Friday, March 1

Pastoral Impatience

15:1 Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2After Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, Paul and Barnabas and some others were appointed to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this issue. 3When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they brought great joy to all the brothers and sisters.

4When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”

6The apostles and the elders gathered to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: “Brothers and sisters, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. 8And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he also did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.”

12The whole assembly became silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul describe all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13After they stopped speaking, James responded: “Brothers and sisters, listen to me. 14Simeon has reported how God first intervened to take from the Gentiles a people for his name. 15And the words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written:

16 After these things I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
I will rebuild its ruins
and set it up again,
17 so the rest of humanity
may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles
who are called by my name—
declares the Lord
who makes these things 18 known from long ago. 

19 Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but instead we should write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For since ancient times, Moses has had those who proclaim him in every city, and every Sabbath day he is read aloud in the synagogues.”

22Then the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, decided to select men who were among them and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas: Judas, called Barsabbas, and Silas, both leading men among the brothers. 23They wrote:

“From the apostles and the elders, your brothers,

To the brothers and sisters among the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 Since we have heard that some without our authorization went out from us and troubled you with their words and unsettled your hearts,[e]25 we have unanimously decided to select men and send them to you along with our dearly loved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who will personally report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—not to place further burdens on you beyond these requirements: 29 that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things.

Farewell.”

30 So they were sent off and went down to Antioch, and after gathering the assembly, they delivered the letter. 31 When they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 Both Judas and Silas, who were also prophets themselves, encouraged the brothers and sisters and strengthened them with a long message. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent back in peace by the brothers and sisters to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas, along with many others, remained in Antioch, teaching and proclaiming the word of the Lord.

Act 15:1-35 (CSB)

During the first centuries of the Church, leaders occasionally gathered to resolve conflicts that threatened Christian faith and practice. The movie The DaVinci Code grossly misrepresented these councils, saying that men gathered to ‘decide’ issues relevant to the Christian faith, such as the books to include in the NT, the nature of Christ, or the concept of the Trinity. That impression makes these councils seem like a democratic process in which the majority carried the vote and determined Christianity for all time, but these councils operated more like emergency summits. When faced with controversy or heresy (false beliefs), these leaders met to put in official language what the Church had always believed. These men were not ‘making up’ Christianity, but putting precise words to pre-existent beliefs. For example, the Nicaean Creed was written by the Council of Nicaea, which convened because heresies were arising regarding the nature of Jesus and the Trinity (fun story, at the Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas slapped another bishop who denied Jesus’ full divinity—fitting action for the man most closely associated with the celebration of Jesus’ birth).

Acts 15 recounts the first Church Council which was held in Jerusalem to address circumcision and the Gentiles. This issue had been addressed in chapter 11 after Cornelius’s conversion, but years have passed and the Gospel has spread exponentially. Since this expansion includes increasing numbers of Gentiles—perhaps even beginning to surpass the number of Jews—an official colloquy was required.

At the meeting, Peter argues the same point he pressed when Jews confronted him regarding Cornelius: the presence of the Spirit. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to uncircumcised Gentiles proved that He accepted them just as He accepted Jews. Faith is the only prerequisite to salvation, and anything beyond that is a burden no one need bear. After Peter’s speech, Paul and Barnabas talk.  Their focus is all the miraculous signs God had done among the Gentiles. In other words, all the visible signs of the Spirit which indicated God’s favor and acceptance. James, Jesus’ brother, wraps up the meeting with an appeal to Scripture which had always planned for the inclusion of Gentiles.

The apostles, in complete agreement, draft an official letter to send to the churches, and send two emissaries home with Paul and Barnabas to affirm the decision. They do include some stipulations. These things are not required for salvation, nor are they the only expectations for Christian living, but they relate to circumcision because all of these things affect how Christians dined with each other and outsiders, or “table fellowship.” Sharing a meal was a significant act of hospitality and inclusion in the ancient world, and while circumcision was no longer required to eat with others, Christians needed to avoid a few practices that might arise around the table that could damage the Gospel message: eating idol sacrifices, sexual immorality, and dishonoring the importance of blood—and hence dishonoring Jesus’ sacrifice. 

Jesus’ sacrifice—the cross—is what now bonds God’s people together. Not ethnicity or circumcision. Nothing but the blood but of Jesus. 


Reflection

At the Jerusalem Council, the early Church made it clear that the active presence of the Holy Spirit, not traditions or rules or even beliefs—was the litmus test of God’s favor and acceptance of a person’s faith. This means the opposite is also true: regardless of strict adherence to traditions, a solid statement of beliefs, and impeccable adherence to moral rules, if the Holy Spirit is not present and active then God’s favor and acceptance is not present. None of those things are bad, and in fact they can be good and beneficial, but not if they are separated from or elevated above the ONE thing that is necessary: faith in the blood of Jesus as Messiah and His blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins.

Prayer

Almighty God, thank You that You place no burden on me, no requirement but faith in Your Son as Lord and Messiah. Help me live a holy life, to grow in sanctification, but never allow me to elevate any tradition or rule to the position that faith alone holds. Thank you that because of Jesus’ blood You accept me just as I am, and may I never lay a heavier burden than that upon anyone else. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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  • Listen and Worship.

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  • Read a Book.

  • Retell the Gospel to Yourself.

  • Take Some Notes on Today's Devotional.

  • Pray for Yourself, Your Family, Your Church, and the Lost.

  • Memorize a Verse.

  • List Five Things You're Thankful For.

  • Encourage Someb

Megan NessonComment