Summary: At the first Council of teh Church, held in Jerusalem it was affirmed that the preaching of the gospel brings freedom because the gospel is all about the grace of God, the freely given forgiveness won by Christ on the cross.
What are we on about as a Church? How do we decide what’s central to our life together? What is there that we must have if we’re to be a truly Christian Church? What are the guiding principles that govern our life together?
They’re the sorts of questions that arise out of today’s passage from Acts 15.
No sooner have Paul and Barnabas arrived back at Antioch and reported to the church how God has been working through them and has opened a door of faith for the Gentiles, than trouble arises. Trouble that’s, in fact, triggered by their great success in bringing Gentiles to faith. It’s ironic isn’t it? They’ve just had a congregational meeting where people have been rejoicing over the great things that have happened on their first missionary journey and suddenly it’s all spoiled by these interlopers who come in from Jerusalem with their loaded agenda about what to do with all these Gentile converts.
At first Gentile conversions had been in their ones and twos. They were in numbers that could be dealt with by the predominantly Jewish church. And there was no problem with them being brought in. The Old Testament had foreshadowed the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. Gentile converts had always been part of the Jewish synagogue. But now that small trickle was becoming a torrent. And these Gentiles weren’t the ones who’d been onlookers in the Jewish synagogues, who understood the traditions of Judaism. These were people being converted from paganism, who had no concept of Jewish religious practices; no idea about God’s laws; about how God had instructed his people to conduct themselves.
So this loomed as a major issue for the church. Here they had people being brought into the church through baptism without circumcision. That is, they were becoming Christians without also becoming Jews. They were keeping their Greek or Syrian, or Asian national & cultural identities. Here was a major problem.
This is a little bit like the controversy that arose in our Anglican circles some 25 years ago when Synod approved the notion of children who had been baptised being admitted to communion prior to confirmation. The old time Anglicans were horrified at this idea because it might undermine the whole basis of what it means to be Anglican.
Well here it’s the original Jewish Christians who were worried that the foundations of Christianity were being undermined by this influx of Gentiles with no real understanding of what had come before.
And at one level they’re right to be worried. This moment is the turning point in the history of the Church. From this moment on the church will never be the same again. Here Peter makes his last appearance. From now on, Paul takes centre stage as the "Apostle to the Gentiles." Paul would later write, in his letter to the Ephesians, that God had given him a revelation of a ’mystery’, previously hidden, but now revealed, "that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." From this moment on the Jewish and Gentile Churches march shoulder to shoulder as equal members of God’s Church. The Gentiles are freed from the bonds of Jewish law-keeping. The gospel is freed from it’s Jewish heritage to be a message for all of humanity.
So what happens? First certain individuals come down from Judea to check up on what’s happening in Antioch. Perhaps they’re unhappy with the decision of Barnabas, the previous envoy, to encourage these Gentiles who were being converted.
In any case they arrive and begin teaching that new Christians should be circumcised. Their point is that salvation comes through the people of Israel, so obeying the law of Moses is vital.
Now it seems this is the same event that Paul talks about in Galatians 2. There he talks about how Peter himself was swayed by these men into changing the way he behaved towards the Gentile Christians. As a result Paul stood up and publicly rebuked Peter for his hypocrisy. Here we’re told that Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them.
We need to stop at this point so we can understand what was at stake here. Luke makes it clear in v.1 doesn’t he? These Jews were saying that without circumcision you couldn’t be saved. They were going beyond the facts of Jewish history. At this point they were relying on Jewish tradition and religious practice to establish a theology that was in fact false. They’d forgotten that circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of the covenant that God had made with him previously; a covenant of grace, entered into by faith as Paul goes on to point out in Galatians 3. But they’d turned that sign into a condition, a prerequisite, of salvation; and that struck at the heart of the gospel.