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An Apostolic Conference Call
The conference call is a staple of American business. It serves as a means whereby different company entities, often separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, stay on the same page in terms of company policies and projects. It's where the right hand stays up to speed on what the left hand is doing. Without the same-page communication that the conference call provides, businesses would be preoccupied with fixing mistakes rather than selling products and services.
The apostles did not have the conference call technology we have today. Yet there were occasions when a meeting of minds was required to get them on the 'same page' and maintain gospel integrity. Such an occasion is recorded in Acts 15, a record of the Jerusalem Council. It took place circa 50-51 A.D. and closely approximates Paul's authorship of Galatians. Some scholars believe Galatians was the first NT book written. If one compares the text of Acts 15 with Galatians 2, an argument could be made that (1) Galatians was written shortly after the Jerusalem Council, and (2) the Jerusalem Council precipitated the writing of Galatians to codify, in a manner of speaking, what the Council had concluded. In the first twenty years of Church history, Jerusalem had become the Jewish center of Christianity while Antioch of Syria had become the same for Gentiles. The Jerusalem Council was crucial for getting both Jewish and Gentile believers on the 'same gospel page' as the Kingdom of God expanded.
Chapter 15 begins: “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, 'Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved'” (15:1). Why was this even an issue? These men were operating in a gospel vacuum. God introduced circumcision with Abraham, not Moses. The practice was carried over into the Mosaic Law several hundred years after. Abraham was a saved man, having been justified (made righteous) by faith before he was circumcised (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:10-12). God introduced circumcision as a 'sign' or 'seal' of the faith Abraham had while being uncircumcised. God's order of salvation with Abraham was justification first, then circumcision as a 'sign' of saving faith. This was a matter of biblical record that every Jew should have understood. But they were blinded by tradition. These disciples of Moses took a position that was biblically untenable. The rite of male circumcision never guaranteed the salvation of a single recipient. If it did, how could Jewish females ever be saved?
The Holy Ghost had separated Paul and Barnabas in the church at Antioch of Syria to embark upon the first missionary journey. This took place circa 44 A.D. (Spring). After a time of prayer, fasting and laying on of hands, the church sent them on their way (Acts 13:1-3). Chapters 13-14 record the cities they visited, their preaching activities and some key journey events, including the stoning of Paul at Lystra (Acts 14:19). Historians set the time of their return to Antioch circa 46 A.D. (Fall), making the duration of the first missionary journey about 2-2½ years. Scripture adds: “And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. And there they abode long time with the disciples” (14:27-28). The “long time” they spent with the church at Antioch would be 2-3 years.
It is important for us to establish this historical perspective. It tells us the gospel of grace, as preached by Paul, was thoroughly embedded in and understood by the church at Antioch as well as every church he and Barnabas planted. It is no wonder Paul and Barnabas had “no small dissension and disputation” with these men (15:2), because “the truth of the gospel” was at stake (Galatians 2:5; 2:14; Colossians 1:5), a truth for which they had hazarded their lives! Defending the gospel of grace can be and often is a life and death proposition!
The church at Antioch, which sent Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, was now minded to send them and “certain other of them” (15:2) to Jerusalem for the purpose of resolving this question. One of those others was Titus, an uncircumcised Gentile (Galatians 2:3), who was likely brought along to make a point about the gospel, a living illustration of it. The church at Antioch funded their 300-mile trip to Jerusalem. Based upon a calculation of 24-30 miles as a day's journey, it would have taken about 10-12 days to make the journey plus the time spent with churches in Phenice and Samaria to declare the conversion of the Gentiles—a cause for “great joy” (15:3). After 2-3 weeks of travel southward, they arrived in Jerusalem where the apostles and elders received them (15:4). It was time for the conference call to begin.
It didn't take long for the “question” of mandatory circumcision to take center stage. Certain of the sect of the Pharisees made their position known: “That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (15:5). It is clear that 'circumcision' was a code word intended to convey the whole Mosaic Law. Our text says these Pharisees who raised the issue had “believed.” But in comparing the reference to “false brethren” in Galatians 2:4, we must ask whether these Pharisees were born again believers or just nominal believers with no real comprehension of grace. In any case, it's clear the early church had its challenges with the transition from Law to Grace and comprehending the relationship, if any, between Israel, Mosaic Law and the Church. The primary purpose of this conference call was to define that relationship, once and for all. For a house divided against itself would not be able to stand!
The apostles and elders came together to consider the matter (15:6). There was the same “disputing” in Jerusalem as took place in Antioch. The word “disputing” signifies a mutual questioning, a discussion based on reasoned arguments. It was no doubt a visceral exchange of thought, not necessarily what we might call a knock down, drag out affair. What I find interesting is that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, seems to have deferred to Peter, the apostle to the Jews (Galatians 2:7-8). After a season of disputation, Peter took control of the conversation and addressed the brethren (15:7).
