A Decision Full Of Encouragement
1. Last week, we read the first half of chapter fifteen. In it was recorded the first church conference held in Jerusalem. After we take a brief look back at the passage, I'd like for us to go into the second half of chapter fifteen which we read today.
Looking Over The Circumstances Of The Jerusalem Council
2. First of all, the origin of it was when "certain ones" who came to the church at Antioch from Jerusalem taught Gentile Christians that "Unless you receive circumcision according to the custom of Moses, you will not be saved." With that an argument arose between those accompanying Paul and Barnabbas on the one side and ["these certain ones"] on the other. In order to resolve this problem, those with Paul and Barnabbas and the other [group] of several persons went up to Jerusalem and a conference was held with the apostles and the elders. This was the Jerusalem Council.
3. This meeting may seem to have very little to do with us since circumcision and the law of Moses are distant to us. However, its focus has to do with the foundation of salvation. In short, if we are to be accepted by God, at issue is whether the foundation of salvation is up to the individual person or not. The people who became believers by the Pharisee sect perhaps received circumcision shortly after they were all born. Then they lived in observance of the law from childhood. They thought, to be brief, since they had been that way they were accepted by God. Therefore, they firmly opposed the idea of Gentiles being saved without experiencing such a process. That's why they had the meeting.
4. Peter's speech became decisive for the direction of this meeting. Peter related events that took place in the home of Cornelius and he wrapped up things [at the meeting] as follows: "We believe that we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, and it is the same for these Gentiles as well," (15:11). Then, the entire audience became silent. They got quiet because they knew what Peter meant by that. In other words, if we are accepted by God, the basis of it is not on our part. It is primarily to be based on "the grace of the Lord Jesus." The Lord was crucified and redeemed for our sin. Based on this he granted forgiveness of sin. Outside of his grace there is no foundation for salvation. All the people who were there, including the proponents of Judaism, had looked to the cross, been forgiven of sin, and were added to the church. They could not avoid admitting such facts. Those proud of their works and who would overlook the basis of salvation have forgotten they themselves were forgiven and accepted God. In Peter's statement this fact comes through loud and clear.
5. So, at last James offered a specific proposal. "With that I make the following decision. We should not give trouble to the Gentiles who are turning to God. Only that we ought to write letters that they should avoid defiled meat offered to idols, sexual immorality, meat of an animal strangled to death, and blood," (15:19-20). This proposal came to be accepted by everyone. Then they made ready to send out letters to the Gentile churches of the various areas that were already specifically established. The contents of the written letter are recorded from verse twenty-three to verse twenty-nine which we read today. As an entire body they understood what was to come in accordance with James' proposal. The apostles and the elders called the meeting together, chose men from among themselves, and decided to send Paul and Barnabbas together to Antioch. Their purpose was to entrust them with their letter.
Why And What They Should Abstain From
6. Well, after they were sent out as described above, the matter was settled outwardly speaking, but things were not completely at ease. First, what did this proposal of James mean? Does it harmonize with the words Peter spoke, "We believe we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, and it is the same for these Gentiles as well?"
7. Avoid "lewd actions [or sexual immorality]." We understand this. This matter of "sexual immorality" is a term meaning a sexual relationship in general outside of the marriage bond. We can understand the message that they avoid sexual immorality in general which filled the pagan world from which the Gentile Christians had come or relationships with temple prostitutes which were connected to pagan rites as a natural recommendation to be expected. Also, we feel like we would understand the recommendation to avoid as Christians "defiled meat offered to idols (if translated literally, 'defilement of idols').
8. But, after that what is "avoid the meat of a strangled animal and [its] blood?" This appears to be this matter of eating meat where the blood remains behind and which went against Jewish ceremonial butcher laws. The message "avoid blood" appears as a recommendation dealing with the regulation "Thou shalt not eat blood" written in Leviticus 17:11. Therefore, this is related to the law which the Jews had been observing as [we'd] expect. Why does such a recommendation appear in the text after the dispute that salvation does not depend on keeping the law? Also, there are a number of scholars who understand the matter of "lewd actions" raised previously that it is about marriages to blood relatives forbidden in Leviticus chapter eighteen rather than sexual immorality in general. Therefore, the topic being raised more and more here has to do with observing the law of Moses. Why must they demand Gentile Christians to observe several points from the law of Moses even though the apostles and elders were concluding that "the salvation of a person is not based on receiving circumcision and observing the law of Moses?"
9. The key to understanding this is chapter fifteen and verse twenty-one. Please note the last sentence. James did not say, "Unless they observe these points, the Gentile Christians are not saved." That's not what he said, instead he said, "As for the law of Moses, there are people who have been giving it for a long time in every city and it is read in the synagogues on the Sabbaths." In other words, it's about this matter of there being Jews who had heard and were raised since they were little ones on the law of Moses each Sabbath [in practically any town]. It's about there being people who had lived according to the law. This means that even though they preached in Gentile towns in the Roman empire they were not limited to only Gentiles being in the churches established in the [empire]. If there were Gentiles also in the newly born co-operative body of believers there would also be Jewish Christians who currently lived by the law.
