Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Acts 15 - The Great Debate

by Katrina

LINK: Acts 15

BACKGROUND
The essence of the debate discussed in this first Church Council is whether Gentiles have to become Jews in order to truly be Christian. That sounds odd to us today, but in the context of the early Church, it was a more logical question.

Jesus came through Judaism. He was himself a Jew. The apostles were all Jews. Almost all of the earliest believers were Jews. It was through Judaism that they knew about Jesus. So the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity were closely linked together.

But now many Gentiles were believing in Jesus -- Peter told Cornelius, Philip told the Ethiopian Eunuch, Paul told many Gentiles in the places he went on his first missionary journey. And when these Gentiles believed in Jesus, they also received the Holy Spirit. This astonished the Jews. God seemed to be treating the Gentiles as equals with the Jews!

So the question arose, "Do these Gentile believers need to be circumcised and practice the Jewish faith?" The apostles and elders came together in Jerusalem and debated the question. This was a crucial question, and here's a summary of the discussion:

  • God showed no distinction between the Jew and the Gentile at the point of salvation
  • Jews are saved through the grace of Jesus, just as Gentiles are (note that the wording of this argument isn't the other way around)
  • God had said through the prophets that He would call Gentiles by His Name
Therefore, they concluded that the salvation offered to the Gentiles is exactly the same as the salvation offered to the Jews. And since the Gentiles are being saved without the Law, there is no need to impose the Law on them after the fact. The Law was an unnecessary burden to the Gentiles. God wasn't requiring it, so they had no right to require it of anyone.

Once this conclusion was reached, the apostles and elders decided to send a letter to the leaders of the various churches explaining their decision. They did ask the Gentile believers to abstain from things contaminated by idols, from fornication, from eating strangled animals, and from eating blood. These would have been very offensive to the Jewish believers in their midst. These were not requirements for salvation, but would significantly help the unity of the believers in each place where there was a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers in the church.

This chapter concludes with Paul and Barnabas deciding to return to the cities where they had traveled before and see how the believers were doing there. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along with them again. You may remember that Becky pointed out John Mark's desertion on the first journey (Acts 13:13), because it was going to come up again later. Well, here it is. Barnabas, the encourager, wants to take John Mark along again. But Paul doesn't want to put time and effort into a "deserter." In Paul's view, John Mark had his chance and blew it. So, Paul and Barnabas decide to part ways and head in different directions. Paul took Silas with him, and we will read about their journey in the next few chapters. We no nothing of Barnabas and Mark's journey except that they headed for Cyprus. And, just so you know, John Mark apparently stuck it out this time and eventually became a very valuable friend and helper to Paul (Colossians 4:10). He is also the same Mark who wrote the Gospel account by that name.

REFLECTION
It is extremely important to understand the decision of the Jerusalem Council and to remember it today. Each person is saved by the same grace, no matter what his background is. There are no requirements that believers keep any of the Jewish Law in connection with their salvation. God does not distinguish between believers who are Jewish and believers who are Gentiles. Gentile believers hold the same position in the church as Jewish believers. Most of our American churches don't have Jews in them, but there are still those who try to require believers to keep the Law, or some parts or variations of the Law, in order to be accepted in the church. Beware!

APPLICATION
Think through how you explain the gospel to someone. Make sure you aren't adding requirements that God doesn't require. No one has to "clean up his life" before he can be saved. Rather, when we receive salvation, God cleanses our hearts (Acts 15:9).

PRAYER
Father, if you required that we keep the Law in order to be saved, nobody would ever be saved. No one can perfectly keep your Law! Thank you for offering salvation purely by your grace, through faith. It is something we could never earn on our own, but you give it to us as a gift. Thank you for making your gift of salvation available to the Gentile as well as to the Jew. May we clearly explain your good news to others! In the name of Jesus, amen.
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