Acts 15:13-21 – James and the Jerusalem Council

One of the most interesting things about the Jerusalem meeting is that it is James who appears as the key leader and is described as rendering a decision on the matter of Gentiles and the Law (Acts 15:13-21). The structure of the Jerusalem community seems to center around elders, and James appears to be the leader of this group of elders. To take up a thread from earlier in the book, the Jerusalem community is living like a new Israel. In the early history of Israel, Moses led as a prophet, but through a council of 70 elders.

council-of-jerusalemWithin this community there are some who are “more conservative” with respect to the Law, primarily Pharisees (v.5). These Pharisees accept Jesus as the Messiah, but consider the Gentiles who are coming to Christ as a result of Paul’s mission as “joining Israel.” If the community thought of itself as new Israel, then Gentiles in Paul’s churches were like Gentiles who joined Israel in the Hebrew Bible. The ought to “convert” and accept Jewish Law and practice.

Luke intends his description of the meeting in Acts 15 to show to Theophilus that the church is an orderly independent entity that functions in a way that is similar to the Greco-Roman world. A question that effects the whole is presented to an assembly, which debates that issue and makes a decision that the whole accepts (Witherington, Acts, 451). Luke describes a report from Peter and Barnabas, explaining that the Holy Spirit has come upon Gentiles as it is the Jews at Pentecost, and that miracles are being done by the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles.

James states that it is not right to “trouble” the Gentiles with the Law. The verb παρενοχλέω is rare in the New Testament, only used in this passage. It does appears in 2 Macc 11:31 in a text describing the Jews being permitted to “enjoy their own food and laws” without being troubled by the Greek authorities. In that case, the Jews were not to be “troubled” over their keeping of boundary markers like circumcision or food laws, here in Acts the Gentiles are not to have the Law imposed upon them.

The position of James in the Jerusalem council bears on the date of the writing of the Epistle of James. While this cannot be stated too dogmatically, it appears that the letter of James written before the Council as well. He is clearly writing to Jews, especially those Jews that are living outside of Palestine. He is also dealing with the same sorts of issues, how do we “keep the law” in the new age? The fact that he deals with the same language as Paul (“justified by faith”) is remarkable, as if he has heard Paul’s teaching and is trying to clarify it for the Jewish audience.

Perhaps James is the best to make the statement since he stands between the two parties, the Gentile Party represented by Paul, and the Circumcision party represented by the Pharisees. It is hard to know just how much “power” James has at this point, but the resolution seems to keep both sides happy.

Does it seem like this solution satisfies everyone? Paul never (specifically) mentions it in his letters and he continues to have trouble with Judaizers.

Acts 15:7-11 – Peter and the Yoke of the Law

YokePeter reports his experience with Gentile salvation and argues that requiring Gentiles to keep the Law is placing an unnecessary yoke upon them (Acts 15:7-11).  He first briefly reminds the assembly of his encounter with Cornelius, a conversion which was confirmed by evidence from the Holy Spirit. At the time this was a shock to Peter and his companions, as well as to the Jerusalem community. Cornelius received the Spirit before he converted to Judaism. In hindsight, this may be the reason that the Spirit comes upon him even before baptism, so that there can be no question that Cornelius was saved apart from conversion.

When Peter describes the Law as a “yoke” on the Gentiles he is not necessarily criticizing the Law. In Judaism, the idea of being “yoked” to the Law is a positive image, although there is often the implication of completeness – if you are yoked to the Law, you are required to keep it all (Bock, Acts, 501).  To live under the yoke of the Torah or yoke of Wisdom was to live as God intended!

Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under (wisdom’s) yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.

PsSol 7.8-9  For you will have compassion on the people Israel forever  and you will not reject (them); And we are under your yoke forever, and (under) the whip of your discipline.

m.Aboth 3:5 R. Nehunya b. Haqqaneh says, “From whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah do they remove the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor. And upon whoever removes from himself the yoke of the Torah do they lay the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor.”

m.Ber 2.2 Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “Why does [the passage of] Shema precede [that of] And it shall come to pass [if you keep my commandments]? So that one may first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterwards may accept the yoke of the commandments.

Despite being given the Law, Peter says the forefathers were never able to “bear the yoke.” Luke 11:46 uses a similar phrase with respect to the traditions of the Pharisees, so it is possible Peter has  “beyond the Torah” traditions in mind.  I really cannot see the requirement of circumcision for converts to Judaism  as one of these sorts of burdens, however.

