To the End of the Earth: To the End of the Earth (35): The Letter

Sermon by Derek Thomas on March 11, 2007

Acts 15:21-35

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The Lord’s Day
Evening

March 11, 2007

Acts 15:21-35

To the Ends of
the Earth

The Letter

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

Now turn with me if you would to The Acts of The Apostles.
Last Lord’s Day evening we were in the first part of Acts 15. We said then a
number of things, but we said that Acts 15 falls, of course, in the middle of
The Acts of The Apostles, and there seems to be a good reason why right at the
center of The Acts of The Apostles we have this story, account, of the Jerusalem
Council. It was a defining moment in the history of the church; perhaps the
most important moment following the resurrection and Pentecost.

In many ways the gospel itself was at stake–at least
for the Apostle Paul it seemed that way. The insistence by some — a sect of the
Pharisees who had made it up to Antioch and apparently had followed Paul and
Barnabas in their travels through Asia Minor and in the province of Galatia in
particular — this sect of the Pharisees were insisting that without circumcision
you cannot be saved. And so this council has been convened in the mother church
in Jerusalem.

A certain amount of tension exists between the church
in Antioch and the church in Jerusalem. Some of it is natural ‘growing pains.’
The church in Antioch were beginning to spread their wings and be somewhat
independent. They weren’t constantly asking permission of the church in
Jerusalem. They weren’t sending communiquйs — can we do this or can we do that?
And there appears to be at least on the surface a measure of unity or disunity
at stake.

But far more important that that is this issue of
justification, the gospel, the way of salvation. Is it by faith alone, or is it
by faith plus obedience to certain aspects of Jewish ceremonial laws,
circumcision in particular?

Well, we left last Sunday evening on what was in some
respects a cliff-hanger–at least it was for me–and I promised you I would come
back with some of the answers this week. I wish I hadn’t made such a strong
promise. There are more problems in this passage than hairs on my head, and the
more I’ve been looking at this passage in the course of this week, the more I’ve
been changing my mind on certain things.

Let’s look to God in prayer, shall we? Let’s ask
God’s Holy Spirit again to come and grant us illumination as we read His word
together. Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures, and we
thank You especially for this portion of Scripture that we’re about to read. We
acknowledge that it is Your word, and therefore truthful and without error, and
we pray that You would help us discern through some of the complications what it
is saying to us. We ask for the help of Your Spirit that we might read, mark,
learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now turn with me to Acts 15. Let’s pick it up
right at the conclusion of the previous section. Let’s pick it up at verse 19.
These are the words of James:

“ ‘Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are
turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they
abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is
strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city
those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.’

“Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole
church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and
Barnabas–Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and
they sent this letter by them,

‘The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch
and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.

‘Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction
have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to
us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved
Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord
Jesus Christ.

‘Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report
the same things by word of mouth.

‘For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater
burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols
and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep
yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.’

“So, when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having
gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When they had
read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. Judas and Silas, also being
prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy
message. After they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren
in peace to those who had sent them out. But it seemed good to Silas to remain
there. But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching, with
many others also, the word of the Lord.”

Amen. And may God bless to us the reading of His holy and
inerrant word.

The Jerusalem Council was a triumph for the
Apostle Paul. His insistence that salvation was by faith alone apart from the
works of the Law had been crucial.
What these men from Jerusalem, these sect
of the Pharisees, as Luke calls them, who had evidently come to Antioch and
disturbed the peace of the brethren, disturbed their souls…what these men who
had evidently followed Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey
caused some trouble in the churches in Galatia, by all accounts…what these men
were insisting [that apart from circumcision you cannot be saved] was something
that needed to be settled and settled quickly, and settled without any
equivocation. It was a matter of the purity of the gospel. This was not an issue
to debate about. It was not an issue to equivocate over. It was not an issue to
fudge over. And the Council had been unanimous.

