Acts 15:1-21
The Jerusalem Conference

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

By The Grace Of Jesus Alone

1. As I read before, the church was composed of only Jews at the very start. The place where they preached the gospel was the Jewish synagogue. A flock of Christians was considered a sect within Judaism by most others. They themselves even saw themselves that way. But, before long, the gospel of Christ split off from its Judaistic frame. In crossing the dividing wall, the gospel started to be preached to the Gentiles as well. The center of this became the church at Antioch. Paul and Barnabas were sent out on a mission trip from this congregation. As a result, many Gentiles believed on Jesus, were baptized, and added to the Lord's church. These elements are written about from chapter thirteen and fourteen.

2. The Gentile Christians, newly joined to the church, were a completely heterogeneous entity to the Jewish Christians. When speaking of believers in the same Christ, the background they lived in and the environment they were placed in were both totally different. Generally speaking, when a heterogeneous entity joins into [some group], energy is at work to try to assimilate them into it. Even in the church an energy was at work trying to assimilate the heterogeneous entity of the newly joined Gentile Christians. In the passage of the Bible that we read today the following text is recorded: "Certain ones came down from Judea and informed the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved," (verse one). These "certain ones," as it looks from verse five, are defined as "men from the Pharisee sect who became believers." They themselves had been circumcised according to the custom of Moses and had lived in observance of the law. In other words, these men had lived thoroughly aware that they were Jews given the law by God. We can understand well enough that these men of [the Pharisees] had been the leaders of the Gentile Christian assimilation movement.

3. Actually, their claims were not without foundation because the roots of the gospel lied within the very people of Israel. For originally, they were given the covenant with God, the covenant with the kingdom of God and the hope of salvation through the messiah, and they preserved and passed them on. The Bible is their book. Christ himself was born in the flesh as of the lineage of David. The original founding churches were not Gentile churches, but Jewish churches. Since Gentiles had joined those churches "after" you might say [they were already established], they consented to the claim that in becoming like the Jews, they could stay in the Lord's church and have a part in salvation.

4. But, all the Jewish Christians did not think that way. It says, "Then, a strong opposition in opinion and debate arose among Paul, Barnabas and the other men," (verse two). So, in order to have a meeting over this problem, the first church conference was held in Jerusalem. This is the subject of the passage of scripture we read for today.

5. In opposition to the Judaizers who were trying to assimilate the Gentiles, Paul and Barnabas thought that the Gentile Christians should still be Gentiles. Was this because Paul and Barnabas lacked in their awareness as Jews? Not, that was not it at all. Paul himself belonged to the Pharisees. He was a disciple of Gamaliel, the famous rabbi. It is believed that no one was as conscious of himself as a Jew as he was. He went so far as to claim, "I wish that I myself [could] be separated from Christ and abandoned by God on behalf of my brothers, that is my countrymen according to the flesh," (Romans 9:3). Even though he said that, when it came to the Gentile Christians in the church, he thought that Gentiles should stay Gentiles. On what points were Paul and the Judaizers who claimed assimilation different?

6. In order to understand this, I would like for us to take a good look at one passage in the Bible, the passage in which Paul tells of his own understanding. Later, in an epistle addressed to Timothy, Paul wrote that, "Previously, I was a blasphemer of God, a persecutor, a man of violence. But, as I went without believing or knowing, I received mercy. And the grace of our Lord was given to me so abundantly along with love and faith according to Jesus Christ. The message of 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners' is true and is worth accepting just as it is. I am a prime example of a sinner among them," (First Timothy 1:13-15).

7. Paul was a Jew. Since he was a baby he had kept the law. Paul had never thought that his being accepted by God, being made a person of God, and being given the promise of salvation was something he had yet to do. Instead, he looked hard at this truth with surprise. Since "the worst sinner among sinners" would be accepted by God, Paul knew that it came through the grace of Christ Jesus who had come into the world to save sinners and that this couldn't be anything else but of the mercy of God.

8. In the passage of scripture we read for today, Peter also says the same thing. He had concluded the following words in relation to his own experiences during the Gentile mission. "We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, and it is the same for these Gentiles as well," (verse eleven). Yes, indeed. It all comes through the grace of the Lord Jesus who came to save sinners. It comes through the grace of Jesus, who gave himself for the redemption of our sins. It is the same for us today. Our being accepted by God, waiting for the kingdom of God and worshipping of the Lord as we so wait and hope in the church, comes only through the grace of Jesus and comes from the mercy of God. Peter said it.

