Saturday, November 14, 2015

A New Way for a New Day

Scriptural Reading: Acts 15:1-12
Devotional Reading: Revelation 21:1-5

When I was young, females were not permitted to wear pants in either school or church. It was the norm to see women in hats and even, sometimes, gloves. To go without girdles and slips would be a crime…just brazen, especially in the LORD’s house. But many rules are relaxed because the LORD simply wants us to come as we are. If we come in jeans, that’s ok. He looks to our hearts and says “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28 NKJV) Jesus did not place a condition on giving rest to the believers only if they come to Him dressed fancy. We must be accepting of the terms God put in place through His Son, Jesus Christ if we wish to make it to the new day in the holy city of Jerusalem. “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4 NKJV)

We are in Unit III – “Spreading the Gospel” of the three units of the quarter. This is the second lesson of a five-lesson study of the further growth of the community as the Gospel was proclaimed in Jerusalem and in faraway places. (Acts 1:8) In the lesson today we are reminded how the Christian community can come under attack with false doctrine from personal prejudices. God is not interested in our traditions, only our witnessing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “For there is no partiality (respect of persons) with God.” (Rom 2:11 NKJV)

While Paul and Barnabas were out establishing other Gentile churches and creating more converts unto the Kingdom of the LORD, people came from Judea to Antioch to teach a new doctrine to the Gentiles. Luke explains in detail at verse 1 of chapter 15, “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (NKJV) Antioch was the Christian stronghold for Gentile converts. These men were Jews who had converted to Christianity, but were unable to give up their prejudices toward the Gentiles under some issues under the Law of Moses. They had converted to Christianity through baptism, but continued to observe a distinction of meats from the Gentiles, they believed in ceremonial purification from ceremonial pollution, attended the temple, and attended the feasts of the Jews. These men had created a new doctrine. They were Christians but wanted to add something to the Gospel. No circumcision, no salvation was their new teaching. The Gentiles must embrace their Law. This would no longer be the Mosaic Law nor Christianity (both given by God) but a new religion.

Paul and Barnabas returned from their mission tour and found the false doctrine had infiltrated their teaching. They were furious and swift to protect their flock against these attacks by publicly arguing against the false doctrine. Paul and Barnabas had told the Gentiles that Christ had come to set them free and would provide them salvation if they believed. Now to have a condition of ‘circumcision in order to be saved’ placed on their teaching is causing a problem to the God-given Gospel. Luke indicates at verse 2, “Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.” (NKJV) There were some new converts who were weak in their faith. They did not know who to believe because it seemed both doctrines (Mosaic Law and Christianity) came from God. The new converts and those believers who became confused during the debate could not see the fact that circumcision of the skin was a requirement only of the Mosaic Law. The Judaizers were attempting to place a yoke on the Gentiles. The church in Antioch recognized the critical nature of this sharp dispute. It appointed Paul and Barnabas along with some other believers. One of those believers may have been the well-respected Titus, who was Greek. See Gal 2:1-5. The facts of the Gospel are not in question. The interpretation of the Gospel is in question. It is necessary that the delegation go to Jerusalem where the apostles and elders reside in order to request resolution by the Jerusalem Council.

The congregation sent the delegation to Jerusalem, but it is unknown what route they took or exactly how long. It is unknown how they travelled. Acts 15:3 indicates, “So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren.” (NKJV) Whether the route of 250-300 miles taken by the delegation was all inland or whether it was both inland and by sea is unknown. The delegation passed through Phoenicia and then Samaria and shared how the Gentiles had been converted. In hearing and receiving the conversion of other Gentiles, great joy was created in all the Gentile nations in route to Jerusalem.

The delegation arrived in Jerusalem excited to tell their story as to how God had converted the Gentiles. They have not brought up the issue as to why they are there. It is simply a fellowship of believers who have been welcomed by the church. Luke described the welcome and contention in at Acts 15 4-5, “And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.’” (NKJV) Even though the delegation was welcomed, there were Jewish Christians who retain their identity as defenders of the Law of Moses. They are demanding the Jerusalem Council determine their demand that converted Gentiles must be circumcised and keep their law to be saved.

