Acts 15:1-21: Gospel Unity
January 25, 2023
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
We come now to the famous Council of Jerusalem. Basically, there were some people going around saying that unless the Gentile Christians were circumcised, they could not be saved. Paul and Barnabas realized that this stipulation undermined the whole Gentile mission, and so there was a major conflict. It is quite likely that Paul’s letter to the Galatians records the essence of what Paul was saying. The gospel is a matter of justification by faith, not by faith plus works. But here were people, apparently with the authority of “Jerusalem,” coming down and telling believers they must be circumcised. The early church solved this problem. What can we learn from what happened?
First, we can learn that doctrine matters. It is the fashion of our age that doctrinal issues are unimportant. But we must be warned against such an idea. While we are always to conduct ourselves with love—with respectful speech and gentle tone—that does not mean that doctrine can be shoved to one side or forgotten. It is important that we contend for the faith once delivered. We must stand up for truth, and do so in love.
Second, we can learn that when there is a serious dispute, it is important that all sides of the question are fully heard. Often churches or church leaders get into trouble when they do not fully understand the facts or hear the whole story. Everyone got their turn to describe how they saw matters. And all was said and heard in full. If there is a major conflict, don’t shortchange the process by rushing to judgment. Hear all the facts.
Third, we can learn that there is a time for judicious compromise. James’ judgment has been examined over and over again down the years to try to discern the controlling consistency in what he said. What were the principles he chose in this or that matter? Why did he add “sexual immorality” to the list of what were otherwise ceremonial matters? But in all likelihood, the point was not that these things had a controlling consistency in a logical sense from first principles, but that here was a decision which allowed the gospel of free grace to continue to be preached and supported while also finding a compromise that was acceptable to as many of the people as possible. The rumor that was common among the Jewish people at the time was that the Gentiles were rife with sexual immorality. That rumor had some founding in fact. So while most of James’ list had to do with ceremonial matters, the matter of sexual immorality was added to make it clear to the Jewish listeners that they were allowing no downgrading on moral matters. Sometimes, it is best to find a compromise which maintains the important doctrinal matter of the orthodoxy of the gospel—in this case around justification by faith—even if the way to do so compromises on some other much less important issues. That was James in this instance.
And so the gospel continued to flourish. May God give us wisdom when we are facing matters about which we need to find a clear way forward, to negotiate a path that is faithful to God and that also keeps the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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