Thursday, April 10, 2014

Christians and the Law: Answering the Challenge

“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 how did the apostles deal with this challenge to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ?

Peter’s attempt to persuade his brethren was based on his personal experience of how God had worked in the hearts and lives of the Gentiles who had believed through his ministry. He described how God had not only directed him to share the gospel with pagan people, but had showed His approval by bestowing the Holy Spirit on those who had believed. By giving the Spirit He had clearly shown that in His sight the Gentile believers were no different from and no less privileged than the Jewish believers.

This being the case, what grounds were there for saying that the uncircumcised Gentiles were inferior in God’s sight and needed to do more to complete their salvation?

Had God Himself made a mistake in giving the Spirit prematurely to people who were not truly saved? 

Surely not, said Peter. Why, therefore, were the Judaizers attempting to be stricter than God Himself in this matter? The burden of keeping the Law was heavy, and no man had ever been able to fulfill it completely.

Therefore the Law could never be the means by which salvation came. Salvation was through the Lord Jesus Christ as a free gift, and this was just as true of the Gentiles as it was of the Jews.

Paul and Barnabas’s subsequent address to the council is not recorded, though it is summarized by Luke in verse 12 of the chapter. Their approach was similar to Peter’s, in that they argued their case by relating their personal experience of God’s mighty work among the Gentiles. Perhaps they related the incident at Lystra where God used Paul to heal a lame Gentile who had believed or told how God had set his stamp of approval on Paul’s witness to the Gentiles by reviving him after he was stoned by a mob in the same city. In the face of the mounting evidence the crowd was silent, considering carefully the things they were hearing. But the final word must belong to James.

James was known and respected, even among unbelieving Jews, as a pious and Law-abiding man. His testimony in the world was impeccable and his authority highly regarded in the church. Because his love for the Old Testament was so well known, it was likely that the Judaizers believed he would be on their side.

They were in for a surprise.

James opened his argument with a quotation from the Old Testament, but the verses he gave came not from the Law but from the Prophets. Using a prophecy recorded by Amos, James described how in the past God had revealed that the Gentiles would come in to God’s kingdom and be called by His name. God would surely support and strengthen Israel, but not for her own sake: rather, she would be used to draw the rest of the world to Himself.

In light of this prophecy, James explained, it would be wrong to hinder the Gentiles from receiving the gospel by putting extra requirements upon them. The Gentile nations as a whole had never been given the Law; the Law had been given to Israel. In the past Gentiles who wished to follow God had joined the Israelite nation, but this was no longer the case: now they were joining themselves to a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ. In the past few Gentiles had believed; now great numbers were coming to faith.

It was clear that something significant had changed in God’s dealings with mankind, and this could not be ignored.

No, the Gentiles were not to be burdened with the observance of the Law. Rather they were to be encouraged and supported in their newfound faith in Christ, the One who is the ultimate goal and fulfillment of the Law.

Nevertheless, the issue of how to facilitate closer relations between Jewish and Gentile believers could not be ignored.

There was no reason that Gentiles should give needless offense to the Jews by continuing in strongly pagan practices, and it was also necessary that Gentile believers should maintain some standard of godly conduct which might make them a testimony to their neighbors both Jewish and Gentile. Perhaps James also had in mind the basic commandments given to Noah prior to the Law, which Jews today still consider to be binding upon Gentiles.

He ruled that although the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised nor to accept the Mosaic Law, they ought to follow a few basic principles of morality:

·         Firstly, they should stay away from food which had been ritually offered to idols. Later, in his first epistle to the believers at Corinth, Paul would show his approval of this teaching, pointing out that although such food was not evil in itself, and it was possible for a believer to eat it with a clear conscience, nevertheless Christians ought to refrain from such things if they caused others to stumble.

·         James’s second ruling was that the Gentiles should stay away from sexual immorality, which was an extremely common practice among the pagans who regarded sexual activity with cult prostitutes as a form of worship. Paul also reiterated this teaching to the Corinthians.

·         The third ruling was not repeated by Paul in his epistles and may have been a temporary measure to avoid stirring up needless offense and controversy among the strong Jewish contingent: the Gentiles were to abstain from the meat of strangled animals and from the eating of blood.

None of these commandments were unreasonable or unduly burdensome, and they served to give some moral direction to the Gentiles and to remind them to be considerate of their Jewish brethren, while at the same time rebuffing the Judaizers. The whole council, including Paul and Barnabas, seems to have agreed willingly with James. A letter was drafted to send to the Gentile churches in Syria and in Asia Minor to notify them of the council’s official decision.

This letter served four purposes:

·         one, it made clear that the Judaizers who had come from Jerusalem were not officially sent by the apostles and did not have their approval;

·         two, it showed unconditional approval for Barnabas and Paul in their ministry among the Gentiles;

·         three, it commended Judas and Silas to the work among the Gentiles; and

·         four, it laid out in writing the simple requirements the Gentiles were to follow, so that no legalist might misrepresent or add to them.

Next: Repercussions


Published by permission of the author

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