10. What this text here is about was not the problem of "what do I do to be accepted by God or to be saved." It was about how can we form a church in which everyone lives together with their different backgrounds. For example, there was a common meal in the church. What they have called "the love feast (agape)" held a very important place in the early church. But, what if the meat, which they would not prepare bloodless according to the Gentile custom, is taken out? The Jews could [still] not take a meal with them. The problem was not that they should make two types of meals. It was just that a wall was built between the two peoples. Perhaps the Jews could not take part in it with the Gentiles who would eat meat sacrificed to idols then sold at the market? They absolutely could not [participate in that]. We could probably say, "They have [this] problem of Jewish narrow-mindedness; they should change." But, [what is written here means] that we should not say this. Rather, "In order to live in the church together I want you to avoid this only because of a careful concern based on love." This is the true intention of the recommendation written here.
The Lord Died Even For Those Brothers
11. We understand clearly the nature of the communication which I noted above by looking at the way things were later with the church and Paul. For example, at the church at Corinth which came to be later by [his] second missionary journey, it is known specifically that the problem with "meat offered to idols" arose. In the epistle addressed to the Corinthian church Paul responded to that problem. His response is recorded in the First Epistle To The Corinthians in chapter eight. Please look starting with chapter eight and verse one. The problem which arose in the Corinthian church was simply not whether they could take a meal together. It was more serious a problem than that. However, Paul did not even mention the communication [of the Jerusalem council] recorded in Acts 15. Why was that?
12. I think if the case were that "the things which one should avoid" listed in the communication from the apostles were a law you had to keep to be saved, he would have settled it by saying "Wasn't it decided at the apostolic conference? Wasn't it written that they were to avoid these areas?" Because if they couldn't keep [the law] they would no longer be part of the co-operative body or fellowship. But, in the epistle to the Corinthian disciples, not one word was even mentioned regarding the communication from the apostolic conference. In other words, it was a fact that these things were not a law necessary to be saved.
13. At that time in the Greco-Roman world, they were closely bound by pagan religious rites and social customs. As this is seen frequently even in Japan, this is not that much of a strange point. One of those customs was the situation related to "meat offered to idols." The meat was dedicated in the pagan temple, then disposed of and taken out for sale at the market. Should one eat this meat? The people in the church of Corinth emphasized that one should. They were people who emphasized they called themselves "people of the Spirit" and had special "knowledge" that brought salvation. They boasted they had obtained perfect freedom through that "knowledge." The substance of the gospel message from Paul regarding freedom was no different. Similarly even Paul stated in chapter eight verse eight that "What leads us to God is not food. If one says "I won't eat" it is not because he will lose something and if one says "I will eat" it is not to gain anything." Whether you eat or don't eat has nothing to do with salvation.
14. But, as Paul continues later he writes like this: "Take care that your liberal attitude of freedom does not provoke weak persons to sin. When someone sees you who have knowledge taking a seat at a meal in a temple of idols, will it come to be that although that person is weak his conscience will be strengthened by your eating what has been prepared for idols? If that is so, a weak person perishes by your knowledge. Christ died for those brothers too," (verse nine through eleven). These words here are a bit difficult to grasp, but to put them simply it would go like this: A person behaves in freedom who emphasizes freedom according to [his or her] knowledge of faith. Whereupon, a weak person will pretend in [his or her] matters of the faith. What happens when the person does that? It may just turn out that he or she slides into a life that is a lie and sins, worse he or she may become separated from Christ and separated from God's grace and may end up heading for destruction. Such a thing ought not to be. [This should not happen] because "Christ died for those brothers too." Therefore, Paul has penned the following: "Because of this, as far as the matter of food causing my brothers to stumble goes, in order to not cause the brothers to stumble I will not put meat in my mouth again after this," (8:13).
As A Decision Filled With Encouragement
15. The circumstances which the Corinthian church confronted was of course different from the circumstances of the churches in Syria and Cilicia. But, what was recommended in the apostolic communication and what Paul wrote to the Corinthian disciples was fundamentally one and the same. I repeat: the problem that was there was not "What must we avoid?" to be accepted by God and be saved. That was not the issue, rather it was about what should we do to live together as persons forgiven by Christ's grace, as persons saved and part of Christ's church.
16. We may each have backgrounds that are different. Places may be different the way they judge in their consciences even regarding the same situations. There may be strong or weak persons. But, Christ died for me. Christ also died for that other person. The church exists based on that truth. So, what is required is not the observance of the law in order to be saved, but a concern based on love for those brothers for whom Christ gave his life away. Furthermore, it means that in time one waives his expected freedom and natural rights. For the Gentiles at Antioch it was specifically the matter of not eating the meat disposed of and sold from the temple which they had been eating till now and not eating the meat with blood. It is possible to make [this] complaint: "Why must we keep such a [rule]?" But, they did not complain. Instead, it is written (in verse thirty-one) that "They rejoiced knowing a decision filled with encouragement." It was not as a message that said "If you don't keep this, you are not saved," but instead they reacted positively to this communication as if it were a message to encourage them to build a co-operative body of persons accepted by God.
17. Well, how is it with us? How should we respond to the recommendation
written in this passage as we have never had a problem with situations
meat and judaistic customs? We should be freed from a way of
says "If you are a Christian, you shouldn't do this and you shouldn't
that." But, at the same time, there are things we ought
to do based on
the fact that "Christ died for me" and things we ought to avoid. Also, there are things we ought to do based on the fact that "Christ died for someone else" and things we ought to avoid. It may be in time we will have to waive our own freedom which we are able to rightfully claim as the Gentile Christians of old [did]. For each one of us, what does a concern [steeped] in love mean? I would like us to take stock of how we ourselves are before the Lord.