Saturday 14 May 2011

Bible Book:

"Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.' And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them." (vv. 1-2a)

Acts 15:1-6 Saturday 14 May 2011


This passage is a painful clash of two cultures within the earlyChurch. The expansion of the new faith from Judaism into theGentile (non-Jewish) world raised huge issues of identity. TheJudean church did not deny the possibility of Gentiles being savedbut they insisted that they had to be circumcised. For centuries,going back to Abraham (Genesis17:9-14), this had been the external mark of belonging to God'scovenant people. The Judean Christians argued that to be a followerof the Jewish Messiah required obedience to this ancient covenanttradition. But Paul and Barnabas disagreed. Access to this newcovenant they believed was through faith and not by externalritual.

The argument became deep and entrenched. Luke (the Gospel writerand author of Acts) says that there was a sharp dispute and debatebetween the two parties. Neither group was prepared to step down.For both the principle that they cherished overrode the threatposed to unity.

To resolve the issue, the Gentile Antioch church sent Paul andBarnabas to the elders of the Jerusalem church. Because of theirhistory and leadership, the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem wereperceived to be the only ones able to resolve the issue. Theirinitial reaction was to welcome them with joy, but they soon had avery difficult decision to make. The reality was that they were notgoing to be able to please every one. Any decision was going tooffend one party. It would appear that being a leader in the earlyChurch must have been at times very difficult.

Luke makes the fault line between the two tectonic plates veryclear. Twice in five verses he repeats the nub of the issue (verses1 and 5). For Luke this was a pivotal moment. He places itsymbolically at the centre of Acts. Everything now turns on thedecision. The stakes were very high. He knew that for the earlyChurch and those that would later read his book, much turned onthis moment.

To Ponder

Both sides of the circumcision debate believedthat they were right and refused to budge. What are the things overwhich you will not budge?

Jonathan Sacks the chief rabbi said, "The Jewishpeople love a leader but they don't always like to be led"? To whatextent is this true in Methodism and other groups you know? How canyou support leaders when they face tough decisions?

If you had lived in the time of early Churchwould you have been a moderniser like Paul and Barnabas or atraditionalist like the Judeans? What are the strengths andweaknesses of both?

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