Acts (Week 6)
The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35)
Back in 2012, I moved out to Calgary to start a new church. When I was in university I studied church planting as my major, which meant I took multiple classes on how to start a new church, how to gather people together. I had classes on church growth principles and preaching to the unchurched. I read countless books on what makes a successful church plant. How to start a church with no people and no money. I read books that looked at the statistics between why some church plants worked and others didn’t. I read books that broke it all down in an easy step-by-step guide. Send out mailers to invite people, start with some preview services to help gather a crowd, ask people to join your launch team. All that kind of stuff.
So by the time I got out to Calgary I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on what I needed to do to start this new church. This was going to be so easy. Just follow the steps and boom, instant successful church. What could go wrong, right?
Then we got to Calgary and started working at gathering our crowd. We sent out mailers to I think about 5,000 houses inviting them to one of our preview services. We got maybe five people to come out. And they didn’t join the launch team. We held a few more preview services, but rarely did anyone come out. And those who did didn’t seem very interested in joining the team. It turns out, starting a new church from scratch in a city where you don’t know anyone is really hard.
Before we got there, I read all the books, studied everything I could and in theory it seemed like it was going to be so easy. But in practice, it was really hard. How many of you have experienced something like that? Maybe you graduated from university with all your education and you were ready to set the world on fire; it was going to be so easy to succeed… and then you got your first job and realized this stuff is really challenging.
For Karly and I, before Samantha was born we read a lot of books about parenting—Karly way more than me—and we kind of went into it, especially with breastfeeding thinking “Okay, we’ve got this. We mostly know what we’re doing.” And then Sam came into our lives and… the practice has been much different than the theory.
Have you been there? Has there been a time in your life when everything on paper looked black and white, clear-cut, easy to understand, so simple… only to discover that in practice, once you’re in the real world, everything is a lot more complicated?
This morning we’re wrapping up our series going through Acts looking at Acts chapter 15. Which, according to scholars, is the most crucial chapter in the entire book. So it’s really important that we understand what’s going on here. The chapter is 35 verses, so we’re not going to read the whole thing, we’re going to look at a select couple verses and summarize the rest as we go. But before we do that, let’s pray and invite God to be a part of our discussion this morning.
Acts 15 starts off in verse 1-2 saying, “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.”
You’ll remember from two weeks ago in Acts 10 that Peter was the first person to go preach to a large group of Gentiles. There, while he was preaching to them, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Until this point, this wasn’t something Jewish Christians thought could happen. Since then, Paul and Barnabas had gone out and preached to more Gentiles and by this point in Acts 15, there had been a huge influx of Gentiles into the faith.
And so the question was, “What do we do about it now?” Do Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to become Christians? This group that came from Judea clearly thought they did, while Paul and Barnabas disagreed. After a sharp dispute and debate, they decided to go down to Jerusalem and have the matter settled once and for all.
But when they got there, in verse 5 we’re told, “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the whole law of Moses.’”
Now, why did these Pharisaic Christians believe Gentiles coming into the faith needed to keep the law of Moses? Well, because it’s in the Bible. In the Old Testament, there are provisions for how a Gentile can become a proselyte, which is a convert to Judaism.
In Exodus 12:48-49 we read, “A foreigner residing among you who wants to celebrate the Lord’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. The same law applies both to the native-born and the foreigner residing among you.”
Scripture is very clear that if a Gentile wants to become part of the tribe of Israel, that they need to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses. J. Bradley Chance, in his commentary on Acts, says this, “The Pharisaic believers’ demand does not seem unreasonable. Genesis 17:9-14 is emphatic that Abraham’s descendants are the blessed people and circumcision is the mark of such descent. Texts such as Deuteronomy 5:28-33 demand that God’s people ‘follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you’ (v. 33). If Gentiles, as Gentiles and not as proselytes, were to be incorporated into the sphere of God’s salvation, important theological implications will ensue; therefore, the issue needs clear discussion and resolution.”
Okay so multiple passages from the Bible—Genesis 17; Exodus 12; Deuteronomy 5—all speak to the fact that the law needs to be followed exactly, that circumcision is an eternal covenant, and that Gentiles need to be circumcised if they want to be part of Israel. So if Scripture is so clear, what’s the problem? Why is there a debate? Furthermore, how is it that Paul and Barnabas, as well as Peter as we later see, are arguing against following the law?
Well, remember from two weeks ago we talked about Acts 10 and Peter’s experience preaching to Cornelius and his family. As Peter was preaching, Cornelius and he family all received the Holy Spirit without first converting to Judaism. And Paul and Barnabas, on their missionary journeys throughout the Gentile world, again and again, saw God act in the lives of Gentiles without them needed to convert.
So, on one hand, Scripture is very clear about the need to keep the law and how Gentiles can become proselytes. But on the other hand, Peter, Paul and Barnabas have had an experience that contradicts what Scripture is saying. And thus, we have a debate. Scripture seems to be saying one thing while experience says another. The theory of what we think the Bible is saying hits up against the practice of the real world. Suddenly, what seems so black and white, cut and dry… isn’t.
And so the church debated this question, “Should Gentiles be required to keep the law of Moses in order to be saved?” Do they need to first become Jews in order to become Christians? Peter stands up and gives an account of what happened to him back in Acts 10 & 11 with Cornelius. Then Paul and Barnabas stand up and tell what God has been doing through the Gentiles.
Finally, James, who is the leader of the Jerusalem church stands up and he essentially says, “In light of what we’ve heard from Peter, Paul and Barnabas as well as what Scripture says in the prophets,” and he quotes from Amos 9 about how God will cause the Gentiles to bear his name, “In light of all of this, here’s what we should do…” And he says that no, the Gentiles should not be required to keep the law of Moses. Only that they refrain from certain activities that were associated with idol worship in pagan temples. So they write a letter to the church in Antioch with their decision and in verse 28 the letter reads, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.”