9. But, regretfully, we don't usually preserve this mindset. I'd say people aren't really thinking "I do it because I am part of the church." We often think "To be part of the church has its requirements." Without realizing it, we may talk like those Judaizers did, putting the focus of the people of God dutifully on oneself. I think that so many many people act arrogantly towards God and others in forgetting that we Gentiles as sinners were allowed to be in [one of the] corners of God's people through the mercy of God and forgetting to be thankful for that amazing grace. We really need to engrave Peter's words right onto [the skins of] our hearts.

For Different Peoples To Dwell Together

10. By the way, what was the conclusions of the first conference held in Jerusalem? The last one who spoke was James, who [scholars] think had a comparatively close tie to the believers from the Pharisee camp. Upon showing that letting Gentiles be added to the people of God as Gentiles is in conformance with the biblical text, he made the following proposal. "So, this is my thinking on it. Do not disturb the Gentiles who have turned to God. We ought to just write that they are to avoid unclean meat offered to idols, lewd acts, the meat of strangled animals and blood. For, the law of Moses is read in the synagogues every Sabbath as there have been people making it knowing in each town from of old," (verses nineteen through twenty-one). Then, this proposal was received by all and they sent it to each of the churches as a decision.

11. What do you think of this conclusion? Don't you think it is a strange one? I can understand about the part about avoiding unclean meat offered to idols and lewd acts because Gentile Christians, even after conversion, still had to go on living within a society in which pagan rituals and sexual immorality was deeply connected. But what about the recommendation after that to "avoid the meat of strangled animals and blood?" This is not based on Jewish ceremonial butcher laws, it seems to be just about do not eat meat with blood left in it. The words "Avoid blood" are a recommendation related to the stipulation "Do not eat blood" as is written in Leviticus chapter seventeen and verse eleven. So this also has to do with the law that the Jews had been observing. Isn't this a conclusion also requiring the Gentile Christians to live their lives like the Jews? Whatever happened to the statement "We believe that we are saved by the grace of Jesus and it goes the same for these Gentiles" that Peter made?

12. But, we must take careful note of one thing here. The reason the Gentiles were being required these things was not that they wouldn't be saved unless they did them. They were not saying that unless they did them they couldn't be Christians. James never said one word of that. It was for an entirely different reason that James gave this. "For, the law of Moses is read in the synagogues every Sabbath as there have been people making it knowing in each town from of old." That was the reason. In short, it was that in all the cities on every Sabbath from the time they were small there were Jews raised up on listening to the law of Moses. It was because there had been people who had been living according to the law. This means that even though they are evangelizing in Gentile towns, they weren't limited to only Gentiles being in those churches established in those different places. It was because wherever there were fellowships of believers with Gentiles in them, there was also Christian Jews who had still been living by the law. Jew and Gentile made church life together.

13. The issue presented here is not about "how to be saved." It is about how people with differing backgrounds can live together. For example, we eat meals together in church. In the ancient church it was called "The Love Feast (Agape)" and it had an important status. But what would you do if bloodied meat, according to the custom of the Gentiles, was offered? The Jew would not able to take a meal with them. What if meat that was sacrificed to an idol and later circulated at the market place was offered there [at the church dinner]? The Jew would not able to take a meal with them. As a Jewish problem within the scope of Jewish Christians, did these Jews have to reform themselves? No, not really; the Bible points to a totally different direction, which is consideration for others based on love. A loving concern for others means that there are times we are to let go of part of our freedom. In order for Gentiles and Jews to dwell together before their Lord, the Gentile Christians are asked to avoid a few situations with a mindfulness based on love. That is really the true intent of their decision.

14. The account of the Jerusalem conference shows two very important points. First, we are not saved by doing anything or by avoiding something. As Peter said, we are saved only by the grace of Jesus and that alone. Then, secondly, we need to seriously think about what we should do and what we should avoid. It is not for the purpose of being saved, but so that different peoples under the grace of Jesus will live harmoniously. Actions based on love are required for those saved by the grace of Jesus.

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