Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 2)

It happened about two decades — only half a generation — after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Church was facing an identity crisis that threatened to tear the body apart. Some were claiming that God was leading them in an unprecedented and radically new direction. Others were saying that it could not be, because that direction violated the clear, absolute commands of the Bible. Tensions had been flaring for several years. The conflict exploded about 50 A.D., and the top leaders of the Church gathered in Jerusalem to weigh the arguments and render a decision.

To feel the full impact of what happened at the Jerusalem Council, we need to read history forward, not backward. From our present vantage point, we already know how it turned out. With twenty centuries of church history and theology behind us, the “correct” course of action seems perfectly obvious. But at that meeting, the outcome was far from certain. Church members were genuinely confused, and faithful servants of God had staked out positions on both sides. Try to put aside what you already know and stand in the shoes of those who were there. Weigh the arguments as fairly as you can, and honestly ask yourself the question, “If I were at the Jerusalem Council, what would I have been thinking, and what decision would I have made?”

About five years earlier, Paul and Barnabas were sent out from Antioch to carry the gospel to other places (Acts 13:1-3). Whenever they entered a city, they looked for a Jewish community and went to the synagogue. For them, this was not a matter of practicality but of theology. Paul understood that the Jews were God’s chosen people, those whom God had specially prepared to receive the gospel and bear it to the world. So Paul made it a point to always preach to the Jews first (Ro 1:16).

Diaspora Jews had settled throughout the world, and Greek-speaking Gentiles took notice of them. Quite a few Greeks were attracted to Judaism. They could see that it bred sincerity, piety and virtue. But Greeks found it extremely difficult to convert, and for good reason. To convert meant, first of all, that a man had to be circumcised. Circumcision was the sign of entering God’s family, and it was considered non-negotiable. To refuse circumcision was to be cut off from God’s people (Gen 17:14). Second, the new convert had to commit to keeping the law of Moses. Faithful keeping of the law would radically change every aspect of one’s personal and public life. Law-abiding Jews could not freely associate with non-Jews. They could not entire a Gentile’s house without becoming unclean, and to eat with a Gentile would become unthinkable (Acts 11:3). If a Gentile actually converted to Judaism, it would effectively cut him off from his friends and his family (unless they converted too), and it would pull him out of the community he had known all his life. For this reason, there were many Gentiles who were “sitting on the fence.” They were attracted to Judaism and loved the teachings of the Bible. But they found it impossible to take that final step of conversion; the personal, social cost was just too high. These Gentiles were called “God fearers” (e.g., Acts 13:26). Nearly every synagogue had at least some Gentile God-fearers who came regularly and sat in a place that had been specially reserved for them.

When Paul and Barnabas would enter a synagogue and speak about Jesus, the response of the Jews would be tepid and mixed. But to the God-fearing Gentiles, the message was sweet music in their ears. They were amazed to learn that God would accept them as they were. By grace alone they could be welcomed into his kingdom if they put their trust in Jesus Christ. Coming to Jesus did not require them to sever their relationships or give up their cultural identity. This teaching created such a stir among God-fearers that enormous crowds of Gentiles would show up at the synagogue to hear the Apostle Paul. When the Jews saw great hordes of Gentiles pouring into the synagogue, they felt terrified and threatened (Acts 13:44-45). They realized that if what Paul was saying was true — that the door of salvation was now open to anyone by faith in Jesus Christ alone — then their faith community would be overrun by people with lifestyles radically different from theirs. These new believers, with their worldly customs and lenient attitudes, might cause community standards of holiness to slip. The synagogue leaders knew they would lose control. It would spell the end of the synagogue as they knew it.

The predictable result was that, when Paul preached in a synagogue, most of the Jews and especially the leaders would reject the gospel message. But large numbers of Gentiles would receive it with joy. The new believers in Christ would have to leave the synagogue and meet somewhere else, setting up their own faith community nearby. Very soon after the new church was established, Paul would appoint leaders and elders and leave the matter of running the church to them. He would hug them and say goodbye and go on to a new place. But he would continue to pray for them and stay in touch through occasional letters and visits.

