RPM, Volume 17, Number 35, August 23 to August 29, 2015

To the Ends of the Earth:
The Letter

Acts 15:21-35

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me if you would to The Acts of The Apostles. Last Lord's Day evening we were in the first part of Acts 15. We said then a number of things, but we said that Acts 15 falls, of course, in the middle of The Acts of The Apostles, and there seems to be a good reason why right at the center of The Acts of The Apostles we have this story, account, of the Jerusalem Council. It was a defining moment in the history of the church; perhaps the most important moment following the resurrection and Pentecost.

In many ways the gospel itself was at stake — at least for the Apostle Paul it seemed that way. The insistence by some — a sect of the Pharisees who had made it up to Antioch and apparently had followed Paul and Barnabas in their travels through Asia Minor and in the province of Galatia in particular — this sect of the Pharisees were insisting that without circumcision you cannot be saved. And so this council has been convened in the mother church in Jerusalem.

A certain amount of tension exists between the church in Antioch and the church in Jerusalem. Some of it is natural 'growing pains.' The church in Antioch were beginning to spread their wings and be somewhat independent. They weren't constantly asking permission of the church in Jerusalem. They weren't sending communiquŽs — can we do this or can we do that? And there appears to be at least on the surface a measure of unity or disunity at stake.

But far more important that that is this issue of justification, the gospel, the way of salvation. Is it by faith alone, or is it by faith plus obedience to certain aspects of Jewish ceremonial laws, circumcision in particular?

Well, we left last Sunday evening on what was in some respects a cliff-hanger — at least it was for me — and I promised you I would come back with some of the answers this week. I wish I hadn't made such a strong promise. There are more problems in this passage than hairs on my head, and the more I've been looking at this passage in the course of this week, the more I've been changing my mind on certain things.

Let's look to God in prayer, shall we? Let's ask God's Holy Spirit again to come and grant us illumination as we read His word together. Let's pray.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures, and we thank You especially for this portion of Scripture that we're about to read. We acknowledge that it is Your word, and therefore truthful and without error, and we pray that You would help us discern through some of the complications what it is saying to us. We ask for the help of Your Spirit that we might read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Now turn with me to Acts 15. Let's pick it up right at the conclusion of the previous section. Let's pick it up at verse 19. These are the words of James:

"Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath."

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas — Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and they sent this letter by them,

"The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.

Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth.

For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell."

So, when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message. After they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out. But it seemed good to Silas to remain there. But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching, with many others also, the word of the Lord.

Amen. And may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

The Jerusalem Council was a triumph for the Apostle Paul. His insistence that salvation was by faith alone apart from the works of the Law had been crucial. What these men from Jerusalem, these sect of the Pharisees, as Luke calls them, who had evidently come to Antioch and disturbed the peace of the brethren, disturbed their souls…what these men who had evidently followed Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey caused some trouble in the churches in Galatia, by all accounts…what these men were insisting [that apart from circumcision you cannot be saved] was something that needed to be settled and settled quickly, and settled without any equivocation. It was a matter of the purity of the gospel. This was not an issue to debate about. It was not an issue to equivocate over. It was not an issue to fudge over. And the Council had been unanimous.

Actually, it wasn't Paul so much as Peter that won the day. It was, as I said last week, his finest moment. He was probably still smarting from that dressing down that he had received from the Apostle Paul (that Paul refers to in Galatians 2), when he had removed himself from table fellowship with the Gentiles because of these people who had come from Jerusalem. And Paul had dressed him down publicly because, you see, as far as Paul was concerned, if justification is through the Law, then Christ's death had been in vain. It had no purpose. He writes to the Galatians, and that letter had been written (at least I think it had been written) just before this Jerusalem Council. He had written to the Galatians on this very issue, and he'd asked them, as they now were troubled over the same issue of circumcision, "Did you receive faith by the Spirit or by the works of the Law?" And the answer of course was that they had received it by the Spirit. When you turn to Galatians 2:16 you'll see Paul's summary statement about the whole matter. He says in verse 16 of Galatians 2:

We know that a person is not justified by works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ; so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; because by the works of the Law no one will be justified.