What is more, Peter calls the imposition of law on the Gentiles “testing God.”  Luke used πειράζω in Acts 5:9, Sapphira “tests” the Holy Spirit.”  To “test God” is to invite disaster! Like Gamaliel’s advice to the Sanhedrin, perhaps it is better to let Paul continue rather than to be on the wrong side of God’s work in this new age. In fact, Peter has already learned God accepts Gentiles without circumcision when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius (before circumcision and before baptism!) For Peter, it is dangerous for the Jerusalem community to impose the Law on these new Gentile converts.

Peter therefore is agreeing with Paul, God saves both Jew and Gentile by faith.  But God has only given the Law to Israel, not the Gentiles. He agrees with Paul’s claim that Gentiles are not converts to Judaism, although he may stop short of agreeing that Jews and Gentiles both are converts to something new, a new people of God which Paul will later call the “body of Christ” (Eph 3:1-6). Peter is not saying that Jews ought to disregard Law, but only that Gentiles ought not be given this additional burden.

Acts 15 – Why is Circumcision So Important?

In Acts 15:2, Paul and Barnabas have a “sharp dispute” with people who have come from Jerusalem to Antioch to urge Gentile converts to submit to circumcision in order to be saved. Why was circumcision such an important issue in Acts 15? Why does Paul think it is important enough to travel to Jerusalem and discuss the matter with Peter, James, and members of the Jerusalem community who were Pharisees (Acts 15:5)?

Copy (17th century) of Garofalo, The Circumcision of Christ, 1519Circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. While the practice of circumcision itself is not unique to the Jews in the Ancient world, although some of the traditions based on the Hebrew Bible are specifically Jewish.  Circumcision is given as a sign of the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis 17, yet the ritual itself did not confer “spiritual blessing” as a sign of the covenant.  For this reason the prophets told the people that they needed a “circumcised heart – clearly a metaphorical use of the idea of circumcision (Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7, 9).

There is strong evidence that during the intertestamental period and into the first century, at least part of the Jews thought that circumcision was required for the convert to Judaism.  (See, for example, Lawrence Schiffman in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 115-156, especially 125-127.  Schiffman discusses the Talmud (Yebamot 46) and the importance of the Izates story in Josephus Antiq. 20.2.4, see this post for more details on this story).

For the Jew, circumcision was one of a handful of important boundary markers which set them apart from the rest of the world.  For the Gentile, circumcision was a strange mutilation of the flesh.  Greco-Roman writers who comment on Judaism usually ridicule the practice.  Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of (naughty) humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94).

Paul does not reject circumcision for Gentile converts for practical missionary concerns. Sometimes Paul’s Law-free Gospel for the Gentiles is described as a shrewd move on Paul’s part in order to make a Jewish religion more palatable to the Greco-Roman world. But Gentiles were attracted to Judaism in the first century. Shaye Cohen suggested several levels of attraction to Judaism, including simple admiration of Jewish life, benefaction towards Jewish synagogues, joining the Jewish community, and full conversion to Judaism (The Beginnings of Jewishness, 140-197; “Respect for Judaism by Gentiles according to Josephus,” HTR 80 (1987): 409-430). Michael Bird argued Second Temple period Jews successfully proselytized Gentiles, although Judaism was not a missionary religion (Crossing over Sea and Land, 149). If Gentiles were already attracted to Judaism and some did in fact fully convert, this may explain why Paul’s Gentile churches in Galatia were tempted to accept circumcision and other Torah practices as a part of their new faith in Jesus.

As an analogy, the evangelical Christian church has more or less accepted rock-styled praise bands as necessary to appeal to the modern world.  Most churches have (rightly) rejected the idea that worship music must be played only on a proper pipe-organ.  In most cases, this shift in worship style is motivated by a desire to stay contemporary for evangelistic reasons. This is how some see Paul’s rejection of circumcision as a entrance requirement into faith in Jesus. Richard Pervo, for example, suggested the implied reader of Acts believed Gentiles were eager to participate in the divine promises but found some practices of Judaism to be an obstacle. This is particularly true for circumcision, but Sabbath and food taboos were also considered odd in the Greco-Roman world. Pervo finds it difficult to imagine why Paul’s Gentile converts would have been receptive to Jewish practice in the light of the narrative of Acts, yet Galatians presupposes some Gentiles were tempted to fully convert to Judaism by submitting to circumcision (Pervo, Acts, 334).

