We considered last time Luke’s record of the first formal meeting of the leadership of the international Christian church. They met to resolve a disagreement about precisely how Gentiles were to be incorporated into the Christian Church. Today is Pentecost, the celebration of Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit to enable the church to draw to faith in Christ men and women, boys and girls, from every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth. Pentecost is all about the incorporation of Gentiles, of the world indeed, into the Christian church. So a sermon on the Jerusalem Council is perfectly appropriate for Pentecost. In the narrative of Acts so far we have read of the dramatic inroads the Christian faith made following Pentecost in the Jewish world and, most recently, of its rapid expansion among Gentile peoples. The Christian church was expanding with ever greater momentum and in every direction. The power of the Holy Spirit explains what, humanly speaking, should never have happened, the whole world embracing – and on many occasions embracing at first hearing – a message that contradicted many of its most cherished convictions!
The power of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Christians themselves explains something else: how the early Christians, most of them Jewish, for the sake of the progress of the gospel, were so willing to accommodate the utterly different traditions and practices of these new Gentile believers. Jews were rightly proud of their ancient spiritual culture, rooted as it was in the Law of Moses, and suddenly it was being overwhelmed and then replaced by large numbers of new Christians who did not look like Jews, or eat like Jews, or worship in all the same ways Jews were accustomed to worship. That is our story this morning.
v.22 In other words, the proposal of James, of which we read in vv. 19-21, secured the assent of the assembled leadership and then the whole Christian community. This is important. There was a general acceptance of the fact that Gentiles could become Christians while remaining Gentiles and that the liturgical obligations of the Mosaic Law that were still being practiced by Jewish Christians would not be required of Gentile believers. What is noteworthy here is the simple declaration that Paul, Peter, and James were on the same page! This is a fact that would be contested by biblical scholarship in any number of ways over the last several centuries. The combination of the prophecy of Scripture to which James had referred and the experience of ministry among the Gentiles reported by Peter, Paul, and Barnabas convinced everyone that Gentiles were welcome in the Christian church as Gentiles.
v.22 To signal their hearty agreement with the decision, the Jerusalem church sent two of its best men, Judas, of whom we know nothing more, and Silas, of whom we will hear much more, as he was to become a trusted associate of both Peter and Paul.
v.29 The letter made three points. 1) Those who were demanding that Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses had not done so with any authorization from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. They were, in effect, both expressing their regret for the confusion those men had caused and assuring the Gentile brothers that they had not been speaking for them. They were making clear to the brethren in Antioch that they did not want strained relations between different parts of the church. [Peterson, 437] 2) They had sent two good men to accompany Paul and Barnabas to confirm and further explain the letter they were carrying. The presence of the men would ensure the Christians in Antioch of Jerusalem’s good will. And 3) that their decision was not to require Gentile Christian observance of the liturgical requirements of the Law of Moses but to ask them to abstain from four things. Clearly Luke does regard the recommendations of the Council as binding on these Gentile Christians, but they are put in the way of “moral appeal” rather than a strictly legal obligation. [Peterson, 440] It is for this reason that the number of Gentiles soon overtook that of Jews in the Christian church and as Gentile churches were established where there were no Jews, these obligations fell away.
The references to “blood” and “what has been strangled” refer to meat that had not been butchered according to Jewish standards, which required that the carcass be drained of its blood. Otherwise the meat would be eaten with the blood still in it, a violation of Moses and a great offense to Jewish sensibilities.
v.35 Luke is at pains to communicate the happy result. The effort made by the Jerusalem council to communicate both its concern and its decision won over the Christians in Antioch and there was a new sense of Christian unity between Jew and Gentile, an important part of the foundation for the work that lay ahead. The Gentile world now lay open to the gospel.
Silas returned with Judas to Jerusalem, but in v. 40 he will be back in Antioch with the Apostle Paul to assist him on his next preaching tour. This is an instance of what some scholars have called the “romance” of the New Testament, by which is meant the indications dropped here and there that suggest all manner of fascinating stories behind the story. These two men probably met for the first time in Jerusalem at the council. They traveled together from Jerusalem to Antioch, no doubt talking all the way, and shared a period of gospel ministry. Obviously they formed a friendship and grew in their respect for one another during their time in Antioch sufficient that, when Paul needed to find a new associate, he thought immediately of Silas.
Now there is a complicated problem of interpretation here that has never been resolved to anyone’s complete satisfaction. Why these four practices that James recommended that Gentile believers abstain from and which the entire Council then agreed to recommend abstinence from? As a set they are not easy to explain.
