In our walk through the NT, Part 26. Part 19, after Galatians was written.
In our examination of the foundational beginning of the church we now consider the church-wide discussion of liberty from the Old Testament Law of food restrictions and covenant by circumcision.
Jesus had come to make a new covenant with his blood. Salvation is by the grace of God alone, the absolute mercy of God poured out upon those who repent and turn to Christ as their Savior.Salvation is by the #grace of God alone, the absolute mercy of God poured out upon those who repent and turn to Christ as their Savior. #bgbg2 Click To Tweet
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he mentioned that fourteen years after his conversion to faith in Christ, he and Barnabas had taken Titus (a Gentile believer) to Jerusalem with them when they went to present their Gospel message to the leaders in order to verify its accuracy.
While there, Paul pointed out that none of the leaders, neither Peter, nor James, nor anyone else compelled Titus to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek (Galatians 2:1-3). Rather, uncircumcised Titus was welcomed in.
Next, a message of God’s grace had been delivered through the Gospel all across the region of Antioch in Syria and now also across southern Galatia. Were other stipulations of Judaism important to also pass down to the Gentile converts?
That is the question. This issue must be settled.
To Paul, having taken Titus to Jerusalem years earlier, the circumcision and food restriction Laws of Judaism were no longer applicable. After teaching accordingly all across Galatia, Paul and Barnabas had returned home to Antioch, “where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples” (Acts 14:26b-28 ESV).
Imagine their joy at having faced many trials, including physical persecution. Paul had even been stoned and left for dead at Lystra. And yet, the two men had completed their mission, pushing on to Derbe, before returning again to Lystra and to Iconium, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God and when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:22-23 ESV).
Successful mission complete! With joy they returned to their home church.
Saul (now Paul) and Barnabas had been sent out from Antioch. They were two of the church leaders there: “Now there were in the church in Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the Tetrarch, and Saul” (Acts 13:1 ESV)
Doubtless the church in Antioch was thrilled to have these two leaders return after their missionary efforts. Now they were home!
But . . .
How often in the Christian life do we overcome a hardship, complete a mission, and come out the other side, relieved that the trial has passed or the challenge has been met, but then, before we’ve even unpacked our suitcases, we must deal with a “but . . .”?
This seems to be the norm of Christian ministry, for challenge, opposition, and conflict are always inherent in taking the Gospel into the world.
“But . . . some men came down from Judea [to Antioch] and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And 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 the apostles and the elders about this question” (Acts 15:1-2 ESV).
It is likely that Paul wrote The Letter of Paul to the Galatians before leaving for Jerusalem, sending it by courier to be delivered, copied, memorized, and passed to all of the churches of Galatia that Paul and Barnabas had founded among the Jews and the Gentiles of that region.
And then, Paul, Barnabas, and other leaders headed for Jerusalem — “being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.’” (Acts 15:3-5 ESV).
There it is: the joyful outcome, the announcement of all God had done, but then the attack by the Judaizers, Pharisees who demanded adherence to the Law.
Peter and James Support Paul and Barnabas
Of course, there was a debate that followed between apostles and elders. Then Peter, who had seen the vision from the Lord indicating that Gentiles were to be part of the church just like the Jews (the passage), rose and spoke.
“And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:7-11 ESV).
After listening to all that these had to say, Jesus’ brother James, the head elder of the church in Jerusalem, rose and stated his opinion.
“Brothers, listen to me. Simeon [Peter] has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant[rest] of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’
“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:13b-21 ESV).
It seemed good to those gathered to impose only these instructions upon new Gentiles believers, and so, men were commissioned to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch to deliver this agreement, which still stands until this day. In this way these instructions would be verified as truthful.
They sent Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas. Both were leading men in the Jerusalem church. They also sent along greetings to the church in Antioch and its leaders. The letter stated:
“The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:23b-29 ESV).
And so the four men, Paul and Barnabas, Judas and Silas, prophets and teachers, leaders in their churches, headed north to Antioch to begin the process of delivering this letter to the church at large, all questions having been discussed and the matter having been settled according to the Holy Spirit’s leading.
The guests, Judas and Silas, encouraged and strengthened the believers gathered in Antioch with many words of explanation and encouragement. After staying for a while, the two men were sent off in peace to return to their home church in Jerusalem. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch.
Imagine being a first-century believer for whom violence might result merely because of a discussion that insinuates that circumcision is no longer necessary for believers. Think of how they felt to receive the list of only these requirements:
- abstain from the things polluted by idols
- abstain from sexual immorality
- abstain from what has been strangled
- and abstain from blood
Numbers one and two, we can easily comprehend. But numbers three and four relate to the Jewish food customs of the ancient world. False teachers tried to convince believers that every one of these impacted their salvation, insisting that if these regulations weren’t maintained, one could lose one’s salvation.
This was and is not true, even though these were to be avoided for conscience’s sake.
Paul later wrote to the Colossians: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:16-23 ESV).Salvation is by the work of the #HolySpirit moving us to recognize our need for repentance, turning us toward God for forgiveness, and enabling us to live the Christian life. It is by grace we have been saved. #bgbg2 Click To Tweet
Salvation is and always has been by the work of the Holy Spirit moving us to recognize our need for repentance from our sins, turning us toward God for forgiveness, and enabling us to live the Christian life. It is by grace we have been saved, and this not of works, lest we boast in our own efforts.