Such a view makes light of the practice of circumcision in the first century. If this is the sign of Abraham’s covenant  given by God, how can it be rejected as inconsequential?  Paul does not merely call circumcision for Gentiles meaningless, he says it is dangerous.  If one allows himself to be circumcised, he is in danger of nullifying the grace of God! (See Gal 1:6-9, for example.)  Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 15 convinced that any Law added to the Gospel is no gospel at all, including circumcision.  Whatever God is doing among the Gentiles in Asia Minor (Acts 14), there is no conversion to Judaism.  Schnabel makes this point in Paul the Missionary in the context of the book of Galatians (126): “Paul insists that the Gentiles do not have to become Jews before they are accepted by God as followers of the Messiah” (emphasis added).

Perhaps my analogy to modern worship-practice is lame because music is not an essential part of the Gospel. Why is Paul so upset in Acts 15:1-2 at the suggestion Gentile converts ought to submit to circumcision?

 

 

Acts 15 – What Was the Jerusalem Council?

As Paul and Barnabas moved into new territory they evangelized the Gentiles directly. After the initial contact in a town at the synagogue, the work of evangelism focused on the Gentiles of the community. The church was expanding into areas where the Jewish Christians would not have naturally seen as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law. By Acts 15 enough Gentiles have accepted Jesus as messiah and savior that some Jewish Christians in Jerusalem argue they ought to start keeping the Law, beginning with circumcision but food taboos (implied from decision in Acts 15:24-29; but see also the situation in Galatians 2:1-11-15).

We know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-Fearer. Peter was hesitant to do so, and after he returns to Jerusalem the Jewish Christians there question Peter closely about why he had entered into the house of a Gentile. Peter appears to have understood that salvation was moving into the Gentile world. But Paul was doing more than preaching to God-Fearers in the synagogues who were keeping most of the Law in the first place. He was preaching the gospel to Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to keep the Law in order to be saved. This means that they did not have to worry about Jewish food laws or circumcision, two of the most fundamental boundary markers for the Jew in the first century.

Not Like This

Not Like This

Until Paul reached out to Sergius Paulus in Cyprus, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. People who were accepting Jesus in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law. They remained fully “Jewish” in every sense other than they believed the resurrected Jesus is the Messiah.T hey appear to have maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and they continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. This conflict In Acts 15 between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatians primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians, Colossians; Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age).

Acts 15:1 indicates some people came from Jerusalem to Antioch and said “unless you are circumcised according to the customs taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This means a Gentile God-fearer like Cornelius must fully convert to Judaism in order to be a real follower of Jesus. This group of Jewish Christians are usually called the Judaizers, although scholars working on Galatians call them “the agitators” or simply “Paul’s opponents.” Since Galatians implies these opponents were sent by the Jerusalem community, some scholars call them the “men from James” (Gal 2:11-12, sometimes using the modifier “allegedly”).

From the book of Galatians it is clear Paul told his Gentile converts they ought not submit to circumcision since they were not under the old covenant. In fact, there is neither Jew nor Gentile in this new age. Gentiles were not converting to a form of Judaism, nor are Jews rejecting Judaism and becoming Gentiles. For Paul, what is happen is something new and radical, God is accepting both Jew and Gentile by faith apart from the works of the Law. (See this post on whether Galatians was written before or after Acts 15). The relationship between Paul’s Galatian opponents and the “certain men” who traveled to Antioch to tell Gentiles circumcision was required is complicated; for now it is important to observe there are some Jewish believers in Jesus who understand this new movement as a kind of reform movement within Second Temple Judaism and not a new religion.

In his commentary on Acts, Darrell Bock makes the excellent observation that this “council” ought to be called a “consultation” since it is not like the later church councils which decide doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although (in my view) Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his teaching that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to be approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community. Rather, Paul reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” appear accept Paul’s position on the issue.

What is at stake in the Jerusalem Council? We know the Jerusalem community agrees with Paul that Gentiles ought to be free from the “yoke of the Law” as Peter puts it (15:16), but there are some issues which will cause friction in Christian communities with both Jewish and Gentile believers. What are the implications for Paul’s mission if the Jerusalem community disagreed with his law-free Gospel for the Gentiles?