There is a general agreement that what is being recommended is not obedience to the Law of Moses in just these particulars. It was precisely the decision of the Council that Gentile Christians not be required to obey the Law of Moses in those respects in which it defined Jewish piety. Nothing is said here, for example, about their keeping the Saturday Sabbath or observing the distinction between clean and unclean foods. So these requirements, it is generally acknowledged, seem rather to amount to respect for Jewish scruples. James’ last statement, as we have it in v. 21, strongly suggests this.
“For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogue.”
That is, there were plenty of Jews about in any sizeable town or city, and there are certain practices – public practices that affected their interactions with other people, especially Gentile people – that were deeply offensive to them. It was only to be kind and thoughtful to avoid giving unnecessary offense. If the Council acknowledged that Gentile Christians were not obliged to live as Jews, at the same time it challenged Gentile believers to exercise their freedom with restraint and love, recognizing the concerns of some Jewish Christians about associating the Christian church with what Jews would consider deeply repulsive practices. Fair enough. That most everyone agrees is the burden of the Council’s declaration.
But, if so, why these four practices in particular? It is possible as some scholars have claimed that all of them have to do with some typical forms of Greco-Roman idolatry. Three of them were associated with the butcher shop, where meat was offered to idols or butchered after being so offered. But why then “sexual immorality”? It does not easily fit with three practices at the butcher shop. Chastity seems to be a moral law, rather than a ceremonial requirement.
Others have argued that all the requirements are moral, not ceremonial, with “blood” referring to murder and those having to do with meat to idolatry. But it is not likely that “blood” refers to murder, and what is being suggested if only these serious moral laws are commended to Gentile Christians. Obviously Christians, Jew or Gentile, cannot murder and cannot commit adultery; why did the Council need to make a point of telling them that? Is it, for example, not so serious to lie or steal? That seems very unlikely to have been the Council’s point.
Another attempt at interpretation is to understand them all as ceremonial requirements to be observed simply for the sake of not offending the Jewish conscience. “Sexual immorality” is taken to be a reference not to fornication or adultery but to the laws of consanguinity and affinity laid down in Leviticus 18, the laws that restricted the degrees of blood-relationship within which Jews could marry, laws that in a number of cases we do not observe as Christians today.
No explanation is perfectly satisfactory and, as a result, there are a good many other suggestions made in the commentaries. I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, in one way or another it still seems obvious that what the Gentile believers were being told to do was simply to have regard for the consciences of their Jewish brethren and to seek not to give unnecessary offense. Harmony and unity is hard enough to preserve, even when Christians are not poking one another in the eye with a stick. If they were free from the obligations of a specifically Jewish piety, they were also free to refuse to violate them for the sake of the conscience of their brothers or sisters in Christ.
As John Stott ably summarizes the larger point: the Council “secured a double victory – a victory of truth in confirming the gospel of grace and a victory of love in preserving the fellowship by sensitive concessions to conscientious Jewish scruples.”  In other words, abstaining from those things that are repulsive to your brothers and sisters will make it much easier for Jewish and Gentile Christians to live in harmony and mutual respect. Christian fellowship, as a fellowship of love, requires that grace be shown for differences that do not threaten the fundamental principles of salvation.
This sort of respect for the consciences of others, for the feelings of others, as we know all too well, is in short supply in our culture. But we don’t expect it from unbelievers. Its absence is unsurprising to us. But in the church, making sacrifices for the sake of unity, refusing to allow differences of opinion or practice to interfere with the progress of the gospel is our calling, our sacred responsibility.
It is not an accident, I think, that the Lord’s high priestly prayer given to us in John 17, that magnificent prayer he prayed to his Father in heaven, that prayer for the unity of his followers, those who were already his followers and all those who would become his followers in the years to come; that prayer in which he prays that they might be one so that the world might know that the Father had sent his Son into the world, would prove to the world that the Christian message was true! You remember that prayer in which the Lord Jesus assumed, in effect, that the world would be persuaded to believe in him by the loving unity of his followers, a loving unity so different from the bitterness and hostility and easy offense that ordinarily characterizes the life of mankind, an example of love and harmony that would prove beyond doubt that divine grace was at work among this people. I say, it is not an accident that that prayer comes immediately after the Lord’s long discourse that same night on the coming of the Holy Spirit. It would be by the ministry of the Holy Spirit that this prayer would be heard and answered. The Spirit would not only draw multitudes to Christ, but to one another in loving brotherhood.
