I. Problems With Judaizers
A. The teaching
- Some men came from Judea teaching the Christians that unless they were circumcised according to the custom of Moses, they could not be saved. This appears to be a growing problem among the disciples. Some are teaching the need for circumcision. Paul and Barnabas have engaged these teachers and have had serious arguments and debates with them.
- Now all of this could have been solved if the Christians wanted to appease those teaching the need for circumcision. The problems would end and everything would be okay. But there is a greater point involved. Will we do something to appease other teachers? More importantly, will we add a requirement to the gospel message? Can we tell other people they are not saved because there is something that is missing? This is a critical issue that faces the first century Christians.
- The apostles and elders of Jerusalem decide to get together to discuss this problem. When they gather together, the apostles report all that God had done with them. But the Jewish Christians stand up and declare that it is necessary to circumcise them and command them to obey the law of Moses.
B. The discussion
- The apostles and elders need to determine what is God’s will. How they go about determining God’s will is important for us as we strive to follow the pattern of the New Testament church.
- In verse 7, Peter declares that God chose him by a vision to be the first one to go to the Gentiles. God testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God had given the apostles at the very beginning in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 2. God made no distinction between the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians for their hearts were also cleansed by faith.
- But Peter does not leave the dispute by simply describing his experience with Cornelius and his household. Peter makes a strong argument: why are you testing God by putting on the disciples’ necks a yoke that no one could bear? Why would we command the keeping the law of Moses for salvation when keeping the law for salvation is not possible? No one is able to be justified by the law. Thus Peter concludes, "On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way they are." Peter says that we (Jewish Christians) are not saved through the keeping of the law of Moses and neither are Gentiles.
- Paul and Barnabas then describe all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After Paul and Barnabas finished, James the brother of Jesus reports that these events are in keeping with the words of the prophet Amos. Based upon these things, James declares that they should not cause difficulties for those who turn to God.
- Thus, they decide to write a letter to those who were teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in which they explained what God had commanded them to do through the Holy Spirit. Therefore the Gentiles should not be burdened with anything else but the challenges they already face trying to be Christians in the Greco-Roman world. They were to abstain from food offered to idols, eating things strangled or drinking blood (common in pagan worship), and to keep from sexual immorality. They encourage the Christians to avoid paganism within the empire and follow the living God.
II. How To Find God
A. Not through direct intervention
- This issue of whether circumcision was necessary for salvation was critical in the first century. If the apostles, elders, and other disciples misunderstood God’s will, thousands upon millions of people would be compelled to be circumcised even though it was not God’s will. Further, many would reject the gospel if it included circumcision unnecessarily.
- How the apostles, elders, and disciples go about finding out God’s will is important for us to learn and follow today. Verse 28 tells us that they were guided by the Holy Spirit in the arrival of their decision. Now when we say the Holy Spirit guided the decision, we often immediately think that the Holy Spirit did something miraculous.
- This is the way many people think they are to find out God’s will. On television we see people declaring that God spoke directly to them and told them what they ought to do. We have seen others claim that God would kill them if a certain amount of money was not received. Some people teach that you will hear something in your ear or in your head, which is the Holy Spirit talking to you. Others teach that the Holy Spirit moves your heart and whatever you feel is the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Other denominations teach that we are to wait for God’s prompting to know what we are to do.
- The Holy Spirit guided this decision, yet there is no record of the Holy Spirit intervening in the debate over this issue. In fact, I would have expected this to be an instance where we would see the direct intervention of God because of the gravity of the issue. This decision was too important to botch. But God had revealed his will on this matter already and it was up to everyone to determine God’s will. Let us look how the first century Christians determined God’s will and then we will know how we are to know God’s will today. Let us take the three ways they determined God’s will in reverse order.
B. Direct command (15:15-21)
- The easiest way to determine God’s will is by finding God’s commands in the scriptures. This is the way James, the brother of Jesus, comes to the conclusion that it is God’s will that Gentiles need not be circumcised for salvation.