Acts 14:8-18 – Paul and Pagans

When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, Paul heals a man who was crippled in the feet.  This miracle in intentionally parallel to Peter’s healing in Acts 3, although the results are much different!  In both cases, the man is crippled from birth (3:2, 14:8), in both cases the man responds to his healing by “leaping” (3:6, 14:9), and in both cases the verb “look intently” is used (13:4, 14:9).  While these seem like common enough vocabulary for such a healing, these words are only used in these two stories in Acts, indicating some intentionality on Luke’s part. In both cases, there has been a paradigmatic speech and then a miracle, with both positive and negative reactions to the miracles and the speech.  Eventually that reaction will turn violent, threatening the lives of the Peter (in Acts 4-5) and Paul (who appears to have been killed!)

However, the setting of the two miracles could not be more different.  In Acts 3, the miracle takes place in the temple courts, Paul is in a Gentile town which is more likely to believe he is Hermes incarnate than a representative of the Hebrew God!  When Paul was among Jews in Iconium he did many miracles and saw great success.  The working of a miracle among the Gentiles of Lystra is counter-productive and results in Paul being stone and left for dead.

There is only the briefest hint at the sort of “sermon” Paul might have preached to this crowd.  This is unfortunate, since this is the first time in Acts that Paul addresses a pagan audience.  Often Paul’s speech in Acts 17 at Mars Hill is set up as an example of Paul’s method of reaching the Gentile world, rarely is this speech in Acts 14.

Paul states that there is a living God, as opposed to the worthless idols that never show their power. Like Acts 17, Paul does not allude to the many acts of God in the Hebrew Bible.  Rather, he uses God’s preservation of men through the giving of rain and crops as an example of his power.  This might be called “general revelation,” since the crowd would neither know about the God of the Hebrew Bible, nor would they care what he did for the Jews.

But Paul is not giving up on the biblical story at all in this sermon.  He begins with God’s creation and provision.  He says that he represents the creator, something which this group can understand within their own world view, but Paul uses the language of Genesis (the heaven, the earth, and the sea, along with everything in them).

But notice that Paul more or less attacks the gods of Lystra: they are worthless things.  This is even more powerful when you realize that the priests of Zeus have brought out bulls to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas.  Paul could very well be pointing at these prepared sacrifices when he says, “worthless idols.”  The noun used here (μάταιος) means that these idols and their sacrifices “lack  truth” and it is pointless to worship them because they are not true at all!

This does not sound very modern or emergent to me. . .how can this brief sermon of Paul be used as a model for contemporary evangelism?  Should we directly attack another world view as “worthless”?  Or perhaps Paul learns something from this “failure” and changes the way he approaches the “pagans” later on in his ministry.

Acts 14:8-10 – Preaching to the Pagans

[This is Adam Renberg’s second contribution to the blog. Adam is an Advanced Studies in Acts student this semester.]

After Paul’s preforms the miracle in Acts 14:8-10, he is met with an unanticipated response from the crowd. While miracles have been used to authenticate prophets in the Jewish context, the case was very direct in a pagan society. Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes, and the priests and worshipers bring out a procession of animals to sacrifice to them. Apparently Paul and Barnabas did not speak the Lycaonian language, as they did not stop them until they saw the sacrificial animals being brought to them, where they quickly refuted the claim that they were gods.

In 14:14-15, they tear their clothing, shout that they are only men and not gods in disguise, and begin to preach a short but unique sermon. Paul starts this discourse in saying that they have good news (the gospel) and that they should turn from “worthless idols” to the living God. This is obviously a very bold move, as the priest of Zeus and his followers were apparently directly in front of them. To call this group of gods “worthless idols” is a deep stab at their worldview, on a political, economic, and philosophical level. As the polytheistic way of life was so ingrained in Graeco-Roman culture (everyone at that time believed in the gods), a challenge to follow the one true God and turn away from idols would be offensive to say the least (it also makes it seem more apparent as to why Paul was stoned).

Paul continues in declaring who the one true God is, as the maker of “heaven and earth and the sea and everything in them.” Paul does not appeal to any scriptures through this sermon (as the Lycaonians would not have known them), but still uses the language of Genesis.  He declares in Vs. 17 that God has left testimony to this creation through the rain and crops, giving food and ultimately joy.

This would have been directly applicable to this city, as the main occupation would have been agricultural, so most of the audience could have been able to relate to this statement. While it is a direct appeal, it could also be considered a challenge against their pagan gods as they worshiped and underwent rituals and sacrifices for rain to their Greek gods. In this sense, Paul is not only calling their gods worthless, but also telling them that the gods that they depended on for the sustaining of crops and foods don’t actually do anything, that the one true God has been sustain their lives and crops from the beginning.