Actually, it wasn’t Paul so much as Peter that won
the day. It was, as I said last week, his finest moment.
He was probably
still smarting from that dressing down that he had received from the Apostle
Paul (that Paul refers to in Galatians 2), when he had removed himself from
table fellowship with the Gentiles because of these people who had come from
Jerusalem. And Paul had dressed him down publicly because, you see, as far as
Paul was concerned, if justification is through the Law, then Christ’s death had
been in vain. It had no purpose. He writes to the Galatians, and that letter had
been written (at least I think it had been written) just before this Jerusalem
Council. He had written to the Galatians on this very issue, and he’d asked
them, as they now were troubled over the same issue of circumcision, “Did you
receive faith by the Spirit or by the works of the Law?” And the answer of
course was that they had received it by the Spirit. When you turn to Galatians
2:16 you’ll see Paul’s summary statement about the whole matter. He says in
verse 16 of Galatians 2:

“We know that a person is not justified by works of the Law, but through faith
in Jesus Christ; so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be
justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; because by the
works of the Law no one will be justified.”

There’s Paul’s stand on this matter. It was by faith alone,
apart from the works of the Law. And circumcision, as far as the Apostle Paul
was concerned, was one of those works of the Law.

Now it’s almost impossible these days to preach on
this passage or passages relating to circumcision or the like without raising an
issue that has arisen in our midst currently, namely, what is often referred to
as “The New Perspective on Paul.1
I don’t have time or the inclination to go through all of what
the new perspective of Paul is saying, but there are some aspects of it that are
germane to what we are dealing with right here, because what they are saying is
that the Reformers — beginning back with Augustine, but Luther and the
Reformers, and we are the children of the Reformers — the Reformers seriously
misunderstood Paul. They seriously misunderstood the Pharisees. They seriously
misunderstood the role that circumcision was playing in the mindset of the
Pharisees. Luther, we are led to believe, read medieval Roman Catholicism, a
religion of works righteousness, a religion that suggests that by obedience to
the Law we gain merit that accrues in the sight of God, that our obedience to
the Law is meritorious in the sight of God, that we are saved by doing this and
performing that and obeying this commandment and obeying that commandment, so
that we can bring, as it were, to the presence of God this mass of obedience of
ours in addition to the grace that God reveals in the gospel.

It’s not that medieval Rome didn’t believe in grace;
of course it believed in grace; but it believed in grace plus the addition of
works of obedience, the works of the Law, if you like.

And the claim is now being made that the Reformers
read all of that back into the Pharisees. And what the Pharisees, they say, were
saying about circumcision was not that it was contributory as an act of
meritorious obedience to gain salvation: rather, they say, what the Pharisees
were saying was that circumcision was the badge, as it were, that revealed their
identity and status as the elect of God in a special relationship to God, and in
a different relationship to the Gentiles.

Now there’s more, and there’s a whole lot more for
another time. But let me respond to that just very briefly.
There’s an
aspect of that which is true. That’s always the way with error, and yes, heresy.
There’s an aspect of that which is true. But when that is proclaimed as the
whole truth, then it becomes an untruth.

Because however way we spin
this, the sect of the Pharisees were demanding obedience to ceremonial law in
order to be saved. And that obedience to ceremonial law had to be viewed as
meritorious, because apart from that obedience there could be no salvation.

So Paul is addressing an issue in Antioch, and now
listening to the debate in Jerusalem, there at the very center of the debate are
two issues: one, the issue of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles.

There’s no doubt about it but that the Jews were finding it difficult–I mean
Christian Jews, converted Jews, believing Jews, spiritual Jews–were finding it
difficult to accept in total without any question the inclusion of Gentiles
within the community of God. There were growing pains! Jews had never sat next
to Gentiles over a meal table in the past, and now they were one in Jesus
Christ, and the middle wall of partition had been broken down. There were
growing pains in the relationship and rapport and fellowship between Jews and
Gentiles.

There was also of course another issue, a
fundamental issue, an issue of the works of the Law; the issue of justification
in its relationship to works; the issue of salvation in its relationship to
obedience — like circumcision.
And once the Pharisees had said ‘You cannot
be saved unless you are circumcised’, to Paul that was the red flag. That was
the end of the line, because in some respects circumcision was a thing
indifferent. But they had made it not just a badge of what it means to be
Jewish, they had made it the criterion of obedience without which you cannot be
saved. So this was a line in the sand, and the Council had come out with flying
colors on this one. It’s a wonderful, wonderful moment! There was absolute
unanimity that there was no imposition and no demand, not even a hint of a
suggestion that Gentiles should be circumcised in order to be saved. There was
no equivocation. It was crystal clear. It was a triumph for the gospel, for
justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. As Luke records it in verse
11,

“We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same
way as they are.”

