Already in the Book of Acts, we’ve seen tensions between Christians arise because of their different backgrounds. Some were Jews who became convinced Jesus was the Messiah, and were still following the same Jewish laws and customs that didn’t directly contradict their belief in Jesus. Others were Gentiles, non-Jews, who came to believe in the same Jesus, but who’d never been Jews nor upheld their customs and laws. One of those customs that became an issue was circumcision – long the sign that a Jew was a member of God’s chosen people. Here’s what happened in one Gentile community where Paul and Barnabas had been teaching people about Jesus:
[15:1] But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And 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 the apostles and the elders about this question.  So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.  When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.  But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.  And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.  And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,  and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.  Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
(Acts 15:1-11 ESV)
They started with happy reports focused on God’s work in and through their efforts. But then they got down to business…decisions had to be made.
I can imagine there was much more to the debate than what we read here. Why else would Paul and Barnabas have to travel there in person?
The unity of the Christian movement was threatened, so they cae together as a tangible sign that they were not going to be divided over this issue.
Now, there was no clear teaching from Jesus about whether Christians could/should be circumcised, so we can see why they might have wanted to continue. There would also be fear, anger and nationalism involved.
Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc. all came through Judaism to Christianity. Why not expect this of everyone else?
People are seldom wiling to change long-standing traditions so core their identities. But here, people did allow that Christians might not become Jewish first.
1) The Holy Spirit had acted. Things happened they couldn’t explain otherwise. And there were striking parallels to what the Jewish Christians had experienced. As they said, “God has given them he Holy Spirit just as he did to us”. God doesn’t seem to be treating them any differently now, and the Christian leaders decide to take God’s lead.
2) It’s consistent with Jesus’ teaching and activity. Jesus warned the Pharisees that they were burdening people with heavy handed laws and customs made up by men. Clearly this is in mind as these Christians say they don’t want to test God by placing a yoke, the harness a beast of burden would wear, upon others when they themselves couldn’t’ carry it. None of them had followed the law perfectly.
3) They recognized their salvation was nothing they’d accomplished on their own. They hadn’t followed the law perfectly, they had all sinned. When they were honest, they recognized the law couldn’t save anyone, but had only been preparing them for Jesus, who could. Gentiles had been cleansed of sin…purified. That’s what the law was supposed to do. But God has done it directly with Jews and Gentiles through grace. The nation of Israel was saved from slavery in Egypt so many years earlier by God’s grace, he just chose to save them and did it. He had saved them from slavery to sin by sending his son Jesus to die for them, again by grace. And he has now done that for those who were never Jews in the first place, by grace alone.
Question: How would they be putting God to the test if they required new Christians to become Jews first?
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