Jerusalem council

When is the last time you were involved in a prolonged conflict? How long did it last? Weeks? Months? Years? Decades? In a fallen world, the reality of our every day lives is that we are constantly moving in and out of conflict – but sometimes, controversy and tension remain, not just for hours or days, but for years or more.

When we read Acts 15, the controversy that the Apostles were dealing with seems to have been brewing for some time – maybe a few years. How were non-Jews supposed to act as part of God’s people? Some teachers said Gentiles had to obey Jewish ritual law to be saved while other Christian preachers said that no works were necessary for salvation and acceptance into God’s family. The controversy eventually boiled over into the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. At this special meeting the church squarely faced a brewing tension and often outright hate that had been growing not just for years, but for millennia.

God's Promise to His Chosen

In Genesis, God promised Abraham that He would give him an heir who would in turn have children that would eventually multiply into a nation. Through that nation, God would bless the world. Fast-forward several hundred years and the family of Abraham, now the Jewish people, are set free from slavery in Egypt and spend some time at the base of Mount Sinai, waiting to hear from God about how He expects them to live. God eventually revealed the Law to Moses and His people (recorded in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament). The purpose of the Law was never to earn the right to be God’s children and people. God had graciously offered the Jews admittance into His family when He promised Abraham to make him a great nation. The Jews did not earn their place as God’s people – that was a free and gracious gift.

God expected the Jews to live in a unique (holy) way. This was part of their covenant (commitment) to each other – God lovingly chose them and would provide leadership, guidance, and grace for His children; the Jews (as His chosen people), were expected to live differently than the nations around them. They were to be faithful to God alone and not worship false idols. They were not to be sexually promiscuous or dabble in sorcery. God expected His people to care for widows, orphans, and weary travelers. He expected mercy and grace over routine, religious activity (Hosea 6:6). In short, they were to trust and follow Him. If they trusted God, He would continue to bless and sustain them. If they disobeyed and rebelled, He would discipline them (Deut. 28). Yet even in the midst of their disgrace, sin and well-deserved punishment, Israel remained His chosen people.

But why all the special laws and rules? God expected His people to “be holy for I am holy,” (Lev. 11:44, 20:26). In short, God wanted the Jewish nation to live differently than the rest of the world so that the other nations would see the joy and life that come from following and trusting in God (Deut. 4:1-8). The Jewish people were expected by God to show the world what it looked like to follow Him. Israel was part of God’s mission to draw all people back to Himself.

Entitlement and Judgment

But entitlement has a funny way of creeping into everyone’s heart. Over time the Jews forgot that they had been chosen by grace to be God’s people – that their works were not why God had made them His people. Grace had made the family of Abraham the Lord’s special people, not works. Over time, the religious leaders (and eventually the people) began to trust not in God, but in their own works. As the kingdom began to crumble from mismanagement, sinful leadership, rampant idolatry and sin, the people tried to manipulate God based on their supposedly “good” deeds. Jeremiah reveals that people hoped not in God, but in His temple in Jerusalem – as long as the temple stood, no one could defeat them (Jeremiah 7). God likewise condemned the people for their attempts to manipulate Him with works, declaring through Amos:

“Take away from me the noise of your songs,
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

-Amos 5:23-24

The Hebrews began to misunderstand how their relationship to God was established (substituting grace for works). They also abhorred and detested the very people they were meant to witness to. Over time, the Jews became convinced that they had earned their good standing with God and began to hate the Gentiles who refused to live like them. They forgot that they were God’s people solely by grace alone and that grace called them to live differently. They forgot that the Gentiles did not have that relationship. They forgot it was their job to show the world how His grace welcomed them into His family and empowered them to live differently.