There it is. It’s salvation by
grace through the instrumentality of faith in Jesus alone, for Jews and
Gentiles, no matter who they are or where they are.

But then come these four stipulations: food offered
to idols; fornication or sexual immorality; meat that had been strangled; and,
blood. And this list is repeated, though in different order, again in verse 29
in the actual letter itself. And actually it’s going to be repeated a third time
when James and Paul next meet together in Jerusalem as the leader of the Gentile
party and the leader of the Jewish party, and they repeat these four injunctions
again.

So I want to ask three questions. What do these
four things mean, first of all? Secondly, is the imposition of these four
essentials a fatal compromise to the decision they have made with regard to
circumcision? And thirdly, I want to ask what authority did this letter have?

I. First of all, what do these
four things mean?

A couple of things that we need to notice
about his list of four essentials. First of all, they are a strange mix of
ceremonial and moral issues. You’ve got meat that’s offered to idols; you’ve got
meat that’s been strangled; and blood; and then you’ve got sexual immorality or
fornication.

Now, sexual immorality, fornication…well, of course
it’s wrong! It’s wrong no matter where you are or who you are. You don’t need a
council in Jerusalem to say that fornication is wrong. You don’t need James and
Paul and Peter and Barnabas and a whole lot of others to meet together in
Jerusalem for several days and come out with this: ‘You should refrain from
fornication.’ What does it mean?

Someone suggested that what is in view here is–the
technical term is the rules of consanguinity. Now isn’t that a beautiful
expression? It’s the rules of marriage within degrees of blood relationship.
Ligon was dealing with it just fairly recently — at least, it seems recent in my
heart — in Leviticus 18. It’s possible, you see, that what is being referred to
here are the way Jews and Gentiles differed on who could marry who within blood
relationships. And there were certain practices, perhaps, amongst the Gentiles
that were offensive to the Jews. Maybe that’s what this issue of sexual
immorality (or fornication, as it’s called) is about. It’s a strong word to
use…not a use designed to bring peace to Gentiles in Antioch, particularly if
they were already married to these people, and now they’re being accused of
fornication. That seems to me to be a difficult one to carry, although great
names have adopted that particular view. It’s interesting that if that were the
view, Leviticus 18 comes after Leviticus 17, and Leviticus 17 contains all kinds
of laws about ritual sacrifice, including the issue about blood, but nothing
about strangulation and nothing about sacrificing to idols.

Let’s go with that for a second. Let’s think
‘Maybe what the Jerusalem Council are saying is that Gentiles should conform to
ceremonial laws in Leviticus 17 and 18.’
Now think about it for a minute.
They have said circumcision is not necessary. They’ve given away one, but
they’ve laid hold of four! It doesn’t sound to me like a triumph. It sounds to
me that Paul would have to make a great deal of explanation back in Antioch that
they’ve yielded on one, but they have retained four.

Notice also that the wording is different. In the
first account, fornication or sexual immorality comes second; in the second
account in the letter, it comes fourth. That is suggestive of several things. It
suggests that perhaps in putting it forth it was in a category all of its own,
as might be the case with the rules of consanguinity interpretation. But
if it actually comes second, in between stipulations about meat offered to idols
and about meat that has been strangled, it suggests that it has some kind of
relationship to venues where that kind of thing might be taking place. And where
would that be taking place? In pagan temples.

In temples that the converted Gentiles in Antioch in
Syria and Cilicia have been frequenting all their lives, until at least recent
days – and perhaps some of them are still toying with the idea of attending some
of the rituals and ceremonies of pagan temple worship. And so it might be, and
it looks to me as though what this letter is actually suggesting — what these
four stipulations are actually suggesting — is that the Gentiles in Antioch and
Syria and Cilicia are to engage in caution, and they’re to engage in due care
and diligence about matters of interpersonal relationship – and their practices
were for them eating meat that has been strangled — or for that matter, eating
blood. (My father-in-law ate something called “blood pudding” all of his days.
It was revolting and smelled revolting when it was frying in the frying pan!) It
may be that what this letter is actually suggesting is that there are tensions
developing between converted Jews and converted Gentiles over the kinds of foods
that they’re eating.

