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Enlarging our vision (November 5, 2023)

Looking at Acts 15:1-21 and several pieces of related Scripture, Ted Foote, Jr. notes that God calls us to have open hearts.

Outlook Standard Lesson for November 5, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Acts 15:1-21

The pre-story

Often an investigation or study goes backward in order to come forward. This approach will help us better understand today’s passage. We read about a disagreement that develops in the emerging church which might derail momentum in the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ beyond Palestine (Judea). To assess this conflict, we should go back and examine three prior subject areas.

First, Genesis 17:10 tells of God’s Word with Abraham explaining the surgical rite of male circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant-promise with God’s people Israel.

Second, in Luke 18:26-27, Jesus declares – with no room for argument – that God’s gift of salvation is God’s alone to determine and bestow. People can’t make rules about whom God does or does not accept.

Third, according to the writer of Acts of the Apostles, whom many believe was Luke (as a follow-up to Luke’s Gospel account), Peter/Cephas experiences an absolutely unanticipated and life-changing dream that changes how he views Gentiles or peoples not of Jewish background (See Acts 10:1-48). God tells Peter in this vision that Jesus is the savior of all people, and Gentiles can follow Jesus without first becoming Jewish — which included, among other things, circumcision and eating kosher. Peter reports his vision to the skeptical church leadership council in Jerusalem (11:1-18), who praised God for such developments. The “wide net” of God’s love was being revealed. The disciples of Jesus, who were Jewish Christians, were given permission by God to live beyond the boundaries of previously maintained Jewish religious rulings and practices.

In Acts 15, the “traditionalist” church leaders in Jerusalem desire to hear about how Gentiles are responding to the gospel in Antioch and elsewhere. In spite of their earlier endorsement of Gentiles receiving the gospel without first becoming Jewish (11:18), the leadership convenes (15:1-6) to discuss this subject again and possibly oppose it.

The not-so-clear conclusion

Peter speaks first in today’s passage (15:7-11). His words echo Jesus’s words (Luke 18:26-27) on the subject of God’s reaching beyond the rules of Judaism, concluding that maintaining circumcision as a requirement of Christian faith goes against God’s grace as preached by and lived profoundly by Jesus’s advocating outreach to all. Peter’s words are met with silence by the traditionalist majority of the council (15:12a).

James, the council’s presiding officer, breaks the silence (15:13). He offers a declaration (15:13-21), which is not taken up for a vote, but his words seem determinative.

The non-traditional “allow Gentile converts to remain uncircumcised” group received permission to continue welcoming non-Jews as disciples of Jesus Christ without circumcision. The council agreed, instead, to send a letter to churches across the region urging them to abstain from pagan temple sacrifices, but they don’t require them to obey the laws in the Torah. From this point on, the rule and practice of circumcision for males to be followers of Judaism before they become followers of Jesus increasingly becomes a non-issue.

The affirmation to us from God

We can say that it is human nature to feel “safer with sameness” than with diversity and change. Don’t both change and diversity trigger our insecurities? Acts 15 prompts us to lean into this discomfort.

When Jesus encountered non-Jewish people during his life, he responded with openness and affirmation. Luke recorded Jesus’s insistence on God’s authority alone to create salvation (18:26-27). Now, in Acts, Luke records how God reveals to the emerging church of Jesus’s followers God’s continued affirmation of difference. To Gentiles becoming Christians, this is breathtaking and spectacular! To traditionalists desiring male circumcision or other mandatory admission standards, such dreams prompting an in-breaking of God’s new life in faith communities unsettle the traditionalists’ beliefs and teachings.

Encountered for transformation

God’s “knocking on the doors” of Gentile lives and giving courage to leaders such as Paul and Peter – even to extremely cautious James – is perspective-altering, life-changing, and transformative. When we comprehend the “wideness of God’s mercy,” we are never the same again!

Questions for discussion

  1. Remember a time when you were suspicious of change that seemed to be approaching, whether in your family, church, school, workplace, or wider community. How did you and others work through your suspicions of new practices, new people, or new situations?
  2. Remember a time when you sensed “stakeholders” were reluctant to approve or endorse a new idea. What did you hope might happen? How would you describe your or others’ experience of affirmation and transformation from God’s love in Jesus during that chapter of events?

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