Culture or Command

Acts 15:1-35

A. Source of the dispute – Pharisees v.1, 5

· presentation problem

circumcision is required for salvation v.1

deeper issue – the Law must be kept v.5

As always, things lead to things! If the Law must be kept, to what extent?? etc, etc.

[T]he questions which press for an answer can no longer be put off. They must be distinguished clearly as follows: first (A) the doctrinal question, Can a Gentile be saved? This all admit. But how? (1) Must he be circumcised and keep the law? And, if the Gentile need not be circumcised, (2) is circumcision still obligatory for the Jew? (B) The practical point of discipline. Assuming that circumcision is not necessary for the Gentiles, what is to be their position? (1) Can Jewish Christians associate with them freely, without defilement? that is, is the church to be one body? Or (2) are the Gentile Christians to remain in an inferior position, like the ‘God-fearing’ in the synagogue? that is, are there to be two standards of higher and lower merit or only one Christian life? Richard Rackham, Exposition of Acts

[T]he visiting Jewish Christians maintain that, as in the Jewish synagogue so in the Christian church, membership depends on circumcision in particular and the Mosaic law in general. The Judaizers stress that every Gentile Christian ought to adhere to and fulfill the law of Moses in order to be saved. They understand observance of the law from a Jewish, not a Christian, point of view. In effect, these Judaizers practice racial discrimination within the context of the Christian church. For example, on the basis of Old Testament law they bar a Gentile Christian from entering the temple area because he is uncircumcised. Hendriksen, NTC

The fact that they were Palestinian Jews, who had never had their exclusiveness rubbed off, as Hellenists like Paul and Barnabas had had, explains, and to some extent excuses, their position. MacLaren, Exposition of Acts

These men were of the sect of the Pharisees originally, though they were now Christians. They had, however, brought with them their old modes of thought and troubled the Christian Church now as of old they had troubled the Jewish Church. For men were divided in this matter formerly in the Jewish as latterly in the Christian Church; among the Jews one party teaching the need that all the proselytes should conform to all the observances of the law of Moses, and the others that it sufficed if they obeyed the moral precepts of the law. This led to the distinction between the proselytes of righteousness and the proselytes of the gate [between proselytes and God-fearers]. W. Denton, Commentary on Acts

The apostles and elders successfully resisted the pressure to impose Jewish legalism and ritualism on the Gentile believers. …Many believed that Gentiles who wanted to become Christians had to first become Jewish proselytes. They feared, too, that in an increasingly Gentile church, Jewish culture, traditions, and influence would be lost. MacArthur

· It is vital to recognize that from Paul’s perspective the issue centered on the Gospel – his declaration of the Gospel was correct and complete and he wanted nothing to hinder its progress. Gal_2:1-10 I went up …and set before them the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.” Gal 2:2 ESV

The thinking went “Since the Gospel had come through the Jews, Christianity must then be Judaism for the new Millennium. Only the obviously obsolete portion of religious practice could be discarded, i.e., animal sacrifice; all the rest should be maintained.” It would be easy for them to view the New Testament presentation of the Gospel as a “reform” movement within the existing church – think Martin Luther, the Puritans, etc.

Here is a lesson for all time. Paul was by no means a stubborn, inflexible individual. On the contrary, he was ready to accommodate himself and his message to any situation, becoming a Jew to the Jews, a Gentile to the Gentiles (I Cor. 9:19–23). Striking instances of this are reported in Acts 16:3; 21:17–26. But he was not willing to put any obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ (I Cor. 9:12). In fact, rightly viewed, it was his inflexibility with respect to doing everything in his power to promote the simple gospel of God’s grace in all its immaculate purity that made him so flexible in all relatively minor matters. Hendriksen on Gal. 2:2

B. Solution to the dispute – council (AD 49) vv.6-18

· decision of the Antioch church to send a delegation to Jerus., confirmed by the Holy Spirit to Paul

Acts 15:2 (Lamsa, Peshitta) And there was great dissension and controversy between them and Paul and Barnabas, and it reached such a point that it was necessary for Paul and Barnabas and others with them to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this question.

