I am continuing the comparison of Palmer Becker’s summary of an Anabaptist identity with the first church in the book of Acts. Last Sunday we noted the connection of “Jesus is the centre of our faith” with the summary of the church begun at Pentecost (Acts 2). Today we examine a controversy that threatened to blow up the First Church of Jerusalem, and which decisively changed the shape of that church—the Council of Jerusalem, called to consider the question: Must Gentile believers in Jesus the Messiah be circumcised and keep the whole Law of Moses? They decided No! We take their decision for granted, given that we are part of the Gentile Church coming from that decision; but it was not nearly so straightforward and clear at the time.
Acts 15 illustrates the second and third of Becker’s summary statements: “Community is the centre of our life, and reconciliation is the centre of our work.” Given that Acts 15 has to do with who is in the church, we can see how it deals with Becker’s comment on community, but we will actually examine reconciliation more deeply. We begin with the background to this passage, and then examine the decision more closely.
The Issue of Circumcision
The first church in Acts 2 was a Jewish church. Although it was highly multicultural, it consisted of “Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2: 5). It remained a Jewish church throughout the first eight chapters of Acts, with a minor movement to Samaria. We can see from Acts 11: 19-21 both how thoroughly Jewish the church was and how it broke out of those confining walls:
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
As long as the church was Jewish, all followers of Jesus continued to observe the Jewish Law. Jesus himself had said that he came to fulfill the law, not to get rid of it. But when Gentiles started joining the fellowship, they had a problem.
The first major movement of Gentiles came in chapter 10, when Peter went to the house of Cornelius, sent by the Holy Spirit, and baptized a houseful of new Gentile believers, who had received the same gift of the Holy Spirit that fell on the first disciples at Pentecost. The evangelizing of Acts 11 added to this beginning, and soon there were many Gentile believers, especially in Antioch, about 300 miles in straight flight north of Jerusalem. (F.F. Bruce suggests that Antioch was the home of Luke, the author of Luke-Acts.)
When the Gentile church began in Antioch, the Jerusalem Church sent Barnabas to instruct them (Acts 11: 22). Barnabas enlisted Saul, and they discipled these new believers. One immediate result was that the Antioch Church helped the Jerusalem Church to survive a bad famine (Acts 11: 27-30). Barnabas and Saul took the gift to Jerusalem, and returned to Antioch at the end of chapter 12, taking with them Barnabas’ cousin, John Mark. (The rest of Chapter 12 tells about Peter’s imprisonment and about the death of James, the son of Zebedee.)
In chapter 13 one can sense trouble brewing. The Antioch Church was a Gentile church, and they sent Barnabas and Saul on a missionary journey to modern Turkey. They went first to Cyprus (which was Barnabas’ home), then to a number of cities in Turkey (closer to Paul’s home in Tarsus). They started by preaching in the synagogue, with good responses from the community, but the Jewish leaders opposed them and began to “heap abuse” on them. In 13: 46f Paul and Barnabas responded that they would now turn to the Gentiles, which marks the beginning of Paul’s Gentile ministry. (Note the significant shift in naming; until chapter 13 Acts refers to Barnabas and Saul; from this chapter on Acts refers to Paul and Barnabas, suggesting that Paul takes the lead, using his Roman—and therefore Gentile—name.) Chapter 14 continues their ministry in Turkey, leading to more conversions and the growth of the Gentile Church. So the stage is set for Acts 15.
Verses 1-4: If the Jewish church had so far not insisted on circumcision, that now changed. Some Pharisees from the Jerusalem Church insisted that the new Gentile believers should be circumcised; Paul and Barnabas stood against them. The Antioch Church gathered together and decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to work out a solution with the elders of the church there. This does not mean that the Jerusalem Church had authority over the Antioch Church, but indicates that the two groups in the church (Jewish-background believers and Gentile-background believers) recognized that this issue was central to the shape of the gospel, and therefore to the shape of the new church. You notice that they were welcomed in Jerusalem. The two groups began their conversation hoping to find a resolution, not expecting to disagree.
Verses 5-11: These verses present the basic debate.
1. The circumcisers made their case: Everyone who follows Jesus must also keep the whole Law of Moses, including circumcision. Clearly this position means that new Gentile believers have a lot more to do than just follow Jesus. From verse 5 we can see that the ones most likely to insist on keeping the whole law—including circumcision—were Pharisees who had accepted the gospel. They might have expected Paul the Pharisee to agree with them, but he did not.
2. The apostles and elders debated their case. We sometimes call this “the Jerusalem Council”, but this was a smaller leadership group who spoke for the whole church. (This fact does not mean that an elder-led church is biblical and other forms or not; this form reflected Jewish culture, drawn directly from the synagogue.)