Luke lets the readers know the Jerusalem Council convened. In Acts 15:6 he writes, “Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.” (NKJV) The apostles were those chosen by Jesus Christ, less Judas Iscariot, plus Matthias (Acts 1:26), minus James, brother of John (Acts 12:2), for a total of 11. Paul and Barnabas are also called apostles in Acts 14:14, but we are not sure if they are part of the decision-making as well as the presenters. It is unknown exactly who is included in the group of elders. They are the older and spiritually mature leaders recognized by the community. The apostles and elders met together, not separately to consider the interpretation of the Gospel on this issue. Each had their own opinion, but they met together to listen to each other and act in concert.

We do not find where Peter was the chairman of the Jerusalem Council and had the authority to shut it down. Actually we only know there was much discussion by the Council. We also know that Peter’s remarks recorded by Luke from verses 7-11 overruled the Judaizers by having a sure footing in God through faith in Jesus, not foolishness in false doctrine.

Having sat and listened that day to the many opinions, Peter probably could not take it anymore. No matter how sincere each of the council members may have been, there was much dispute both pro and con. They had not resolved the conflict. He takes action and presents his opinion. By doing so he summed up the debate. In Acts 7-9 Luke illustrates Peter’s character, “And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them. ‘Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.” (NKJV) Peter testified as to his prejudice and how he had been narrow-minded. He had told God he would not preach unto the Gentiles. God spoke to him persistently using visionary experiences and coincidences. Cornelius and the Gentiles were saved by faith after hearing the Gospel preached to them by Peter. So why should it be any different with Paul? God knows the hearts of the people and it is He who will give the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. He does not discriminate. The Gentiles are as welcome to the table of grace and life of eternity as the Jews who believe and profess a hope in Christ Jesus. “…And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;” (Acts 2:17a NKJV) Peter addressed the Council and reminded them that purification is not about circumcision or other rituals. It is about true cleansing of the heart that can only be done by God as a result of faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Having applied an experience to the issue at hand, Peter presents his conclusion that all believers are saved by the grace of the LORD. He excitedly states, as recorded in Acts 15:10-11, “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” (NKJV) Peter sharply reproves those who placed Paul’s teaching in Antioch under attack. In effect they were attacking the validity of God. They were asking Him if He knew what He was doing by allowing Gentile nations to be saved without circumcision. It was settled. God had already decided they would have the opportunity without a burden system. Christ came to proclaim liberty to the captives, and they go about to enslave those who He has set free. The Jews were anxious to place the yoke of the Law on the necks of the Gentiles. However, they were never able to keep the Law themselves and many of the Pharisees were criticized for their legalistic behavior that lacked hearts of love and faith. In effect, Peter advised the Council they do not have the power to overturn what God had put in place. Why don’t you trust Christ and stop pretending? All shall be saved by His grace. This is the plan of God.

After Peter completed his powerful speech to resolve the conflict at hand, Luke records how Barnabas and Paul are allowed to speak at Acts 15:12: “Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles.” (NKJV) They testified and preached of their experiences with the Gentiles in Antioch and along the way. Barnabas and Paul gave honor to God because he owned them to be able to teach His Word. They also gave Him the honor for the honor He gave the Gentiles. Their conversions were many times accompanied by signs and wonders. Awe-inspired silence filled the room. Ps 66:16 indicates, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, And I will declare what He has done for my soul.” (NKJV)

In conclusion the Jerusalem Council decided to trouble not the Gentile believers. They did request that the Gentiles turn to God and remain away from idols. The resolution also included that the Gentile believers not offend their Jewish brethren with certain foods offered to idols and to abstain from sexual immorality.

Written by Deborah C Davis

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