An interesting element of this sermon is that neither Jesus nor the cross is mentioned in any capacity. While it is possible that this is a summary or portion of a larger discourse by Paul, you would have assumed to see some trace of the Savior. This passage (as well as the similar Acts 17 sermon) has been long used in showing that in a missional sense, we need to meet people where they are. The pagans knew nothing of a monotheistic worldview, so Paul had to start from the ground up before he declared the cross of Christ.  In comparison to Acts 17, where Paul used stronger vocabulary and philosophical rhetoric when talking to the Athenian council, he chose simpler language to engage with his less educated audience in Acts 14.

While there can be missiological applications from this passage, should it be used as a main passage in talking missionary strategy? What was Paul’s missionary strategy when it came to Lystra in Acts 14:8-20?

Acts 14:8-10 – A Healing in Lystra

[This post was written by Adam Renberg, one of my “Advanced Studies in Acts” students. They are helping teach my undergrad Acts class a few times this semester, so I thought I would give them “guest blogger” status.]

In Acts 14:8-10, we see the first recorded miracle of Paul’s ministry as he heals a paralytic. This man, who was crippled from birth, was healed after he listened to Paul speak (presumably a sermon). Paul then calls to him to stand up, where he jumps up and starts to walk. While this is an astounding miracle, this type of miracle does not seem to be unique to Paul and his ministry. One very similar miracle account, recorded by Luke, can be found in Acts 3:1-10.

st-paul-healing-the-cripple-at-lystraIn this pericope, Peter and John are at the temple gate and heal a man who was also lame from birth. The similarities are as follow: Both start with a cripple, lame from birth (3:2, 14:8); Both Apostles stare at the cripples (3:4, 14:9); Both Cripples leapt up (3:6, 14:9). Many commentators see the parallels of these two passages as intentional comparisons by Luke to make a statement about the authority and ministry of Paul and Peter.

While the comparisons are obvious, there are also some large differences. In Peter’s case, he preforms the miracle in Jerusalem on a Jewish man, preaching to a Jewish audience (they would not let Gentiles into the temple gates). In Acts 14, the cripple and audience are completely Gentile at this point. In Acts 3, the healed man praises God, while the man in Acts 14 doesn’t have any recorded praise. Lastly, Paul doesn’t use the name of Jesus during his miracle, although he more than likely used it when talking to the paralytic before his healing.

Comparisons are often made between Peter and Paul for this account, but this type of miracle found its roots in Jesus. In Luke 5:17-26, we find another healing of a lame man. In this case, the man’s friends bring him to Jesus by lowering him into the house, where Jesus forgives his sins and tells him to “get up and walk.” While there are more similarities and differences in this passage, one of the most important phrases used is “when Jesus saw their faith,” where Jesus heals them because of their faith. This phrase, and its variations (such as, “your faith has made you well”) is very Lukan, not unlike Matthew’s use of “Kingdom of Heaven.”

With this in mind, what was Luke’s purpose in recording Paul’s miracle in Acts 14? If Luke intentionally compared it to Peter’s Miracle in Acts 3, it would seem that Luke is trying to compare Peter and Paul’s ministry to present validity and purpose to both of their missions. As it is the first recorded miracle of both Peter and Paul, one could argue that Luke was demonstrating that God ordained each of these men’s ministries. But as Peter’s miracle and sermon were successful in this passage, Paul’s seems to be a “failure” with little to no converts, and a stoning.

One the other hand, is it possible that Luke (in Luke 5) was alluding to Jesus when he uses the miracle account in Acts 14 to echo Jesus’ voice? Like Paul, Jesus was met with amazement, but also opposition from the Pharisees… the same party who more than likely sent the Jews to Lystra to stone Paul. If this were Luke’s intention, he would be giving Paul even more authority in comparing him directly to Jesus, making it obvious from whom Paul received his calling.

The last option is that Luke was not trying to allude to any other passages of scripture, and simply liked the phrase “your faith has made you well” when recounting miracles. He may have used a specific methodology for miracles, and all of these accounts fell under that “template.”

Do you think that Luke was trying to create allusions and comparisons between the ministry of Paul and Peter? Or Jesus? If this were the case, what should we infer from this comparison today?