3. There was a long conversation, in which we can assume that most people had a chance to speak.
4. Peter then makes his case against circumcision for Gentiles. The circumcisers may have thought that Peter would be on their side, after all, as Paul tells in Galatians (2: 11ff), when the circumcisers first came to Antioch, Peter listened to them and stopped eating with Gentiles until they would be circumcised. But Paul rebuked Peter at that time, and Peter appears to have been convinced. He says two things:
1) God showed me in the house of Cornelius that God loves all people; God does not play favourites between Jews and Gentiles.
2) The law is actually a yoke (a burden of discipline) that neither Gentiles nor Jews can bear. Rather, it is God’s grace given in Jesus that saves us, just as God saves Gentiles.
Verses 12-21: Peter’s words shifted the mood of the meeting. Now Paul and Barnabas started telling what happened in their recent trip through Asia Minor (Turkey), in which God’s Spirit was as evident has the Spirit had been at Pentecost. When they were done, James, who appears to take the leadership in the Jerusalem Church, gives the verdict. This James was the brother of Jesus, and probably the author of the book of James in the NT.
1) God spoke through Simon (Peter) to call Cornelius.
2) The prophets had said this would happen (quoting from Amos 9: 11-12). 3)
3) We must listen to what God is doing today: Gentiles do not need to keep the Law (so they do not need to be circumcised), but we do ask them to honour Jewish food laws to make the transition easier for Jewish-background believers. (Compare Paul in Romans 14 and 15 on food offered to idols.)
So the resolution to the issue was to focus on their common centre: “We are saved the same way that they are—through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The resolution included advice not to take advantage of the decision to put the losing side on the defensive. Circumcision was a once-a-lifetime ritual, but food laws were lived with every day. Rather than making the Jewish-background believers uncomfortable on a daily basis, every time they saw Gentile-background believers eating food, they looked for common ground to help people live together.
More About The Issue
It is hard for us from this distance in time to see how contentious an issue this matter of circumcision was. Listen to the way Paul talks about the issue in Galatians, which was written just before the council met in Jerusalem and dealt with these issues from Paul’s perspective. (If you want to know what Paul said in the Antioch and Jerusalem meetings, Galatians gives a pretty good idea!)
Galatians 3: 1-3,
“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?
Again, Galatians 5: 2-6,
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
And finally, Galatians 5: 11-12,
Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
Clearly Paul saw the centre of the gospel, faith in Jesus Christ, as at stake in the debate.
Meanwhile the circumcisers were themselves making a strong case that any Gentile men who were not circumcised were betraying the Law of Moses and betraying Jesus at the same time. The issue was one that had the potential to destroy the first church, both the First Church of Jerusalem and the First Church of Antioch.
In this incendiary situation, the apostles and elders found a way forward by reconciling the two groups together into one body. This reconciliation was revolutionary, and serves as an example for us to follow in our lives today. If Paul argues eloquently against circumcision in the book of Galatians, he speaks with even greater passion of the great work of reconciliation that the church actually embraced. Hear his description of this reconciliation in Ephesians 2: 11-22,
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Wow! This is the heart of who we are. “Reconciliation is the centre of our work.
For Us Today
I wonder what example to choose to illustrate such reconciliation at work today. Often our conflicts are over criminal actions, so we observe the way that the Amish forgave the killer in the Nickel Mines shooting. One can find stories in the news of individual acts of forgiving acts as terrible as a murder. Perhaps the most moving for me have been reports in the NY Times from April 6, 2014, about survivors of the Genocide in Rwanda. The article tells stories from the work of the NGOs seeking to bring perpetrators and victims together for confession and reconciliation.
Here is one such brief story:
NDAHIMANA: “The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”
MUNGANYINKA: “After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’ The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”
None of their stories suggest that reconciliation is easy. It must be worked at one step at a time. In the early church the conflict did not end with the Jerusalem Council; it had to be worked at one step at a time for many years.
Our conflicts are not nearly as serious as the criminal acts I have mentioned, but the scars they leave are deep, separating people from each other. The first church came close to a full-scale explosion, and avoided it by drawing on their deeper common centre, their life in Christ.
They made peace by laying their differences out on the table, and then re-centring on Christ. That work of re-centring became the work of reconciliation. We do the same today—from seeking peace with God to seeking peace between the nations of the world. Reconciliation is our work. Reconciliation is our ministry and our message, given to us by God, in a world on the verge of exploding. To be fully Anabaptist is to embrace this work of reconciliation in every area of our lives in every way possible with everyone around us.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
21 May 2017
Text, Acts 15: 1-21
The Council at Jerusalem
15 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.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. 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. 3 The church 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. 4 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.
5 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.” 6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 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. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 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? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles.15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16 “‘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’—18 things known from long ago.
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”