you take a job overseas for two years and you go away.

While you are gone, something unusual happens and the church you left behind doubles in size in a mere 30 days. Do you think that would change the social structure of the church? Now imagine that the church doubled again in the next six months and again in the next year. When you returned from your overseas assignment, do you think the character of your little church will have changed very much?

Now consider the church Jesus left behind. There were 120 disciples, all trained in Jesus teachings and practices, all of the same spirit, of the same accord. Then, they baptize 3,000 people in one day. A little later, 5000 more. Do you suppose this would change the character of the early Christian church in any way? Is it possible that large chunks of the church were not at all on the same wavelength as Jesus? Not only is it possible, it is certain. And it is attested by history. The church in Jerusalem was a collection of ex-pharisees, ex-Sadducees, ex-essenes, and who knows what else. Some of them were not very ex. One thing the church was at this early stage is beyond dispute. It was Jewish to the core. That was only to be expected, but the simple fact of it had consequences that are not often considered.

The largest and strongest intra-church political party was composed of believing Pharisees. And this party brought with them a very strong belief in the Oral law. The Pharisees of that time would have considered the written law–the law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament–as the cornerstone of their faith. But they would also have considered the Oral law–the traditions handed down by the sages–as the central pillar of their faith. The central conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was that He rejected their traditions. A simple concordance search of the gospel accounts will demonstrate that the word "tradition" was a sore point with Jesus. An encounter in Matthew 15 will serve to illustrate. Make a mental note as you read: When Jesus speaks of the "Traditions of the Elders," he is talking about what was later called the Oral Law.

Jesus observed this distinction in the sermon on the mount when he said plainly, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matthew 5:17-18 NIV).

The distinction is this. When Jesus made reference to jots and tittles, to the smallest letter or stroke of the pen, he is talking about written symbols. His listeners would have caught the significance of this. Jesus was affirming the permanent nature of the written law as opposed to the Oral law. He had to do this, because he was about to challenge head on the interpretations of the law by the Jewish scribes. If you want a little bible study on this, just read the sermon on the mount beginning in Matthew 5. Jesus starts with this statement and proceeds to illustrate it over and over again, repeatedly rejecting the existing traditions.

Now when you look at the conflicts in the early church over the law–particularly in Paul’s epistles, there is something very important to know. God’s written law is eternal. Man’s laws, his oral traditions, are not. It is not possible to abolish the law of God. It is possible to abolish the laws of men.

Now let’s return to our situation on the ground in Jerusalem as the new church developed.

One of the most powerful political parties in the church was composed of Pharisees who had "believed." It is reasonable to assume that these men retained their old commitment to the Oral Law. For them, obedience to the law was everything. Much of the Oral Law existed to make sure no one broke the written law. It was a kind of fence around the law, a barrier to keep men from even getting close. The obedience to the law, written and Oral, formed the most important part of their belief system. They saw their religious system as the only way to worship God, or to relate to God.

On the other hand, we have a nice, growing little church in Antioch that happens to be comprised of both Jews and gentiles, with Jews in the minority. Paul and Barnabas have been all over Asia Minor baptizing Gentiles by the dozen. The stage is set for the conflict that will now emerge.

(Acts 15) And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.

Call these men the Circumcision Party. Like any political party, they had a platform, and like every political party, they didn’t all agree on everything in the platform. It is important to know a little bit about these people, because we will encounter them again in one variation or another.

The first thing we learn about them is that they believe circumcision (and more) is required for salvation. What this essentially means is that you have to make all the moves to become a Torah observant Jew in order to even enter the Christian community.

Now this just didn’t fly with Barnabas and Saul, nor with Peter for that matter, because they had all seen miraculous events connected with the giving of the Holy Spirit to gentiles–by definition, not circumcised. We know that the Circumcision party followed the Jewish rule of not eating with Gentiles. They were, even in the modern sense of the word, exclusive in their religion. It was narrow, only open to those who kept a strict set of rules. It was definitely not for gentiles. Not surprisingly, Paul and Barnabas were having none of it.

 {2} When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. {3} And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. {4} And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. 

Nearly everywhere, this news was received with great joy. You would think everyone would understand and be happy for what God was doing. But you would be wrong.

{5} But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. 

If you didn't know the background, you might think that when they refer to the law of Moses, they are referring to the first five books of the Old Testament. But for them, the Law of Moses included the Oral Law. It was a belief among many Jews that God had not only given Moses a written law, but an oral tradition as well. They believed that their version of that oral tradition was the right one. But not all Jews believed this. The Sadducees rejected the idea out of hand, holding only to the written law. But the problem here is that this particular party wanted to impose the strict observance of the whole package called Judaism at the time as a condition of salvation for the Gentiles. 

