Acts 15: United and Diverse

Acts 15 is a chapter that highlights conflicts in the church at Antioch. The question before Antioch was regarding how much of the Old Testament law was necessary for the Gentile Christians to keep. All of the early church leaders met in Jerusalem to talk this out, and it seems that there was some disagreement. However, Peter made a comment that seems to have brought the discussion to an end.

Act 15:8  And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;

Act 15:9  And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.

Act 15:10  Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

Act 15:11  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.

It is a simple point, but it makes sense. History has proven that it was not possible for anyone to follow the entire law. That was why Jesus Christ was necessary for salvation. There is no way to earn it through adherence to a moral code. No matter how hard they tried, no one was or is perfect.

As a result, why was it necessary to put particularly the ritual law on people who did not need it for salvation? As Peter had learned earlier, dietary laws no longer applied, and this entire debate was over circumcision. The moral law still applied, but there was no need to make the Gentile people culturally Jewish. As long as they were living a life as a Christian, it was all right that they were also Greek for example.

I think about us today. The moral law still applies. You can see that through the New Testament writers as well as through Jesus Christ Himself. They reaffirmed that things like murder, stealing, adultery and all the rest were wrong. However, it is possible to be American and Christian. It is possible to be Egyptian and Christian. It is possible to be Vietnamese and Christian. It is not that we need to become culturally Jewish. We need to be Christians first obviously and display among other things the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, but we can see here in Acts the early church was both united and diverse.


Posted on May 21, 2015, in Acts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I’m curious how you can split the Torah into ‘moral’ and ‘ceremonial’ laws. Jesus said the Law cannot be changed by so much as a jot or tittle, and Paul is clear in Galatians that the Law is an all or nothing thing: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the Law”. Not just the ‘moral’ bits, but everything – we either live by Law or by Grace, not ‘mix and match’.

    Jesus didn’t just speak of committing murder, adultery, etc, he applied them to what is within, to the attitudes of the heart: anger, lust, covetousness also leave us liable to judgement. We can no more keep the supposedly moral parts of the Law than we can lift ourselves up to the clouds by our own bootlaces. So how do we follow God’s ways without condemning ourselves by Law? I think that’s something to do with the Holy Spirit and Pentecost; although I wouldn’t claim to understand how that works (or doesn’t).

    • That is certainly a fair point. We find ourselves in the situation where the law is not going to change, but God Himself tells Peter that there are no foods that are clean or unclean. Therefore, it seems like we have a problem. However, I think we can have it both ways. The law has not changed, but it is simultaneously true that the law is not going to save us. Even in the Old Testament, it was not the law that ever saved people. It was their faith. I think about the Hall of Fame of faith in Hebrews. Therefore, the law has not changed, but there is also a recognition that faith is what saves.

      I mentioned some of the moral laws and how they are reemphasized in the New Testament. Here is a handy list regarding the 10 Commandments.

  2. Thank you for the link, and apologies for my delay in responding: it’s been fairly hectic and I wanted to consider it properly.

    The main thing which strikes me is the Treybig really doesn’t seem interested in context or consistency. For example on the Sabbath he pulls out verses where people do different things on the Saturday, but he ignores verses such as Mark 2:27 and its preamble: “The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath.” Similarly he quotes Acts 15 against idolatry but ignores the fact that the passage explicitly refrains from binding Gentiles with the Law of Moses (which, of course, includes the ten commandments). Again he quotes Revelation 12:17, “

  3. Sorry, not sure what happened there. To continue:

    “Those who keep the commandments of God,” ignoring the fact that the Old Testament has a lot more than ten commandments in it – 613 is one common count.

    Treybig exemplifies what I think is the main difficulty of the moral/ritual law split: that people get to pick and choose according to their human traditions and prejudices. The commandment allowing divorce (kind of) was moral, but is rejected because of Jesus’ later commentary on the subject; the commandment against a man laying with another “as with a woman” is actually expressed in ritual terms (“abomination” translates a cultic ritual term) yet is still called a moral law because it relates to sex. As for the Sabbath laws, one can argue those are both moral and ritual, but it is extremely unlikely that any Christian, even Treybig, even comes close to following what the Law actually says on the subject.