Now, since we’re all Gentiles here and none of us had to convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus, this whole passage might seem like a waste of time. Obviously, we don’t need to follow the law in order to follow Jesus. For us today, this story is much less about the specific decision they made and more about how they made their decision. Or as Ben Witherington, in his commentary, says, “The attention Luke gives to how the Church makes the decision required of it is an intrinsic part of his narrative message.”
Scripture is very clear on the requirements of circumcision, on the role of the law and Gentiles becoming proselytes and yet, in spite of all of that, the Jerusalem Council ruled the opposite way. Why? To understand this, we have to take a look at a couple other passages.
So we’ll start in Mark 7, verse 18-19. “‘Are you so dull?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)”
Now we're very used to Jesus in other places in the gospels saying something like, “You’ve heard it said… but I say…” In these places, Jesus is giving the people around him a better interpretation of Scripture. Essentially saying that people have misunderstood Scripture and he’s helping them understand it. But here in Mark 7 he just nullifies Scripture.
Leviticus 11 contains a detailed list of what foods are clean and unclean. This is not a passage that is hard to understand; these foods are okay to eat, these foods aren’t. So in Mark 7, Jesus isn’t saying “You’ve misunderstood what foods are and are not kosher.” He just says, “Yeah, we’re not doing that anymore.” That’s because Jesus, being God, has authority over Scripture. He gets to determine what is and what is not okay. And in Mark 7 he uses that authority over Scripture to declare a section null and void. We don’t need to worry about what food is clean or unclean. It’s all good.
So that’s the first thing we need to understand here. Jesus has authority over Scripture. He wrote it and he can un-write it if and when he wants. Now, let’s look at Matthew 18, verse 18-20. He’s speaking to his disciples who will eventually become the leaders and elders of the church. He says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.”
Jesus says that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Binding and loosing was an ancient Rabbinic way of describing what they would permit or forbid. If you forbid something you bound it, but if you permitted something you loosed it. So what Jesus is saying is that whatever we, as the church, permit on earth will be permitted in heaven, while whatever we forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven. What Jesus is doing is lending his authority to the church. And he says that whenever we gather, that he’s there with us, in our midst.
This is why, despite the fact the in Acts 15 we never explicitly hear from God, James can write in his letter, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…” Acts 15 is an example of the church taking seriously their role of binding and loosing, and while they debated and discussed, the assumption was that the Holy Spirit was in their midst, guiding the entire process. The council of Jerusalem understood their responsibility to continue binding and loosing—using the authority Jesus had given them and trusting the Holy Spirit as they discerned what they should require of Gentile Christians.
What this whole passage shows us, and this might come as a huge, uncomfortable shock to some of us, but we don’t follow the Bible. We follow the God who has been revealed in the Bible.
The Bible acts as our guide as we pursue Jesus. This is why Jesus can say in John 5, speaking to religious leaders, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Scripture testifies about Jesus. But we don’t follow Scripture, we follow Jesus as he’s been revealed in Scripture.
This means that we need to do the difficult work of discerning how Jesus is still working in our community which is both exciting and terrifying. It’s exciting because it means that Jesus is still living and active. He’s working in and through us, not just as individuals but as a group.
This is what Jesus is talking about in John 16 when he says, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” The Holy Spirit is continuing to guide us into all truth. He’s pulling us forward.
A great example of this is slavery. For about 1800 years after Jesus, Christians continued to own slaves and they even pointed to Scripture as justification for why slavery was not only acceptable but God-ordained. And yet, we would be hard-pressed to find anyone here who thinks it’s okay to own another human being. What happened? The Holy Spirit continued to work. And he brought us to a place where we were able to recognize that slavery, owning another human being, is completely contrary to the way of Jesus.
Following Jesus in this way is exciting, because it means there is new stuff Jesus still wants to teach us. We don’t have all of this figured out. God is continuing to do something new all the time. But it’s also terrifying because it means we don’t exactly have a roadmap. Following the Bible is simple. It’s clear-cut, black and white, easy to understand. But following Jesus, especially when we don’t know where he’s leading, that’s scary.
And following Jesus rather than the Bible requires that we do two things. It requires trust and humility. In the Bible God time and again calls us to have faith in him. What he’s not saying is that he wants us to have all the answers and have everything figured out. What he’s saying is that he wants us to trust him. Trust him when we don’t know where the money is going to come from. Trust him when we don’t know how our marriage will ever get better. Trust him when we’re sick and there doesn’t seem to be a cure. God calls us to trust him because he knows the way out of our mess. Trust him because we’re loved and valued. Trust him because he’s a good, good father who hasn’t given up on us.
At the same time, following Jesus requires humility. It means holding our convictions with an open hand, willing to admit when we’re wrong.
When Copernicus, in the middle ages, proposed that the earth revolved around the sun, Christians opposed him because they said Scripture clearly taught that the earth is fixed. It turns out we were wrong. As we mentioned before when people, including some Christians, started suggesting that slavery was wrong, they were opposed by other Christians who used scripture as proof that slavery was acceptable and ordained by God. It turns out they were wrong. People have used Scripture as proof as to why we shouldn’t ordain women to be pastors and ministers. And now many denominations, including the CRC church, ordains women.
It’s okay to have convictions. It’s okay to have beliefs about how we think Scripture is acting as a guide. But we need to also have the humility to admit we’re wrong if we realize Jesus is leading us in a different direction.
We don’t follow the Bible, we follow the God who has been revealed in the Bible. That reality is both exciting and terrifying, but we need to trust that the Holy Spirit is living and active in the body of Christ today and have the humility to follow him wherever he leads.