Beyond the Lectionary Text: Acts 15:1-21
by Al Postma
I’m going to start with the obvious observation that talking about circumcision is not simply an abstract theological conversation. The core of the discussion might be theological principles that are rooted in the biblical story, but the consequences of it are painfully practical. In the case of people new to the faith, being informed that one of the entrance requirements might involve (at least for the men) their penises and a sharp knife naturally invites some intentional discernment on the true nature of freedom in Christ. That James stands up and suggests circumcision and following the Mosaic Law as requirements for Christians might make it “difficult” for new converts turning to God should not be hard to understand.
The problem is, of course, that the very identity of God’s people in the Old Testament was framed by the rite of circumcision and the Mosaic Law, both of which were instituted by God himself. Right from the time of Abraham, circumcision was the mark of the covenant and the expectation was that all male children and any men who became part of the Hebrew nation would be circumcised. Those who became part of the community also took on a well-defined way of life as given through the Law of Moses. Circumcision and the Law weren’t things one intellectually agreed with and then moved on; they were part of a physically real, practical, lived theology that was divinely ordained.
Which brings me to another observation that is less often thought of, but should be no less obvious: the early church didn’t actually have the New Testament to lean on as part of their Scriptures. The early church was the New Testament. The words were being written as their story unfolded. So the only authoritative written text that they did have before them (the Old Testament) clearly spelled out that people who were part of the covenant community were expected to follow the Law and become circumcised. Further, for people who had converted to Judaism in the past, the standard operating procedure was the same that the Christian Pharisees were advocating for now. The points Paul, Peter, and James make in the discussion hadn’t yet been generally accepted as the orthodox response; the church couldn’t simply accept what these leaders were saying as necessarily carrying the same weight as Scripture and tradition, especially when there were others who were well versed in the Scriptures that were arguing the opposite side.
Long story short: these early leaders inherited a longstanding and deeply held religious system, and they had to discern, without a clearly written-out foundation, the specifics of how this Old Testament system related to Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. To do so, they had to listen to the arguments, pay attention to what the Spirit was currently doing, and then together they had to make a real-life decision. And they couldn’t defer it or come down the middle because, frankly, you either get out your flint-knife or you don’t. I am not surprised when v.7 tells us that it made for a long discussion.
When Peter finally stands up, he doesn’t just respond to the presenting issue, but recognizes that Christ’s work was so expansive in its scope that they weren’t just rebuilding a house but resetting the foundation. He frames it in three important ways:
1. First, he sets a new foundation. While the Pharisees seemed to insist that how they proceed must be based on what God had revealed, Peter opens up their decision-making to include what God is revealing. He recognized that God was doing something new and unexpected, and they need to allow for the actual current work of the Holy Spirit to be considered. The stories of Peter’s, Paul’s, and others’ work among the Gentiles needed to be admissible evidence for discerning the new foundation.
2. Second, he builds on that foundation. Peter moves from “what must they do to be saved?” to “what have they done to be saved?” The answer: they believed. When they do look around, the evidence is before them that not only have the Gentiles been coming Christ by faith alone, but Christ himself seems to have been accepting them and pouring out the Holy Spirit on them by faith alone as well. Without circumcision or the Mosaic Law, the Holy Spirit was being poured out upon them in equal measure. Which means that it’s really a bit after-the-fact for the Pharisees to be speaking of entrance requirements for salvation. It’s kind of like someone standing on the sidewalk trying to argue about whether or not their new neighbour has met the approval requirements for a mortgage while you are watching them move into their new house. Peter basically tells the Pharisees: if you open your eyes, you’ll see that the deal is done. They have been approved by God through faith alone, and they’ve already moved in!
3. Third, Peter actually dismantles the old foundation. While the Pharisees are asking for these Gentile Christians to go through the same approval process that they as Jews had to go through, Peter reminds them that this approval process is one they haven’t been able to live up to anyway. If they’re worried about circumcision and the Mosaic Law, they’re not only saying that the Gentiles aren’t saved, but that they themselves aren’t either. The whole point of the Gospel is that the yoke was too heavy. The same grace is needed whether someone has been trying to follow the Law or not. All have sinned, and all have been saved by grace alone.
Given this, and the stories that they hear, James follows up Peter by suggesting that they not make things more complicated or difficult than they need to be. Let’s not chain others to the things we’ve been freed from ourselves. There is no entrance requirement to salvation other than grace through faith. And the items that he suggests these new Christians stay away from (food tainted by idol worship, sexual immorality, etc.) are given as a way to encourage Christians to live in a way that seems most fitting to their new identity as followers of Christ rather than as entrance requirements to become considered fully part of the community.
In the end, this passage is a helpful reminder for us that Jesus fulfilled the Law and it is no longer a requirement on us to be considered his followers; however, it is also a reminder that children of God ought to live according to their identity.
First, James suggests that the apostles write to the new Christians: “…to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” Some commentators have suggested that these are listed because they are involved in historical practice of worshipping idols. James’ reasoning for the list is that the Law of Moses shouldn’t be completely foreign to new Christians so it’s not unreasonable to avoid these things. But again, why, of all the possible commandments, does he mention these? Further, some may read Acts 15 and become very excited about the deep sense of Christian freedom, only to be surprised that the apostles right away give commands about what these Christians should abstain from. The tension in our own lives can be similar. We know that we have freedom in Christ, and we need to pay attention to how the Spirit is at work in ways that we might not expect or is calling us away from things that once seemed normal. We might wonder, if James stood up to say: “It is my judgement, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for [Canadians? Americans? etc.] who are turning to God. Instead, we should write to them, telling them to…” I wonder how he would finish the sentence.
Second, it’s worth pondering what it looks like to be appropriately open to the Holy Spirit surprising us today. What does it mean to hold on to the foundation in Christ, but also see the Spirit at work in people in ways that are unexpected. The tension we experience is in trying to figure out which ways of life are always unfitting for a Christian, and which ones are unfitting for a particular time and place. Acts 15 is a call to wisdom and discernment.
In his book, 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness, Eric Metaxes gives a short biography of George Washington. In it, he highlights the fact that as one of the first leaders of the new nation, Washington faced what was, in effect, an unclear political situation. He had the incredible task of helping to define the political system he helped create, particularly the presidency. Many people expected him to take power as King George I of America; in fact, there was even one officer who warned of the “certain disaster that would befall postwar America unless Washington declared himself king.” Washington would have nothing of it and refused to use his military power for himself. Even the number of four-year-terms a President can serve is based on the fact that Washington refused to serve more than two. Metaxes also writes that: “Washington had no model upon which to base such decisions as how the president should dress, whom he should meet, how he should make federal appointments, whether people should curtsy or bow to him, or even what he should be called.”
America, in its inception, was a new country that was free to set up its government however it saw fit. In a similar way to the Church, it was a new era that required wisdom and discernment to live out their freedom in a healthy way.
Al Postma is the pastor of Bethlehem CRC, Thunder Bay, Ontario.