Jesus was Jewish. His followers were Jewish. As Jesus travelled around Galilee, he went with a group of followers. This was normal for a Jewish rabbi, which is how many people of that time saw Jesus. There were Jewish parties, or sects, such as the Pharisees and Essenes and Sadducees. Jewish people within a party would belong to a school of teaching. Each school was headed by a rabbi and would have slightly, or perhaps very, different teachings from another school. There was the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel within the Pharisees.
There was only one temple, and they would all attend the same local synagogue. The first Christians were all Jews and naturally all went to the synagogue with the other Jews. In fact followers of the school of Jesus were not called Christians at first.
Things changed when non-Jews began to follow Jesus. Believers started to have their own meeting places, which came to be called churches. They were all independent of each other without a central authority, but they communicated. In these days before Scripture, people such as Paul travelled from church to church and brought some unity of teaching.
One of the biggest churches was Antioch in Turkey. It was here that for the first time the followers of Jesus were called Christians (Acts 11:26). It was also here that a problem arose about believers who were not Jewish.
Some Jewish people believed that Gentiles could be saved simply by avoiding the major sins.
The major sins were things such as idolatry and sexual immorality. Some rabbis taught that these were the seven laws given to Noah. The Bible lists just one law given to Noah. When God told Noah that in addition to plants he could eat meat, God gave the law that it should have no blood. Genesis 9:4 – “But you must never eat any meat that still has the lifeblood in it.”
The Jewish concept of being saved is different from ours. Jews do not believe in original sin and think one commits sin by breaking the commandments of the Law. Salvation was automatic for Jews, who are the chosen people. Some Jews thought it also was given to good Gentiles. Salvation meant being able to live in peace and the inauguration of a new age.
Other Jews taught that only the chosen people were saved. They thought that a Gentile could only be saved by baptism and (for men) circumcision into the Jewish people. Even those Jews who thought righteous Gentiles could saved did not accept them into God’s people without conversion.
Because of these different views, there arose a dispute in the church in Antioch over Gentile Christians. Did they have to become Jews before they could follow the rabbi Jesus?
These Gentiles were being filled with the Holy Spirit just like the Jewish believers.
The church in Antioch was rejoicing at the conversion of Gentiles. When the news was reported to the church in Phoenicia and Samaria the believers there were also filled with joy.
Although each church was independent, the church in Jerusalem was seen as having some extra authority. This church was well respected for its learned rabbis, and the teachers who were insisting that Gentiles must be circumcised had come from Judea. So Barnabas and Paul were sent off to see if the dispute could be resolved.
Barnabas and Paul told the leaders in Jerusalem about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. Peter stood up and framed the argument. We need to know what the argument is about. It is a heated argument with strong views. How can it be resolved? Peter says the essence is how to save Gentiles. It isn’t an argument about who is right and who is wrong on a point of doctrine or history.
Have you ever got angry with someone and insisted you are right. Even if you don’t say it out loud, this is another way of accusing the other person of being wrong. If we talk like this, an argument can quickly grow into a fight. We can see how often it has caused a church to split.
Acts 15:6, “So the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue. At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them.”
He pointed out what they all agreed on. God knows people’s hearts. He has shown everyone that he has accepted the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit. It’s exactly the same for the Gentiles as for the Jews. God has made no distinction. He has cleansed their hearts through faith.
Luke has already explained this in detail with the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10.
45The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too. 46For they heard them speaking in other tongues and praising God. Then Peter asked, 47“Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?”
James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, concludes the debate; “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
This is how the early church made decisions. They focused on the important things, in this case helping people turn to God and become Christian. Nobody insisted on being right. Nobody complained that their view was rejected. Nobody forced a solution on anybody. They talked it over. They talked for a long time. They talked energetically until they reached agreement. They looked at the Scriptures, as well as tradition. They looked at what God was doing, and tried to align themselves with the work of God. They compromised for the kingdom’s sake.
Luke says, “Then the apostles and elders together with the whole church in Jerusalem chose delegates, and they sent them to Antioch of Syria with Paul and Barnabas to report on this decision.”
It was the whole church that agreed. There was a consensus. Both sides gave a little, so they told the Gentiles to only obey the laws of Noah regarding meat and morality.
God had chosen to fill the Roman military man with the Holy Spirit. All believers should rejoice at how open God is to welcome and cleanse anyone. No need for circumcision.
As for us, how should we conduct ourselves when we disagree with a brother or sister?
Satan loves to misdirect us. Satan will do all he can to get us arguing about things that don’t matter instead of discussing how to spread the Good News.
This story speaks to me of the reality that we will continue to have different views of things. We are different personalities, praise God. It’s not about us. Our disagreements must never be over personality differences. It isn’t about being right. It isn’t about our personality type being best. It’s only ever about God.
It is healthy to have a vigorous loving debate about how to spread the Good News. It is great to discuss avidly how to make it easier for people to become believers.
As soon as we say something like ‘I’m right’ or ‘You’re wrong’ we must stop! In Matthew 5:22 in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said,
“But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.”
All of us must remember this. Be careful how you speak when you disagree. Guard your tongue and if you discuss make sure it is to seek the kingdom of God before all else. If you are seeking your own righteousness, your soul is in danger of the fires of hell.
Peter and James and Paul sought the best for the work of God to include Gentiles into his family. They gave us a great example of how to deal with disputes. Praise God that we don’t have to do anything to be saved, it is his grace.