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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Christians and the Law: Controversy

“And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’ ”.
These words in Acts 15:1 introduce an issue that challenged the Christian church soon after its inception and would continue to be debated among the believers for years to come.

But why was it such a crucial matter for the early church?

Paul’s background as a Pharisee certainly gave him a ready understanding of the Judaizers’ position, but on the basis of his knowledge of the gospel of grace, he strongly opposed their teaching. Years later he would explain to the Galatians:
“A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus ... by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified ...  if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Galatians 2:16,21)
Paul and Barnabas fought the Judaizers in Antioch for some time before it became clear that the debate must be officially resolved. At last the church at Antioch decided to send a delegation, led by Paul and Barnabas, to Jerusalem to consult the apostles and elders there.

Whatever was decided at the council would determine the practice of the Gentile believers throughout the Roman Empire and throughout subsequent history.

Arriving at Jerusalem, Paul and his company were welcomed by the apostles and gave a full report of their ministry among the Gentiles. However, when the specific reason for Paul’s visit was discussed, some of the believers of Pharisaic background immediately declared their support for the Judaizers. Not only must the Gentile believers be circumcised, they said, but they must be made to observe the Law as proselytes to Judaism had done in the past. Otherwise they were not truly saved.

Was this really such an important issue? Couldn’t the Judaizers have been allowed to prevail to keep the peace, or, as a compromise, couldn’t the issue have been left up to individual conscience? The apostles and elders quickly saw the foolishness of any such superficial means of dealing with the situation. No, it must be discussed and debated thoroughly, and a firm decision made, even though large numbers of Jewish believers and potential believers might be alienated if the ruling were not in the Judaizers’ favor.

The issue was crucial because it struck at the very center of the Christian faith — the belief that the Lord Jesus Christ had provided the ultimate and perfect sacrifice for sin, and that no further works of men could add to or complete the salvation and justification of those who trusted in Him.

If it were deemed necessary for a Gentile believer to accept circumcision and follow the Law, then this would show that Christ had not done all that was necessary to atone for sin and make men right before a holy God, and would ultimately lead to an understanding that faith in Him was superfluous, since nothing He had done or said on earth had changed the means by which men approached God. 

The debate among the apostles and elders went on at length, possibly for several days. No doubt many scriptures were consulted, many arguments raised. Luke does not record all the deliberations and all the evidence, but he does supply for us the closing remarks which decided the issue.

First Peter rose up to speak, followed by Barnabas and Paul, and the final pronouncement was made by James “the Just", the half-brother of Christ who had become prominent in the Jerusalem church.

Next: The outcome of the debate

RJA

Published by permission of the author

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