Acts 15 - August 15
Paul and Barnabas had just returned from their first missionary journey and were giving reports to the church in Antioch that had sent them out. In verse 1 of chapter 15 it says, “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.’” This verse is the beginning of a long debate that will need to be brought up to the apostles and elders up in Jerusalem, “the headquarters.” These men from Judea are known as “Judaizers.” Judaizers were people who tried to invoke Jewish customs on Gentile believers. These Judaizers were offended that their Jewish customs were not being adhered to and were imposing the teaching of needing to be circumcised to be saved. They believed that in order to be saved Gentiles must follow the law of Moses fully and be circumcised so that they can be saved. We know that is not true and we will see in the following verses how it plays out.
In the 21st century we know that we do not have to convert to Judaism and be circumcised to be saved. Salvation comes only through faith in Christ alone by the grace of God alone, but to the first century church this was new water they had to navigate through. In the course of the bible never were Gentiles being saved in massive waves as they were in the book of Acts. In the Old Testament a handful of Gentile people were saved, for example Rahab, but in the book of Acts you have whole cities turning to the Lord. So, the question at hand that needed to be debated and worked through was do these Gentiles need to convert to Judaism to be saved? For the past thousands of years, the people of Israel had to adhere to the law of Moses, it was the Lord who commanded them to do so in the first place. So, what changed? Well, you have Jesus Christ coming and living a perfect life in full conformity to the law of God which makes him a perfect sacrifice. Being a perfect sacrifice, he dies on a cross on behalf of sinners who would never be able to fulfill the law perfectly. If a sinner repents of their sins and believes in Christ, that perfect life “righteousness” is imputed onto them. That is what changed, someone fulfilled the law for us because we would never be able to.
Paul and Barnabas go up to Jerusalem to the mother church to speak with the apostles and elders in this matter. In the middle of the debate Peter gets up and pretty much tells them, “do you not remember when God sent me to Cornelius and his household (Acts 10) to preach to them the good news and that they believed because they were filled with the Holy Spirit. So, if God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, why are you forcing them to fulfill the law when Jesus has already done so. If they believe in Jesus, they will be saved.” Then James (half-brother of Jesus) gets up and speaks as well. He agrees with what Peter has said, and then goes on to quote an Old Testament passage which is Amos 9:11-12. He then proposes that they should instruct the Gentiles verse 20 “to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” At first glance it might look like James is proposing that they follow the law of Moses, but in reality, what I think he is telling them is that they should abstain from pagan worship practices. “The things polluted by idols” would represent temple worship, “from sexual immorality,” which would be sexual practices from pagan worship, “and from what has been strangled, and from blood,” which would refer to the sacrifices they would make to the gods they served. James telling them to abstain from these things served in two ways, to not defile the conscience of the Jewish people who had believed and to practice a life of continuous growth in holiness. Participating in pagan practices would have led Gentiles to sin and abstaining from those things would also ease the conscience of believers that were uprooted in Judaic traditions.
At the end of it all a letter was written to the church in Antioch on how the issue should be dealt with. Two brothers from the Jerusalem church were sent out to give them the letter and actually instruct the Antioch church in how the letter should be interpreted. This very fact brought so much encouragement to them. So, what is the biggest take away for us? Well, be thankful that we do not have to follow the Mosaic law to the fullest extent because you and I would utterly fail. We have one who has gone before us, fulfilled the law perfectly, and died in our place. We have been saved by faith in Christ alone, through God’s grace alone!!