Acts 15 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Witness of the Spirit and the Word
Church leaders and members must learn to debate with each other so that the truth may be embraced by all. The Jerusalem Council shows us the right ammunition for debate and a church leader's responsibilities in it.
At an official gathering of the Jerusalem church leaders, apostles and elders, there is much debate (compare 15:2). Finally Peter rises to speak. He begins by stressing the divine initiative in the inauguration of the Gentile mission. He reminds the church, alluding to the Cornelius incident, that some time ago (ten to twelve years) God chose him to be the mouthpiece by which Gentiles would hear the gospel and come to saving faith (10:33, 36, 43; 11:13-14). Next he points to the divine acceptance of the Gentiles: God, who knows the heart (1:24), a person's true spiritual state, gave the Holy Spirit to them as he had to Jewish believers at Pentecost (10:44-48; 11:15, 17). Here Peter strongly challenges the Jewish view that the only acceptable outward evidence of the conversion of Gentiles is their willingness to be circumcised and live as Jews. If God has taken initiative toward the Gentiles and accepted them for salvation, God's lack of prejudice against the Gentiles is obvious.
Peter draws a negative and positive conclusion from his experience with Cornelius and his household. Negatively, to insist on circumcision and living under the Jewish law is actually to put God to the test. Though secondarily this would be to call "into question [God's] power to cleanse the hearts of the uncircumcised by His Spirit" (Williams 1985:253), primarily it means tempting God to inflict punishment, even eternal condemnation, by placing the Gentile convert back in the "law performance" way of trying to relate to God. Taking on the yoke of the law and carrying it was a positive image in Judaism (m. Berakot 2:2; m. 'Abot 3:5). Peter here claims that with respect to obtaining salvation, the responsible keeping of the law is futile (Acts 13:38-39; Gal 3:10-12). Positively, using the Gentiles as the standard, Peter declares that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that "we believe so as to be saved," just as they [the Gentiles] are (compare 2:21; 4:12; 14:3; 16:30-31).
We must let this simple truth sink deep into our hearts, for as Lloyd Ogilvie observes, "The struggle for faith alone never ends. It's a part of our own inability to accept a gift. And deeper than that: we want to be loved because of what we do for God" (1983:227).
In the face of Peter's cogent theological reasoning the whole assembly became silent. The groundwork for settling the issue in favor of Paul and Barnabas has been laid, and basic unity has been restored. Now Barnabas and Paul speak, telling about (providing "detailed information in a systematic manner"--Louw and Nida 1988:1:411), all (literally, "so many"--not in NIV) the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. As at Cornelius's conversion, God's miracleworking has accompanied this Gentile mission (14:3, 9-10). Therefore Paul's mission and message--the law-free gospel of grace--has the same divine legitimacy as Peter's. Here we again encounter a focused function for signs and wonders: confirmation to Jews of God's approval of the Gentile mission (see comment at 14:3).
James, the half-brother of Jesus, who as the chief elder may well be chairing the meeting, spoke up--literally, "answered." He will now give his assessment of the evidence presented and offer a solution to the controversy. He interprets Peter's experience with Cornelius as a major event in God's salvation history. At first--that is, long ago (compare v. 7)--God showed his concern (v. 4; literally, "visited"). James's wording places the salvation of the Gentiles on a par with God's saving acts toward Israel, past and future (Ex 3:16; 4:31; Jer 39:41 LXX; Lk 1:68, 78; 7:16; Testament of Levi 16:5; 1 Enoch 25:3). His purpose is to take a people for his name from among the Gentiles. By using phrasing that closely echoes God's choosing of Israel, James heightens the radical nature of the new thing God has done (Ex 19:5; Deut 7:6). Now a people [laos] for himself (literally, "for his name"; compare Acts 15:17) will be taken from among the Gentiles.
Though the Jews expected God's salvation to reach to the Gentiles, they thought that Gentile participation would occur through incorporation into the already existing people of God, Israel. They never thought that the people of God would comprise both Jew and Gentile but not be Jewish. Note that Luke uses laos consistently in Acts to refer to the Jews as the people of God (4:10; 10:42; 13:17; 26:17, 23; 28:17; contrast 18:10).
