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The Council at Jerusalem September 2, 2016

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on Acts 15:1-21.

Summary: In this passage, several Jewish believers came to Antioch and asserted that if the Gentile believers did not obey the Mosaic law, then they were not truly saved. That assertion aroused the ire of Paul and Barnabas, who went to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles and elders. At that meeting, Peter supported the position of Paul and Barnabas by citing his recent experience with Cornelius and his relatives in Caesarea. James also supported the position of Paul and Barnabas, quoting from Amos 9:11-12 – where God asserts that He will include the Gentiles in His new spiritual kingdom. James was also keen to avoid offending the sensibilities of Jewish believers, though, and so he recommended that the Gentile believers abstain from certain practices.

Thoughts: In verse 3, we see that the believers in Phoenicia and Samaria rejoiced when they learned that many Gentiles had accepted the Gospel message. This caused me to ponder a disappointing fact: I am rarely joyful when I hear that someone has accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior. This is due – at least in part – to skepticism, as I have heard various accounts of new believers drifting away from Christianity. I sense that God is calling me to be mindful of the following truths:

  • we are not assured of our salvation until we see Him face to face
  • we should praise Him whenever the Gospel message is preached, even if those who initially accept it eventually reject it.

This passage highlights a watershed moment in the history of the early church, where it was determined that a Christian did not need to observe the Mosaic law in order to be saved. Calvin offers some thoughts on this momentous gathering in Jerusalem in his commentary on verse 12:

This is a living image of a lawful council; as soon as the truth of God comes to light, it stops all controversy. And when the Spirit presides, he is effectual enough to put an end to all disagreement, because he is able to direct the tongues of those who should be leading others, as well as to keep the rest obedient so that they are not too wedded to their own wills, but will lay aside their stubbornness and obey God.

The idea that one needed to obey the Mosaic law in order to be a genuine Christian is one of the earliest – if not the earliest – heresies in the church; Gentile believers through the ages should be grateful to God and His good work through the apostles and elders in Jerusalem in this instance. Indeed, when we ponder the entirety of the Mosaic law – especially the two greatest commandments, which concern the heart – it is evident that even attempting to obey it would be onerous.

In verse 20, we see that James recommends that the Gentile believers abstain from four practices, including sexual immorality. Calvin offers some thoughts on James’ inclusion of sexual immorality in his recommendations:

There is a harder question here, because James seems to be counting this among things that do not matter, which they must be careful about simply in order to avoid giving offense…Moreover, I think he was not talking about fornication in general but about concubinage, which was so common as to be the rule among the Gentiles.

Interestingly, the ESV and the NASB versions of this verse reference sexual immorality and fornication, respectively. Now I think that it should have been obvious to the Gentile believers before the events of this passage that they needed to abstain from sexual immorality. In fact, I assume that Paul and Barnabas warned the believers in Antioch accordingly during their extensive stay at that church. Thus, I am eager to meet James in the next life and determine the precise meaning of this verse.

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