7. Church Begins – Problems Arise
Acts 15:1-4 “Some men came down from Judea and taught the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you can’t be saved.” Therefore when Paul and Barnabas had no small discord and discussion with them, they appointed Paul and Barnabas, and some others of them, to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question. They, being sent on their way by the assembly, passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles. They caused great joy to all the brothers. When they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the assembly and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all things that God had done with them.
At its beginning, the apostolic church was one church under the unitary leadership of the apostles. It had an expanding eldership, often called presbyters, bishops or overseers.’ From earliest days, the church had a simple but well-defined order. Elders and deacons were set apart to their particular tasks, as we saw earlier in Acts 6. Members were received upon profession of faith and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were administered. Discipline was exercised, in which members who had fallen into sin and remained unrepentant were excluded from the church. The church was never individualistic: that is to say, people did not suddenly decide to ‘join’ or ‘leave’ the church, as is too often the case in modern churches. The church was a corporate entity, in which pastoral oversight and spiritual authority were exercised by the leadership. A leadership raised up by the Lord and set apart according to a church policy mediated by the divinely inspired guidance of the apostles. This did not mean that there was neither controversy nor the threat of disunity. From the beginning, problems arose which needed to be resolved with pastoral, spiritual and judicial authority.
It is therefore no surprise to find, early on in Church history, a question arising about the nature of membership in the church and to see the matter being dealt with through the collective leadership of the church, the apostles and elders, who met together in a deliberative assembly (Acts 15v6).
The problem arose because some men from Judea came to Antioch and promoted the view that circumcision, according to the law of Moses, was necessary for salvation. ‘They were opposed by Paul and Barnabas. The church must have been seriously upset by the dispute. There was no final resolution and so help was sought from the church in Jerusalem, still at this point the heartland of the Christian church, from which the problem had come in the first place. Paul, Barnabas and some other believers were reputed to take the case to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
It is impressive to see the orderliness and seemingly good spirit in which they sought to deal with the dispute. This is reflected in the way the news of the conversion of Gentiles was received along their path. The church was one church, united in a glorious obsession with the gospel and the conviction that there is one truth by which the people of God are to be guided and ordered in one, undivided body. Every theological and practical controversy potentially threatens the unity of the church. In this case, the issue was fundamental to the meaning and application of the gospel itself. The intense conservatism of some of the Christian Jews was expressed in an insistence that certain regulations of the Old Testament law be required of non-Jewish converts as prerequisites for their recognition as members of the church of Jesus Christ. This is, of course, the so-called ‘Judaizing controversy’, which, notwithstanding the action of the Jerusalem Council, continued to dog the progress of the apostolic church and was to be he target of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. The heart of the matter is the tendency to add to the Word of God in defining who is, or is not, a Christian and thus expand the scope of what makes for a credible profession of faith to take in all sorts of unbiblical rules and requirements. The ‘Judaizing’ Christians in Antioch did not want to add some new man-made tradition of innovation, but desired to keep certain elements which had been God’s will for the Old Testament church.
How could that which was good and holy until Jesus came again, become an improper imposition afterwards? The answer had already been given explicitly and also implicitly in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon Samaritan and Gentile believers (Acts 8v7; Acts 10v45-48). The maintenance of an Old Testament regulation (in this case, circumcision), when it had been replaced by a distinctively New Testament ordinance (baptism), was equivalent to imposing a man-made tradition even though God had originally given it to his people. Why? Because God had made it clear, through the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, that baptism was to be the ordinance of incorporation with his people for the whole New Testament era, until its culmination in the Second Coming of Christ (Matt. 28v19; Acts 2v38). The transition period of the first-generation church of the apostles, however, made sensitive and difficult matter with which to deal. Jewish Christians still attended services in the synagogues and observed the ceremonies at the temple (see Acts 21v26 for an instance of the involving the apostle Paul). Only with the destruction of the Temple in AD70 would the ceremonial aspects of the Old pattern for godliness decisively recede from the practice of church.
On arriving at Jerusalem, the delegates from Antioch were welcomed by ‘the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them’, This gathering evidently consisted of the leadership (apostles and elders) and many of the membership, including those convened were putting forward the requirement that Gentiles ‘must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’ (Acts 15v5-6). This was the context for discussion of the issue.
The Jerusalem Council, as it has been named, was a group of ordained elders together with the apostles, The significance of this council, beyond the immediate decision which was made, lies in the fact that the apostles did not make the decision for the church, as could well have been expected of men of their unique position and gifts, but participated, for the purposes of this decision, as elders with the other elders, albeit as the ‘first among equals’, It is for this reason that the Jerusalem Council is the great prototype of ‘synods and councils’, whether congregational or Presbyterian, ever since. Having convened for that purpose, the apostles and elders’ engaged in a deliberative discussion of the issue referred to them by the church in Antioch, namely, whether the Judaistic proposition that circumcision and a commitment to keeping Mosaic law were to be required of Gentiles (Acts 15v7). There was free debate and no papering over differences. The apostles let the elders speak before they joined in, thus showing the way for the future, when their uniquely revelatory gifts would be gone,
Furthermore, it is clear, from what is said later, that their goal was to know the mind of the Holy Spirit in the matter (Acts 15v28). The Jerusalem Council is a reminder to the church of Jesus Christ to go back to God’s way of seeking the mind of the Spirit on the issues confronting the doctrinal purity and the practical peace of the body of Christ – namely, by God-appointed elders in deliberative assemblies. The way the discussion unfolded in Jerusalem is the most vivid recommendation for God’s way to solve the church’s challenges,
Peter arose after much discussion, and proceeded to demolish the Judaistic viewpoint with arguments drawn from his own experience of ministry to Gentiles. He first described the conversion of the Gentiles as the work of God (Acts 15v 7-9). It had been God, not himself, who had determined that, through his lips the Gentiles might hear the message of the gospel and believe. It was certain that God had accepted them, because He had given the Holy Spirit to them, just as He had to Jewish believers; and this was proved by the Gentile Christians’ faith, which was no different from their own (Acts 15v9). He then rebuked those Jewish Christians who would insist on human works – in this instance, circumcision and the law – as necessary for salvation (Acts 15v10). They should have known better! Their fathers could not bear the ‘yoke’ of the law. It could not save them. They could not keep it. To suggest that this same yoke is necessary to being recognised as a true believer in Christ was, in effect, to deny their own profession of Christ as their Saviour! Worse still, it was to trying to test God – that is, to challenge God’s ability to save lost people by grace through faith in Christ alone!
To make any action, however righteous in itself, an instrument of the justification of a sinner before God, when God has made it plain by precept and actual experience that it is by grace alone through saving faith in Jesus Christ, is to contradict the very essence of the gospel! Faith is in a category all of its own. Faith is not a ‘work’. It is, to be sure, the act of the human heart casting itself upon the Lord, but it is pre-eminently the gift of God as Paul later says so that no one can boast (Ephesians. 2v9). Rising to a glorious crescendo, Peter declared emphatically the very heart of the gospel (Acts 15v11). Salvation is by grace alone, both for Jews and Gentiles. Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11v30). There is no place for the yoke of a law, which could only condemn us!
The two missionaries, whose labours had largely occasioned the controversy, supported Peter with testimony to the miracles attending the ministry to the Gentiles. These showed that God was working among them, as he had among the Jews. Then, as we shall discover next time, James speaks and the church goes forward in unity! Thank you.
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