Peter reminded them of his experience with the centurion Cornelius, a Gentile, circa 41 A.D., some 9 years earlier (Acts 10:1ff). It reminds us once again that the question of circumcision should have long since been resolved based on what God did in Caeserea. It was an historical milestone in the life of the Church. Cornelius heard the gospel of Christ, and believed. God validated the faith of Cornelius and his associates by “giving them the Holy Ghost” as he did Peter and the disciples at Pentecost (15:8). It was a faith whereby God purified their hearts (forgave their sins), a display of divine approval that signified “no difference” between Jew and Gentile (15:9). The Lord granting forgiveness of sins and giving his Spirit to both Jew and Gentile alike on the same basis—faith in Jesus—had no connection with Mosaic Law. This was Peter's argument...an argument that was unassailable!
Peter furthermore concluded that putting a yoke—an unbearable yoke—upon the neck of Gentile believers, including circumcision or any other aspect of Mosaic Law, would constitute a tempting of God (15:10). The word “tempt” means to try or put to the test. Depending on its context, the word “tempt” can have a positive connotation (an ascertainment of quality) or negative connotation (a provocation or malicious distrust). Acts 15 is a context that demands a negative usage. Peter's use of “tempt” is both strategic and brilliant. The mention of “tempting God” would have brought to the mind of every biblically astute Jew in that Council the many OT references to Israel “tempting God” (Exodus 17:7; Numbers 14:22; Deuteronomy 6:16; Psalm 78:18; 106:14, et al). How did Israel provoke the Holy One? Psalm 78:41 provides light: “Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.” Israel “limited” their God doubting (maliciously distrusting) his sufficiency to provide for them according to his promises. For Israel to exhibit such disbelief, malicious distrust, in their Lord's ability to deliver on his promises was a tempting, a provocation, of the Holy One.
In terms of the gospel and total sufficiency of Christ as the believer's righteousness, attempting to place the yoke of Mosaic Law upon the necks of Gentile believers, according to Peter, would be a malicious distrust of Christ and his sufficiency to save his grace all who believe (15:11). The Law has no ability whatsoever to produce righteousness, whether in justification or sanctification. It is the indwelling Spirit's work to produce practical righteousness and Christ-likeness in the believer. If righteousness of ANY kind can be achieved by compliance to Mosaic Law, Christ died in vain (Galatians 2:21). In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul issued this warning: “Neither let us tempt [maliciously distrust] Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents (1 Corinthians 10:9). Teachers of Mosaic Law (Torah) compliance for believers in the present age have either rejected or failed to learn the truth of Acts 15. Their insistence on compliance to Mosaic Law is nothing more than a provocation—a malicious distrust—of Christ. Yet they seem to have no clue as to the seriousness of their error!
Paul and Barnabas then took the floor, declaring the miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them (15:12). It goes without saying that the demonstrations of Holy Ghost power through Paul and Barnabas had nothing to do with Mosaic Law. Their experience was consistent with that of Peter and Cornelius, both of which involved God giving of his Spirit. When the Spirit of God attests to the gospel of grace in Christ Jesus without Mosaic Law, no other opinion matters! James then arose and added some prophetic insight. His comments were similar to that of a trial lawyer delivering his closing arguments to a jury (15:13-21). James affirms that Peter's testimony about God taking out from among the Gentiles a people for his name was in agreement with OT prophecy (15:14-15).
James shared a bit of keen prophetic insight. He said: “After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up” (15:16). There are a few OT texts to which James could have been referring, such as Isaiah 16:5, Amos 9:11. What exactly was the tabernacle of David to which James referred? It could NOT have been the tabernacle in the wilderness, for Christ on the cross ended any further need for a sin offering. It could NOT have been the temple that Solomon built for the same reason. The tabernacle of David refers to the temporary structure David constructed for the Ark of the Covenant when moving it from the house of Obed-edom back to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:17). Now, if the Lord was to build again the tabernacle of David—James argues he did—how would that rebuilding manifest itself? James cited the salvation of Gentiles as evidence it had happened (15:17). This assertion by James can lead to only one conclusion. The tabernacle of David was a foreshadowing of Christ, who was made flesh and dwelt (tabernacled) among us (John 1:14). He was “fallen down” in his death, “built again” with his resurrection and “set up” with his ascension to the right hand of the Father, where he is now the one Mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:4). The “tabernacle of David” of 15:16 is “the Lord” of 15:17.
