The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 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. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 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? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Last week’s post introduced the background to the Jerusalem Council, the topic of Acts 15.
John MacArthur says that many theologians consider the Jerusalem Council to be the Magna Carta of the Church.
Briefly, Pharisees who converted were telling Gentile converts they had to be circumcised and follow Mosaic law in order to be notionally proper Christians. Said Pharisees went so far as to disassociate themselves from the Gentile converts who were uncircumcised.
These Pharisees were known as the circumcision party and as Judaisers. Both terms are in the New Testament. A group from Judea was going to new churches in Gentile lands spreading this false teaching. John MacArthur and other Bible scholars think that they could have been trailing Paul and Barnabas, who established these new churches, and infiltrated after they left. Paul had to deal with this issue in his letters to the Galatians, Galatia being in Asia Minor. These were determined men, some of them were political zealots. Last week’s post has more information about them.
Today’s reading describes how the Jerusalem Council unfolded. Note (verse 6) how the elders and Apostles spontaneously gathered together to discuss this issue which, left unresolved, could have fractured the Church into two parts — a Jewish one and a Gentile one.
Matthew Henry says the Jerusalem Council shows the example that churches must resolve issues when they arise rather then letting them play out:
Here is a direction to the pastors of the churches, when difficulties arise, to come together in solemn meetings for mutual advice and encouragement, that they may know one another’s mind, and strengthen one another’s hands, and may act in concert.
Much debate had been taking place before Peter rose to speak (verse 7). Some translations use ‘disputing’, but MacArthur says:
the word doesn’t really mean fighting, it really means discussing, back and forth …
Judaisers were among those debating.
Luke, the author of Acts, did not tell us exactly when Peter spoke, but it was before the end, since Paul and Barnabas spoke next, followed by James. Henry’s commentary says of Peter (emphases mine):
He was not master of this assembly, nor so much as chairman or moderator, pro hac vice–on this occasion; for we do not find that either he spoke first, to open the synod (there having been much disputing before he rose up), nor that he spoke last, to sum up the cause and collect the suffrages; but he was a faithful, prudent zealous member of this assembly, and offered that which was very much to the purpose, and which would come better from him than from another … When both sides had been heard, Peter rose up, and addressed himself to the assembly …
Peter said that ‘early on’ — meaning at the first Pentecost, which MacArthur says was ten years earlier — God chose him to be the first to preach to the Gentiles. Luke recounted this in Acts 10, with the conversion of Cornelius and those close to him. Up to then, either Jews or Samaritans (half-Jews) converted.
Henry points out that Peter spoke when he did because:
he had himself been the first that preached the gospel to the Gentiles.
Also, Peter was the first to get blowback for it when the ‘circumcision party’ criticised him afterwards in Jerusalem for converting Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18). The issue was resolved at the time. Henry’s commentary reminds us:
He put them in mind of the call and commission he had some time ago to preach the gospel to the Gentiles; he wondered there should be any difficulty made of a matter already settled: You know that aph hemeron archaion–from the beginning of the days of the gospel, many years ago, God made choice among us apostles of one to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and I was the person chosen, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word, and believe, Acts 15:7. You know I was questioned about it and cleared myself to the universal satisfaction; every body rejoiced that God had granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life, and nobody said a word of circumcising them, nor was there any thought of such a thing. See Acts 11:18. “Why should the Gentiles who hear the word of the gospel by Paul’s mouth be compelled to submit to circumcision, any more than those that heard it by my mouth? Or why should the terms of their admission now be made harder than they were then?”
Yes, everyone glorified God:
18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Peter went on to say that God knows men’s hearts — i.e. knows those who are His — and He went on to give the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles just as He had to the Jews (verse 8). He made no distinction between the two peoples and cleansed their hearts by faith (verse 9). And that was all. God attached no conditions. He generously gave them the free gift of the Holy Spirit. He generously gave them the free gift of grace to strengthen their faith. They were saved by faith through grace. No wonder people glorified God (Acts 11:18). That’s exciting news then and now! That’s what God continues to do.
Peter then asked, with that in mind, why were some of those assembled testing God, in effect, by asserting their conditions were higher than His by demanding Mosaic law, a law that the Jews couldn’t bear and one that does not save (verse 10).
Peter used the word ‘yoke’ — the heavy wooden brace put on an ox’s neck — to describe Mosaic law. Remember what Jesus said (Matthew 11:28-30):
28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Peter concluded by affirming that ‘we believe’ — a reminder for the Judaisers — that both Jew and Gentile will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus (verse 11).
MacArthur points out:
God does not cleanse people from sin, whose salvation is not legitimate, right? … The Jews just kept doing more sacrifices without any relief of their consciences. Christ came along and clears the conscience, forgiveness is complete. So Peter says, look, he says they’ve already been purified by faith, what is law goin’ add to that? It’s done. Then Peter points out another fantastic evidence, that salvation is by free grace alone.
Salvation via faith through free grace is a marvellous note on which to close.
More on the Jerusalem Council next week.
Next time — Acts 15:12-21