As Acts 15 begins, Luke reports that the Gentile Christian converts were pressured by some men from Judea to be circumcised according to the custom of Moses. The gentiles, along with Paul and Barnabas, “had no small dissension and debate with them” (15:1) Therefore, they sent a delegation to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles and elders of the Church. The balance of chapter tells the story of that meeting.
A Passionate Discussion
Luke tells us that there was much heated debate over this matter of gentile circumcision. There were men who spoke passionately on both sides of the issue; some believed the gentiles should be required to undergo the rite and others disagreed.
During this discussion, Peter stood and addressed the assembly. He told of the work of God among the Gentiles as the gospel was proclaimed. He told of how God had graciously given his Holy Spirit to the Gentiles just as he had Jewish converts. He asked them, “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” (15:10)?
The assembly fell silent as Paul and Barnabas followed Peter by telling of the wonders and the signs that God had done among the Gentiles. Then, James spoke. He had the solution to the problem.
Four Things From Which to Abstain
At James suggestion, the elders and apostles agreed that the only things from which they would ask the gentile converts to abstain were:
Following their agreement on these things, the apostles and elders sent a letter to the Gentile Christians in Antioch and elsewhere. And, the believers “rejoiced because of its [the letter’s] encouragement” (15:31).
It Was About Personal, Gospel Freedom
The gospel brings personal freedom into the lives of believers. It calls men and women out of a life of slavery to religious customs and rites and out of a life of slavery to oneself and the demands of cultural customs. It frees men and women to worship God in Spirit and truth. The men from Judea sought to place the Gentile Christians under religion’s yoke by requiring them to be circumcised. But, that’s not the gospel, and that’s not the result the gospel brings to the lives of those who have given themselves to it. It brings freedom. The apostles and elders rightly understood this freedom and communicated it beautifully to the Gentiles.
Every time I read this story I have to examine myself before the Lord in two ways. First, I have to think through what “religious requirements” I have placed upon myself to better justify myself before God. If I’m not careful, I can easily fall into the trap of “trying” to help my cause before God. Second, I have to ask, “Are there things and behaviors that I require of others to determine whether or not they are ‘good’ Christians?” If so, I must repent of placing undue yokes on the necks of others that neither they nor I are able to bear. I encourage you to examine yourself in the same way today. We are saved by grace through faith.