James introduced his verdict as follows: “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God” (15:19). The word “trouble” means “to disturb, annoy or further harass.” This is what Mosaic Law—an unbearable yoke of bondage–does when placed upon the neck of a believer. It sounds familiar to the “trouble” Paul said Galatians believers were experiencing at the hands Law teachers. The word “troubled” in Galatians 1:7 is a different word, meaning “to agitate, cause inward commotion, render anxious or distressed.” In either case, the Mosaic Law, when imposed upon believers as a requirement for either life or righteousness, is double trouble. The recommendations of James in 15:20 were practical measures for their testimony's sake, not soteriological. They were: (1) avoidance of things connected with idolatry, (2) avoidance of all sexual impurity, and (3) avoidance of meats from strangled animals and improperly drained blood. In keeping themselves from these things, they would “do well” (15:29). These guidelines would come under the larger testimonial umbrella of 1 Thessalonians 5:22: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”
James gave his reason for these measures: “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (15:21). The Gentiles that experience the saving grace of God bear a responsibility to evangelize Jews and live a life that places no cause of stumbling in their path. The guidelines of James—less than a handful—would help to avoid accusations from lost Jews that Christianity was lawless or disrespectful. It was a matter of testimony, not a partial imposition of the Mosaic Law. His judgment “seemed good” to every member of the Council as well as the Spirit of God (15:25, 28). They agreed to compose and circulate an open letter to Gentile churches in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia that set forth these handful of recommendations (15:23).
In 15:24, the apostolic letter employed the words “troubled” and “subverting” in describing the effects of these Mosaic Law teachers. The word “troubled” is the same Greek word Paul used in Galatians 1:7. The believer who imposes Mosaic Law upon himself or attempts to do so with others is setting himself against Christ, the Holy Spirit and apostolic doctrine. He is an instigator of malicious distrust in Christ and the gospel of grace. The word “subverting” is the Greek anaskeuazo. It literally means “to pack up baggage in order to carry it away to another place.” Figuratively, it means “to turn away violently from a right state.” The imposition of Mosaic Law upon a believer is an act of subversion. James attests that a commandment for Gentile believers to keep (comply with) Mosaic Law did NOT originate with the apostles. In other words, there is NO APOSTOLIC AUTHORITY behind any attempt to bring Mosaic Law to bear upon the Church! Acts 15 puts to rest the Satanic falsehood that the Church should have carried Mosaic Law over into Church life and, as a result, has gotten it wrong for the last two thousand years. The Jerusalem Council got the gospel right! If Mosaic Law has no ability to save a sinner, then it has no wherewithal whatsoever to grow a believer in grace...EXCEPT as it reveals the truth of Christ's glorious Person and character, a truth that the indwelling Holy Spirit can now build into the life through the renewal of the believer's mind (Romans 12:1-2).
A few observations are in order. First, Peter's mention of Mosaic Law as a “yoke” that neither they nor their fathers were able to bear (15:10) proves that “my yoke” of Matthew 11:29-30, which Jesus invited his hearers to take upon themselves, could NOT have been a reference to Mosaic Law as some heretics claim. Jesus himself is the yoke of rest, redeeming believers from the curse of the Law. There are fewer bastardizations of scripture more flagrant than interpreting Jesus' “yoke” in Matthew 11:29-30, a yoke he said was an “easy” and “light” burden, as a reference to Mosaic Law. They were already under Mosaic Law. In comparing scripture with scripture, one can only conclude that those that “labored” and were “heavy laden” were under the same 'unbearable' yoke that Peter cited.
There are at least three reasons why Mosaic Law is unbearable: (1) It cannot be perfectly kept and never has been kept by anyone except Christ. It's why we need HIS righteousness as a gift of grace. (2) It cannot justify (make righteous) sinners. (3) It cannot impart the life of Christ. Think about it! If Jesus was offering Torah compliance as his yoke, he was essentially inviting his hearers to lay down the yoke of Mosaic Law, then turn right around and pick up the same yoke. Does this make sense? If Jesus saw the “heavy laden” as those laboring under sin's bondage, which means they HAD to be under Mosaic Law already, then what ability would Torah compliance—which has no power to deliver from sin—have to relieve them of that burden?
Secondly, there are voices in the religious world (e.g., the 'Restoration' movement) that claim the Church was 'hijacked' way back when by failing to bring Mosaic Law into Church life as a matter of discipleship (Sabbaths, Feasts, etc.). If that bogus allegation is true, the apostles in concert with the Holy Ghost were the ones who hijacked it. These same heretical voices claim to be on mission to 'retake' Christian churches by convincing them of their historic error and 'teach' Torah compliance as an essential part of Church life. Question: How should we who know the truth describe the efforts of these heretics to reinstitute in Church life what the apostles and Holy Ghost rejected? Answer: A FOOL'S ERRAND!
