God makes no distinction (Nov. 8, 2015)

Lesson for November 8, 2015
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Acts 15:1-20

To understand this passage we need to recall that it comes directly after the highly successful missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas through Cyprus and southern Asia Minor. Despite strong resistance and persecution by local Jewish leaders, these two evangelists succeeded in forming new congregations in several towns. Luke summarizes the work of Paul and Barnabas by saying that God “had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).

Acts 15:1-5 ­— Must Gentile converts obey the Law of Moses?
The successful evangelistic efforts of Paul and Barnabas raised a new question for the many Jewish Christians, especially those in Jerusalem who had joined the new Jesus movement and retained their identity as Pharisees. They believed that circumcision was a necessary condition for salvation, a condition that would obviously be very difficult for an adult male Gentile Christian to accept.

With characteristic understatement, Luke reports that Paul and Barnabas “had no small dissension and debate” with these Christian Pharisees. This negative statement really means that there was a major theological dispute. So much for the idealized picture of the early church as a community free of disagreement!

In accordance with Luke’s consistent depiction of the Jerusalem church leaders as the center of authority for the early church, Paul and Barnabas and others are commissioned to go to Jerusalem to discuss this issue with the apostles and elders there. On their way to Jerusalem through Phoenicia and Samaria, two predominantly Gentile areas, Paul and Barnabas receive a warm reception.

This welcome continued in Jerusalem from the mainly Jewish Christians there. But Luke adds that some believers who were Pharisees spoke up saying that Gentiles should be required to obey the Law of Moses and submit to circumcision.

Acts 15:6-12 — Peter challenges Christian Pharisees
Peter, alluding to his role in the conversion of Cornelius and his household, repeats the gist of his earlier report to the Jerusalem leaders found in Acts 11. God gave Gentiles the Holy Spirit on the basis of their faith just as God had done with Jews at Pentecost. God does not make a distinction between Jews and Gentiles when it comes to salvation, Peter asserts.

Peter challenges the Christian Pharisees by asking them why they wish to impose on Gentiles the burden of obeying the Law of Moses — a burden the Christian Pharisees themselves could not bear. Anticipating the theological principle later championed by Paul, Peter argues that both Gentiles and Jews will be saved by God’s grace.

This quieted the assembled leaders who listened intently to the report of Paul and Barnabas about what God had done.

Acts 15:13-20 — A compromise solution
James, the brother of Jesus whom Luke has mentioned only in passing (Acts 12:17), now becomes a pivotal figure. He enters this discussion as a mediator between the Christian Pharisees and the duo of Paul and Barnabas. Luke has James use a theologically loaded description of what God has done. From the Gentiles God has taken “a people for his name,” James says. The Greek word Luke uses for “people” is a special term for Israel as the people of God. James uses the same word for Gentiles. Moreover, James says God has created a people “for his name.” In other words, God has chosen Gentiles to be God’s own people just as Jews are God’s own people.

James goes on to demonstrate that this fulfills Scripture, especially Amos 9:11-12. He therefore concludes that Gentiles should not be harassed (that is the nuance of the Greek word translated as “troubled” in the NRSV) with the requirement that they should be circumcised. Instead, James proposes a less stringent understanding of the Law of Moses, a position similar to the expectations of proselytes in Jewish communities of that time.

Luke’s account of the Jerusalem council meeting has raised questions – especially when it is compared with Paul’s description of the same event in Galatians 2. It is clear that Luke intends to underline the new reality that God has taken the initiative to incorporate Gentiles into the church not on the basis of their circumcision, but because of their faith.

For discussion:
How would you characterize the decision-making process in Acts 15? Do you think that James proposed a fair compromise or does it still demand too much of the Gentiles? In this passage Jewish Christians struggled with the idea that people who did not share their Jewish identity could be accepted into the church. Can you think of comparable struggles in the church today?