What do we do with those pesky, fun-loving Gentiles?

Acts 15:13—21

Without a doubt, the hardest thing for human beings to do is understand how free God’s salvation really is. Grasping God’s grace in salvation is like trying to bottle a ray of sunshine. It’s fairly easy to put words to it: the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is justified by faith on the ground of the finished work of Christ plus nothing else. Nobody can add to the propitiatory work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

However, since the Church was founded, all kinds to things have been added to the work of Christ as the basis of salvation. For example, here are some familiar church teachings:

  • You are saved by faith, but you must be baptized to get into heaven.

  • Grace saves us, but that grace comes to us through the sacrament of the Communion.

  • We may be saved by grace, but God saves us through the Church, so you must join a local church in order to be saved.

Adding to the work of Christ is nothing new; it’s as old as the Church. The very first “church council” was held to iron out just what one had to do in order to be saved.

1. Background

Thanks to the effective preaching and teaching of the Word, Gentiles by the bucket-load were finding Christ as Savior. Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary excursion yielded awesome results for the Kingdom of Heaven. With the influx of all these Gentiles came a controversy:

Certain individuals 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.” (Acts 15:1)

Who were these “certain individuals?” Were they false teachers? Or Judaizers? Or just Jewish trouble-makers? In the beginning, the Gospel was preached to all people as salvation by grace plus nothing else. Jew or Gentile all got the same message. This troubled some, though certainly not all, Jewish Christians. In time, these “certain individuals” became the infamous Judaizers, but at this early this juncture, they were merely very sincere JewishChristians, members of the church in Jerusalem, who were alarmed with all these Gentiles flooding into the Church.

What these “certain individuals” said, though, was enough to bring the work of Paul and Barnabas to a stand-still. However, what this Gentile church did about the situation spoke volumes about the quality of their faith:

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. (verse 2b)

They didn’t hunker down and give in to the demands of these Jewish Christians nor did they rail against them. Instead, this wonderful congregation did the mature thing in sending their representatives, Paul and Barnabas, to the place where the Church began.

Paul and Barnabas, on the way up to Jerusalem, did an unexpected thing:

as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. (verse 3)

These intrepid missionaries didn’t seem to be bothered in the least with the “certain individuals” who brought their work among the Gentiles into question. Instead, as they traveled, they shared all the good results of their ministry and all the believers who heard them were overjoyed with what God was doing. They didn’t seem to be too concerned about the minute; Christians ought always rejoice when anybody finds Christ, no matter who they are, where it happened, or how it happened.

Upon reaching the Mother Church in Jerusalem, they were well-received by the Church leaders there. Among those listening to Paul and Barnabas were members of “the party of the Pharisees.”

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.” (verse 5)

In all likelihood, it was members of this group that caught up with Paul and Barnabas in Antioch. Who were these people? They were genuine believers who had been Pharisees. They were sincere, honest Jewish-Christians who had a problem with all these new Gentile converts.

It may seem difficult for us to realize, but sometimes “other Christians” may hold different views than we. The fact is, all believers form opinions based on the light that they have at any given time. These former Pharisees had the Old Testament memorized, and they knew the prophecies of the Old Testament that said Israel was chosen by God and that other nations would come to God only through Israel. The Pharisees knew what the prophets said: all men could be saved, but their salvation was always by way of Israel. They knew prophecies like these:

Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:3)

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zechariah 8:23, read whole chapter)

As far as these experts in the Law were concerned, these prophecies and others meant that these new Gentile converts needed to submit to certain aspects of Judaism in order to ensure their salvation was genuine.

In answer to these sincere Jewish-Christians, Peter got up and spoke about his experiences with the household of Cornelius, a Gentile.

God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them [Gentiles] by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. (verses 8, 9)

Peter saw how God worked with the Gentiles and came to the right conclusion: God does not recognize a difference between Jew or Gentile and He treats all people the same.

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

…you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. (Isaiah 37:16b)

Since God does not discriminate against anybody, and since everybody is a sinner and everybody is need of saving, everybody gets saved the same way: through faith in Jesus Christ. Peter came to this conclusion, and he ended his dissertation this way:

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? (verse 10)

2. The decision

When Peter, Paul, and Barnabas had spoken, the leader of the Jerusalem church got up to address all those gathered. It was James, the half-brother of Jesus, who had formulated a decision that met with the approval of all the leaders of the church. James’ word was, literally, the last word on this subject. Here is what James said:

Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:

“‘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 humanity may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’—things known from long ago.’” (verses 13—18)

Just what was James’ real message in these verses? He quoted from Amos 9:11—12, but not from the Hebrew Bible. Instead, he quoted from the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, which differs considerably from the Massoretic, or Hebrew, text. We’re not sure why he did this, and opinion is quite varied as to the point of the Old Testament citation. However, if we consider the audience to whom James was speaking, namely the members of the Pharisee party, James’ meaning comes clear.

