To prepare for the sermon, I ended up with about 14 pages of commentary. I of course will only cover a tiny percentage of that in the sermon, but felt it was too valuable not to share, and save for later.
In this series of posts, I will each day post about one page of commentary. I think this would be highly worth spending your daily quiet time considering and reflecting upon for the coming weeks.
Acts 15 Commentary, I (Acts 15:1)
Acts tells the story of how God inspired the apostles to spread Christianity to the ends of the known world. As the Good News spread throughout the Roman Empire, it (first via Peter, and later via Paul and Barnabas) began to spread among the Gentiles, as well. This was shocking to the Jewish believers, and caused the first great theological controversy in the Church.
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”
At the time of this occurrence (c.49-51 AD), Antioch was the heart of Gentile Christianity. A group of Jewish Christians traveled through and brought a message to the local Gentile Christians—a message which went against what they had been taught by Paul. This new message said that in order to be saved, you must be circumcised.
These are likely the same people who accosted Peter in Acts 11 for his actions with Cornelius, and it appears that they claimed to be coming on behalf of James and the church elders of Jerusalem; indeed, they may have been former members from there now serving as missionaries. And it is likely that they quoted James’ letter (Jas 2:10) as evidence for the need to adhere to the Law; however, James’ letter was written to Jews and with a specific context which was not applicable in this situation.
“Circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses” is a reference to the acceptance of Torah Law, specifically the covenants made with Abraham and Moses. These are the covenants which are summarized in the Levitical code and which defined the holiness of the people of Israel.
This holiness, these purity rules, set Israel apart in a major way. Those of the Jewish culture were majorly limited on their abilities to interact with or dine with those of other races. As such, it had become a defining characteristic for many. Gentiles who converted to Judaism, and even Gentiles living among Jewish towns and cities, were expected to take on all (for converts) or key aspects (for sojourners living among the Jews) of the Law.
Indeed, this group was doing nothing radical by making the case that they made; all they were doing was applying the long-standing Jewish traditions for Gentile converts. As Jesus was Jewish and all Christians (before then) were Jewish, it stood to reason that the Gentiles converting to Judeo-Christianity would also have to convert in a similar manner to that of the Jews. In their eyes, it was Peter and Paul who were teaching the outrageous doctrine that salvation could come to them despite the lack of conversion into the Jewish holy community.
It is tempting to make this very simple when one discusses salvation: the Jews believed if you lived according to the Laws of Moses you were saved (works); the Christians taught that only Jesus saves (grace). But that is too simple to reflect what was really believed.
Instead, by ‘salvation’ generally the Jews meant, “Israel restored.” Individual salvation was of lesser importance than the implications of the nation as a whole; that said, one’s individual relationship with God was determined by how well one adhered to the Levitical codes—and if (when) that proved impossible, a sacrifice was made to ‘fill the gap’ in between.
The Judaizers, then, were preaching that this same system was still applicable today; we were not saved by actions per se; rather it is our actions which determine our relationship and thereby the relationship that saves us. Ergo, our actions are needed to build the relationship which saves us.
This is not uncommon today; indeed, some entire branches of Christianity teach a variant of this—that our actions and religious rites are what create our relationship and that relationship allows us to receive God’s grace. This is precisely the argument which the Judaizers were making.