Acts 15:1-21 How Strict?

Certain people 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.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. 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. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

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.”

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them 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.10 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? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:

16 “‘After this I will return
    and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
    and I will restore it,
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
    even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—
18     things known from long ago.

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 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. 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.”

How Strict?

It is often said that Christianity is not about the rules but about a relationship.  Some people even say that it is not a religion, it is a relationship.  These statements are flawed, but they try and communicate something helpful.  The Christian faith has an odd relationship with behavior.  The Jewish faith is the foundation of Christianity.  Anyone who has read the Old testament knows that there are a lot of rules.  Some of the rules are still to be obeyed for all time by everyone.  Other rules are just for the time before Christ.  Which ones are which?

This is a huge issue today because many ‘smart’ people are criticizing Christians over sexuality.  The sexual revolution in the sixties flung wide a gate that Freud had pushed open.  Christians sexually repress themselves and others, so the argument goes, and freedom from sexual repression leads to self-actualization.   Now we sex fills our billboards, our T.V. screens and the conversations at the local bar.  Freedom is equated with freedom from restraint.  However, in ignoring ancient rules we are creating new problems.  Perhaps our libertine attitudes are partly responsible for the anxiety and depression with which we still struggle.  If everything is meant to become amazing when we are free from restraint, what do we do when reality shows us the opposite?

The opposite pole of the debate is to embrace a freedom that is free from everything.  This is often based in fear.  I believe that by controlling all of the variables I can guarantee the outcome that I want.  The ‘certain people’ mentioned above had bought into this kind of religion.  There are those who want to keep God at bay and keep themselves from harm by following the rules.  In effect, there are those who want a system by which they can control the gods and save themselves.  In the Jewish faith God provided ritual laws which people could try and keep so that they would remain blameless and righteous before God.  Of course, ultimately the nation could not do that.  It kept mixing in rules from other religions, it kept being to to self rather than God, and in the end the whole nation was under judgement.

Jesus provides freedom from ritual law but not from moral law.  We do not need to go to a temple, avoid cooking a goat in its mother’s milk, or weaving together two fabrics.  Those laws have served their purpose and are completed by Jesus’ death.  The law of morality, though, is built into the fabric of creation.  The results of the choices that we make for laissez faire sexuality create instability and insecurity.  The way we lie to each other shields us from the authenticity that is the bedrock of heart-to-heart relationship.  The way we justify white-collar theft undermines the long term integrity of our businesses.

A person who loves God finds that Jesus has removed all the rules and formulas for access.  The Way is wide open.  However, those who truly find God live life differently.  It is not because they have to but because they want to serve the one who has set them free and wish to live in harmony with His Creation.

Prayer

Dear God, I am saddened by how Christians are seen to be uptight and afraid.  Help us to see the freedom that we have and to communicate that clearly.  May the world find the freedom from themselves and their desires which lead them into darkness.  May we all come to the light.

Questions

  1. Who wanted Christians to live stricter lives?
  2. How was the problem of obedience to ritual law addressed?
  3. How do you evaluate the early church’s solution?
  4. How do you see Christians as either embracing law or grace to excess?
  5. How can Christians better communicate the lifestyle that God calls us to live?
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About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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