But was his prayer answered? Certainly it was here in Acts 15. A threat was posed to Christian unity and it was overcome, beautifully overcome. And it was overcome in the way in which it would forever after be overcome. Christians together would insist on the essential elements of the gospel, of their Christian faith, and would refuse to allow other matters a cause of division.
You have heard the adages. One that is often falsely attributed to Augustine but does go back at least to the 17th century reads: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” John Newton famously described Paul as “an iron in essentials and a reed in nonessentials.” And, of course, the Apostle Paul himself – who perhaps would have said he learned the art from James himself – wrote,
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. … To those outside the law [Paul means Gentiles!] I became as one outside the law that I mighty win those outside the law.” [1 Cor. 9:19-21]
That is the spirit so beautifully illustrated in here in Acts 15. On the gospel principle they were firm – salvation is by grace through faith and nothing, even deeply felt Jewish sensibilities can be allowed to compromise or confuse that truth – but in regard to the church’s unity and her calling to reach the world, believers were encouraged to do whatever they could to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
They used to say of John Duncan, the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian, who, if you remember, began his ministerial career as a missionary to Jews in Budapest, that he had an extraordinary largeness of heart and made uncommon efforts to find common ground and to put no obstacle in the way of gospel ministry.It was said of him,
“To the Jew he was a child of Abraham [as, after all, every Christian is!]; to the Roman Catholic he was an ancient churchman; to the Armenian in the East he would insist only on the words of the Bible; to the Hungarian he was in heart a Magyar; to the Bohemian a Czech; to the Highlander a Gael.” [Moody Stuart, 111]
We know, only all too well, how often and how terribly Christians have failed to reproduce the magic of Acts 15 in their own lives and in their own churches. Alas, the Lord’s high-priestly prayer has far too often remained unanswered! How and why that should be is a deep mystery, but who can deny it? As the wag has it, painfully but accurately:
To dwell above with saints we love,
Indeed! That will be glory;
To live below with saints we know,
That is another story!
We have the witness of the New Testament itself that this unity will be as difficult to fulfill as that of our own sanctification. Just as every Christian struggles to be holy and finds continual failure, even as he or she also advances in godly living, so it is with the practice of Christian unity. It simply is. It has always been so. After all, the book of Acts begins with the Christians being cast out of what was then the church of God. The religious leadership was unwilling to accommodate the new teaching and threatened the Christian preachers with arrest and eventually with death in an effort to stamp out in the church the fruit of the ministry and the saving work of the Messiah! And how many times would the same thing happen in the ages that followed. The Reformation was another such expulsion of saints from the church of Jesus Christ. The Great Awakening another.
But it is hardly only unbelievers in the church casting out believers. Would that it were. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church exposed a Christian congregation that was splintered, not by heresy, not by a rejection of the gospel, but by other factors. There was a party spirit, various groups in the church were vilifying the rest for various reasons: from loyalty to a favorite preacher to different opinions about what constituted Christian behavior.
And there has been much of the Corinthian type of Christian disunity in the years since as well. What is more, the better one learns the history of Christianity, the more division and disunity one finds. We tend to look back on the early centuries of Christianity, the four centuries following Pentecost, as a kind of golden age of Christian unity. We remember Tertullian’s famous statement, which he puts into the mouth of a pagan observer of Christianity, “My how those Christians love one another.” And, surely, there was such brotherly love and impressively so. But there were, within the church at the same time, bitter divisions as well, major schisms – one side furious at the other – and dirty dealing utterly unworthy of Christian brothers. Tertullian himself apparently became a member of the Montanist sect, a movement of Christians not so dissimilar to the charismatic movement of more recent times. The Montanists were also fundamentalists in their Christian ethics, even determining the exact length of the veil that women were to wear to worship. They practiced what they held to be a continuing gift of prophecy and they had female clergy. The very first regional synod known to Christian history excommunicated the Montanists and it was a movement often spoken against, though, so far as we know, Montanists held, and sincerely, to all the chief points of the Christian faith.
Then there was the great Donatist schism of the 4th and 5th centuries in North Africa, the schism that Augustine devoted his life to healing with only very partial success. As a result of that schism there were for the first time two distinct Christian denominations represented in the same towns of North Africa, both adhering to Christian orthodoxy, but which so mistrusted one another that they would hardly speak to one another, so sure they were that the other had betrayed the Christian faith.