Though this may be a radically new thought to the first-century Jew, it is not new to God. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this (15:15, referring to either the book of the twelve minor prophets--Acts 7:42; 13:40; compare Zech 2:11--or the fact that many prophets so agree). Here we have a reversal of roles for the promise and fulfillment. Usually it is the alleged fulfillment that must agree with the promise. Here the fulfillment becomes the hermeneutical key for understanding how the prophet Amos could prophesy that in the last days the "people of God" would include Gentiles who had not first become Jews.
The wording of the Amos 9:11-12 quotation (Acts 15:16-17) is a comprehensive statement of what God has done through Peter. The rebuilding of David's fallen tent may point ultimately to the whole saving program of God in his Messiah (Kaiser 1977:108; compare the Qumran use of the passage--CD 7:16; 4QFlor 1:12) and hence to Jesus' saving death and resurrection (Bruce 1988:293-94), but it does not do so in a spiritualizing way that violates the original context. To say that James equates the "house of David" with the church and the prophecy as a whole with "the church gathering to itself all the nations" does violate Amos's original intent (contra Williams 1985:254). Rightly interpreted, the rebuilt Davidic tent refers to a restored Israel, which in the person of Jewish Christians God chooses to inaugurate the Gentile mission (15:7, 14; compare Longenecker 1981:446). That was, after all, the purpose of Israel's restoration: that the remnant of men may seek the Lord.
James has grasped the very heart of Amos's eschatological message concerning the nature of the salvation that Messiah brings to the Gentiles. In so doing, James has replaced a proselyte model of Gentile salvation with an eschatological/christocentric one. The Lord has chosen to place his name on Gentiles as Gentiles, without requiring that they surrender their ethnic identity. That name, "the Lord Jesus Christ," is the basis on which they have repented and believed (Lk 24:47; Acts 4:12; 10:43), the identity they have adopted in baptism (2:38; 10:48; compare 11:26) and the reason they will suffer (compare 5:41; 14:22).
This Old Testament text teaches that Christians' new identity in Christ both supersedes and allows room for their cultural identity. Christians are saved from the error of prejudicial ethnocentrism. What a liberation, to respect and appreciate differences, not using them as weapons of prejudice but at the same time not being imprisoned by them!
James concludes the quote by affirming that this plan for Gentile salvation is not of human origin and is not new. It has been known by God for ages (compare Is 45:21). To oppose it with human cultural traditions, even those that appeal to Scripture, is to oppose God's eternal revelation.
What solution to the controversy does this freshly articulated understanding yield? James makes an "official" proposal of one negative and one positive action with respect to Gentile converts. We should not make it difficult for them: that is, Jewish Christians should not pressure Gentile converts (compare Judg 14:17; 16:16 LXX) into adopting circumcision and the yoke of the law as a necessary condition and sign of their salvation (contrast Acts 15:1, 5). Positively, the council asks Gentile converts to abstain from food polluted by idols (compare 15:29, "food sacrificed to idols"; Ex 34:15-16; compare Lev 17:7-8), sexual immorality (possibly meaning marriage within levitical degrees--Lev 18:6-18), meat of strangled animals (meat that has not been ritually slaughtered so as to drain the blood properly--Lev 17:13) and blood (eating blood--Lev 17:10).
Interestingly, each of these prohibitions was originally addressed not only to Jew but also to Gentile aliens living alongside them in the land. The rules' specifics and their rationale (Acts 15:21) show they are given to promote table fellowship between uncircumcised Gentile converts and Jewish Christians who observe the dietary laws. There is no surrender here of the gospel freedom alluded to in verse 19. Rather, that freedom is to be used in love to serve Jewish Christian brothers and sisters, but not beyond the bounds of Scripture (Gal 5:13). Sexual immorality, as an ethical matter, not having to do with ritual purity, may seem out of place. But given that one of the Jews' ongoing concerns was "low ethical and moral standards among Gentiles" (Scott 1992:14), it is appropriate in this list to represent the category of moral standards.
James's proposal, then, teaches us three things about life together in a culturally diverse church. We must say no to any form of cultural imperialism that demands others' conformity to our cultural standards before we will accept them and their spiritual experience. We must say yes to mutual respect for our differences. And we must live out that respect even to the extent of using our freedom to forgo what is permissible in other circumstances.
In a day when transportation and urbanization make it easier to stay apart than face the challenge of living together as a multicultural body of believers, the church has yet to model consistently what James calls for. But even our separate culturally homogeneous fellowships may face challenges of gender, music and generation gaps. We need to take Acts 15 to heart.