Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Acts 15

It is no exaggeration to say that Acts 15 is the most crucial chapter in the whole book.
Ben Witherington
New Testament History: A Narrative Account

Some time later some men from Judea came to Antioch and began teaching that circumcision was a requirement for following Jesus. Paul and Barnabas, who were still in Antioch, heard about this and confronted them. After what had taken place in Galatia, it's easy to believe that Paul was fired up. The church in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas, along with a few others, to go to Jerusalem to get some answers. This was beginning to become a huge issue, and the leadership needed to address it.

When they arrived in Jerusalem (250 miles from Antioch), they shared how God had brought salvation to many Gentiles throughout Galatia. Immediately a group of believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and declared that these Gentile believers would have to be circumcised.

Peter stood. He reminded them of what God had done at Cornelius' home, how He made no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, and how the grace of God was available to anyone who believed. He said that requiring anything more than faith was like putting a yoke around their necks. Luke says that the entire assembly fell silent.

Next Barnabas and Paul (notice how Luke reverses the order once again) spoke up, relating all that God had done throughout Galatia.

Finally, James stood and pronounced judgment on the matter. (We learn through this chapter that James had at some point over the past twenty years become the primary leader of the church). The decision was that Gentiles should not have to be circumcised (follow the law of Moses) in order to become a follower of Jesus. Following Jesus was difficult enough. No other burdens would be placed on them.

James did give the Gentile believers a few requirements.
  1. Abstain from things that have been offered to idols (normally referring to meat)
  2. Abstain from eating the meat of strangled animals
  3. Abstain from eating blood
  4. Abstain from sexual immorality
At least a couple of these requirements sound rather strange to modern readers, but James' judgment would have been clear to the readers of the document. He was telling Gentile believers that they must stay away from pagan temples. Paul would later echo this warning (1 Corinthians 8,10). James said that though they did not have to be converted to Judaism, it was mandatory that they make a complete break with paganism.

I find it fascinating that in a letter this important, the leaders used the phrase, "it seemed good" three times. The first instance is verse 22, where "it seemed good" to the leaders to send Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch with this pronouncement. The second instance is verse 25, in which they relayed this same information in the body of the letter. The third instance is verse 28, where they say, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden" than the requirements listed above.

They never said that this was God's divine Word for the Gentiles. They had no doubt been praying like crazy and having endless discussions. It seemed to them that this was the correct response. Part of me wants a little more definite of an answer, but another part of me loves that they were ok with this.

The letter was received by the church in Antioch with much rejoicing.

Some time later (possibly up to two years later) Paul came to Barnabas and suggested that they return to the churches they had planted to see how things were going. Barnabas thought that was a great idea, but suggested that John Mark go with them. Paul had obviously not gotten over the fact that he had abandoned them a few years earlier. Luke says that they got into such a sharp disagreement (15:39) that they parted company. Barnabas took John Mark and went to Cyprus, while Paul took Silas (who had earlier accompanied them from Jerusalem to Antioch with the letter) and went back to Galatia.

This saddens me. Barnabas was such a great man of God, yet this is the last that we hear of him. He no doubt continued to spread the gospel, but I wonder if he and Paul ever reconciled.

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