Commentary on Acts 15:1-18
In Bird by Bird: Some Thoughts on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott recalls that, “E. L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’”1
As Jesus departed from the apostles in Acts 1, he told them that they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).
The word of God spreads, certainly, yet the road to the ends of the earth is not illuminated all at once. With only the available light, the apostles must make decisions about the direction of the church’s witness. The story of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 narrates how the light of the apostles’ experiences and their reading of Scripture combine in such a way that they recognize God’s mercy extending to Gentiles.
Acts 14 closes with Paul and Barnabas among the believers in Antioch. God had opened “A door of faith for the Gentiles,” and Paul and Barnabas share this news with the church in Antioch. All is well.
Acts 15 opens with the news that “certain individuals” from Judea arrived in Antioch. These teachers say that Gentile members of the church must be circumcised (and presumably also observe the rest of the Law) in order to be saved. The question facing the church is if the saving work of Christ is effective for those who are not Jews and who never become law-observant? Jesus himself was a Jew and the earliest Christian communities were steeped in Jewish scripture and tradition. Could Jesus be the Jewish Messiah and yet bring salvation apart from the Law?
The question inspired “no small dissension and debate” (15:2) in Antioch. When no consensus emerged, the church sent Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others to consult with the church leaders in Jerusalem.
Acts 15 includes insights both into the church’s process of deciding a contentious issue and into the substance of the decision reached. First, to the question of process. A few practices worthy of imitation are in evidence.
How the Church Decides
The conversation is broadened. The church is local and it is more than just local. A church-sized group of Christians is able to decide some things, but sometimes, more voices need to be brought into the conversation. The dispute arises in Antioch, and when the dissension escalates, the church at Antioch sends its leaders and “some of the others” to Jerusalem. (Are these “others” the teachers who oppose Paul and Barnabas, or rank-and-file members of the church in Antioch — or representatives of both groups? The answer is not clear from the text.)
Standard divisions are examined. Sometimes a way forward comes through the realization that long-standing differences are not necessarily defining differences. “We” thought we were different from “them,” but as we get to know each other, we find points of similarity and contact. In his speech, Peter works to overcome the “us” (Jews) and “them” (others/Gentiles) distinction. God has given Gentiles the Holy Spirit and faith (15:8-9), just as God gave these gifts to those Jews who are numbered among believers in Jesus. Moreover, the Jews who believe in Jesus believe that they will be saved, not by keeping the Law, but by “the grace of the Lord Jesus.” In these ways, there are no distinctions between Jewish and Gentile believers.
The testimony of experience counts. After Peter’s speech, Barnabas and Paul give an account of signs and wonders that have happened in their ministry. These testimonies of the Holy Spirit’s actions beyond the Jewish community bear witness to God at work within and among the uncircumcised.
Experience is confirmed by the testimony of Scripture. When it is James’ turn to speak, he affirms what Simon Peter (oddly called, “Simeon,” in verse 14) has said, and then cites the prophet Amos in agreement with what has been said by Peter, Barnabas and Paul. When God called Abraham, God chose a people for God’s self from among the Gentiles. Again, in the midst of a Jerusalem reduced to rubble, God promised to rebuild the ruins and in so doing, reached out to Abraham’s offspring and the Gentiles as well.
What the Church Decides
On the basis of a conversation in which both human experience and the witness of Scripture are shared, those in Jerusalem conclude that the Gentiles do not need to observe circumcision in order to be numbered among the people of God. Those sitting around the table realize that they have been the beneficiaries of the wideness of God’s mercy, and they recognize God at work in the extending of mercy also to Gentiles.
For what it’s worth, the argument is not that God is doing a new thing but rather that God is doing what God has always done: showing mercy, and creating a people for God’s self where no people existed before. From the start of the Christian church, it seems to have been important for leaders to see themselves as staying within received traditions — even when the substance of their decisions had the effect of opening new doors for ministry.
Sources of Light
On the way to the ends of the earth, a church that can see only as far as the headlights has these sources of light:
Scripture. Scripture allows us to describe the character of God and so to recognize God at work in the world beyond Scripture. When we are trying to discern a call from God, it helps to investigate how what God might be doing in our lives or in the life of our congregation can be shown in Scripture as the character of God.
Experience. As important as the witness of Scripture is, in Acts it is everywhere supplemented by experience. Experience and Scripture interpret each other. The experience of God’s Spirit at work in unexpected ways (for example, in the life of the Ethiopian eunuch, or the lives of Cornelius and his household) changes the long-term direction of the church.
A Long Conversation. Acts 15 tells the story of a conversation that undoubtedly took time — perhaps decades — to unfold. While Luke compresses that story, he does not entirely paper over difficulties that the earliest Christians faced as they tried to remain faithful to the Spirit’s leading all the way to the ends of the earth. Early believers taught various (sometimes contradictory) things, and they argued with each other. When they achieved a consensus, it was only after a process that took time and required input from multiple voices. By means of scripture, experience, and a long conversation about them both, God offers the light needed for the church’s whole trip.
1. Anne Lamont, Bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life, (New York City: Anchor Books, 1995), 18
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord of all,
In Jesus you have made us all sisters and brothers in Christ. There is no distinction between Gentile and Jew. There is no separation that can remove any from fellowship in Christ’s community. Blind us to our differences so that in unity we may proclaim your truth to all, for the sake of Jesus Christ in whom there is harmony and peace. Amen.
Te deum in C major, Benjamin Britten