The third witness to the validity of God's Instructions is how they were regarded by the first Believers.
When we started trying to interview this witness, we had a whole list of statements to consider. Acts 15 immediately went to the top of the list. This chapter describes a pivotal decision reached by the first Elders of the Church about 20 years after Jesus' death, including what is often thought to be the authorized list of the only commandments Christians are now required to follow.
When Ben and I read this chapter, we were seeking anything contradictory to what our previous two witnesses - God's Unchanging Nature and Jesus the Renewer of the Covenant - had already testified to. We had been given the distinct impression that until Acts, there was no question about whether followers of Jesus should follow the commandments or not. Our previous witnesses had unequivocally stated that God's Instructions were still as firmly in place as the heavens and earth.
But our third witness seemed to be giving confusing testimony. In spite of God saying things like "Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it" (Det. 12:32), or Jesus saying, "I did not come to abolish the Law", the first Apostles seemed to feel completely authorized to select what they should and should not obey. And we did not think Jesus' words to Peter about the keys to the Kingdom and being able to bind or loose really meant Peter and the other Apostles could do away with God's word. That would be destroying the very foundation their faith was built on, since Jesus is the living embodiment of God's Word!
Principle of Testing: Do Not Allow Contradictions To Remain Unchallenged
When you discover an apparent contradiction in a foundational Scripture, it's important to resolve before forming a belief. Otherwise beliefs become based on personal assumption rather than truth and that's a dangerous thing.
In Acts 15 we had an apparent contradiction. God said no one could add or subtract from his Law, Jesus said he didn't come to abolish the Law, but the men he had personally trained and who had become full of God's Spirit were apparently ignoring this.
In order to really think Acts 15 through clearly, we had to first untangle what question the Jerusalem Council was truly considering. Our first step was to challenge the assumption that the debate was about God's Law. What were the earliest Christians really trying to decide in the important meeting known as the Jerusalem Council? Was it the validity of God's Law or something else altogether?
The issue began in Antioch while Paul and Barnabas were visiting and teaching there sometime around 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus.
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. - Acts 15:1-2
Today we often call what the Judean believers were teaching "works-based salvation": the belief that there is physical action which must be taken as the requirement to inherit Eternal Life. If that action isn't taken, you can't receive the Holy Spirit and you're not saved.
Some Christians today have this belief about baptism, but that's a whole 'nuther issue.
Paul calls these two opposing philosophies "the Law of Works" and "the Law of Faith" when he outlines this debate in the book of Romans:
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. - Romans 3:27-31
So far, there are just two ideas in question here:
Number 1 states Gentiles can't receive Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit unless they've been circumcised. Physical actions are the cause of salvation.
Number 2 is the opposing view: the only qualification for receiving Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit is faith in God. Physical actions are the evidence of salvation.
It's absolutely critical to note that both groups believed in keeping God's Law ("Do we then overthrow the Law? By no means!") but differed in the spirit of keeping it. This was not a debate about whether God's Instructions should be followed. It was a debate about what enables a person to receive Eternal Life.
The Jerusalem Council Convenes
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.
The church [in Antioch] sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
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 law of Moses.” - Acts 15:2-5
Popular reading of this passage interprets the debate to be about two new topics now:
Number 1: Gentile believers need to keep God's Law and all the traditions of the Elders to be real Christians.
Number 2: No, the Law is too burdensome and difficult to be followed and the Gentiles only need to have faith in God. A believer is not to physically do anything to please God.
But Did The Debate Really Change?
After reading this quite a few times, we can't agree with this popular reading. The debate didn't change midway through the Council. It was still about the same question it started with: do we receive Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit by something we DO or something we BELIEVE?
The Christian Pharisees simply expanded what they thought needed to be done in order to receive Eternal Life. They agreed with the men of Judea and therefore took the works-bring-salvation position in the debate.
They also clarified that not only should a Christian be keeping God's Instructions, but they should also be following the Traditions of the Elders - this is indicated by the fact that God nowhere states in his Instructions dictated to Moses that circumcision of adults is a pre-requisite to being part of his people. He only talks about the circumcision of baby boys as a sign of faith by their parents. When the Christian Pharisees listed the circumcision requirement separate from God's Law, it was an acknowledgement that they knew it wasn't something God commanded. However, they felt the tradition of the Elders was strong enough and important enough that the new believers ought to be obeying it as well as God's Instructions.
So even after the statement by the Christian Pharisees, this debate didn't change directions. It didn't become centered around the validity of God's Instructions but stayed focused on what qualified a person to receive Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit.
The question before the first church Elders was still an argument between the two mindsets: "You need to keep these rules to be given Eternal Life" versus "God gives Eternal Life as a gift to those who have faith in him."
The Turning Point
After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” - Acts 15:7-11
No one else's words and arguments are quoted from this debate except Peter's. James later sums up and concludes the debate's results, but this is clearly a turning point where the Christian Pharisees began abandoning their previous argument.
In common interpretation, we are usually told that the "yoke" Peter referred to here is the Law of God. This presents a problem, because God himself says that the simple keeping of his commands is not difficult and Jesus - the incarnation of the Unchanging God - says his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. - Det 30:11-14
"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” - Matthew 11:29-30
Peter notes correctly that no one has ever been able to attain Eternal Life and the Holy Spirit except by God's grace through faith. However, if God also states that the keeping of his Law given through Moses is easy, Peter can't contradict God and say it's impossible so Gentiles shouldn't even bother! That would be subtracting from the words of God and would therefore make Peter a false prophet who should have been stoned if that was really what he was saying.
Think about the consequences here. If Peter was really advocating abandoning the Instructions God himself spoke, he would be the prophet God said this about:
"If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him." - Det 13:1-4
Peter is obviously not a false prophet...but if the yoke he was talking about in this verse was really God's Instructions and he was saying they were too heavy to follow, we should be ignoring him today as a test to our faithfulness to God.
There is something else going on here. The yoke he was referring to had to relate to the question being considered, which was laid out in the first verse when it was stated the men from Judea were teaching, "Unless you're circumcised, you can't be saved."
If the original subject is remembered, the definition of Peter's statement becomes obvious: the "yoke" is the network of additional interpretations and commands that had been added to God's Law by men who then considered those commands as equally - or even more - important to those God had given. God did not command circumcision of adults in his Law and he certainly didn't require it of Cornelius before pouring out his Holy Spirit on him. This was conclusive evidence that the Antioch debate was settled, but Paul and Barnabas immediately stood up and began citing miraculous evidence of the Holy Spirit among the Gentile converts to support Peter's statement.
This meant that three witnesses spoke on behalf of the matter of salvation through faith alone: Peter, Paul and Barnabas.
When Peter, Paul and Barnabas finished speaking, Jesus' deeply-respected brother James brought out a fourth witness: God's Words written in Amos 9:11-12.
When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“ ‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’ --
things known from long ago.
This was clear support for Peter, who was speaking on behalf of the believers who stated that Eternal Life comes through faith and obedience to God's Law comes afterward through that same faith.
There were only two positions in this debate and one of them was clearly silenced. There was no way keeping the Law would be able to give a person Eternal Life and instill the Holy Spirit in him: that was a gift only God could grant and he only granted it to those who had faith in him.
But what does Amos mean when he says God will rebuild David's fallen tent so all Gentiles who bear God's Name will seek the Lord? Next up: How the Jerusalem Council instructed Gentile Believers to go about seeking to live a Godly life once their salvation had been established by faith and God's favor.
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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