But, then, we don’t have to go back as far as the patristic period to find a failure to live up to the superb example set for us in Acts 15. There has been far too much of this failure in our own evangelical, Reformed Presbyterian tradition, even in recent years. We have had our splits provoked by jealous personalities, our divisions over theological and ethical issues far too arcane to justify the tearing of Christ’s seamless robe.
Oliver Buswell was a great man. He was one of the youngest chaplains in the U.S. army in the First World War; caring for the wounded and dying on the battlefield, he was wounded in action in the Meuse-Argonne battle and awarded both the Purple Heart and the Silver Star. As the youngest college president in the country, he put Wheaton College on the map, raising the level of its academic reputation considerably in just a few years and tripling the size of its student body in just ten years. As a scholar he is known for many things, among others for the books he wrote, an article he published as a young man, years before he earned his PhD, that is still cited in the bibliography of the standard lexicon of NT Greek (a German work but also translated into English) in its article on the Greek word for “faith,” an article that is also referred to in the famous NT Theology of Rudolf Bultmann, or that he had large portions of the Greek New Testament memorized. But you might be unaware of the fact that he is regarded as the inventor of the term – now a commonplace in philosophy and Christian apologetics – “presuppositionalist.” [J. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 521n] You will not find the term in my 1970’s edition of the OED. It was, at the time of that edition, still too confined to a small circle of users. The libraries at both Wheaton and Covenant Theological Seminary are named for Dr. Buswell.
Buswell was a disciple of J. Gresham Machen, the leader of the conservative party in the old Northern Presbyterian Church. Like Machen he was expelled from that church for his defense of the gospel. But a year later he was a principal figure in the division of the infant church formed of the people who had left the mother church. The split that time was over whether the church would insist on teetotalism and some theological differences so minor that hardly any conservative Presbyterian thinks much about them any longer.
When I was a senior at Covenant College Dr. Buswell, now an old man and in failing health, was invited to come to speak to the student body. He made a terrific impression on us: he was so obviously a godly man, a learned man, a man coming to the end of a very consequential life. But what I remember most distinctly about Dr. Buswell on that occasion, as he spoke to college students, was his obvious regret and his public repentance for the role he had played in dividing Christians from one another and in weakening the unity of the church in 1937. His explanation was that after Dr. Machen died early that year, “the church fell into the hands of lesser men.” And, of course, he was including himself in that group of “lesser men.” No doubt Dr. Buswell had many regrets as he recollected his long life, as any Christian will. But the one he thought to mention at that time was his failure to protect the unity of the body of Christ as he might have done and should have done; his part in dividing believers from one another, believers who agreed about almost everything and differed in a few matters so inconsequential that, as issues, they have long since been forgotten by almost everyone.
Surely, if the Lord asked his heavenly Father for complete unity among his followers, we know that this is both his will and our duty. Earlier in that same prayer, he asked for our sanctification, our holiness of life. “Sanctify them in truth,” he prayed to his Father. As Paul will later say – “this is the will of God, even your sanctification” – and, clearly, it is our duty. We are all to put on holiness, to live a godly life. What Jesus prayed for, we must work for. It is as simple and inescapable as that! And part of that holiness of life is the practice of unity with our brethren, the willingness to make sacrifices in order to protect and nurture that unity, that spirit of brotherhood, always speaking and acting so as to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We can do that in our own congregation – always looking out to make harmony easier rather than more difficult – and in our interactions with Christians from other churches and other traditions – concentrating on all that we have in common and treating them as brothers and sisters. That is the summons of Acts 15. That is the beautiful example of Christian unity, preserved and practiced, in those early days. And from that came the powerful movement of conversion spreading outward from Jerusalem and Antioch to the four corners of the earth.
As Augustine said of himself and his Christian brother, Alypius, “we were washed in the same blood!” That is true of you and every other Christian, no matter the frustrating differences that may distinguish you from one another. Let your behavior demonstrate that – the words you speak, the affection, interest, respect, good will you show even to believers that are different from you in significant ways – and the world will notice. The Lord Christ said it would. The world never sees this. Never. Read your newspaper. It is our calling to be sure that it does see it and sees it where it ought to see it, in the Christian church. It won’t see it perfectly there, or anything like perfectly, but it should see it really there, and we must make it so.
As we have noticed many times before, Luke is not only giving us an early Christian history, he is teaching us the Christian life. And the Christian life is a life of loving unity with all those who confess faith in Jesus Christ!