Our look at this passage will focus on three questions:
What is the New Testament’s basic understanding of God’s purpose in relationship with the world?
On the one hand, there is not a simple answer to this or any question about God. We can point to thousands of sermons and commentaries to prove it. If the answers were easily known, we would not find so many different opinions — or so we say. On the other hand, this question about God might actually have an obvious answer.
At the end of this passage, James cites the prophets, “I will rebuild the dwelling of David … so that all other peoples may seek the Lord” (verses 13-17). Laying aside our intricate analyses of the role of Israel, of the Law, of faith versus works, of the church, the Holy Spirit, or the Christ in bringing (or not bringing) people to God, let us consider the possibility that God fundamentally desires that every possible door be opened so that every possible person in every possible circumstance might find the life that God offers.
Such an understanding is present throughout the New Testament (and the Old Testament): Jesus calls to himself “all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” (Matt 11:28). He says in John, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Paul says in Romans, “For from [God] and through [God] and to [God] are all things” (11:36). First Timothy states, “God our Savior … desires that everyone be saved” (2:3-4).
The church’s one foundationELW 654, H82 525, UMH 545, NCH 386
CHORAL Te deum in C major, Benjamin Britten
I recognize that this “obvious” answer can’t ignore the complications posed by scriptural passages about predestination or passages describing people who will not be saved (e.g., Romans 8:29-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12; Mark 4:11-12; Revelation 13:7-8). Thus, a second question:
How do we find a clear path to right action when scripture makes competing proclamations? Disclaimer: I speak from a tradition that seeks sound doctrine but declines to construct a systematic theology, being relatively unperturbed by scripture’s loose ends and less dismayed by doctrinal inconsistencies than inconsistencies between our actions and the essentials of the gospel. Thus the question is posed in terms of right action, not right doctrine.
This seems consistent with the debate in this narrative. Some say that believing males must be circumcised (15:1, 5). Others say they do not (15: 7-11, 14-15). Ultimately, doctrines that matter find expression in actions — for example, who we ordain, how we serve communion, and how and when we baptize. Changing the actions that matter necessarily involves changing the doctrines behind them, the interpretations of scripture supporting them, and which passages we hold most dear.
We see that at work in this passage. Looking from a distance of 2,000 years, we should not underestimate how wrenching this conflict would have been for the people involved and how difficult it would have been for them to predict who history would eventually label as the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Circumcision advocates had scripture on their side, and by some accounts—according to some appeals to scripture today — maybe they should have won.
Genesis 17 demonstrates the extent to which circumcision advocates literally and unequivocally appealed to core scriptures about the relationship between God and God’s people. The dynamics of that scriptural debate become clearer when we note that James’ citation of the prophets offers a paraphrase of the combination of three prophetic texts (Amos 9:9-12; Jeremiah 12:15; and Isaiah 45:21-24).
In this case the literal words of one passage were trumped by the subtext of other passages — God’s desire to save all people — and by God’s own action. The requirement of circumcision was supplanted by the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of people who had long been considered excluded. Peter describes how “God … testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit … [and] has made no distinction between them and us” (15:8-9).
James offers the above-mentioned scriptural texts, newly considered foundational, in support of Peter’s actions (15:13-17). God’s actions through the Spirit engender new practices among God’s people, requiring new understanding, new doctrine, and the ascension of newly significant passages in place of what had long served as established guides. That brings us to the final question.
How often, with good intentions, do we place barriers in the path of those who seek God? Not everyone would agree that God most desires that every person find fullness of life in God. But, perhaps, people might agree with this: regardless of faith tradition, it is easy for us to assume that our ways of bringing people to God are consistent with how God wants us to bring people to God. Like the circumcision advocates in Acts, we believe this to be true. Yet God seems unconstrained by our certainties and sends the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, sometimes working hard to convince us that our actions hinder rather than help people find their way.
Acts makes that point more than once, not only in this passage. Earlier, when the Sanhedrin wanted to execute Peter and the apostles, Gamaliel advised them to consider their actions carefully, lest they find themselves fighting against God (Acts 5:34-40). Paul gives a similar admonition in Antioch” “Beware, therefore, that what the prophets said does not happen to you: ‘Look, you scoffers! Be amazed and perish, for in your days I am doing a work, a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you’” (Acts 13:40-41). The admonition holds not only for Antioch, but also for all who claim to be people of God.