Acts 15:1-35 – Requirements for Gentiles Reconsidered
SummaryAt 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.
AnalysisThe 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.