by Steven Chan
The Word of God had spread widely and the church was growing as Paul and Barnabas had “made many disciples” and “appointed elders in every church”:-
“And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”23 So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed,” (Acts 14:21-23)
Then the Bible tells us of a conflict that arose among bible believers in the first century:-
“And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.” (Acts 15:1-2)
It was a question of what one needs to do in order to be saved. It was a bible question and it pertained to the keeping of the law of Moses and in particular, the need for circumcision:-
“ But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”(Acts 15:5)
These Pharisees were “believers” in the gospel of Jesus Christ but having been teaching the Law of Moses or the Old Covenant all this time, they were of the opinion that the Law of Moses was still in force/effect and applicable to all bible believers. Like some bible believers today, they might have reasoned that Jesus came “not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it” (Matt 5:17) and so, they surmised that all disciples of Christ must keep the law of Moses, including the need for circumcision.
The apostle Peter reasoned with the brethren thus:
“Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10).
Whilst some of the advocates of keeping the Law of Moses might have seen no incompatibility between being a believer in the gospel and keeping the Law of Moses at the same time (as after all both are from God), the apostle Peter contended that the requirement to keep the Law of Moses amounted to “testing God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear”! It was not a small irrelevant issue. It tantamount to “testing God” – an action that is forbidden by God as stated in Deut 6:16 and quoted by Jesus in Matt 4:7. It was an action that “tests God” or “puts God on trial” because it rejected what God was offering now; i.e. “that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they” (Acts 15:11). It was seeking to “put a yoke” (a “yoke of bondage” – Gal 5:1) on the disciples which was so heavy or onerous that no one had been able to bear. The yoke of Jesus “is easy and His burden is light” (Matt11:28-30).
The apostle James then spoke thus:-
“And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written” (Acts 15:15).
James turned to the Scriptures and quoted from it in support of what Peter had said. The Bible does not contradict itself; it explains itself. “Going back to the Bible” and searching for what it says was evidently a God-sanctioned practice as the disciples in Berea were commended for doing a similar thing:-
“These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
The apostles, elders and the church at Jerusalem then wrote thus:-
“We have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” —to whom we gave no such commandment…” (Acts 15:24)
The teaching requiring one to be “circumcised and keep the Law” came from some who were “from us”. Notwithstanding that some “from us” were teaching that doctrine, the apostles clarified that “we gave no such commandment”! The “some who went out from us” had taught a doctrine which was not from the apostles (this implies that only doctrines that were taught by the apostles who are authorized by Jesus were to be accepted – 1 Thess 2:13) although they had been with the apostles. Merely having been associated with the apostles does not guarantee correctness in their teaching. Such erroneous teaching have “troubled” the disciples and also “unsettled their souls”. This was not a desired outcome and the apostles had to clearly address the issue.
When the letter of clarification from the apostles was read to the disciples in Antioch, they were much encouraged:
“ When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement. 32 Now Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words.” (Acts 15:31-32)
Erroneous conflicting teachings will cause “trouble” and “unsettle the faith” of believers. But the teachings from the apostles would bring “joy” and “encouragement” as well as “strengthen” the brethren.
Please note that all these “joy, encouragement and strengthening” resulted from the letter from the apostles and the words spoken by Judas and Silas. There was no record of any direct operation of the Holy Spirit on these disciples to bring those effects. Neither were the disciples in Antioch told to “pray to God” for “enlightenment from the Holy Spirit” to understand God’s Word in this matter. The apostles relied on the teachings received from Jesus as well as reasoned from the Scriptures (“it is written”) and they instructed the disciples accordingly. Also note that they didn’t say that “each one is entitled to his own belief” as each may perceive the truth subjectively in their own hearts. There is no room for personal beliefs/opinions in such matters as pertaining to ‘the keeping of the Law’ or the need to be circumcised.
In his epistle to the disciples in Galatia, the apostle Paul wrote thus:-
“Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.3 And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. 4 You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Gal 5:2-4)
The teaching requiring one to be “circumcised and keep the Law” would result in one being “separated from Christ” and rejection from the grace of God. It is no small irrelevant matter. Some today view such matters of doctrinal disputes as a “waste of time” as in their view they “cause no serious harm” or “affect one’s spirituality”! This was not the view shared by the apostles. Paul exhorted thus:
“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.2 And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim 2:2) Let us not misunderstand the Scriptures (2 Pet 3:16-17; Matt 22:29)