- James reads from Amos 9:11-12 where the prophet declared that all Gentiles may seek the Lord. The prophecy did not declare that the rest of mankind would have to become Jews or keep the law of Moses to seek the Lord. Salvation was intended by God to be offered to the Gentiles at the coming of the Messiah.
- This is the most straightforward and simplest way to determine God’s will for us. Direct commands which call for us to "love our neighbor as ourselves" and to "repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins" cannot be ignored. No amount of human logic or rationalizing can deny the clear commands of God.
- If I can have make an aside at this moment, I would like for us to consider something else about the words of Amos. The religious world teaches that the temple in Jerusalem is going to be rebuilt so that Christ can return at the end of time. This teaching is called premillennialism and is promoted by Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye. But I want us to read something carefully in this prophecy: God says he will return and rebuild David’s tabernacle (the temple, as understood by premillennialists). But if Acts 15:16 of Amos’ prophecy has not been fulfilled yet, then neither has Acts 15:17 of Amos’ prophecy which states that Gentiles can seek the Lord. The point is this: if God has not rebuilt the temple and must still do so in the future, then no Gentiles have salvation yet. Only when the temple is built can the Gentiles be offered salvation. It is important to see that Amos was not prophesying of a literal temple in Jerusalem, but of God’s kingdom which would be restored on the day of Pentecost. On that day, Jews and Gentiles would be able to seek the Lord and find salvation. God’s kingdom has been restored and is not something to look toward in the future.
C. Approved Examples (15:12)
- But the words of James were not the only way that the first century Christians determined it was God’s will that Gentiles not be circumcised for salvation. Paul and Barnabas spoke and declared the signs and wonders that God had done through them. This is a case of following an example, sometimes called approved example.
- Paul’s point was that God would not allow his miracles and wonders to be used for the salvation of the Gentiles if what they were doing was wrong. God would not allow these mighty works to do something false. Paul and Barnabas are using themselves as an example to the first century Christians to show that salvation could come to the Gentiles without circumcision. If circumcision was necessary, why could Paul and Barnabas continue performing miracles to the Gentiles?
- Therefore, the examples of the apostles also become a pattern for our lives. This fits with the teaching of the New Testament as Paul declared, "Imitate me, as I imitate Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1). This is certainly right for us. Since we see the apostles and the first century Christians meeting on the first day of every week to partake of the Lord’s Supper, so also must follow the pattern. Their examples help us become the people that Jesus wants us to be.
D. Necessary inference (15:7-11)
- But examples and direct commands are not the only ways we are guided by the Holy Spirit. Peter uses necessary inference to determine the will of God. Peter was never directly told to baptize Cornelius and his household, who were all Gentiles. Peter had no example to follow of others baptizing Gentiles. But when God gave the Gentiles the Holy Spirit just as God had given the apostles, the logical inference is that Gentiles were to receive salvation just as they had. In fact, this is the very argument Peter makes in verse 11.
- God expects a certain amount of ability to reason the scriptures so that God’s word can be applied to many circumstances properly. God did not specifically address every issue of life. But he left us the scriptures so that we could apply its principles properly to our circumstances.
- It ought to weigh heavily in our minds that God did not speak directly to Paul, Peter, or James and tell him what to do in regards to this issue. This is not the way to determine God’s will. Hebrews 1:1-2 says that in times past God spoke to the prophets but now has spoken through His Son. Jesus told the apostles that they would be guided into all truth (John 14-17). The Holy Spirit revealed the rest of God’s will to the apostles. Once God’s will was revealed, God did not continue to speak to the apostles. They were left to find God’s will in the same way we are today.
- This is how the Holy Spirit guides us to know God’s will. It is not by directly speaking to our minds God’s will. If that was the case, then why do so many people disagree on what God’s will is? We should all come to the same conclusion if God were speaking directly to us. Rather, by reading the word of God we can know God’s will. Why do so many people disagree on what God’s will is? The reason is that not everyone is reading the word of God. Many make decisions on what they think is right or what other people say. God’s word is the standard to follow and when we read, we can understand His will for our lives (Ephesians 3:3-5).