Now, there’s no mention in this letter, for example,
of prohibiting the eating of pork. If there was a concern over ritual Jewish
ceremonial issues, as though the Council were saying ‘We want you to become
Jewish at least in this respect’ you might expect them to have said something
about eating pork, but they don’t do that. It’s only in those cross-currents;
it’s only in those tangents, if you like, where pagan worship and Jewish worship
are actually now crossing each other, and this letter is saying ‘We want you to
abstain. We’re asking you to abstain. You are free to eat meat that has been
offered to idols. You are free to eat meat that has been strangled. You are free
to eat the blood of that meat. But we’re asking you to abstain, for the sake of
Jewish scruples… for the sake of fellowship.’

Isn’t it interesting that Paul will actually take
this up? In the next two letters that he writes, the letter to the Thessalonians
and the letters to Corinth, Paul takes up those two very issues. You remember,
for example, in I Corinthians 8, the whole chapter is about meat that has been
offered to idols.

You know, meat was an expensive commodity. Your
average Joe would not eat meat on a regular basis. He’d come home from his
office in Antioch and he’d pass the pagan temple where once he had worshiped,
and he’d meet a former friend of his who was selling at cut price sirloin that
had been offered in temple worship that very afternoon. “Hey!” he says to
himself, “I’m free in Christ. It’s just meat.” I mean, shoo the flies away and
he’d say, “How much?” And there’d be a knocked-down price, and they’d barter for
it, and he’d take it home and cook it, and with some potatoes and baby carrots
and peas, and he’d eat it and ask no questions for conscience’s sake. But then,
you see, he’d ask his Aunt Maude, and Aunt Maude had been converted. And she
says, “You know, we really shouldn’t be eating this meat, because this meat has
been offered to idols, and there’s idolatry here.” Now, she’s all wrong, of
course. She’s all wrong. It’s just meat! But in her conscience it’s something
else. And you remember how Paul deals with that. He deals with it in I
Corinthians 8. He deals with it again in Romans 14, and he says, you know, in
situations like that where you have a weaker brother…and the weaker brother is
the one with all the foibles…he’s the one that has all the problems. We face
exactly the same issue with alcohol. It’s exactly the same issue. And where
there are people with scruples, you abstain; not out of a principle of bondage,
but actually from the very reverse: from the principle that ‘I am free in
Christ; I abstain in my freedom for the sake of the weaker brother.’

Now that doesn’t deal, of course, with the issue of
sexual immorality or fornication. There was plenty of that of course in pagan
worship. Plenty of prostitution, cultic prostitution, within the pagan temples.
Maybe that’s the issue. It’s intriguing to watch the transmission of the text
here in our Bibles. A difficult and thorny issue, of course, to deal with; but
there are some traditions where the issue of sexual immorality has actually been
dropped from the text, only to signal how difficult it is to bring that
particular issue in line with the other three.

But it looks…however way you spin this, what was the
concern being shown in Jerusalem? It was the concern for holiness. It was the
concern for brotherly relationships. It was not, it seems to me, a concern to
impose Jewish ceremonial laws upon the Gentiles. That, it seems to me, would be
going back into bondage for which the Jerusalem Council had been called for in
the first place.

II. So was this a fatal
compromise?

According to one, the letter was “a
masterpiece of tact and delicacy.” Well, that’s maybe going over the top a
little bit. It was a wonderful letter, of course, in regards to circumcision.
They write this letter, it’s taken up to Antioch, it begins by saying “Those who
had come to you from Jerusalem, they bore no authority from us; but these men,
Judas and Silas, they bear our full authority, and there is unanimity on this.”

Interesting, though, that Paul seems absolutely
silent. He doesn’t speak in Jerusalem…at least, nothing is recorded of it in
Luke’s account of it, and nothing is recorded either when it gets back to
Antioch that Paul was completely and utterly on board with every part of it.
Maybe this is part of a compromise in the delicate relationships between a
largely Gentile church and a largely Jewish church, where Paul, for the sake of
the unity of the church here has decided to keep his peace…because the moment he
would begin to speak, there would again be factions in the community. If this
letter is a means of pacifying Jews by asking Gentiles in Antioch to submit to
Jewish ceremonial laws, then it seems to me that a fatal compromise has been
reached.

And better, it seems to me, is the idea that what
the church in Jerusalem is actually doing is addressing those areas of tension
between largely Gentile Christians and those converted Jewish Christians, as
those lines of tangent criss-cross with one another.
There were certain
pagan practices involving food especially that would be a cause of enormous
offense to Christian Jews. And rather than stick to your essential principle of
liberty here, the letter is asking them to refrain and abstain for the sake of a
greater good: the unity of the brethren.