There's Paul's stand on this matter. It was by faith alone, apart from the works of the Law. And circumcision, as far as the Apostle Paul was concerned, was one of those works of the Law.

Now it's almost impossible these days to preach on this passage or passages relating to circumcision or the like without raising an issue that has arisen in our midst currently, namely, what is often referred to as "The New Perspective on Paul." 1 I don't have time or the inclination to go through all of what the new perspective of Paul is saying, but there are some aspects of it that are germane to what we are dealing with right here, because what they are saying is that the Reformers — beginning back with Augustine, but Luther and the Reformers, and we are the children of the Reformers — the Reformers seriously misunderstood Paul. They seriously misunderstood the Pharisees. They seriously misunderstood the role that circumcision was playing in the mindset of the Pharisees. Luther, we are led to believe, read medieval Roman Catholicism, a religion of works righteousness, a religion that suggests that by obedience to the Law we gain merit that accrues in the sight of God, that our obedience to the Law is meritorious in the sight of God, that we are saved by doing this and performing that and obeying this commandment and obeying that commandment, so that we can bring, as it were, to the presence of God this mass of obedience of ours in addition to the grace that God reveals in the gospel.

It's not that medieval Rome didn't believe in grace; of course it believed in grace; but it believed in grace plus the addition of works of obedience, the works of the Law, if you like.

And the claim is now being made that the Reformers read all of that back into the Pharisees. And what the Pharisees, they say, were saying about circumcision was not that it was contributory as an act of meritorious obedience to gain salvation: rather, they say, what the Pharisees were saying was that circumcision was the badge, as it were, that revealed their identity and status as the elect of God in a special relationship to God, and in a different relationship to the Gentiles.

Now there's more, and there's a whole lot more for another time. But let me respond to that just very briefly. There's an aspect of that which is true. That's always the way with error, and yes, heresy. There's an aspect of that which is true. But when that is proclaimed as the whole truth, then it becomes an untruth.

Because however way we spin this, the sect of the Pharisees were demanding obedience to ceremonial law in order to be saved. And that obedience to ceremonial law had to be viewed as meritorious, because apart from that obedience there could be no salvation.

So Paul is addressing an issue in Antioch, and now listening to the debate in Jerusalem, there at the very center of the debate are two issues: one, the issue of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. There's no doubt about it but that the Jews were finding it difficult—I mean Christian Jews, converted Jews, believing Jews, spiritual Jews—were finding it difficult to accept in total without any question the inclusion of Gentiles within the community of God. There were growing pains! Jews had never sat next to Gentiles over a meal table in the past, and now they were one in Jesus Christ, and the middle wall of partition had been broken down. There were growing pains in the relationship and rapport and fellowship between Jews and Gentiles.

There was also of course another issue, a fundamental issue, an issue of the works of the Law; the issue of justification in its relationship to works; the issue of salvation in its relationship to obedience — like circumcision. And once the Pharisees had said 'You cannot be saved unless you are circumcised', to Paul that was the red flag. That was the end of the line, because in some respects circumcision was a thing indifferent. But they had made it not just a badge of what it means to be Jewish, they had made it the criterion of obedience without which you cannot be saved. So this was a line in the sand, and the Council had come out with flying colors on this one. It's a wonderful, wonderful moment! There was absolute unanimity that there was no imposition and no demand, not even a hint of a suggestion that Gentiles should be circumcised in order to be saved. There was no equivocation. It was crystal clear. It was a triumph for the gospel, for justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. As Luke records it in verse 11, "We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way as they are."

There it is. It's salvation by grace through the instrumentality of faith in Jesus alone, for Jews and Gentiles, no matter who they are or where they are.

But then come these four stipulations: food offered to idols; fornication or sexual immorality; meat that had been strangled; and, blood. And this list is repeated, though in different order, again in verse 29 in the actual letter itself. And actually it's going to be repeated a third time when James and Paul next meet together in Jerusalem as the leader of the Gentile party and the leader of the Jewish party, and they repeat these four injunctions again.

