I’ve been reading through the Acts of the Apostles for my devotional time. Acts is a continuation of Luke; scholars believe that initially it was one book called “Luke/Acts.” Luke tells of the life and times of Jesus, while Acts tells us about the life and times of the early church.
This morning I read Acts 15. I’m familiar with this text anyway because I wrote my undergrad research project on it. I think the first time that I really had this text hit me was in 2004 or 2005, my family went to Pennsylvania for Easter, and I read it on the flight. Verse 19 in particular was an amazing read, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
Here’s what is taking place:
Paul and Barnabas are in Antioch at the end of Paul’s first missionary journey.
Some men from Jerusalem show up at Antioch and start telling the Gentile converts to Christianity (still a sect of Judaism, btw), “Unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas, who had a ministry to the Gentiles specifically, disagreed and all sorts of arguments broke out. The church, then, sends Paul, Barnabas, and “some other believers” (no doubt some of the the people from Jerusalem) to go to Jerusalem to find out about this teaching.
After stories were shared, some Pharisees stood up and again repeated the charge, with an addition, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses.” The leadership them met to discuss what was happening. Peter defends the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, and says, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?”
Translation: Why are we making these people obey a law that we could not keep? We’re saved by the grace of God, not by what we do.
Eventually, James (Jesus’ brother) stood up and addressed the group. He quoted a text from the OT (Amos 9:11-12) and then said the statement that rocked me. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 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. for Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read from the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
James tells the believers that it should not be a set of hoops that people must jump through to become believers. And the things to avoid are simply out of respect (the exception here being sexual immortality) for the Jews that are gathered in the same synagogue where the Christians (remember, still a sect of Judaism) were meeting.
They then compose a letter, which begins, “We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said.” Translation, “These guys cowboyed the message of salvation” so we are sending some people back to make this right. But, it won’t only be Paul and Barnabas (who had argued against the men in the first place), it will be Judas and Silas so they can confirm what this letter says.
There is a tremendous amount of accountability here. Picture it…Paul and Barnabas are in Anitoch. Some guys come saying something different, and they all go to the place where the dispute arose. What would it look like of just Paul and Barnabas had come back to Antioch with a letter saying “see? we were right!” Even Paul and Barnabas were subject to accountability.
After a while, Judas and Silas left, but Paul and Barnabas remained behind, teaching and preaching. And also, we can presume, on the lookout for false teachers.
We should. There are people today who do not know Jesus. I know, that’s a shocker.
And there are people telling them about Jesus. We need to allow the gospel to stand on it’s own. If someone wants to come to God, we shouldn’t worry about how they dress, or who they will vote for. They might smoke, they might drink alcohol. They might say a “bad word” or two. They might be different from us.
And the last thing that we need to do is to try to get people to adhere to some ridiculous american sub-cultural evangelical nonsense that somehow passes for Christianity. We need to rejoice like Paul and Barnabas and the church in Jerusalem and marvel “about the miraculous signs and wonders God” has done to them and through us.
It should not be difficult for people to turn to God.