Do the Gentiles have to follow the laws of Moses and Jewish traditions and become Jewish to be saved? This was the burning question that was on everybody's mind at the council at Jerusalem in about A.D. 49.
The men mentioned in Acts 15:1 were probably Judaizers. These were devout Jewish Christians who could not give up keeping the Law even after they became followers of Jesus. In the Old Testament, circumcision was commanded (Genesis 17:14, Exodus 12:48-49) and a sign of justification by God. Many commentators believe that the Judaizers were motivated by their desire to maintain control and authority over the Gentiles as the movement grew.
The issue was formally settled at this council after much discussion (healthy!). When Peter addressed his brothers, he looked back to the conversion of the Gentile, Cornelius, which had occurred about 10 years prior (Acts 10:1-11:18). Peter asserted that salvation by God's grace through faith was the only means of salvation. This was all settled long before Paul and Barnabas began to minister to the Gentiles.
James, Jesus' half-brother and author of the book of James, was evidently the head of the church at Jerusalem and issued a summary statement affirming Peter's statement. Paul will go on to clarify the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2-3 and Romans 9-11. God will fulfill His covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:25-29) with Jesus, a descendant of David, seated on His throne. But it is through Israel's fall that the Gentiles would find salvation (Romans 11:11-16).
James went on to point out that Amos 9:11-12 agreed with this conclusion. Here is what I wrote previously about Amos 9 in the Bible Book Club:
The Scarlet Thread of Redemption
That promised descendant will be fulfilled by the Messiah, Jesus, who will establish His rule forever. He will rule in the Messianic kingdom and will include both Jews and Gentiles (the "remnant of Edom" in Amos 9:12). He will bring light, justice, and full knowledge of the LORD to all nations on the earth (Isaiah 9:1-7; 11:1-13; 42:1-7; 45:22-25; 49:5-7; 55:1-5). It should be noted that at the Jerusalem Council, James cited Amos 9:11-12 as proof that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised and live as Jews in order to be saved (Acts 15:1-20). They would have full rights in God's coming kingdom!Entrance into God's kingdom was not about a physical circumcision but a circumcision of the heart!
The resulting judgment, in the form of a letter to the Gentile believers, was that they abstain from three things prevalent among them:
- Food sacrificed to idols (they would often give away and sell portions)
- Meat of strangled animals and from consuming blood (Leviticus 17:10-14, life is in the blood)
- Sexual immorality that was part of idol worship (Leviticus 18:6-20)
Acts 15:36 marks the beginning of Paul's second missionary journey and a parting with Barnabas over the question of whether John Mark should accompany them. What a contrast with the unity that was achieved at the Jerusalem Council!
Barnabas and John Mark were cousins (Colossians 4:10). Barnabas wanted him on the journey despite the fact that John Mark had deserted them on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). The "sharp disagreement" between Paul and Barnabas resulted in Barnabas taking John Mark to his native Cyprus while Paul took Silas to Syria and Cilicia. Despite their disagreement, the gospel was spread throughout two regions instead of just one! WIN-WIN! We know that Paul eventually came to appreciate John Mark toward the end of his life and found him "useful . . . for service" (2 Timothy 4:11).
Warren Wiersbe writes:
The progress of the Gospel has often been hindered by people with closed minds who stand in front of open doors and block the way for others.
In 1786, when William Carey laid the burden of world missions before a ministerial meeting in Northampton, England, the eminent Dr. Ryland said to him, “Young man, sit down! When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine!” More than one Spirit-filled servant of God has had to enter open doors of opportunity without the support of churches and religious leaders.
Paul would have agreed enthusiastically with the words of Robertson McQuilken from his book The Great Omission: “In a world in which nine out of every ten people are lost, three out of four have never heard the way out, and one of every two cannot hear, the church sleeps on. Could it be we think there must be some other way? Or perhaps we don’t really care that much.” Paul cared—and so should we.
(The Bible Exposition Commentary, Ac 14:21; 15:19)Do you care about the "heathen"?
Do you see how you fit into God's plan for reaching the unreached of the world?
How much does your culturally-biased understanding of following Christ inhibit your ability to see people from other cultures following Jesus in ways culturally appropriate for them?
Note: This post has taken me WEEKS to write. I am not sure why. I always appreciate prayer for breakthrough when I have these blocks! I have set aside the next two weeks for writing and praying. Please pray for me. :)
Lord, who are the "Gentiles" among us? Help us to care about them and open our eyes to see that the fields around us are "white for harvest" (John 4:35). We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.