So I want to ask three questions. What do these four things mean, first of all? Secondly, is the imposition of these four essentials a fatal compromise to the decision they have made with regard to circumcision? And thirdly, I want to ask what authority did this letter have?

I. First of all, what do these four things mean?

A couple of things that we need to notice about his list of four essentials. First of all, they are a strange mix of ceremonial and moral issues. You've got meat that's offered to idols; you've got meat that's been strangled; and blood; and then you've got sexual immorality or fornication.

Now, sexual immorality, fornication…well, of course it's wrong! It's wrong no matter where you are or who you are. You don't need a council in Jerusalem to say that fornication is wrong. You don't need James and Paul and Peter and Barnabas and a whole lot of others to meet together in Jerusalem for several days and come out with this: 'You should refrain from fornication.' What does it mean?

Someone suggested that what is in view here is — the technical term is the rules of consanguinity. Now isn't that a beautiful expression? It's the rules of marriage within degrees of blood relationship. Ligon was dealing with it just fairly recently — at least, it seems recent in my heart — in Leviticus 18. It's possible, you see, that what is being referred to here are the way Jews and Gentiles differed on who could marry who within blood relationships. And there were certain practices, perhaps, amongst the Gentiles that were offensive to the Jews. Maybe that's what this issue of sexual immorality (or fornication, as it's called) is about. It's a strong word to use…not a use designed to bring peace to Gentiles in Antioch, particularly if they were already married to these people, and now they're being accused of fornication. That seems to me to be a difficult one to carry, although great names have adopted that particular view. It's interesting that if that were the view, Leviticus 18 comes after Leviticus 17, and Leviticus 17 contains all kinds of laws about ritual sacrifice, including the issue about blood, but nothing about strangulation and nothing about sacrificing to idols.

Let's go with that for a second. Let's think 'Maybe what the Jerusalem Council are saying is that Gentiles should conform to ceremonial laws in Leviticus 17 and 18.' Now think about it for a minute. They have said circumcision is not necessary. They've given away one, but they've laid hold of four! It doesn't sound to me like a triumph. It sounds to me that Paul would have to make a great deal of explanation back in Antioch that they've yielded on one, but they have retained four.

Notice also that the wording is different. In the first account, fornication or sexual immorality comes second; in the second account in the letter, it comes fourth. That is suggestive of several things. It suggests that perhaps in putting it forth it was in a category all of its own, as might be the case with the rules of consanguinity interpretation. But if it actually comes second, in between stipulations about meat offered to idols and about meat that has been strangled, it suggests that it has some kind of relationship to venues where that kind of thing might be taking place. And where would that be taking place? In pagan temples.

In temples that the converted Gentiles in Antioch in Syria and Cilicia have been frequenting all their lives, until at least recent days - and perhaps some of them are still toying with the idea of attending some of the rituals and ceremonies of pagan temple worship. And so it might be, and it looks to me as though what this letter is actually suggesting — what these four stipulations are actually suggesting — is that the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia are to engage in caution, and they're to engage in due care and diligence about matters of interpersonal relationship - and their practices were for them eating meat that has been strangled — or for that matter, eating blood. (My father-in-law ate something called "blood pudding" all of his days. It was revolting and smelled revolting when it was frying in the frying pan!) It may be that what this letter is actually suggesting is that there are tensions developing between converted Jews and converted Gentiles over the kinds of foods that they're eating.

Now, there's no mention in this letter, for example, of prohibiting the eating of pork. If there was a concern over ritual Jewish ceremonial issues, as though the Council were saying 'We want you to become Jewish at least in this respect' you might expect them to have said something about eating pork, but they don't do that. It's only in those cross-currents; it's only in those tangents, if you like, where pagan worship and Jewish worship are actually now crossing each other, and this letter is saying 'We want you to abstain. We're asking you to abstain. You are free to eat meat that has been offered to idols. You are free to eat meat that has been strangled. You are free to eat the blood of that meat. But we're asking you to abstain, for the sake of Jewish scruples… for the sake of fellowship.'