You see, it seems to me now that the eating of blood,
for example…not that I want to do so, but the eating of blood is in and of
itself…I’ve seen some of you with your steaks, and there isn’t much difference
it seems to me between drinking blood and that stuff that pours out of those
rare steaks! It’s a matter of adiaphoraBut where an issue of conscience and
scruple is taking place, it’s asking for the sake of the unity of the brethren
to refrain.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, in verse 21…an awkward
text…

“For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him,
since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

There are some who interpret that text to say that
what is being said there is that the Jews didn’t need to be taught, because they
were already being taught week by week; it was the Gentiles who were ignorant
about certain practices. But rather, what’s being said in that text is ‘How can
you expect Jews suddenly overnight to lose all of their scruples about certain
truths, when they’ve been taught all along in the synagogues that they’ve been
attending every week that these things are necessarily to be obeyed?’ And now
that they have gained their freedom in Christ, as Calvin says, “There are some
ceremonies that you bury with certain decency.” It takes time for these
things to, as it were, seep into the consciousness of these converted Jews.

III. So what is the authority of
this letter?

Let me point out just a few quick things about
this letter.
You notice how it begins by calling themselves brothers
and addressing brothers. It’s from brothers to brothers. What a beautiful
touch. In a case where there is tension between Jerusalem and Antioch, it’s
brother speaking to brother.

Notice, too, and it’s another beautiful touch in the
letter, how it addresses Paul and Barnabas: “Our beloved Paul and Barnabas.” Now
they were certainly beloved in Antioch. It might be open to question whether
Paul was beloved in Jerusalem, but the letter says “beloved Paul and beloved
Barnabas.”

Notice, too, the letter says ‘What we’re asking of
you is only the minimum. We’re not imposing upon you some great burden. We’re
asking you for the sake of the unity of the brethren to abide by these four
stipulations.’

But notice, too, it’s a very localized letter.
It’s not, for example, addressed to the churches in Galatia. It’s only
addressed to the church in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, up in the north
.
And maybe this letter was always intended to be a local and temporary
arrangement as the church grew, and in the course of that growth experienced
growing pains.

Now there are a lot of difficulties here. The issue
itself is difficult. There were personalities. Imagine being in the same room
with Peter, James, and Paul and Barnabas! And you notice how the letter says on
the one hand “it’s the work of the Spirit” and then on the other hand “it seemed
good to us also.” They had deliberated these things. God didn’t pour this out of
heaven. It wasn’t a “thus saith the Lord.” Judas and Silas are prophets, but
apparently they had not received a prophecy from God as to the way forward here.
No, this had been agreed to by debate and by counsel, and by deliberation, and
by the influence of wisdom and logic and reason and urging. And yet over the
entire process, there is this overruling of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit says
“…but it seemed good to us also.”

And that’s, I think, what Luke wants us to see
above everything else, that however much the concern was in Antioch and
Jerusalem for the church of Jesus Christ and the concern of course is immense
for the purity of the gospel for interpersonal relationships between converted
Gentiles and converted Jews, the Spirit is far more concerned than any of them.

The Spirit is always concerned to bring glory to Jesus. That’s His role. That’s
His prerogative. That’s what He lives for, to point out Christ and to bring
glory to Christ.

But in situations where the church finds itself in
tension and in difficulty, and unsure of the way ahead, this is always the
promise, isn’t it? That as elders discuss and debate and deliberate, and try to
inch forward in situations where there is tension and difficulty, and where
there isn’t a “thus saith the Lord” in certain situations, trying to find the
way of wisdom, trying to find God’s guidance, there is this promise of the work
of the Spirit, whose constant ministry is to bring glory to Jesus Christ.

Well, let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures and
for this immensely important passage as it speaks to the relationship between
two churches, and relationship between individuals now free in Christ, and yet
for the sake of unity refraining from using that liberty for a better motive and
a better goal. And we pray, Lord, in circumstances where we too find ourselves,
maybe over issues where there are no directives from the Lord, that we might
exercise similar patience and similar love, and a similar Christ-like concern
for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. So bless us, we pray, and write
these things now upon our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand, receive the Lord’s benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

1. For more on The New
Perspective on Paul,
visit this
link
.

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