In my last blog, I wrote about the true question the Jerusalem Council was asked to decide: "Is there something physical we have to do to receive Eternal Life...or is it something we believe?
After summing up the agreement of the Council of Elders that salvation comes by faith rather than any physical actions, James proposed an answer to be sent back to the Gentile churches.
In order to understand what was really said to the Gentile churches, it's important to note something about these new converts: they were pagans.
A Jewish Believer who came to faith in Messiah already knew God. He might have extra commands to unlearn, but ultimately he was familiar with who YHVH was and what pleased him. He did not have to start from scratch just learning adultery was bad, for instance. It wasn't wicked for him to continue living in the basic way he'd been brought up.
Most new Gentile Believers were raised in traditions that were wicked to the core. They were used to attending ceremonies at pagan temples where prostitution was a part of worship. They had shrines in their homes where they set out food for the household gods. It was mandatory to publicly worship Caesar. All facets of life - birth, marriage, death, daily life, holidays - were based on beliefs God abhors.
These new believers had to rework pretty much everything in their lives just to get away from serving other gods. If we were to teleport back in time, we'd probably be shocked at what basic things the Gentile Christians had to change. And it wasn't something that could just happen overnight.
The Advice: Focus on the Biggest Problem First
My violin teacher had an interesting way of approaching students who'd learned to play badly: she always picked the thing that would make the biggest difference to work on and left all the other problems alone. It didn't mean all the other problems weren't there - just because she was working on your bow-hold didn't mean your position shifts were fine - but until the bow was fixed she would ignore the other issue.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." - Acts 15:19
James knew the Gentile Believers had a lot to learn about what it meant to live a Godly life. It wasn't wrong for more mature Jewish Believers to be counseling the new converts how to live. What was wrong was expecting them to take on all the commandments, the traditions of the elders and the ceremony of circumcision for them to be saved. It was faith that saved and the life was changed as a result, not the other way around! Expecting them to totally re-work their lives and telling them salvation depended on it was making it difficult for the Gentiles turning to God.
But that didn't mean some changes weren't in order.
“Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” - Acts 15:20-21
Why did James feel it necessary to add that last piece about Moses and his teachings? What was he indicating by that comment?
He's indicating an incredibly important point: he did not tell Gentiles to ignore God's Law. Instead he recognized that the Gentiles were already attending synagogue every Sabbath and learning about what God had told Moses to instruct God's People.
When James says the Gentile Believers should be instructed to abstain from food polluted by idols, from immorality and from the meat of strangled animals, he is not only citing God's Law but the way the Jewish Believers interpreted it!
He was advocating instructing the Gentile believers to first abandon all vestiges of idol worship as God's Law commanded and focus on learning the rest of God's Instructions during weekly Sabbath teachings.
He was focusing on the bow-hold and leaving the shift changes for later.
The Formal Letter
Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Are These The Only Things A Christian Must Do To Live A Godly Life?
It is often said that the only command remaining for Christians to follow is one of loving one another. Ironically, this pivotal passage supposedly supporting the idea that there are no more commands for Gentile Christians doesn't mention love at all. It does list a few commands and in this translation (I chose the NIV since it's the most common) it even sounds like these commands are the only things a Christian has to do to live a Godly life.
That interpretation makes no sense.
If these are really the only commands remaining for Gentile Christians, why do we take God's command not to murder seriously?
I read one teacher who said that since the new Law for Christians is Love, than we can murder anyone we want so long as we do it in love. He obviously meant that tongue-in-cheek, to show how ridiculous the idea of murder being fine with God is...but where are the Elders of the Church stating any such thing regarding the "new" law of love here?
If they were really declaring that Gentile Christians are now only bound by a "Law of Love" and the Law of God is useless, you would've expected them to write this letter saying, "Now don't be concerned, dear new believers, you don't have to bother with God's Law. We have a new law now, and as long as you love others as you love yourself you are free from all bondage to Jewish law. Continue on as you were since nothing you do is wicked anymore."
But that isn't what they wrote. They said, "You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality."
Nothing about a new "Law of Love". Nothing about freedom in Christ. In fact, they are referring - in the case of refraining from eating blood - to dietary commandments and ones guarding against the worship of pagan gods. This is obviously not a comprehensive list of what they thought a Christian life should look like. If it were, there would not be 1,000+ other commandments issued in the New Testament. But there are.
Paul Proves the Law is Still Relevant for Gentile Believers
Paul goes on to prove that the Jerusalem Council did not believe in cancelling God's Laws but were merely settling the question of salvation by deed versus faith first and deed after.
When he went about his mission of taking the Council's letter to the Gentile Churches, he met a promising young disciple named Timothy. Before taking him along on the very mission to supposedly proclaim freedom from the Law to all Gentiles, he circumcised Timothy.
1Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. 3Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. - Acts 16-1-5
Okay, I'm not sure what Luke means here when he says Paul circumcised Timothy "because of the Jews in the area". Clearly Paul had no problem at all debating his Jewish brothers up one side and down the other when it came to circumcision for salvation - that's why he was in Jerusalem at the Council in the first place! Perhaps this was something done for Timothy's sake since Timothy had obviously already taken hold of the New Covenant and was saved. I don't know.
But one thing is glaringly obvious: the letter Paul carried to the churches absolutely could NOT have been announcing that the whole Law was done away with and there was no value for Gentiles in keeping any part of it. It couldn't even be saying circumcision was of no value to a faithful believer. If that's what it said, Paul just went and nullified the whole thing by proclaiming to the world for the past 2,000 years that he still thought it was a good idea for Timothy to undergo circumcision.
Either Paul was a schizophrenic con man trying to fake people into thinking he believed something he didn't, or he knew the letter he carried was not telling the Gentiles to ignore God's Laws.
The truth is, as Paul explained, there is great value in circumcision and keeping God's Law: but those things must come from faith and a redeemed heart to be rightfully done.
"What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God." - Romans 3:1-2
"Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law." - Romans 3:31
"Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not!" - Galatians 3:21
The Jerusalem Council was not making a decision regarding the validity of God's Law. They were making a clear judgement that there was no physical pre-requisite to receiving God's gift of eternal life and the Holy Spirit. It's not what you DO, it's what truth you BELIEVE that gives you life.
Their advice to Gentile Christians came straight from God's Law rather than ignoring it, strengthening the concept that God's Instructions set out the way he wants those who believe in him to live. Rather than saying, "Forget about following God's Laws", they said, "You are forgiven already! Now leave your old ways behind and live a new and God-pleasing life."
And how do we know what kind of life pleases God? By listening to what he himself declared pleases him!
"For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Wife of Benjamin and mother to two wonderful little girls who are getting bigger every day. Enjoys writing down thoughts and discussions we are having within the family and sharing them with whoever is interested in reading.
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