Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Acts 15 – Circumcision, Grace, Controversy, and Disagreement

(Click to read Acts 15)
Acts 15:1 (ESV)
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Having returned from a dramatic but successful missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas remain in Antioch and share the news of all the diverse peoples who have received the message of the Kingdom of God and have now begun to live and share together in the freedom and grace Jesus gave. Those who received their message were people previously with and without faith, pagans and devout, all classes and creeds and cultures.

But some of the old community still resist the idea that the freedom of Jesus really can be received by anyone, regardless of their background, without any code of religious law applied to them. Circumcision was the oldest of the requirements of covenant, the first and most ancient symbol that one had dedicated their life to God. Paul and Barnabas had been welcoming uncircumcised pagans into the fellowship, without any requirement of body modification to represent their dedication to God's Kingdom.

Paul and Barnabas testify boldly that Jesus' freedom has been and should continue to be offered freely to all people, with no conditions of religious code attached to the invitation (vv8-21). They should not need to be circumcised. They should not be required to keep the Law of Moses. Their welcome into the family of God should be hindered by nothing but their repentance of their old way of life, their participation in the spirit of empire and control, and their belief in Jesus.

Paul describes the demonstration of their repentance as abstinence from idolatry and sexual immorality (v20). These are not restrictions to be placed on new believers based on some religious code, as circumcision would be. They are specific symbols that represented the lifestyle of the corruption and control of the pagan witchcraft practiced in the Gentile cities. If the new believers have left the spirit of the world behind, they would leave the practices of their old temples as well. This would be a demonstrated result of their faith, not a requirement for inclusion.

This is not the first time the church has been confronted with such a controversy. In Acts 10, Peter is the first to share Jesus with a Gentile, a Roman Centurion who receives the Holy Spirit. The first response of his community is to condemn him for eating with and entering the home of an uncircumcised Gentile. After hearing Peter's testimony of God's grace to the Roman, they relent. Paul and Barnabas are later sent by their church to go and preach the Good News to diverse communities, whatever their religious background.

Here for the first time, it is officially recorded by the early Christians that they should not and will not apply a religious law as a requirement for anyone to receive the Kingdom of God (vv22-29). The cost of the Kingdom will require a change of lifestyle. These early communities will live in resistance to the powers of their day, and therefore must live separate and share in community. But it is not a religious code that will be required for their faith in Jesus.

Entrance into the Kingdom will be freedom from and out of religious bondage, not into bondage to another code and hierarchy. Jesus sets people free.

All of this is written down and carried by letter from the first church in Jerusalem by Paul and Barnabas to their church in Antioch.

Acts 15:30-35 (ESV)
30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.


Paul and Barnabas Part Ways (Acts 15:36-41)

Luke did not give us a hint as to why Barnabas' nephew, John (Mark), left the mission with Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:13. He gives no further clue here.

The following is from my notes on Acts 13:13:

John (Mark) leaves them, but we are not told why. This parting of ways later becomes very significant to Paul and Barnabas' relationship, so we can assume their has been some sort of falling out between Paul and young John (Mark). Even among brothers and sisters, citizens of the Kingdom sharing in ministry together, offenses and broken relationships can occur. We are still broken people, living by faith in the promises of God. Until he returns, we can all make mistakes, and from those mistakes offenses may come. The Good News is not that we will never be hurt again, but that we may be redeemed to one another in grace and forgiveness.

In Acts 15:36, Paul suggests to Barnabas that they return to the communities that started because of their first mission together. When Barnabas suggests bringing his nephew “John called Mark” (v37), Paul sharply disagrees (v39). Though Paul had advocated strongly for the church to extend great grace to anyone anywhere who would join the Jesus movement, no matter what their background or faith, his grace does not extend to (John) Mark, with whom he holds offense for having abandoned them (v39). Barnabas, called “the Encourager” (Acts 4:36) had demonstrated his name by advocating for Paul, helping him join the community even after having murderously violent toward them before believing in Jesus (Acts 9:26-30). Had it not been for the grace and boldness of his friend, Barnabas, Paul may never have been received by the church.

Barnabas once again acts according to his name, siding with (John) Mark, the outsider, and offering grace and forgiveness to someone who had failed. He is doing for his nephew exactly what he had done for Paul.

It is a tragedy that this disagreement should end in the separation of these two brothers (v39), a tragedy that Paul should not recognize and demonstrate the grace of Jesus in this circumstance.

It is a demonstration of the Grace of God that he should still choose to powerfully use both of these men as they each leave for separate missions. Though he is still imperfect, still flawed, still demonstrating the spirit of control and corruption and empire, God continues to use Paul to grow his Kingdom on Earth.

It is the Grace of God, and not our own works, that receives us into his Kingdom. It is entirely by the Grace of God, and not our own worthiness, in which we continue in it to abide.


v2 – Paul hated this teaching
v10 – The law is impossible to bear
The elders in Jerusalem, including PETER, Jesus’ disciple, and JAMES, Jesus’ brother, agree to send Paul and Barnabas as missionaries to the Gentiles, believing that God wanted them also to be saved.
v39 – see 13:13 – This shows that even committed and maturing Christians can have personal disputes.

(Click to read Acts 15)

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