I currently follow the daily reading schedule laid out by Clergy Stuff and I really like it. However, I find it interesting that they skipped the second half of Acts 15 this morning. The Narrative Lectionary text for preaching yesterday was Acts 15:1-18 (read this post). It was the story of the Jerusalem Council and elicited thousands of sermons about how the church should be inclusive (which is totally correct). Yet, today, Clergy stuff skipped right to Acts 16.
This is interesting, because Acts 15:19-35 describes the cultural compromises that the Jewish Jesus-followers made with the Gentile Jesus-followers. I went back to the study on Acts that I wrote for Hart Hans about twelve years ago to see what I said about this section. So, I thought I would share it today…
From the Hart Haus Study on the Book of Acts – Acts 15:19-35.
The rule is love and unity in the name of Jesus. The lesson of Acts 15 can be found in the decision that the “council” came to after hearing all the evidence. Peter said, “Look, Cornelius was unclean, but the Spirit came on him.” Paul and Barnabus were witnesses to the signs and wonders that God had done among the Gentiles. It is obvious that God’s plan is bigger than any one group’s theological preference and perspective. God is at work in the world, in spite of our narrow-mindedness, rigidity, legalistic tendencies, and ethnocentricity. Our job is to be open to it, observe what the Spirit of God is actually doing, and join God there.
At first glance, the letter to Antioch may appear to run counter to the openness of the decision that the council concluded, in that it gives a set of rules for the church to follow. Yet, with proper inspection, we can see that the letter actually tells us the heart of the message.
The rules’ specifics and their rationale (Acts 15:21) show they are given to promote table fellowship between uncircumcised Gentile converts and Jewish Christians who observe the dietary laws. There is no surrender here of the gospel freedom alluded to in verse 19. Rather, that freedom is to be used in love to serve Jewish Christian brothers and sisters, but not beyond the bounds of Scripture (Gal 5:13). Sexual immorality, as an ethical matter, not having to do with ritual purity, may seem out of place. But given that one of the Jews’ ongoing concerns was “low ethical and moral standards among Gentiles” (Scott 1992:14), it is appropriate in this list to represent the category of moral standards.
James’s proposal, then, teaches us three things about life together in a culturally diverse church. We must say no to any form of cultural imperialism that demands others’ conformity to our cultural standards before we will accept them and their spiritual experience. We must say yes to mutual respect for our differences. And we must live out that respect even to the extent of using our freedom to forgo what is permissible in other circumstances.
In a day when transportation and urbanization make it easier to stay apart than face the challenge of living together as a multicultural body of believers, the church has yet to model consistently what James calls for. But even our separate culturally homogeneous fellowships may face challenges of gender, music and generation gaps. We need to take Acts 15 to heart.1
Are there any areas of theology or doctrinal distinctives that you find to be inhibiting your fellowship in your church? Spend some time asking God to expose to you where you may be displaying some legalism or drawing some unnecessary distinctions. On the other hand. If you feel a sense of freedom to do certain things because of Grace and freedom in Christ, but you know that those things will become a stumbling block to someone else, ask God to show you how you could be more considerate to your brother or sister and not do those things out of love for them. Let’s not let secondary issues inhibit the unity of the body and the overflow of God’s Kingdom!
(If this topic strikes a chord with you, refer to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 8)
- Larkin, W. J., Briscoe, D. S., & Robinson, H. W. (1995). Vol. 5: Acts. The IVP New Testament commentary series (Ac 15:13). Downers, Ill. , USA : InterVarsity Press. [↩]