Jesus had told his disciples that they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8.) Reaching the ends of the earth would fulfill the promise that God had made to Abraham (Gen 15) to bless all nations through his descendent. Fulfilling this mission would mean that they had to cross geographical barriers like mountains and rivers as they went to the end of the earth. But it also meant crossing cultural barriers. All humans struggle to relate across cultural barriers, but the Law of Moses had erected cultural fences around the nation of Israel. The ceremonial laws restricted the way Jewish people could interact with the outside world. The foods they were allowed to eat and how they could eat them placed a particular barrier between them and outsiders. But especially, the practice of circumcision created a visible separation between Jewish people and the other people around them.
The word “gentiles” means the nations beyond Israel. Originally, these ceremonial laws were meant for the protection of Israel because the gentiles around them were knee-deep in idolatry and sin, and associating with them led to spiritual compromise. But now, after Pentecost, the situation is reversed. God is on the move with “infectious power.” Now, the spiritual cure is crossing the barriers that had previously been erected to prevent the infection of idolatry. (This is what is happening when Peter sees a vision which declares all animals unclean. It undoes the restrictions of the ceremonial law.) As a result, God removes the barriers provided by the ceremonial law. In doing this, he opens the door for gospel transmission and begins to form a church of all nations. God testified that this was his work by giving Peter a vision, then pouring out the Spirit on the gentile believers in the household of Cornelius. The early church interprets this as a sign from God that places both Jewish and Gentile Christians on the same footing in the church. Notice how they make the connection: “The Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15.)
But, old habits die hard and forming a new community out of people who had always been separated is not easy. No sooner had Peter been directed to welcome Cornelius than he was opposed by “the circumcision party.” (That does not sound like a party that I want to go to.) Then, the diverse church in Antioch is troubled by those people who push circumcision on the new Gentile Christians (Acts 15:1-2). This requires the first church council to be called and the church gathered in Jerusalem to settle the matter. Their formal ruling (15:19-20) is to not apply the ceremonial laws to Gentile believers, but they do underscore the importance of avoid idols and sexual immorality for everyone (long recognized as a gentile problem.) They do seem to ask the Gentiles to also avoid meat that was straggled and blood – either because this was so closely associated with idolatry, or because it helped the Jewish people feel more at ease.
Reflect: What we learn in this passage is that God is deeply concerned about unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He goes out of his way to bring the gentiles in through a display of miraculous power, then the early church devoted an entire council to the issue. Our unity is important to God, it is grounded in our common experience of Christ, but it also requires our effort to live into it.
Connect: In Ephesians Paul rehearses the issue of church unity and tells us that Jewish and Gentile Christians share a lot in common, including their experience of the Holy Spirit. This is demonstrated in Acts 10-11. However, he also urges the church to invest effort in pursuing this unity. This is demonstrated in Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council. How is God calling you to live into the unity that you have with other Christians?
Ephesians 4:1-6 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
This blog is part of the ministry of City Reformed Presbyterian Church. Unless otherwise noted, the entries are written by Matt Koerber. This is part of a project that our church is doing as we read through the narrative sections of Scripture between early January and Easter 2020. New entries will be scheduled to drop automatically at 5:00 am on the scheduled day.