These former Pharisees knew the Old Testament by heart, and they knew that the Gentiles would turn to God en mass and be blessed by the nation of Israel during the reign of the Messiah in the Kingdom. However, James told them that this mass conversion of the Gentile world is NOT what was going on. During this present dispensation, God is calling out of the Gentile world a people for Himself, just as He had previously called out a people for Himself, the nation of Israel, 2,000 years prior. God began this “Gentile calling-out” with Peter, who was the very first Jewish evangelist to reach a Gentle.

The key in James’ talk to the leadership of the church are the words “after this.” After what? we should be asking. The answer: After what we are witnessing TODAY, both the “today” of James’ time and the “today” or our time. In other words, God is not converting the world today. Instead, God is calling out an elect people from the world (read Gentiles) and bringing them to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through the ministry of the Church, not Israel.

The plan of God, and the program of the Old Testament prophets, looks like this:

  • “After this” means after the present Church Age. “I return” in verse 16 refers to the Second Coming of Christ as described in Revelation 19.
  • Christ as Messiah “will rebuild David’s tent,” or He will restore the House of David that has crumbled.
  • When Christ returns, He will establish a way for the remainder of mankind to “seek the Lord.”
  • Then all the Gentiles will be in the kingdom, Amos 9:11.

Instead of speaking in a condescending manner to these former Pharisees, James actually told them that they were right, just not right now. The day would come, at some point in the future, when the entire world would find the Messiah through Israel. Evidently, many of the Pharisaic believers did not get what James was saying and eventually broke from the true church and became the dreaded Judaizers.

Ultimately, James gave Paul and Barnabas a four-point plan for the Gentiles.

First, they should abstain from food polluted by idols. We all know, as Paul did, that there was nothing wrong with eating food offered to idols. So why would James insist that Gentiles avoid it? The issue of this particular restriction concerned a big problem in the early church, and Paul would later have to deal with in 1 Corinthians 8:1—10 and 10:19). Because this food was such a “lightening rod,” even though there was nothing wrong with it, it would be prudent just to avoid it all together. In other words, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. A Christian has the freedom to do all kinds of things, and he has the freedom to not do those things.

Second, Gentiles should abstain from sexual immorality. This was another big problem in the Gentile world and was often practised as a part of their worship. The church was justified in making this demand of their members.

Third and fourth, Gentiles should abstain from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. Why does James insist on these two restrictions? They are closely related, since blood cannot drain from a strangled animal. Both these admonitions were firmly part of the Mosaic Law, although they harkened back to the time Noah when human beings were first allowed to eat meat:

But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. (Genesis 9:4)

Why did James insist that Gentiles abide by this tenet of Judaism and not the rest of them? The other restrictions he suggested were not so much restrictions as common sense. But the last two, no strangled meat or meat with blood still in it, seem to be wholly Jewish in nature. To understand why James advised this is revealed in verse 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.

The church needed to be united. There had to ONE church, full of Jews and full of Gentiles, not two separate churches for each culture. Had the Gentiles continued eat their strangled meat, they would have offended their Jewish brothers and sisters. Abstaining from that kind of meat was merely a matter of courtesy.

In fact, most of James’ admonitions to the Gentiles were designed to prefer others; to place their needs over one’s own. This idea was later expanded upon by Paul:

I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23, 24)

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (verses 32, 33)

James’ advice, and later Paul’s, is desperately needed today. We should always prefer the needs of other believers. That’s not say some Christians should constantly be subordinating themselves to the whims of other Christians. In fact, Paul himself limits the extent that aforementioned preference:

Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat everything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted that person. (Romans 14:1—3)

The limit is disputable matters. We should never wield our freedom like a bat, beating up other believers until they agree with us. When something is disputable, the strong believer lets it go; he eats his strangled meat at home and not in front of a believer who would be offended by it.

How wonderful the church would look if we all preferred our fellows in the name of Christ and Christian unity.

We can appreciate the wisdom of James, who, in his admonitions to the Gentiles, not only freed them from the burdens of Judaism as additions to the grace of Jesus Chris in the matter of salvation, but he also nodded to the former Pharisees as if to say to them, “You aren’t all together wrong.”

How wonderful the church would look if we had pastors and elders who exercised that same kind of wisdom.

© 2011 WitzEnd

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