    Your ‘having it both ways’ is more appropriate, it seems to me.

    Jesus and Paul are both clear that the Law is an all-or-nothing requirement; Paul and Luke in Acts are clear that Gentiles are not bound by that Law at all, but saved by God’s grace. So why is so much of our Bible Old Testament? Maybe because, however incapable we may be of following Torah, it still represents our best guidebook on how God wanted people to live in a particular historic and cultural situation.

    Jesus’ summaries of the Law give us the basic principles of how to live as God’s people, but the five books of the Law give us worked examples, and the prophets give us (among other things) detailed breakdowns of how and why it all went wrong, as well as what God was going to do to fix it.

    As Ephesians puts it, “we are saved by grace, through faith … in order to do good works.” To do those good works all Old Testament scripture is (as Paul later tells Timothy) “useful … so that the servant of God may be equipped for every good work.”

    So I don’t believe that one can split Old Testament rules into moral and ritual, or any other way, but I do think that one can attempt to discern, under the Holy Spirit, what is useful and what is not in our own context and culture, so that we may do good works for God – not because our salvation depends on it, but as a response to the salvation Jesus has already won.

    Apologies for the over-long comment, but thanks for making me think.

    • No worries man, and I obviously appreciate the long comment. You make me think as well. I guess I should have been more clear. I don’t necessarily believe everything that the author mentioned in his article. I was using mainly his table of the reaffirmations of the 10 Commandments in the New Testament.

      We agree on the bottom line. I do think that the Old Testament is a useful guidebook. I certainly don’t want to remove it or diminish it because it was given to us for a purpose. However, it does seem like there are times where Jesus or God the father seem to remove specific laws as necessary.

      I’m just curious how you account for those situations. I again think about the dietary laws. It seems like they were modified for Peter on the roof even though Peter was clearly a Jewish man.

      I also agree that we’re certainly not saved by following the law regardless of how we divide or do not divide what still needs to be followed. However, at the same time, as you pointed out, we are supposed to do good deeds as a result of our salvation. We’re supposed to display the fruit of the spirit in our lives as a result of that salvation.

      • I think I would distinguish between rules and attitudes.

        The Jewish Law was a contract: you do these things and I will be your God and you will be my people. Contracts are black and white: if you do everything you have kept your side, if you don’t you haven’t. Jesus fulfilled that contract, so it is closed and gone, paid in full if you like.

        But the contract terms were not just arbitrary: they were given for the good of the people. So even though we are not trying to fulfil that particular contract, the terms are still worth studying and still valuable – not as rules but as pointers to what is good.

        Jesus gave us the starting point for understanding them: all the Law and the prophets come from loving God with all our being and loving our neighbours as ourselves. Once you take away the legalistic stuff, what is left is love in action. And Jesus also gives us a test, because it is easy to kid ourselves: if we were on the receiving end of our actions would we experience them as loving? Although you do have to be careful of the Jack Sprat effect.

        The dietary rules are tricky as it’s hard to be sure what they were originally for. Best guess would be a mixture of food hygiene and avoiding idolatrous religious practices (seething a kid in its mother’s milk, sort of thing).

        The problem, by Peter’s time, was that these rules had been codified in such a way as to prevent shared hospitality between Jews and non-Jews, and to define those Jews whose jobs required eating with their Gentile bosses as automatically in breach of God’s contract – “unclean sinners”. On the “treat others as you would be treated” test this is a clear fail.

        In terms of loving God and neighbour, best practice in food hygiene changes with different environments and different foods, but basics like washing hands before handling food or making sure you thoroughly cook kidney beans are important. But you should never exclude people because they eat different foods from you. It’s a matter of attitude rather than set rules.

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