If God the Father intended for Mosaic Law to play ANY role in Church life, the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 would have been the perfect time to codify it and set the record straight. But the verdict of the apostles in concert with the Holy Ghost was this: THE GRACE OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST IS SUFFICIENT TO SAVE SINNERS, both Jew and Gentile. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ precludes circumcision, feasts, dietary laws, Sabbaths or any aspect of Mosaic Law as requisite to righteousness. Paul told Timothy what to expect going forward in his ministry: "And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables" (2 Timothy 4:4). The proposition that the Church was hijacked is nothing more than a fable, a cunningly devised narative rooted in fiction (2 Peter 1:16).
Thirdly, heretics allege the Church makes a huge error by focusing on New Testament truth (the 'back of the book') and neglecting Old Testament truth (the 'front of the book'). This is clearly NOT the case. It is the New Testament that reveals the new covenant in Christ's blood, explains and firmly establishes the Old Testament. One cannot fully appreciate the Old Testament without knowing the New Testament. It is the New that puts the Old in proper perspective. Imposition of the Old upon the New, commingling Law and Grace, is a disastrous hermeneutical (eisegetical) approach to scripture. It is the seedbed for all manner of antichristian heresy. A grace preacher who understands the proper use of the Law can stand and preach the gospel of grace in Christ Jesus all day from the Torah!
Fourthly, there is NO evidence that ANY of the apostles either observed Mosaic Law after Pentecost or taught others to do so. It is abundantly clear that God NEVER inspired Paul to write ANY instruction to ANY church where he recommended Torah compliance of ANY kind as an integral part of discipleship or growth in grace. Colossians 2:16-17 is clear evidence that Paul taught churches they were under NO obligation to observe Sabbaths and Holy Days. He said these things are “shadows” of things to come. In Acts 18:18, Paul shaved his head because of a vow. Whatever reason Paul had for doing this, it was strictly personal, not a pattern for the churches. In Acts 12:3, Luke makes historical reference to “the days of unleavened bread.” But citing this reference as proof Peter observed the feast as a Torah-compliant act is an untenable stretch. Even if he and other believers were observing it, it's clear the apostles NEVER codified it as Church doctrine or practice. This is what happens when one attempts to cite 'proof texts' divorced from their 'context' to support a private interpretation. It inevitably involves a 'reading into' the text a meaning the writer never intended.
A classic example is 1 Corinthians 5:7-8: "Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." Some cite this passage as proof Paul taught Torah compliance (observance of OT feasts) to Gentile churches. But if one considers the context, two things become clear: (1) Paul used the Torah routinely with Gentiles to teach the greater spiritual truths of Christ, for which God intended them. In other words, he found and preached Christ in the Feasts. (2) The spiritual lesson to be learned from the feast of unleavened bread, an extension of Passover, was Church purity, unleavened living, as a result of redemption through the blood of Christ. In the context, Paul told the church at Corinth exactly HOW they were to keep the feast of unleavened bread and live out what the feast foreshadowed. They were to purge out the fornicating member: "Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (5:13). Sincerity and truth describe the spirit with which the church is to deal with overt leaven with godly members Nothing validates the power of Christ our Passover more than an unleavened church and godly members. Nothing renders a church more impotent and disreputable than the toleration of public sin in its midst. What is the value of a professing believer observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread as an exercise in 'discipleship' when he or she lives a life littered with leaven (nicotene and alcohol addiction, profanity, sexual impurity, theft, lying, malice toward others) and other works of the flesh?
Fifthly, these heretics of our day, who insist on Torah compliance, are the ones attempting to 'hijack' the Church as did the sect of the Pharisees at Jerusalem and the false teachers at Antioch of Syria. They were defeated in A.D. 51. They will ALWAYS be rejected by the Spirit of God and those who know and understand the gospel of grace!
Lastly, the Jerusalem Council of 51 A.D. established the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ in the matter of salvation to be the DOCTRINE OF GOD, the gospel, attested to by the apostles and the Holy Ghost. Any imposition of Mosaic Law upon the Church as requisite to ANY aspect of salvation is a DOCTRINE OF MEN that the apostles and Holy Ghost rejected. This conclusion is inarguable!
The apostolic conference call of Acts 15 definitely put the predominantly Jewish and Gentile churches respectively on the same gospel page. It reaffirmed Paul's contention that the believer is COMPLETE in Christ, having been justified by faith, clothed with HIS righteousness, made partakers of HIS life and spared the need for ANY embellishments of Mosaic Law. It's the gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ that the Jerusalem Council clarified unambiguously in their historic conference call!