Acts 14:1-16:5, Psalm 33
I occasionally realize while writing these devotionals that in the past I have misunderstood and even taught passages of scripture incorrectly due to overlooking important details. For example, let me speak to how I have misunderstood the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and its great ramifications for churches at all times.Those who believe Christianity is a system of rules propped up by belief in a great deity should find the contents of Acts 15 refreshing yet challenging for its simple prohibition for Gentiles “from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:29) What in interesting list! The problem with my past reading wasn’t in noting the brevity of this list or emphasizing that everything except sexual immorality is hardly a temptation for most people in the 21st-century western world. Nor was I wrong to harp on the concern revealed in the entire discussion at the council to ensure that the Gentiles didn’t believe they could be saved by obedience to the law. The detail I overlooked is that these Gentiles were being taught the law of Moses already. This one fact shapes our response to this decisive and first recorded council in Christianity. We learn these Gentiles were hearing the law of Moses on the Sabbath (Acts 15:21), yet they were told by some that to be genuine Christians, they must be circumcised and keep the entire law (Acts 15:5). Why does this matter? It means that the concern of both the Christian leaders and the Gentile audience wasn’t about whether we should obey God and take the Old Testament seriously, but rather how to follow the Jewish scriptures. That means, no Gentile Christian would believe that if they were just avoiding blood sacrificed to idols and adultery, this proves they would automatically be right with God or doing all that really matters. No, rather, what they would understand by this prohibition is that they did not need to become culturally Jewish to be Christian. Certainly those Gentiles knew they should keep Jesus’ great commands to love God with all of their might, not to mention our neighbors as ourselves. Those commands, plus many of Jesus’ other teachings were understood. What they didn’t know was just how many of their old customs they would have to leave behind and how many Jewish practices they should adopt. This council clarified that fact. The Jerusalem council is not anti-obedience or even the Old Testament. Rather it intends to clarify that Jesus’ work accomplishes many of the goals of the Jewish law so that what matters isn’t cultural change, but heart change. Both sexual immorality and sticking with the old idolatrous practices put Gentiles in danger of living with a divided heart. That was then, like always, a preeminent concern for the leaders of God’s people.