Training. Sending. Serving. Joining Globe

In Acts 15 a group of early church leaders gathered in Jerusalem to discuss a pressing issue. The church was growing, and the growth presented unprecedented challenges. The young Christian faith had begun leaping over the bounds of its origins in Jewish culture, and was being embraced by Gentiles. For some Jewish Christian leaders, this was a surprising but exciting development with global potential. For others, it threatened the young church with unwelcome compromises.

“Can uncircumcised Gentiles be saved?” some asked. For the orthodox believing Jew, the answer was, “Yes, but with requirements.” In their thinking, a Gentile can be saved, but he must also be become a Jew and be circumcised. He must keep the law like a Jew. He must observe Jewish dietary customs, Jewish holidays, and ascribe to Jewish culture.”

Others Jewish Christian leaders opposed such requirements. “Why do we want to put a burden on these new believers that even we have not been able to bear?” It was an important debate, and to their credit, the Council at Jerusalem found God’s answer. They decided to waive the Hebrew Law requirements for Gentiles. The problem was solved officially; but it never completely went away.

No one really believes he is biased… or deceived. It is always the other guy.

We now read this story from the vantage point of two thousand years of Christian history. We Gentile Christians now believe we are more enlightened on the issue of “salvation by grace through faith.”

But are we? What religious preferences might we hold dear, what forms or traditions might we love deeply, and cling to vehemently, even when they are on tenuous scriptural ground?

No one really believes he is biased… or deceived. It is always the other guy.

Granted, the Jews had a comprehensive history from which to draw. Their hermeneutic was based on the entire Old Testament for heaven’s sake! This was God’s law! This was God’s Story! Clearly revealed. Preached by patriarchs. Etched in stone tablets. Confirmed by miracles, signs, and wonders. Upheld through four thousand years of sacred history.

But then, God did a new thing. The New Testament arrived. It too was foreseen in the same history. It too was inscribed in Hebrew Law. It too was heralded by prophets. Sung by Psalmists. The New Covenant was the Messianic hope of every Jew. Yet, ironically, almost everyone missed it when it came.

So, the real question is: Did the Jews love the Law because it was God’s, or did they love it because it was familiar? Because it was their tradition?

Did the Jews love the Law because it was God’s, or did they love it because it was familiar?

Generally speaking, human beings cling to things that make us comfortable, and resist those things that make us squirm. When change comes, when someone suggests a different approach or idea, we squirm and run home to Momma.

A true ambassador of Christ, however, is always asking tough theological questions, he is always checking his cultural pulse, and his personal preferences, against the standard of scripture. He is always challenging his religious comfort zone.

The lesson of the Jerusalem Council is about good exegesis. But it also about culture. The Jerusalem Council teaches us that our cultural preferences almost always influence our theology. Theology emerges, not just from the reading of scripture, but through the influences and filters of the wider society in which we live. So, we must take heed! Unless we are careful, we will form our beliefs and teach them to others even if God hasn’t spoken, and even after He has moved on.

This was the grave error of some early Jewish Christians: “You must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.” They meant well. But they were wrong.

The only rejoinder to faulty theology is the study of God’s Word with openness and surrender to God’s Grace and His Holy Spirit. We need God’s help to understand God’s Word as we read it, sitting in our boiling pot of culture.

We all must come to grips with our biases, preferences, and peer pressures and admit that they influence us. No one reads the Bible with perfect objectivity. Even Bible translation is flawed. Translations of scripture are pressed painfully and carefully through the filters of translators – sometimes scores of them working together, trying to minimize their own limits, and knowledge, and blind spots, and preferences.

This is why we need God’s help! We need the Holy Spirit to guide us in our understanding of scripture, and in its application to our lives and work. Often the Holy Spirit will surprise us – guiding us to a counter-culture, counter-intuitive conclusion. I am thankful that the early church was wise enough to wrestle with a paradigm-shifting issue. Is the Gospel for the Gentile too? Yes, it is! We should all be grateful for the obedience of men like Peter, Paul and James, who helped the early church go against contemporary tides, and pave the way for the Gospel to be unleashed to the nations!

Often in our study of scripture, the Holy Spirit will surprise us – guiding us to a counter-culture, counter-intuitive conclusion.

My hope for every reader of this article is that you will be studious enough, attentive enough, and bold enough to shift when God reveals the shift. Why? So Jesus Christ and His Ways can be known – beyond your Jerusalem and your Judea, to Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth!