In Acts 15, we see that this is a pivotal point in the life of the new church in Antioch, especially where the Gentiles were concerned. In A.D. 49, the Gentiles were so new to the church that it was possible for Jewish converts (believing Pharisees) to come in and convince the Gentile believers that they had to follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised if they wanted to be saved from their sins. This greatly concerned the Gentiles who were not taught from Paul that they had to follow this Jewish ritual. In turn, the Gentiles believers in Antioch had a letter sent to the Apostles in Jerusalem to have this matter cleared up once and for all.
In his book, "Acts: A Logion Press Commentary", Mr. Stanley M. Horton says of the believing Pharisees who came to Jerusalem to push circumcision on the Gentile believers, "What these Judiazers were really saying was that the Gentile believers must be circumcised and come under the old covenant of Moses' law; otherwise, they could not be heirs of the promise that are yet to come. By this they also implied that Gentile believers would lose the salvation they had already received if they did not become Jews and undergo circumcision (pg. 261).
In the introduction to Chapter 15 (verses 1-14), it is stated that when the letter reached the church in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas, who were clearly in dispute with the converted Pharisees, went to the Apostles and began to debate with them about this subject, because Peter himself had problems with the same issue (Galatians 2:11-13) when he first began to disciple the Gentiles, after God had told him to go and do so. This, then, began the first council ever brought together to iron out a problem in the church.
At this meeting were Paul, Barnabas, the Apostles, the elders of the church, and the believing Pharisees. At the conclusion of the council's debate, it was decided to not talk about the area of circumcism, but to let the Gentile believers know what they should do after being saved, without burdening them with what they don't have to do to be saved (Acts 15:20). The letter was sent down, with Paul and Barnabas, to Antioch, and the people were encourages by its message when they read it (Acts 15:31).
As mentioned above, the Introduction to this chapter of Acts sets up the chapter by letting us know who was there at the council, what the topic was that they discussed, and why they had to meet. Paul had already had a run in with Peter about the subject of Gentile believers having to follow the Jewish Law. This is stated in Galatians 2:11-16: "When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, 'You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?' We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified". Paul had rebuked Peter once, and was now ready to do it again, for the sake of the Gospel.
Later on, Paul even had to confront the Galatians about this very same issue (Galatians 5:2-6 -- Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.) Paul attempted to make it very clear that Gentile believers did not have to be circumcised in order to be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.
Next, Paul makes a contrast between a Jewish and Gentile believer in Acts 15:6-11. He simply tells the council that Jesus made no distinction between Jew and Gentile because He, Jesus, sees the hearts of men and not what they do. As Paul says in Acts 15:10-11 "Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers 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 Law meant for the Jews was never meant for the Gentiles to follow. Paul even says to the effect, "Look, even the Jews can't follow the whole law, so why should those who are not Jewish be saddled with it trying to follow it."
The pivotal point for the entire chapter takes place in verses 22-29, when the decision is made to send a delegation to Antioch with a letter from the Apostles stating what they had received from the Holy Spirit, an answer to their dilemma. The Apostles had decided to tell them -- "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things Acts 15:28-29).
Acts 15:22-29 also brings us harmony to the situation. All parties agreed, after much deliberation, to not burden the Gentiles with things they were never meant to be burdened with. Because of this, the believers at Antioch were very much encouraged and continued to grow as things settled down and time marched on. With this solution, everyone was satisfied, and everyone can now go on worshiping God without restraint.
This chapter in Acts says to me "Look past the personality, the looks, the attitudes, and the emotions of the people around you and look into their hearts, past the façade, and into the real person inside the flesh. That's where the real person that God created resides." This is how unity begins: by seeing the invisible through the eyes of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, who sees and knows all about every heart that exists and is alive. In my past, if the woman who led me to Christ had given up on me the first time I got mad at her, I wouldn't be here on this earth alive and breathing. If our parents gave up on us whenever we did something wrong, where would we all be today? If God gave up on us every time we sinned, we would still be lost and dead, with no hope in sight for a better than crummy future. Unity is a must if we are all truly to be the church that Jesus created for us to be. Even in our disagreements we must find unity, for it is here where the outside world will see Jesus in all His glory.
This applies to the church in the same way. We must look past denominational lines and look past our differences to see where we can meet in unity of beliefs and doctrine. We must find that common ground that will bring us, as a church, closer and to see that we all worship the same Jesus. When we do so, we will be a greater light shining for Jesus as one Body and not as many separate bodies because of our differences.
All Scripture quotations are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION; NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Horton, S. N. (2001). Acts: a logion press commentary. Springfield, MI: Logion Press.
Bobby Bruno was saved 15 years ago in a way that left him no doubt that Jesus wanted him to reach others with His great and abounding love. He started writing at the age of 12 and hasn't stopped since. He achieved Associates Degree in Biblical Studies from Ohio Christian University in early 2014.
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