For an introduction to this series, click here.
June 15, 2007
Here is another important chapter for the history of the church. Gentiles were joining the church in droves, and things were getting a little testy between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews saw the Gentiles as newcomers, and they should adapt to Jewish ways. The Gentiles were excited about their new faith, but they resented being told they needed to be circumcised (that would annoy me too) or that they needed to stop eating "unclean" foods.
The Apostles and other church leaders were not sure what to do. These things were tearing the church apart. We will discuss this a little bit more later, but even Paul and Peter butted heads over this issue. So they called Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem where the rest of the Apostles were, to discuss the matter. Luke tells us there were a contingent of believing Jews who were Pharisees who demanded that all new Christians should be circumcised. Finally it was Peter who stood up and put the issue to rest:
"Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." (15:7-11)
James, the half-brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Jewish church at Jerusalem, proposed a compromise: "Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues." (15:19-21)
The Apostles agreed and sent out a letter to all the churches to that effect. There are a few people who believe that this letter is binding upon Christians today. I think that last sentence sheds some light on what James and the Apostles were expecting when they sent out that letter. The church was still made up of Jews, at least a large percentage, and so to keep from making offense and creating division in the church, these things should be observed. Today, the church is established as its own religion and there is no need to avoid offending potential converts from another faith. They will have to get over that themselves if they want to join.
I like the fact that the Apostles had to sit down and discuss an issue like this and come to a solution. They were not infallible (like the Catholic church claims Peter was) and they tried to develop these doctrines, with the Lord's help of course, as they went along.
The end of this chapter gives us another glimpse into the fallibity of the Apostles: "Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord." (15:37-40, ESV)
Mark had left Paul and Barnabas in chapter 14, and Paul apparently held that against him, at some level, and did not want to bring him along as they left Jerusalem. But Barnabas wanted to bring him along. Now of course Mark would go on to write one of the four Gospels, so it is not like we can say Paul was right and Barnabas was just soft-hearted. But we also cannot say that Paul was wrong and that Barnabas was right. I think if you asked Mark years later about this incident, I think he would tell you they were both right. He needed to know that he had let Paul down, and there are consequences that follow. But he also needed the encouraging voice of Barnabas to keep him from leaving the faith discouraged.