I had not intended an exhaustive study when I started this, but to this point that is what has resulted. The plan from this point – as the series is moving into passages where the general topic is the church and its particulars, the readings will become more extended; and as such I will likely forego printing the longer readings in the body, relying instead upon your interest to pursue them on your own. But I will stay with the same format: chronologically looking at the listed scriptures and letting each statement act as its own interpreter. This will likely impose some fuzziness when all that is needed to be known to speak accurately and to formulate opinions may not yet have appeared before us in the text. So, I again ask those who are reading these things to exercise some patience as you continue to follow along. God has said that we can all understand his word (and understand it alike). Jesus also said in one place that God “feeds the sparrows” but he does not drop it into the nest. And he won’t drop his word into our hearts either. We will have to search it out.
Continuing then where we left off: in Acts 14: 27 is the following – “And when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. So they stayed there a long time with the disciples.” This denotes the efforts of Paul and Barnabas and reiterates that the gospel had been carried to the other nations after being first brought to the Jews.
By the time we reach chapter 15 the apostle Paul and his companions though then still in the area surrounding Antioch are soon set to return to Jerusalem (v. 3 – 5) accompanied with some news of events and of some issues that affected the teaching of the gospel. The controversy introduced during their travels to and from Antioch is deemed important enough that word of it needed to be brought before the apostles in Jerusalem for disposition. The text concerning this continues from this point through to the end of this chapter, and so I urge you to read it before you continue and refer to it as you read the remainder of these comments.
Because this issue was spreading through the area (as with rust, false teachings never sleep), and as some confrontations with the adherents of this had already taken place, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to inform “the apostles and the elders” of these things (v. 2). The initiators were Christians but yet were also identified as Pharisees (as being aligned with this sect still denoted a distinction within the Jewish communities as well as identifying one with particular doctrinal and political schools of thought). The recently returned Paul and Barnabas first met with the church and told of their journeys and in particular the spread of the gospel to the non-Jews, in a meeting before the assembly (v. 4). And the language implies that things came to a head during this meeting where the whole assembly was present to hear the details of the work of Paul and Barnabas (v. 4 and 5). The record states that during this meeting “the apostles, the elders, and the brethren” were all present and then states “that some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the Law of Moses.”
I take this to mean that this group stood up during the proceedings and publicly stated that they felt the gentile converts should be circumcised to be counted as Christians. At some point this meeting was dismissed (with no further remark from the writer) and another convened so that the matter might be considered by “the apostles and the elders” outside of the general assembly (v. 6). So they (the ones holding this doctrine) had put it directly to the church, during the meeting where the church had come together to hear Paul and Barnabas speak. From there the issue was taken into another meeting with just the leaders of the church present. Those in opposition to the apostles weren’t half-stepping.
As quoted, the controversy was that these Pharisees felt that these Christians should be circumcised and that the Law of Moses should be upheld (v. 5). But circumcision is only a small piece of the argument.
This began as most political questions and religious questions do when there is opposition to an existing order or teaching. There is an issue and there is usually a much narrower but much more emotionally charged focal point or hingepin around which the issue and the debate turns and widens. The issue itself is often not so well understood as is the finer focal point. One is a small thing and when taken alone may seem insignificant, or which by whose adoption there may first appear to be no harm. But it only can be counted at full value when the whole is viewed. The smaller issue (here circumcision) is what might be called the “McGuffin.” The director Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin something that was highly visible, disputed or sought after, but that had little value, either by itself or to the plot. Circumcision is the McGuffin, or it is like the matchlock used to set the charge. When the whole becomes visible, the partial often dwindles in significance though it may have seemed first to be of the utmost importance. It was then as it is now.
The question really was whether or not the Jewish Christians could be rallied to uphold the age old religion of the Jews (of which the Pharisees viewed themselves as the strict upholders) and to enforce it upon other Christians though the Christians out of the nations might have had no knowledge of those things. In so doing they would make a hard turn back to the religion of Israel and thereby likely signal an end to the church. This road has been well trod, though rocky, and its path turns quickly out of the Way.