Eventually God used the Gentile kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome to punish His wayward children. With that punishment the Jewish animosity for Gentiles festered. Not only were these people living in gross sin (idolatry, sexual immorality, greed, oppressing the poor, sorcery, irreverence for God, and more) but they had desolated God’s people and His city, Jerusalem. The ire and disdain for the Gentiles only grew worse over the centuries leading to Christ’s birth. With a false belief in works and a hatred for non-Jewish people, the stage was set for an explosive meeting at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Grace and Equality

But something remarkable happened. God, through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, made all people equal and one before Him. Faith, not works or Jewish ritual, was the hallmark of God’s people (Gal. 3:1-21). This revolutionary shift was difficult for many Jewish believers to accept. How could the Law, which taught them how to live differently as God’s people, not be essential to salvation? Had they really missed the whole point of the covenant law? As Jewish believers began to wrestle with this question, their knee-jerk reaction was that faith plus Jewish ritual law obedience was essential for salvation. But the story of Acts told another version – Gentiles who did not follow Jewish law were now a part of God’s people. In Christ, the law had been abolished. In Christ all people, not just one peculiar nation with peculiar laws, are able to be part of God’s Kingdom.

The Jerusalem Council wrestled for days over this issue. What must be done to be saved? To answer with “obeying the Jewish law” would in essence overthrow the cross and drive the early Church into the error of ancient Israel. By God’s grace and guidance, the leaders realized that no works were necessary to be part of God’s people. We all, because of Jesus’ life and death in our place, can enter His family. Acts 15 then, is not only the story of the culmination of several thousand years of disgust and distrust. It is also the story of how, in Christ, the Father draws all people to Himself – regardless of race or class. And in this way, Jesus, the descendant of Abraham, was the One whom God chose to bless the nations.

Practical History

What does this mean for you and I? How does this realistically impact our lives? While we might like to simply file this all away as ancient history, we have a lot to learn from this story:

  • We prefer to earn our salvation: Admit it or not, we really all would like to earn our salvation if we could. We want to be seen as good enough. As sufficient. As master of our lives. We don’t pursue this goal like the Jews did with rituals and temple worship. In our culture, we think we can earn salvation by doing good things, or by going to church, or participating in a community group, or by not drinking too much. Do we still gossip? Sure. Do we get selfishly angry at our spouse or kids? You bet. Do we have a secret worry or addiction we won’t confess or get help with? Who doesn’t? When we look at the whole picture, not just our attempts at being “good enough”, the whole thing comes crashing down. Earning our salvation, if we are really honest, is a house of cards. And sooner or later, we have to own that.
  • We cannot earn salvation: The Jews thought they had earned their place as God’s people through works. In reality though, grace had made that possible when God promised Abraham that his offspring would become a special people to the Lord. Grace established their relationship with God. And grace, praise God, is the only way we are made right with God through Christ. Grace (God’s unconditional, un-earnable kindness), sent Jesus from heaven to earth to live and die on our behalf. Trusting in Him and His grace, is all we need to be saved. We can abandon our ludicrous pursuit of being good enough, and trust in Jesus, who was good enough for us and offers to be our substitute if we believe and follow Him.
  • Following Jesus is messy: Many Jewish Christians wanted things to stay the same – to be familiar. But in reality, following Jesus is messy. We cannot expect that people will, after trusting Christ, suddenly look like us. In many ways, their lives will stay the same – they will continue to pay bills, work a job, make ends meet at home, like football, and more. But behind all those actions is a different heart – a new heart with God’s law and Spirit written on it (Jer. 31). As new people enter God’s family, we must not be concerned with outward conformity but with inner heart change that fuels life change.
  • Obedience not ritual: After Jesus’ life and death, Peter commanded the church to be holy, for God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). The command to be different has not changed for God’s people. But being different does not mean following rituals and national, Jewish customs like many Hebrew believers thought. It means living differently in our hearts and lives – obeying God’s commands – not adhering to a specific culture. God expects His people to obey His command to not worry and His command to honor marriage and His plan for sex (Matt. 5-7). He does not expect His people to follow Jewish dietary laws and customs (Acts 10). As believers, we must be careful that we do not elevate our culture-at-large or even our church, to the status of God’s commands. We may do some things certain ways at RADIUS that another church in town does differently. If neither church is disobeying God, then we should chalk it up to different approaches, and not get too obsessed with a difference in approach. God expects obedience to His commands from His children, not blind loyalty to culture and custom.
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