Isn't it interesting that Paul will actually take this up? In the next two letters that he writes, the letter to the Thessalonians and the letters to Corinth, Paul takes up those two very issues. You remember, for example, in I Corinthians 8, the whole chapter is about meat that has been offered to idols.

You know, meat was an expensive commodity. Your average Joe would not eat meat on a regular basis. He'd come home from his office in Antioch and he'd pass the pagan temple where once he had worshiped, and he'd meet a former friend of his who was selling at cut price sirloin that had been offered in temple worship that very afternoon. "Hey!" he says to himself, "I'm free in Christ. It's just meat." I mean, shoo the flies away and he'd say, "How much?" And there'd be a knocked-down price, and they'd barter for it, and he'd take it home and cook it, and with some potatoes and baby carrots and peas, and he'd eat it and ask no questions for conscience's sake. But then, you see, he'd ask his Aunt Maude, and Aunt Maude had been converted. And she says, "You know, we really shouldn't be eating this meat, because this meat has been offered to idols, and there's idolatry here." Now, she's all wrong, of course. She's all wrong. It's just meat! But in her conscience it's something else. And you remember how Paul deals with that. He deals with it in I Corinthians 8. He deals with it again in Romans 14, and he says, you know, in situations like that where you have a weaker brother…and the weaker brother is the one with all the foibles…he's the one that has all the problems. We face exactly the same issue with alcohol. It's exactly the same issue. And where there are people with scruples, you abstain; not out of a principle of bondage, but actually from the very reverse: from the principle that 'I am free in Christ; I abstain in my freedom for the sake of the weaker brother.'

Now that doesn't deal, of course, with the issue of sexual immorality or fornication. There was plenty of that of course in pagan worship. Plenty of prostitution, cultic prostitution, within the pagan temples. Maybe that's the issue. It's intriguing to watch the transmission of the text here in our Bibles. A difficult and thorny issue, of course, to deal with; but there are some traditions where the issue of sexual immorality has actually been dropped from the text, only to signal how difficult it is to bring that particular issue in line with the other three.

But it looks…however way you spin this, what was the concern being shown in Jerusalem? It was the concern for holiness. It was the concern for brotherly relationships. It was not, it seems to me, a concern to impose Jewish ceremonial laws upon the Gentiles. That, it seems to me, would be going back into bondage for which the Jerusalem Council had been called for in the first place.

II. So was this a fatal compromise?

According to one, the letter was "a masterpiece of tact and delicacy." Well, that's maybe going over the top a little bit. It was a wonderful letter, of course, in regards to circumcision. They write this letter, it's taken up to Antioch, it begins by saying "Those who had come to you from Jerusalem, they bore no authority from us; but these men, Judas and Silas, they bear our full authority, and there is unanimity on this."

Interesting, though, that Paul seems absolutely silent. He doesn't speak in Jerusalem…at least, nothing is recorded of it in Luke's account of it, and nothing is recorded either when it gets back to Antioch that Paul was completely and utterly on board with every part of it. Maybe this is part of a compromise in the delicate relationships between a largely Gentile church and a largely Jewish church, where Paul, for the sake of the unity of the church here has decided to keep his peace…because the moment he would begin to speak, there would again be factions in the community. If this letter is a means of pacifying Jews by asking Gentiles in Antioch to submit to Jewish ceremonial laws, then it seems to me that a fatal compromise has been reached.

And better, it seems to me, is the idea that what the church in Jerusalem is actually doing is addressing those areas of tension between largely Gentile Christians and those converted Jewish Christians, as those lines of tangent criss-cross with one another. There were certain pagan practices involving food especially that would be a cause of enormous offense to Christian Jews. And rather than stick to your essential principle of liberty here, the letter is asking them to refrain and abstain for the sake of a greater good: the unity of the brethren.

