I find it fascinating that the translation of Luke’s words into English identifies those who made up the group to check out the rumor were ‘certain individuals’. Certainty seems to have the effect of closing the door to consideration of all other perspectives.
Acts 15 tells an important story in the life of the church. Serious efforts among non-Jews were being made to make known the way of life that flowed from the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the coming of his Spirit to comfort, and guide those who chose to follow the way.
A rumor had spread that Gentiles in Antioch were being joined to the church without having first become Jews. So a contingent of ‘certain individuals’ (that’s how Luke characterized them, certain individuals) went to where Paul and Barnabas were working intent on getting to the bottom of the rumor.
These certain individuals began telling the people there that they weren’t part of the church unless they submitted to first becoming Jews. For the men involved that required circumcision, no little consideration for an adult male. A literal translation of the Greek is that these brothers had to be “cut to the custom of Moses” in order to be saved.
Luke tells us that it became quite contentious. Paul and Barnabas literally debated this group of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem. It finally got so heated that Paul and Barnabas and a small contingent of the new followers of the way went to Jerusalem to get the matter clarified.
This gathering was the first Church Council. The nascent church had to deal with a truly troublesome matter, an issue that threatened to break it apart. It takes Luke twenty-nine verses to tell the story. It is worth the time to read it.
A small contingent of certain people took it upon themselves to set things right. They went to Antioch and speaking for the church said: “Unless you accept the law, Christ will not accept you!” Can it happen that one small group with a particular ax to grind can leave the impression that they speak for the whole body of believers?
And think about what it meant if what this group was saying was true. It would mean that the grace of God in Christ is not adequate for inclusion. They were contending that you have to add to it the Law of Moses. Peter, on the other hand, wisely frames the theology of the early church in verse 11. “We believe,” says Peter, “that we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Period. Martin Luther didn’t make that up 15 hundred years later.
The party of the Pharisees must have believed in grace. They had accepted God’s grace in Christ. What could have made them so blind to the situation of others? They were confusing non-essentials with essentials. And they were making life more difficult not only for the Gentile Christians, but for the Holy Spirit!
The Antioch church doesn’t go rogue; they don’t wash their hands of the Jerusalem church. They respect the apostolic community. They understand that they would have never even heard the Gospel had it not been for them.
So they didn’t give into the temptation to say, “Forget Jerusalem, we’ll do our own thing!” The Antioch church sends a delegation to Jerusalem. They send key leaders, Paul and Barnabas, among others. And notice the response when they arrive. They are welcomed by the apostles and the elders. There’s a mutual respect. The mother church doesn’t say, “Oh brother! Here comes trouble!” They welcomed them.
Apparently, in this community everyone mattered. Everyone had a voice. And the church took time to listen. Luke tells us that some who were of the ‘certain ones’ who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees made their case saying “it is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”
Simon Peter said “Friends, you know that from early on God made it plain that he wanted the pagans to hear the message of the Gospel and embrace it. And God, who cannot be fooled by pretense on our part, but always knows a person’s thoughts, gave them the Holy Spirit exactly as he did to us. He treated the outsiders exactly as he treated us, beginning at the very center of who they were and working from that center outward, cleaning up their lives as they trusted and believed Him. ‘So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and crushed us, too? Don’t we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those from beyond our nation? What are we fussing about?'” (The Message)
It’s a difficult thing, isn’t it, to let God be God? It can be so hard to trust grace! Paul and Barnabas witnessed to the signs and wonders that God was doing among the Gentiles. And then everyone got quiet. And God spoke in the silence.
James was evidently clerk of the meeting. This is not James the apostle, the brother of John. This is not James, son of Alphaeus, another of the original twelve, sometimes called James the Less or James the Just. No, this is James, the brother of Jesus. And after listening, he speaks. He places all that they have heard in the context of Scripture. It is clear that the experience of the Gentiles is actually a fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12. And then, notice they don’t take a vote. Spiritual leadership doesn’t decide God’s will through opinion polls and secret ballots. They waited to be led by Christ’s Spirit.
And after holy conferencing, James, as Clerk of the Meeting, announced what he believed to be the sense of the Meeting. “We will not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God,” he says. For grace is enough!
Later James will write up the decision in verse 28: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to impose this burden on you.” Notice the order of priority. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. There was a high trust level in James. Tradition says that they had a nickname for him. They called him “Old Camel Knees.” Apparently, his knees were so hard from constant intercession that they looked like those of a camel. I’ll trust a leader like that.
Speaking for the church, James wrote to Antioch, saying, “God’s Grace is enough!” Here’s the text: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” In other words, please respect the scruples of our tradition. Don’t abuse your freedom by intentionally offending others.
I’ve wondered what an expanded interpretation of those four requests would look like. I’m thinking about what people do sacrifice to their idols, what the Jerusalem church meant about abstaining from blood? I couldn’t help but wonder about what and who gets strangled in our society today. Fornication speaks of infidelity and extramarital sexual behavior.
They sent the letter and with it representatives from Jerusalem to encourage the gentile believers in Antioch. And there was unity and there was joy! In Antioch and in Jerusalem.
Great line “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden…”
In 1656 Richard Farnworth and William Dewsbury, two leading lights of what would become Quakerism, were signers of an important set of guidelines promulgated by the Elders of Balby which suggested how local Friends should conduct their Meetings, deal with problems, meet the needs of the indigent and other things as well. Actually some of us today would find following all their advice as difficult to accept as Paul and Barnabas found the words of their ‘certain’ advisors. But what is most important in the whole document is the post script. It reads: “Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”
Acts 15: 1-29 Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”
6The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18known from long ago.’ 19Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”
22Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”