Text: Acts 15:1-35, Romans 2:17-24, Galatians 5:1
Those first Jewish individuals who converted to Christianity were initially a bunch of scrupulous rule-followers. It’s no wonder they were having a hard time with the fraternity of Gentile converts, who’d seemingly sailed in from a laissez-faire, lawless background without “earning” the grace of God they were now reveling in.
And so, the Jewish Christians decided to erect a hierarchical ladder with a few more steps leading to redemption (Acts 15:1-6). They adapted the “Faith in Jesus + Nothing = Salvation” message that Peter, Stephen, and Paul had preached, into a “Faith in Jesus + A More Restrictive Menu and Circumcision = Salvation” lecture. I imagine they secretly surmised it was a harmless enough edit.
I mean, we aren’t expecting non-Jews to adhere to all 613 Torah rules or anything—just the biggies. All they have to do is order their steaks medium-well and agree to get their private parts tweaked a bit. That’s just a teensy outpatient surgery. Heck, we’ll even pay for the ice packs!
This prejudiced-based friction between Jews and Greeks—officially titled “The Jerusalem Debate”—endangered the fellowship of the early Church. It caused such a rift in Antioch that Paul and Barnabas left, traveling back to Jerusalem to sort the matter out with the rest of the elders and apostles. Imagine the murmurs of differing opinions rippling through the multi-ethnic congregation of our mother Church when Peter stood up to address them:
“Brothers, you know that in the early days God chose me from among you to preach the Good News to the nations. They heard the Good News from me, and they believed. God, who knows the thoughts of everyone, accepted them. He showed this to us by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. To God, those people are not different from us. When they believed, he made their hearts pure. So now why are you testing God by putting a heavy load around the necks of the non-Jewish believers? It is a load that neither we nor our ancestors were able to carry. But we believe that we and they too will be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”
-Acts 15:7-11 (NCV)
The first point Peter argues is that the gospel they’d been preaching (Faith in Jesus + Nothing = Salvation) had already resulted in an international harvest of salvation. Obviously, the Holy Spirit was able to soften sinners’ hearts unto repentance without first whacking them over the head with a 50-pound rulebook. The testimony of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected was perfectly sufficient to compel the lost to find their living hope in Him.
I bet most of the men listening to Peter argue his case were now dumbfounded, slack-jawed with the realization that he’d just nailed them to the wall with his observation: the weight of the law almost broke your back, so why in the world are you so determined to strap it on someone else’s shoulders?
Here’s the deal about the judgment God declared as a result of humanity’s sin against Him (Romans 3:23): WE CAN NEVER BEHAVE WELL ENOUGH TO SATISFY IT. We can’t get good enough. No matter how many biblical rules we’re able to keep, it’s impossible for humans to attain perfection, and perfection is the only remedy for God’s wrath. This is why He sent His only begotten Son into the world, wrapped in a suit of skin: to live a perfect sinless life and shed His perfect blood during a sacrificial death, making perfect atonement for our sin.
Jesus is the only One who could justify us and reconcile us into a right relationship with our heavenly Father. If we could close the gap with God ourselves, Jesus could’ve just kept chilling out in Glory and skipped the whole sordid “Redeeming Mankind” mission.
The Mosaic Law these well-intentioned Jewish Christians were so eager to push onto the Gentiles never had the power to save anyone. That wasn’t God’s intention when He gave it to Moses in the first place. God didn’t proclaim those commandments on that ancient pinnacle so that by them we could be saved. He gave them so we’d realize we can’t save ourselves!
The Old Testament moral and ceremonial stipulations underscore our absolute inability to achieve perfection. They were always, always, always meant to lead us to Jesus.
Lisa Harper is a master storyteller with a masters of Theological Studies from Covenant Seminary. She’s lauded as an engaging, hilarious communicator as well as an authentic and substantive Bible teacher. She’s been in vocational ministry for 30 years and has written 15 books and Bible study curriculums but says her greatest accomplishment by far is that of becoming Missy’s (her adopted daughter from Haiti) mama! They live on a hilly farmette south of Nashville, Tennessee, where they enjoy eating copious amounts of chips, queso, and guacamole.