In the Church
Old Testament: 2 Samuel 9 & 10
Poetry: Proverbs 21
* New Testament: Acts 15
Being a Christian isn’t about being able to apply clear rules to every situation. But sometimes believers wish for more rules to go by, and sometimes they even make the mistake of trying to apply their own rules to others.
The intense dispute about circumcision reported in Acts 15:1-2 sounds like it could have taken place in the Gospels, between Jesus and some of his opponents (for example about clean and unclean food). But this argument didn’t end with a parable and an attack on false teaching. Rather the church in Antioch sent representatives to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with people who would be influential on the group from Judea that began the conflict, and so able to convince them to end it.
The idea that circumcision is necessary for Christians doesn’t carry much weight with us. But circumcision was the symbol of God’s covenant with Abram, setting him apart (Genesis 17:10‑14). To join the Jewish people men underwent circumcision. There were also examples of circumcision being put off for a time, as when the Hebrew nation went through the wilderness (Joshua 5:2‑9). So an ex‑Pharisee might have argued that a believer’s expression of faith in Jesus didn’t mean all the requirements for salvation were met, until circumcision was complete (they could even point out that Peter called for Cornelius to be baptized after he showed signs of the Spirit, he didn’t say that baptism ought to be skipped; Acts 10:47).
During the meeting at Jerusalem the discussion was about the fact that circumcision committed people to obey the law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas had already been preaching that Jesus “freed from all things which you could not be freed from through the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). And here was being presented the Law as an add-on which believers would be unable to do, and only be troubled by attempting to do (15:5, 10, 19).
James, the half-brother of Jesus, suggested an alternative which still had four issues to avoid: things contaminated by idols, fornication, what is strangled and blood. Why these? It has been suggested that these were thought to be basic issues that would allow for Jewish believers and Gentile believers to interact and eat together. The first involved the source of food, as a lot of meat sold in the markets was provided from temples, being the extra cuts from their sacrifices. The source would not be obvious once a meal was being served but would have made a dish unacceptable for some while being fine for others. The last two items are basically the same issue – strangling an animal meant leaving its blood in it when butchering it. Again this would not be visible but would be objectionable to some diners. The remaining issue of fornication involved willingness to be involved with a variety of sexual activities, some linked to religious purposes, that were commonly accepted outside Jewish society. So James was saying in this case that the new Christians probably needed a special reminder to separate themselves from these things because of what they would have been used to.
When these four issues were put into a letter it was framed that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these . . . . if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well.” (v. 28-29). The standards were not being stated in the strongest of terms. And those who started the problem are described as not having received instruction on the issue, but the point is also made that the group in Jerusalem has only now become “of one mind” about it themselves. No big accusations, no rejections. These people are still “some of our number”, and presumably they were spoken with by Judas and Silas (if they were still in the area) and guided because they didn’t understand yet. It had taken a vision to prepare Peter for his meeting with the uncircumcised Cornelius, and it took the filling of the Spirit to show that Cornelius was ready for baptism without circumcision (Acts 10:47). And we aren’t that clear how widely Peter had been going around reporting on his experience since then trying to spread awareness of his new insight so that others would be up-to-date on the standards regarding Gentiles. Change can be slow.
The issue of food sacrificed to idols comes up again in Paul’s writings, more than once. 1 Corinthians 8, for example, says that a person’s conscience should determine how they behave on this issue. This does not mean it is unimportant. Revelation 2:20, in one of the seven letters to the seven churches, reports the condemnation of a false prophet for leading astray some of Jesus’ disciples. One of the offenses the prophet committed was causing them to eat food sacrificed to idols (presumably in violation of their consciences).
The chapter has another sad note, because some time after having returned to Antioch Paul and Barnabas found they could no longer work together due to disagreeing over whether to trust John Mark anymore. He had left them once and Paul didn’t want to let him work with them again (Acts 13:13). Maybe Paul considered that Mark had “put his hand to the plow and looked back,” and was not fit for the kingdom (Luke 9:62). The thing is, I’m not sure how many people start off “fit for the kingdom.” Eventually Paul and Mark worked together again, and Paul valued him greatly (2 Timothy 4:11).
Lord, please let your peace rule over our hearts even in our disagreements. Please help us not to quarrel with each other, whatever the provocation. Let us show that we care for each other, and be willing to give up our own interests for each other rather than fight. Let us care even if we are angered to commit to become calm and truly give our attention each to the other, and to care for and honor each other. Let us not lie to one another, and let us believe each other. Let people truly recognize that we belong to you because of how we love. In the name of your son Jesus I ask this, Amen.
- We have simple goals as Christians, like to love and to bring peace. (I didn’t say “easy goals.”) How often do you find yourself converting your goals into following rules? How can you fight against that impulse?
- Do you think that the discussions in Acts 15 ended the disputes about circumcision in the church?
- The conflict between Paul and Barnabas divided their efforts and had them cover different areas. Do you think that their conflict was beneficial? Or do you think if they had gotten along better God would also have done equally great things through them?