Term 3 – Week 8
Big Idea – Salvation comes by the grace of Christ and not by the Jewish law!
See the momentous decision by the council that Gentiles do not have to observe the Jewish law!
- Belief – we are saved by grace alone, and so the Jewish law is not a requirement for us to follow!
- Behaviour – celebrate our freedom in Christ that we are set free from the law!
As Luke’s account shifts its focus from Peter to Paul, Acts 15:1-13 is about the resolution of a dispute that arose in the church and it is this resolution that makes the rest of Acts possible.
Since the first Gentile convert in Cornelius (likely 10 years earlier), the number of disciples from Gentile backgrounds has increased rapidly. From Syrian Antioch in 11:19-30, to Cyprus and Pisidian Antioch in chapter 13, a great number of Gentiles now believe in Jesus. But this has started to raise a major theological question for the Jewish-majority church: how should the Gentiles join the church community? Should they be ‘absorbed’ into Israel by circumcision and observing the Mosaic law? Would the Jewish church approve this teaching of faith in Jesus without the works of the law? Is this a new community of multi-ethnic ‘Christians’ or just a branch/reform of Judaism? These fundamental questions are resolved by apostolic decree in this passage and serve a crucial watershed moment in the development of the early church.
The Issue (15:1-5) – Some Jewish believers came from Judea to Antioch and taught; ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’ (v.1). This is a serious statement that threatens salvation. The Antioch church sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to seek counsel in order to clear up the confusion. The underlying question is this – is faith in Christ Jesus sufficient for salvation? The additional relational question is how can law-observing Jewish Christians and law-ignoring Gentile Christians co-exist? Is Gentile faith in Jesus shown through circumcision and keeping the Mosiac law? Some believe that before this council the letter to the Galatians was written, which would add helpful context and import to this council meeting (and show Peter’s change in position).
The Debate (15:5-12) – The group from the Pharisees begin the discussion and say that the Gentiles must be circumcised and ‘required’ to keep the law. After much discussion, Peter stands to address them. He reminds the council of God’s activity amongst the Gentiles, specifically pointing to the conversion of Cornelius. He repeat the use of ‘us’ and ‘them’ to show the lack of distinction God has made between the Jews and the Gentiles – and therefore no need for the Gentiles to become ‘like’ the Jews! Peter ends with the summary statement that salvation is by grace alone. Up comes Paul and Barnabas to attest to the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.
The Decision (15:13-21) – James the brother of Jesus (who seems to be convening the council) supports Peter’s statement showing that God has chosen a people from the Gentiles. He quotes Amos 9:11-12, and declares that Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to be saved, because God promised that Gentiles (and not just Jews or Jewish converts) would be included in the restored Kingdom of God. He concludes that ‘no difficulty should be placed in the path of the Gentiles turning to God in Christ’. James decides that the Gentiles merely be asked to refrain from specific actions that would upset the Jews, due to the context of being in areas where the law of Moses is read (v21). We take all these ‘requirements’ to be specific ceremonial laws from Leviticus 17-18 – the reference to sexual immorality, by no means a contextual mark of Christian living, must be seen to reference ceremonial Levitical sexual purity. The Decision Circulated (15:22-35) –The council writes a letter echoing James’ decision, suggesting some requirements for the Gentile converts that would enable coexistence and fellowship between them and their Jewish brothers and sisters. In this letter, the apostles and elders confirm that salvation is indeed through faith alone in Christ alone. Paul and Barnabas, after delivering this ‘encouraging’ message, remain in Antioch to further teach and preach the word of the Lord to that young church. This is the final validation necessary for the gospel go out to the Gentiles unabated – not as a Jewish conversion scheme but instead distinctly Christian, multi-ethnic community – salvation by faith in Jesus alone.
43… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his nameActs 10v43
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