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Acts 15:1-35 – Requirements for Gentiles Reconsidered

Summary

At a meeting in Jerusalem, the church comes to understand that the calling of Gentiles to belief without adherence to full scriptural law is the work of God.

Analysis

The issue of the church's mission to Gentiles is raised in Acts 10 and first resolved in Acts 11:1-18, when believers in Jerusalem find Peter's story about his vision and encounter with Cornelius persuasive, not least because of the Spirit's legitimation. But in Acts 15 the issue must be reconsidered. Some believers from Judea insist that adherence to the scriptural commands of God requires that baptized Gentiles be circumcised (and probably keep food laws). A council is held in which Peter's testimony to how God had ordered things is important to the decision that is reached: not to require Gentile believers to receive circumcision or to adhere to most dietary laws. This decision appears to settle the question as to whether new communities baptized in Christ will identify themselves by the Scripture's purity laws. The settlement claims that the activity of the Holy Spirit acknowledged in Acts 10:44-47; 11:15-18; and 15:8-9, 28 represents the will of God. At the same time, suspicion about the Gentiles' lack of adherence to scriptural commands continues to be an issue. Suspicion later dogs Paul's footsteps, as he discovers when he returns to Jerusalem (21:20-25).

The council's decision about God's will and Scripture is key to the expanding mission of the young church. This story also contributes to three additional themes in Luke's Gospel and Acts. The first has to do with mission--that is, the development of communities of believers. In all such communities behavior must be as it was in Acts 2:40-47, where people worship, pray, learn, and eat together. Baptism means inclusion in the community of the saved without distinction or segregation. Second, such mission involves evangelists entering the communities of those whom they would call to Christ, staying with the people, and eating with them--that is, following their customs. Finally, and perhaps most important, this passage shows a way forward in interpreting Scripture for effective witness to a living God in new circumstances and contexts.

Acts 15:1-35

The Council at Jerusalem

15Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers.* 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers,* you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’

12 The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers,* listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
16 “After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
   from its ruins I will rebuild it,
     and I will set it up,
17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
   even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
     Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18known from long ago.”*
19Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled* and from blood. 21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.’

The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers

22 Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members* and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23with the following letter: ‘The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers* of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds,* 25we have decided unanimously to choose representatives* and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled* and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’

30 So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31When its members* read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. 32Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers.* 33After they had been there for some time, they were sent off in peace by the believers* to those who had sent them.* 35But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord.

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10 February 2011

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