He was not sent for by the apostles at Jerusalem, nor did he go of himself, nor only by the vote of the church at Antioch, but by a divine revelation; not a revelation made to the church, or by the prophets there, but by God himself to him; he had a secret impulse from the Spirit of God, and a private intimation given him, that it was the will of God he should go up at this time; which is no ways inconsistent with his being sent by the church, but served as a confirmation to him, that what they determined was right, and according to the mind of God: Gill on Galatians 2:1

· discussion and debate

both private and public – Paul spoke privately to the leaders of the apostles first (probably Peter and James), presenting the issues to them and probably the evidence/proof of God’s sanction on his ministry – cf. Acts 15:3.

1. complex issues are difficult to explain to a large group

2. a large group is more easily swayed by emotion

3. the influence of key individuals was vital to a peaceful and reasoned outcome

The discussion didn’t stay private – it was “aired” before the entire assembly. Ultimately the church along with the leaders agreed on a resolution – the circular letter sent by Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas.

· precedent for associationalism

Chapters 2 & 3 of Denominations or Associations, Edited by James Renihan have much helpful material on the biblical basis for associations or “communions”.

Before our general meeting, held at Philadelphia, in the seventh month, 1707, it was concluded by the several congregations of our judgment, to make choice of some particular brethren, such as they thought most capable in every congregation, and those to meet at the yearly meeting to consult about such things as were wanting in the churches, and ot set them in order. …It was then agreed, that a person that is a stranger, that has neither letter of recommendation, nor is known to be a person gifted, and of a good conversation, shall not be admitted to preach, nor be entertained as a member… …It was also concluded, that if any difference shall happen between any member and the church he belongs unto, and they cannot agree, that the person so grieved may, at the general meeting, appeal to the brethren of the several congregations, and with such as they shall nominate, to decide the difference; that the church and the person so grieved do fully acquiesce in their determination. Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, 1707

C. Settlement of the dispute – letter v.20, 23, 29

Especially in light of 1Co_8:4-13, why these four prohibitions??

1. things contaminated by idols

2. fornication

3. what is strangled

4. blood

It was a multicultural setting – Jews and Gentiles

2 issues needed to be addressed

· what practices permissible (or encouraged) in Greek culture and worship should no longer be practiced because they were sinful

· what in the Greek culture might be permissible under Christian liberty but if practiced would cause Jewish brethren to stumble

Circular letter – not a mandate but an encouragement: see end of 15:31. The goal was to clarify for the churches what was essential to unity, not essential to the Gospel. The distinction here is between orthodoxy and orthopraxy – correct doctrine and correct practice. Purity of doctrine is at the core but there are limits to liberty, even Christian liberty, and the need to watch our practice so we don’t cause genuine offense.

D. Application to modern “missions”

The issue is not contextualization of the gospel – accommodating the message or meanings to another cultural setting – and the effect of that on Bible translation, evangelistic presentation, worship practice, music style, etc.

The issue is – what is the essential gospel?

1. We must remove/not include any obstacles in our proclamation of the gospel.

there should be no cultural additions to the core content – see esp. ac 15.19 Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to God. NET

The Gospel we proclaim must not be an Americanized version but must be true to Scripture. Some of Paul’s harshest words were reserved for those who would pervert the plain and simple truths he preached – see Gal_1:8-9

2. We must keep a clear distinction between “requirements” for salvation and evidence of discipleship.

The only legitimate requirements for salvation fall on God alone since he alone is able to satisfy them. Salvation is a monergistic (one-sided) work of God and anything we do is in response to what God has already done. Nothing we do contributes to our salvation although it may add to our sanctification.

Our presentation of the Gospel must not declare that “you must do _____ in order to be saved”. Rather, it should declare that “you will do ______ if you have been saved”.

3. Pray that our Gospel message will be clear and true, faithful to the Word without any additions or innovations.


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