You see, it seems to me now that the eating of blood, for example…not that I want to do so, but the eating of blood is in and of itself…I've seen some of you with your steaks, and there isn't much difference it seems to me between drinking blood and that stuff that pours out of those rare steaks! It's a matter of adiaphora; it's a matter of what the Reformers called "things indifferent." But where an issue of conscience and scruple is taking place, it's asking for the sake of the unity of the brethren to refrain.

It's interesting, isn't it, in verse 21…an awkward text… "For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath."

There are some who interpret that text to say that what is being said there is that the Jews didn't need to be taught, because they were already being taught week by week; it was the Gentiles who were ignorant about certain practices. But rather, what's being said in that text is 'How can you expect Jews suddenly overnight to lose all of their scruples about certain truths, when they've been taught all along in the synagogues that they've been attending every week that these things are necessarily to be obeyed?' And now that they have gained their freedom in Christ, as Calvin says, "There are some ceremonies that you bury with certain decency." It takes time for these things to, as it were, seep into the consciousness of these converted Jews.

III. So what is the authority of this letter?

Let me point out just a few quick things about this letter. You notice how it begins by calling themselves brothers and addressing brothers. It's from brothers to brothers. What a beautiful touch. In a case where there is tension between Jerusalem and Antioch, it's brother speaking to brother.

Notice, too, and it's another beautiful touch in the letter, how it addresses Paul and Barnabas: "Our beloved Paul and Barnabas." Now they were certainly beloved in Antioch. It might be open to question whether Paul was beloved in Jerusalem, but the letter says "beloved Paul and beloved Barnabas."

Notice, too, the letter says 'What we're asking of you is only the minimum. We're not imposing upon you some great burden. We're asking you for the sake of the unity of the brethren to abide by these four stipulations.'

But notice, too, it's a very localized letter. It's not, for example, addressed to the churches in Galatia. It's only addressed to the church in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, up in the north. And maybe this letter was always intended to be a local and temporary arrangement as the church grew, and in the course of that growth experienced growing pains.

Now there are a lot of difficulties here. The issue itself is difficult. There were personalities. Imagine being in the same room with Peter, James, and Paul and Barnabas! And you notice how the letter says on the one hand "it's the work of the Spirit" and then on the other hand "it seemed good to us also." They had deliberated these things. God didn't pour this out of heaven. It wasn't a "thus saith the Lord." Judas and Silas are prophets, but apparently they had not received a prophecy from God as to the way forward here. No, this had been agreed to by debate and by counsel, and by deliberation, and by the influence of wisdom and logic and reason and urging. And yet over the entire process, there is this overruling of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit says "…but it seemed good to us also."

And that's, I think, what Luke wants us to see above everything else, that however much the concern was in Antioch and Jerusalem for the church of Jesus Christ and the concern of course is immense for the purity of the gospel for interpersonal relationships between converted Gentiles and converted Jews, the Spirit is far more concerned than any of them. The Spirit is always concerned to bring glory to Jesus. That's His role. That's His prerogative. That's what He lives for, to point out Christ and to bring glory to Christ.

But in situations where the church finds itself in tension and in difficulty, and unsure of the way ahead, this is always the promise, isn't it? That as elders discuss and debate and deliberate, and try to inch forward in situations where there is tension and difficulty, and where there isn't a "thus saith the Lord" in certain situations, trying to find the way of wisdom, trying to find God's guidance, there is this promise of the work of the Spirit, whose constant ministry is to bring glory to Jesus Christ.

Well, let's pray together.

Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures and for this immensely important passage as it speaks to the relationship between two churches, and relationship between individuals now free in Christ, and yet for the sake of unity refraining from using that liberty for a better motive and a better goal. And we pray, Lord, in circumstances where we too find ourselves, maybe over issues where there are no directives from the Lord, that we might exercise similar patience and similar love, and a similar Christ-like concern for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. So bless us, we pray, and write these things now upon our hearts, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Please stand, receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.


  1. For more on The New Perspective on Paul, visit http://www.fpcjackson.org/resources/apologetics/index.htm

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