Reflections on the Book of Acts #15: The Jerusalem Council

Here’s the link to Acts 15.

So the tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians comes to something of a head in our passage. Some Jewish Christians were of the conviction that Gentile converts to the faith ought to be circumcised. That is, they should also, essentially, become proselyte Jews in order to become a part of the Christian community. In other words, coming to faith in Jesus and receiving the indwelling of the Holy Spirit should not be seen as enough.

We see how Paul and Barnabas share their experience of seeing God reveal himself to Gentiles through signs and wonders. We also see Peter refer to his experience with Cornelius. God had poured out his Spirit on these Gentile converts without their becoming circumcised. To ask that converts or potential converts be circumcised to become Christians would be to ask them to do something God had not asked of them. Rather than an expression of receiving the good news of Jesus, it would be an obstacle to receiving it.

James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, put it this way: we should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God.

Amen to that.

So the leaders in Jerusalem composed a letter to send to Antioch, explaining how to handle the Jewish-Gentile divide. Interestingly, the one concession the leaders asked new Gentile converts to make had to do with kosher food laws. Because Jews had strict food laws, and the goal was for all believers to be able to share table fellowship, they asked Gentiles to abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled. Doing so would mean Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus could gather around the table together.

It’s important to note how well the leaders handled this very challenging issue. First, they dealt with it out in the open. They didn’t avoid it. They didn’t take what might have been the easy, convenient route of agreeing with those demanding the circumcision of Gentiles.

Second, they also listened to the testimony of those who had actually evangelized/ministered to Gentiles, Peter, Barnabas, and Paul. They wanted to know from people they trusted what God had been doing among the Gentiles.

They took steps to maintain unity among believers in two ways. First, by encouraging the Gentiles to honor Jewish food laws. This would be a sign of neighborly love because following these guidelines would demonstrate that being able to share table fellowship was more important than Gentile culinary preferences and customs. Second, by not requiring circumcision of Gentile converts Jewish Christians would demonstrate that just as God had accepted these Gentiles, so did they.

Most importantly, they put the gospel at the center. Whatever else was at stake, the grounds upon which one comes to faith and becomes a follower of Jesus is fundamental. At its heart, the gospel is about accepting what Jesus accomplished on the cross and confessing that God raised him from the dead. It’s about receiving new life in the Spirit. Whether or not a male convert had his foreskin removed could not possibly be a part of the equation.

Think of what Paul declares in Galatians 3:28: There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus.

And these words from Ephesians:

So, then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh—called “the uncircumcised” by those called “the circumcised,” which is done in the flesh by human hands. At that time you were without Christ, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In his flesh, he made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that he might create in himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace. He did this so that he might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross by which he put the hostility to death. He came and proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

Ephesians 2:11-18

In today’s With God devotional, author Skye Jethani puts it this way: “Therefore, to tell gentiles they had to receive circumcision—a mark of Jewish identity—rather than remain distinctly gentile, they were denying what Jesus had done on the cross.”

Often we want to place other expectations on potential or new converts, requirements not stipulated by God himself. We put obstacles in the way of the good news. Whether through rules or traditions or behaviorial expectations, we clutter up the beautiful message of Jesus. It’s almost as if we want to add what ought to be a part of the lifelong process of growing in holiness (sanctification) to being forgiven and made right with God (justification).

Thank God the leaders in Jerusalem were wise and faithful as they dealt with this issue in their day. May God enable us to be likewise in ours. May we never put anything in between the good news of Jesus and the people with whom we share it.

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