Acts 15: 1 – 21 The council at Jerusalem
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 brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
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.’
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles should hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 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.’
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. ‘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, as it is written:
‘ “After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord who does these things” – things known from long ago.
‘It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 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. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.’
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This passage describes a disagreement over how Gentiles who became Christians should behave. Were they bound by the law of Moses? Above all, did they need to be circumcised in order to follow Jesus? A group of Pharisees within the church in Jerusalem believed that this was necessary.
Almost all the church members in Jerusalem were of Jewish origin, so this didn’t arouse too much opposition. However, some of the pro-circumcision group visited Antioch and started to teach this doctrine to the believers there. Antioch, while it had a significant Jewish community, was very much a cosmopolitan city. Greek influence was profound, and the Greeks abhorred circumcision. The requirement to be circumcised was a significant stumbling block.
Paul and Barnabas had worked hard to convert Gentiles, and God had worked miracles through them to validate their ministry. They hit the roof. Or, as Acts phrases it, ‘This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.’
Accordingly, Paul and Barnabas travelled to Jerusalem to settle the dispute with the apostles.
The controversial nature of the matter is clear. ‘After much discussion’ writes St Luke, ‘Peter got up and addressed them.’ Peter had converted the Gentile Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and had seen his whole family receive the Holy Spirit – just as the Jewish Christians had. Furthermore, he had experienced a vision from God that convinced him that God found Gentiles just as acceptable as Jews.
Peter reminded the group of this, in forthright terms: ‘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.’
This was enough to get Paul and Barnabas a hearing: The whole assembly became silent as they listened to the pair telling about the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
When Barnabas and Paul had finished speaking, James pronounced his judgment. Gentiles did not need to be circumcised, and they were exempt from the majority of the Jewish laws of ritual purity. However, they were told to ‘abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.’ It is important to note that these specific prohibitions are to do with ritual purity, and not ethical living.
James was being pragmatic. The matter of circumcision that had caused problems for Gentile converts was dealt with; they didn’t need it. Why should they? They weren’t becoming Jews, but Christians. On the other hand, James could appreciate the problems that Jewish Christians could have from close contact with Gentiles. If they went to a Gentile dwelling to eat, would they be served food that was ritually impure? The biggest sources of defilement would come from food which had been offered to idols, or blood, or strangled animals (because of the blood they would contain). So he ruled that Gentiles should abstain from such food.
This was good diplomacy, but I can’t help wondering whether it was the right decision. Luke specifies that the group demanding circumcision and ritual purity was the Pharisees. I wonder how much of the old thinking they brought with them into the church?
I am more inclined to say with St Peter, ‘We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved’
Thank you for the church, in all its diversity. Please help us, through the guidance of your Holy Spirit, to know what you would have us do, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, to do it.
In Jesus’ name, Amen