2.5.13 John 15:9-11
Acts 15:7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: "Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." 12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16 " `After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things' 18 that have been known for ages. 19 "It is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath."
Before today's Epistle reading, some Christians, notably those who were Pharisees, were saying that non- Jewish, Gentile, Christians should trust in Jesus and obey the Old Testament law including circumcision. Paul and Barnabas didn't agree with this, so they went to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders to discuss this.
The issue that they were facing was that God was drawing Gentiles into His new people of faith. They were receiving the same blessings as the Jewish Christians. This was the gift of the Holy Spirit and was accompanied by the purifying of their hearts by faith, verses 8 and 9.
The inclusion of Gentiles into God's people was backed up by James quoting from the Old Testament books of Amos and Isaiah, in verses 16-19. The Jews expected Gentiles to be brought into Judaism, not for Jews and Gentiles to co-exist as part of God's new people.
One of the main themes that runs through the Acts of the Apostles is that becoming a true Christian involved the gift of the Holy Spirit to the believer from God. This teaching appears elsewhere, for example Romans 8.9b And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.
Paul countered by saying that God was bringing Gentiles to faith and that they should not test Him by giving them the burden of living by the law, something that the Jews had failed to keep anyway!
This is central to the teaching about how we are put right with God. The New Testament teaches that we are put right through God's grace by faith, which is a gift and, therefore, undeserved. Our salvation does not depend on adhering to religious or moral rules, though it should affect the behaviour of the believer.
He was showing the love for fellow disciples that Jesus encouraged his followers to exercise. Yet, he doesn't treat the Old Testament as being irrelevant or without honour, because he goes on to declare what laws the Gentile Christians should follow.
20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.
The issue here is, “What parts of the Old Testament religious laws should the Gentiles in the early church adhere to out of respect for their Jewish brothers and sisters?”
The food sacrificed to idols was later sold in the market place. Some Christians including those who had been Jews had problems with this, so it would be ungracious to cause them to feel uncomfortable by putting them into a situation where other believers were eating this nearby, or, even, offering it to them.
Paul deals with this issue in more details in Romans 14, when he writes about the “weak” and “strong” and encourages those who exercise their freedom in Christ to consider how this will impact others who are more sensitive.
Similarly, eating non-kosher food and drinking blood was excluded by James as a mark of respect and love to fellow believers. The food regulations are included in Leviticus 17.
Sexual immorality was also prohibited. This probably related to sexual sins listed in Leviticus 18, which include incest, bestiality and homosexuality.
I don't think for a moment that this ruling means that Christians were and are free to break other aspects of the Old Testament law. For example, idolatry, blasphemy, theft, murder, adultery, lying, and covetousness. Indeed, if you know the epistles you will know that Paul writes against thieves, idolaters, the greedy, the sexually immoral, slanderers, and drunkards in 1 Cor. 5 & 6.
How is this passage relevant for us today?
The gospel is for anyone and everyone. Jew, Gentiles, black and white, male and female, rich and poor, young and old, Labour and Conservative...
It does not demand that we adopt particular forms of religious behaviour and those who seek to impose this should be resisted.
Other believers' sensitivities should be considered before we behave. Even if we are convinced that we are within our rights to do something, it may be right that our love for God and other believers will stop us exercising this.
The Holy Spirit is a gift from God and brings faith and purifies us. We should rely upon God's Spirit to lead us in all of our life. This includes how we behave. We are free to follow God's perfect will expressed in His laws but not free to do what we like or what our society regards as acceptable. The ruling of the Jerusalem church does not mean Christians should not follow the Old Testament law.
Christians are chosen through God's undeserved favour by the work of the Spirit through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We and called to live lives of worship, gratitude and holiness, enabled by the Spirit. This is to include taking into account other believers and showing love by being sensitive to them.