Part 14 of 22 Who are the people of God? Acts 15:1–35.
by Roger Kirby
Who are the people of God? That is and was indeed the question. About 4 weeks ago we heard about the problems that arose over the question of what the people of God could eat. As a result of a vision, Peter understood that there were no foods that the people of God could not eat. That was the second of the 3 requirements; circumcision, food laws and Sabbath keeping, that had come to dominate the concerns of the serious Jews who thought of themselves as the only true people of God. Now we come to the first of these and the most important – circumcision.
This was a very critical question. Reluctance to be circumcised as adults would affect the willingness of non-Jewish men to become full converts and follow Jesus completely. It affected the role of women, who, not being subject to circumcision, would forever be second-class citizens in a kingdom for which that was the badge of entrance. Since not being circumcised would mean that followers of Jesus would no longer belong to Judaism they would not enjoy the freedom from harassment and persecution because they did not worship the Roman gods, that the Jews had enjoyed since the days of Julius Caesar.
Much was at stake, as some former Pharisees, now seeking to follow Jesus, correctly realised. They wanted Jesus’ followers to constitute a sub-group of Judaism. We read Acts 15:1–11.
There was therefore a profound theological disagreement between the Pharisaic believers and what was happening far away from Jerusalem. The fundamental underlying question was ‘how do we know who are the people of God in this new situation?’ or ‘what are the marks of a Christian?’. Before we go any further you need to think very carefully what the answer to the following question is in your place and culture. We have already come across this question and its Biblical answer. But what is the practical identifier where you are?
Question 1: What are the marks of a Christian?
Your answer – very obviously. I hope you are able to give the same answer as Peter gave when he said: ‘God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.’ Possession of the Holy Spirit is the true mark of the Christian.
Next we are going to read the speech of James. This is the point when James, the brother of Jesus, appears as the leading person in the central church of Jerusalem. Presumably Peter was, from this point on, off on his travels of which we know nothing in comparison to the fairly full knowledge we have of Paul’s journeyings. Notice too that the discussion was going to take place in front of ‘the whole assembly’ and later ‘with the whole church’. This fundamentally important decision is taken by all the believers, not by some small selected group with authority over everyone else. The speech of James follows very closely the approved rhetorical pattern that we used 2 studies ago.
We read Acts 15:12–21.
The introduction: Acts 15:13b.
The narration, including a quotation from Amos 9:11-12 using the Greek LXX:8–18.
Question 2: Why did James quote from scripture?
The written word of God stands beyond dispute. The opinions of men and women, even when they claim the guidance of the Holy Spirit, never stand beyond dispute. Interestingly James quoted from the Greek translation of the original Hebrew because that version fitted what he wanted to say better. Today, no single version in English, or any other language, stands beyond correction as the only valuable translation.
The proposition to be argued: Acts 15:19–21.
But there is no final exhortation since this is a communal decision.
Much the most interesting part of this is the proposition in v20. There are 2 possible ways of understanding this.
The first comes from the fact that it follows quite closely what was required of any Israelite or foreigner living in Israel according to Lev 17. Thus the Gentile converts far away from Jerusalem were being required to live in the way considered appropriate amongst Gentiles living in the land of Israel.
Question 3: How would this relate to what Paul says in Romans 15: We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up? How does it relate to us?
In this context the strong are the ex-pagans and the weak are the Jewish believers as is clear from the preceding chapter. Paul was saying that it was important that the Jewish converts should not turn away from following Jesus because they found the eating habits of the ex-pagans unacceptable. There are some lands where eating pork, from pigs, is unacceptable. We should not needlessly offend people who have been brought up to think that. In all societies we cannot be too careful in our business dealings, for instance. Those who are not Christians are often only too happy to remember when they thought a Christian did not show maximum honesty in a transaction.
The second possibility is that it comprises a requirement that they should have nothing to do with the activities common in a pagan temple: eating meat sacrificed to idols and not prepared in the way Jews did, and indulging in the general promiscuity often indulged in in temples.
In all probability we should read this not as an either/or but as a both/and. Obeying this would prevent there being two different standards of behavior for converts from the Jewish faith and converts from the pagan world and ensure that the ex-pagans did not slide back into the appalling behavior common in the cities of those days. That it was important there can be no doubt since Luke uses his usual device of telling us 3 times: here, again later in this chapter and in chapter 21.
If we take it that whatever is given primary value in place of God is an idol we have.
Question 4: What idol do we have the most difficulty in avoiding?
Another one for you to think about and answer yourself. Don’t forget that shopping malls and shopping centers look remarkably like temples!
We read Acts 15: 22 – 35.
Question 5: The letter said ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’. How did they know the mind of the Spirit? How do we know the leading of the same Spirit when we are so liable to add in our own desires to what we think he wants?
I think in those early days of the church they had a sharper and more accurate understanding of what the Spirit was saying. We cannot expect to be so secure in our understanding. We must rely even more heavily on the statements of scripture to guide us. When we need guidance as private individuals we must rely too on the Spirit-filled wisdom of our friends. We are all weak creatures too prone to wanting our own way. Those who are most sure of what the Spirit is saying to them are very often the most dangerous!
And so the future of the infant church was assured. It had been a critical moment. Was the church to be a subset of Judaism or was it to be what it had always been intended to be: the vehicle by which the blessing promised to Abraham would come to all peoples on earth. To our great delight they got it right under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And here we are, where we were always meant to be.