In the infancy of the first century church the apostles had to deal with controversy. Is it a shock to any of us today that nearly 2000 years removed, we would also have controversy in the church? Disputing about circumcision and keeping the Mosaic Law is in view in this section of scripture. These may not be the most controversial issues in your church, or mine. But it is apparent that to the apostles, these were critical issues. So much so that they called for a conference of all the church leaders to debate and decide what to do about them. If they were important to the apostles in the first century, and God saw fit to record these events, then maybe there is something for us to learn, even if our church is past the issues of circumcision and law.
“And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.
But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the Law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing,” Acts 15:4-7a
“And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness,giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;” Acts 15:7-8
It is this giving of the Holy Ghost that made all the difference.
“And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.” Acts 15:9
There it is; note that none of them had their hearts purified by law. The only purification of any of their hearts was “By Faith!” This is emphatic and non-negotiable claim of the gospel from the apostles until now. “The Just shall live by Faith.” Living based on law keeping is not found in the apostles teachings, and is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them”. Acts 15:10-12
Peter is still speaking here in verse 10 when he informs the crowd that to attempt to put these gentiles under the yoke of the old covenant law was to; “Tempt God”. I am sure I do not want to be guilty of tempting God. But much to our shame, there are still those in the church today who seek to put believers back under the yoke of the old covenant law. After stating his case from the negative, Peter then declares affirmatively that “We…” speaking for the leadership of the church; “…believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ…” not the law of God or of Moses, but the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ”. Through the grace of Jesus Christ he says, “…we shall be saved, even as they”. In the same way that God was saving gentiles in the first century, Peter says that the Jews of the church were being saved in the very same way. “For there is no difference between Jew and Greek…”Having heard this earth shattering news, the crowd was silenced. Have you ever heard preaching that, when the preacher finished, the entire crowd was silenced. This was a shocking development for a first century Jew. What, no law? Are you kidding me? Then Paul and Barnabas, like good teachers, began to illustrate for the crowd the works of God that proved what peter had just stated.
“And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:” Acts 15:13-16
I am convinced that we read the scripture way too fast. Did you catch the import of what James said in those four verses? I know I have read that passage over and over for nearly 30 years and it had not, until recently set in. James starts out by re-capping what Peter had said; that God was doing a work among the gentiles to gather up “a people for His name.” Then he tells these Jews, a group of people who knew the content of the Old Testament scripture very well; “To this agree the words of the prophets”. And it is here where our reading must not get ahead of our thinking. James just told a group of Jewish leaders that what you see in the gentiles coming into the family of God is exactly what the prophets foretold. “As it is written…” (Here James quotes his source from the Old Testament – Amos 9:11-12).
(At this point I recommend that you have a bible open to Amos, with a place holder in Acts 15. You will want to look at this for yourself).
James says, “After this”, Amos says “In that day”; in what day, James? In Amos chapter 9, Amos is prophesying the destruction of Israel. He says in verse 9 of that same chapter that “All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword.” So the context of what James is about to say has to do with the time frame of the destruction of Israel and God’s judgment of them as a nation.
I can imagine the Jews standing there asking, if not out loud then in their thinking; “But James, we are talking about the gentiles coming into the church, the people of God. What does Israel’s judgment have to do with the conversation we are currently having?” James would have answered their assumed question as he continued. “After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacles of David, which is fallen down;”
Now these Jews in the crowd knew all about David, I am sure they knew that David was prevented by God from building the temple for God, although he very much wanted to. Now in first century Jerusalem, standing probably in sight of this council, was the magnificent temple. Perhaps these Jews are asking the same question that you may be asking. Why go back to a tabernacle (essentially a tent) when we have this grand stone edifice that is the envy of the known world? Worship in a tent, James what are you talking about.
Really all James is doing is quoting Amos. James is declaring that what you are seeing in the gathering of gentiles is what Amos foretold and you are witnessing its fulfillment before your very eyes. He finishes by telling the crowd that; “I (God) will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up”.
James, are you talking about a future stone temple that will replace this one? That cannot be the case here, because the current temple had not yet been destroyed, and the promised building he is speaking of is a tabernacle (a tent) and not a stone structure. In addition, James is saying that this building is a reality now, not at some point in the future. As a matter of fact, this tabernacle consists of Jews and Gentiles together, being saved by faith, through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Well that is what the text does say.
The tabernacle is the church. Hebrews tells us that Christ is now a high priest of a greater tabernacle and that this greater tabernacle was not made with hands.
“But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;” Hebrews 9:11
This being the case, it is clear that neither James nor Amos had a physical building in mind.
James continues in his quote of Amos:
“That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.” Acts 15:17
In some translations the word “residue” is translated “remnant”. The word is simply a word that identifies those remaining. And clearly he has in mind; those remaining after God had judged the nation of Israel, for that is the greater context of the passage from Amos from which James is quoting. So those of Israel who remain and all the gentiles will be seeking the Lord. This is exactly the scenario that they are seeing.
“Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.” Acts 15:18-20
Note: James never told them that they had to keep the Ten Commandments.
“For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day. Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:” Acts 15:20-24
James, what are you saying? Are you telling us that to tell a person to be circumcised and keep the law, is to subvert that person’s soul?
Well that is what the Apostle James said. It is interesting that James says that you subvert a person’s soul by putting them under law. It should be patently clear the assembled Jews that this is a world changing thing that they are witnessing. There is no going back to Moses, no going back to animal sacrifice, no going back to that Old Covenant and its rules.
“It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. Acts 15:25-29
So as James begins to summarize what has been discussed at the council; he concludes by saying. That anyone laying on a greater burden than these necessary things would be going against the Holy Spirit and this council.
As for me, personally, I have never eaten meats offered to idols [knowingly], I have never eaten blood or things strangled [knowingly], I have abstained from fornication, so I assume I have done all that I am required to do. See how simple law living is? But you know as well as I do that there is another matter beyond just those restrictions…that is the heart, but to be led by law living would clearly keep one from seeing that.
“So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.“ Acts 15:30-31
This teaching of freedom from the bondage of the law; and the bringing in of the gentiles; brought consolation to the church in the first century. The teaching that all those things prophesied by the old Covenant prophets were coming to pass right before their eyes in the first century, gives us confidence today to live in the completeness of the New Covenant. If this teaching is embraced in our churches today it will bring consolation to us as well.