{6} And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. {7} And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. 

This is a reference to Peter's vision and visit to Cornelius in Acts 10.

{8} And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; {9} And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. {10} Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? {11} But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. 

It is easy to miss, but Peter makes clear what is at issue. Note: They were attempting to put a yoke on the neck of the [gentile] disciples that even the Jews had not been able to carry. But what might that have been? The Jews kept the law of Moses. The Jews were all circumcised. They did bear it. What could Peter have meant? The kicker is found in the original statement of these men: "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved."

This was not an issue of right and wrong conduct, but of salvation. Salvation, Peter said, is not a matter of works, but of Grace. And there is not one way of salvation for Jews and another for Gentiles.

{12} Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. 

Paul and Barnabas give them the whole story. And the story included all the miracles God had done among the Gentiles. Note well, GOD is working vigorously among the Gentiles, and men ought not to be telling God what he can and cannot do. 

That's all well and good, but what if it is contrary to Scripture? James addresses this question.

{13} And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: {14} Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. {15} And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, {16} After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: {17} That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. {18} Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. 

God knew where he was going with all this when he started out. The conversion of the whole world, including Gentiles, was in the plan from the start.

{19} Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: {20} But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. {21} For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. 

Why these particular items? Because they were special problems in the Gentile world of that day. As to the rest of the written law that spells out what God requires, that is read every Sabbath day in the synagogue, so we don’t need to write it here. The apostles and elders at Jerusalem rejected, not the law of God as a guide to conduct and worship, but the laws of man that attempted to control access to God.

We will find the law of God affirmed again and again in Acts and the NT Epistles. We will find human efforts to control access to God rejected again and again. It is easy, though, to get them confused.

{22} Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: {23} And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: 

The decision was not made by one or a few, but everyone, apostles, elders, and brethren.

{24} Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: {25} It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, {26} Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. {27} We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. {28} For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; {29} That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. {30} So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: {31} Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. {32} And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them. {33} And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. {34} Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. {35} Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. {36} And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do. {37} And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark. {38} But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work. {39} And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; {40} And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. {41} And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.

When you read the New Testament, you really want to see a group of people united in purpose, thoroughly converted, working together for the great purpose of converting the world to Christ. It is a measure of the honesty of the NT writers that you see them for what they were. Thoroughly human. Torn by dissension. Disagreeing on the very fundamental doctrines of the faith. Struggling for the very soul of the infant church.

None of this should surprise us at all, if we just look around us at the dynamics of society at large, or even at the church. There are only two ways that human beings can be truly united. One is under outside threat, as in a war. The other is by external coercion. Parts of the church have often been united by persecution. And parts of the church have sometimes been united by coercion.

It never seems to occur to people that the kind of unity Jesus wanted in the church was a voluntary "unity of the Spirit." And you have to learn that. Mainly, you have to learn to overcome the spirit of division. It falls strangely on the ears to hear of the real human attitudes that existed in Paul and others in the New Testament.

Why did God allow this kind of petty bickering to split up the first missionary team? Well, from God’s point of view, it was just as well. Now he has two missionary teams on the road, each led by an experienced individual.

But this must have had some pain for Paul–especially for Barnabas who had been Paul’s sponsor when no one else would talk to him in Jerusalem. Paul was a bit of a pain in the neck. When you read the accounts of his work in Damascus after his conversion, and then later in Jerusalem, you can see plainly that he is a pot stirrer. The Jews were ready to kill him in both places, and the church only got peace when they sent him away to Tarsus. He needed to chill out for a while.

Everyone who came into the church brought his nature along with him. The Pharisees brought their belief system with them. Paul brought his hostility with him. Remember that Paul was the self-appointed chief persecutor of the fledgling church. He was not content to beat up on the Christians in Jerusalem. He heard there were some in Damascus and went after them.

The term Luke uses for Paul is that he was "Breathing threatenings and slaughter against the saints." Paul is a very intense man. I do not think I would have enjoyed him personally. It required someone with the patience of a Barnabas, and even Barnabas finally wore down. Paul was a man driven. Men like Paul do not make good fishing buddies.

So when you hear people speak of "Saint Paul," do not imagine a sweet, patient, nice man. Paul was hard to get along with early on. He mellowed late in life. So, Paul and Silas set out on Paul’s second missionary journey.











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