A Dispute over the Law: Acts 15

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Today’s reading: Acts 14-15.

“How did the early church reconcile the conflict between the Law of Moses and the new covenant of grace?”

The first believers were Jewish, and they did not abandon their Jewish practices which arose from the Law of Moses. They continued to follow them while adding Christian observances such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When the church grew rapidly among Greek Gentiles, conflict arose as the older Jewish Christian congregations began to try to influence the new Gentile Christians.

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. Acts 15:1-2 

Circumcision would have been the tip of the iceberg. The whole weight of the law with its dietary restrictions, Sabbath rules, feasts, and sacrifices threatened to come down on the Gentile believers if the legalists had their way. Peter had won the right for Gentiles to hear the Good News in an earlier Jerusalem Council. Now the stakes grew as the church decided whether each believer had to become a Jew in order to be saved.

No distinction. Peter, who had seen the Holy Spirit’s work among the Gentiles firsthand, declared that there was no intent on God’s part to distinguish between Jew and Gentile. “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9). Paul later stated the same conclusion. “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile” (Romans 3:22). “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him” (Romans 10:12).

The failure of the Law. Peter told the council that no Jew had been able to keep the Law. Why did they think the Gentiles would do any better?

Salvation by grace. He reminded the Council that they all believed that salvation came through the grace of the Lord Jesus. It had been true for the Jewish believers and it was also true for the Gentiles.

God’s plan for the Gentiles. James argued from the Old Testament that God had planned all along to redeem the Gentiles.

Practical means for reconciliation. James pleaded that they not make salvation difficult for the Gentiles by forcing them to keep the Law. Instead he proposed four practical steps that would accomplish the double task of separating the Gentiles from their old idolatrous ways and making their lifestyle acceptable to their more scrupulous Jewish brothers.

  • Abstain from food sacrificed to idols. This would be evidence of their forsaking idolatry.
  • Abstain from the meat of strangled animals. Since they would still have the blood in them.
  • Abstain from blood. The presence of blood in the meat, or the consumption of blood as food, was too shocking to the Jewish believers to be acceptable.
  • Abstain from sexual immorality. This was the hallmark sin of the heathen world in the eyes of the Jews, and without forsaking it the Jews would be unable to accept that the Gentile believers had been born again.

Paul became the Biblical scholar on how Christians should relate to the Law of Moses. In his letters he spelled out the following principles:

  • The law was our tutor, teaching us our need for salvation by grace since no one could keep the law. Galatians 3
  • It demonstrates our sin. Romans 7
  • We have the freedom to observe the law if we wish, but not to force it upon others. I Corinthian 9
  • Christ’s death on the cross cancelled the debt we owe to sin because of the law. Colossians 2
  • We cannot be saved by the law, and it does not even help restrain our desire to sin. Colossians 2

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Peter went right to the heart of the question. In this whole dispute the deepest of principles was involved. Can a man earn the favor of God? Or must he admit his own helplessness and be ready in humble faith to accept what the grace of God gives? In effect, the Jewish party said, “Religion means earning God’s favor by keeping the Law.” Peter said, “Religion consists in casting ourselves on the grace of God.” Here is implicit the difference between a religion of works and a religion of grace. Peace will never come to a man until he realizes that he can never put God in his debt; and that all he can do is take what God in his grace gives. The paradox of Christianity is that the way to victory is through surrender; and the way to power is through admitting one’s own helplessness. – William Barclay

Image by Hc_07 on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

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One thought on “A Dispute over the Law: Acts 15

  1. Pingback: Bible Daily Devotional – A Dispute over the Law: Acts 15 | ChristianBlessings

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