Can you imagine the emotional charge in the situation with those that sought to impose the old against the new? While they are being told of the spread of the gospel to the nations, some apparently interject that the old religion of the Jews must yet be observed and preserved as a part of the new. Friends, this is exactly how many of the denominations got their start: in appeals to parts of the old law division resulted as the old and familiar overtook the new. Left alone in time there were splits in many churches over these very types of things – so it has been in every age; so it is now. Now, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine that if these Pharisees had been successful that the churches would at best have been in danger of becoming nothing more than another sect out of the Jewish religion, and at worst of ceasing to exist altogether. So the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
Lets note how this was dealt with. In verse 6 is the following: “So the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.” It seems that at the first the issue was examined by the leaders of the church – information is sought actively and evidence gathered. Here in Jerusalem some or all of the remaining apostles (and this clearly refers to the apostles of the Lord) were still present so they are mentioned ahead of the elders of the church as those whose duty it is to discharge these things. Now there are apostles no longer. They all died a long, long time ago and there have been no qualified men since – and if you should doubt that please read Acts 1:15 – 26, or please show where such men are now, and why have they not shown themselves openly, and why have they not marshaled the believers into a unified church? Knowing that the scriptures teach that such things have not continued, I am forced then to conclude that in todays churches it would be the elders first that would initiate and examine any issue of consequence that might come before the assembly.
As part of the meeting with the apostles and elders, Peter gives a statement of the recent events and how the non-Jews had been granted to be admitted into the churches. From verse 7 – 11: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”
He stated that to add anything from the Law would amount to testing God (something surely to be avoided), and would be “putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.” Then Paul and Barnabas recounted their recent journeys and the turning of their efforts towards those outside of the religion of Israel (v. 12).
From this point James stands forth and delivers a godly opinion that is then endorsed by the rest of the disciples. Now as to who this James is; there is some controversy. But we can authoritatively state that he was not James the son of Zebedee, apostle and brother to the apostle John, for we know that he had been killed by Herod Agrippa (as we noted in the last installment), as was recorded in the twelfth chapter. So that then leaves only two choices: that he was the apostle James the son of Alphaeus, or that he was James the half brother of Jesus (which is the choice of most of the historians and ancient writers).
Historians note that James, Jesus half-brother, rose to prominence in the church at Jerusalem and was also later martyred there. There is confirmation of this in other places in the NT. In Acts 21: 18, it is implied that this same James as is first mentioned here was one of these elders in the church at Jerusalem – “On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.” In Galatians 1: 19 , is the following: “But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.”
This is somewhat problematic as this James could not have been an apostle of Christ, at least not in the sense that Peter or Paul were apostles of Christ. Simply put, this must then be a different use of the term apostle, used in another sense – one indicating someone other than the hand chosen apostles of Christ (of which there are only 14 listed in the scriptures: the original twelve and Matthias, who took Judas place, and with Paul closing that list). Here it must be used to mean as it does literally – “a person sent,” in this case perhaps indicating being sent of the Lord: that is, through his authority, through his word, or by his church. It cannot bear the same definition as the other as that would impose a contradiction against other statements in the word of God and would be completely contrary to the given definition and clear understanding of the title apostles of the Lord. The bottom line is this. This James is mentioned as one of the elders in the church at Jerusalem. He is the one who draws the conclusions in this incident which are then adopted by the apostles, the rest of the elders, and by the assembly there. This in itself indicates that the apostles let those who possesed a clear understanding of the truth offer their input without any hindrance. So with some input from two of the apostles, the elders then formulate the action to be taken. This James is also listed later as an apostle, but that does not necessarily imply that the office of apostle of Jesus was some elective post, that it could be appointed beyond the qualifications listed in the scriptures, or that it could be obtained either by legacy or through some other appointment.
James states his opinion: “Known to God from eternity are all His works. Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” (Acts 15: 18 -21)
He councils that the people should not be given more than they can understand or do good with, which has nothing at all to do with the common notion of doing as we choose in serving God. It has to do with not being given more by men than God himself has given us to do to be pleasing in his sight. It then states that this seemed appropriate to the apostles and elders and to the whole church and it was decided to send a letter with these remarks to the other areas where these things were causing conflicts.
Now while it is clear that only the leaders of the church (qualified men) and the “brethren” there heard the initial arguments (verses 6, 7, and 13), it is also true that the entire assembly was brought together to first hear the information, to hear the end of things and to later concur with the disposition. So it is therefore useful and scriptural to involve all of the members of the assemblies in all of the things that concern sound doctrine and which concern the church.