Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
This is where one of the great controversies of the first century began; certain Jewish believers started teaching that Gentiles must be circumcised before they could receive God’s grace, for after all; God’s grace was really intended just for the Jews… right?
A conference is held in Jerusalem to decide the question and the Antioch (predominantly Gentile) church sends Paul and Barnabas as its representatives.
As the text tells us, they were warmly welcomed when they arrived in Jerusalem, and they began to tell the apostles and elders, all about everything that God had done through them among the Gentiles. It was at this point that certain believers from “the party of the Pharisees” make their assertion that Gentiles must first be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses.
This assertion has some very serious problems: First, every man who reads this can tell you that an adult male will only submit to circumcision if one of three things is present:
- Superhuman faith.
- Extreme levels of an intoxicating substance.
- Overwhelming force.
Unless one or more of three factors is present, anyone who comes at that particular region of a male with a knife is not likely to live to tell the tale; we’re funny like that. As a result, this could be seen as a rather thinly veiled way to keep Gentiles out of the church.
Secondly, what these men were trying to do is to mix covenants, which is a theological error of immense proportion that a great part of the New Testament is written to warn us against. Two excellent examples of this are the entire books of Galatians and Hebrews which both make the case that the Law is over and done with, that the Old Covenant is “obsolete” and will “soon disappear” (Heb. 8:13). As hard as the New Testament authors tried to prevent this, the controversy continued throughout the first century, yet a controversy is one thing, the real disaster happened a few centuries later.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine decreed that Christianity was to be legal in the Empire, that was a pretty good thing, but then he went a step further and made it the official state religion, but in doing so, he gave the theologians of the day a real quandary, for the New Covenant does not make a theocracy, for it teaches that the Kingdom of God is not of this world, and theocratic government is very much of this world. Their solution was to introduce certain parts of the Old Covenant into their theology so that Christianity could be a state religion. The result of this mixture of theologies is that we have been fighting amongst ourselves ever since, and all too often the cause of our disputes can be traced back to gross error.
In our time, we have in many places, a similar impulse as those Pharisaic brothers at the Jerusalem conference. We see this manifest when we tell a new believer that he or she must believe and do something or other to be a Christian. We might tell someone, for example, that they must so many classes or sign a creed or doctrinal statement, or we might tell them that they must first stop smoking or sinning or get their lives in order before they can be a Christian, but that isn’t the Gospel that Jesus and the Apostles taught, and it isn’t what we read about in Acts 2:38. The Good News is that you don’t have to get your act together to receive Jesus Christ, and that by receiving Him; the Holy Spirit will come and help you to get your act together.
When we get together next time, we will find out what the brothers at the conference had to say about the Pharisses’ assertion…