After Paul’s departure, however, many questions would arise. At the heart of them all was one huge question: What were the ethical implications of the gospel? The gospel placed everyone under the Lordship of Christ. To follow Christ was to be called out from the old ways of sin to a new life of holiness and obedience in love. (The Greek word ekklesia, which we translate as “church,” literally means “called out.”) Everyone could agree on that in principle. But what was the new community supposed to look like? How were Christians actually supposed to live? The converts who knew the Scriptures best were the Jewish Christians who had studied the Bible all their lives. They had strong notions about what constituted a holy and pious life. With their strong cultural identity and superior knowledge of the Bible, it was inevitable that Jewish expressions of devotion and piety would begin to emerge as the multicultural church struggled to define itself. Those expressions would be reinforced by church leaders who visited from Jerusalem, the birthplace of the gospel and the center of Jewish Christianity.

So within just a few years, or even a few months, this idea began to take hold: The Gentile converts ought to be circumcised.

This idea was opposed by Paul from the beginning. But other leaders were not so sure. No one had worked out a coherent theology of how the gospel was supposed to interact with human culture. Friendships and loyalties were severely tested as different opinions swirled about. Even the Apostle Peter and Barnabas had been pressured and swayed by those who claimed that uncircumcised believers were not full members of the Christian fellowship (Gal 2:11-14).

As the tensions and tempers began to flare, I have no doubt that believers began to ask, “What does the Bible have to say?” Perhaps the wisest among them were saying, “Let’s go back to the Bible.” And others would have appealed to WWJD: “What would Jesus do?” Or better yet, “What would Jesus have us do?” Surely they were asking the apostles, “Did Jesus ever say anything about this?” It is likely that none of the gospels and none of the epistles, except possibly Paul’s letter to the Galatians, had been written by this time. Believers must have combed through the Old Testament and the oral traditions of Jesus with great sincerity, looking for clues and divine guidance. As they did so, what would they have found?

Try to put yourself in their shoes. Try to erase from your mind — and from your Bible — everything that comes after Acts chapter 14. Suppose you had been asked to render an opinion on what the biblically correct position is. Suppose that you were chosen for this task because you have extensive knowledge of the Scriptures. Therefore it is likely that you are a Jewish Christian, a circumcised male and keeper of the law. You place great value on spiritual disciplines such as daily prayer and Bible reading, because those disciplines have kept you grounded in faith since you were a child. Factor in your personality and how you have approached similar situations in your own life thus far. Factor in your beliefs about the authority of Scripture, how you feel about your own group’s religious traditions and spiritual heritage, your ideas about holiness (remember: holy can mean “separate”), the need to maintain ethical and moral principles and standards, and your understanding of the Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20).

Be honest, and don’t peek at Acts chapter 15. What do you think you would have done?


  1. The disciples could not consult the Old Covenant on this unique New Covenant situation…but they still had the teaching of Jesus to guide them. Jesus said in Matt 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” And Paul later said, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

    So since Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses in himself and when he died the Temple curtain tore in two, I would hope that had I been at the Council, I would have seen this to mean that all could come to him without becoming Jews first…but thats easy to say two thousand years after the fact!

    • David, thanks for your reflection. Those words of Paul  from Galatians 5:6 may have been penned  before or  after the Jerusalem Council. But even if they had been known at that time, it is not given that they would be regarded as authoritative. Paul was a main party to the dispute; the whole purpose of the Jerusalem Council was to decide whether Paul’s view was correct.

      I’d wager  that Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:17 were a major  issue of discussion at the council. Those words, “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” aren’t  so easy to interpret. Couldn’t they be taken to mean that followers of Jesus should not disregard the law but obey the law from their hearts as Jesus did?

      As you point out: With 2000 years of Christian history behind us, it’s so easy to underestimate how truly difficult it was — and how truly difficult it still is — to understand  many of the  basic teachings of Jesus. When we read the Bible, we do so through the lenses of modern evangelicalism. It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we are reading the Bible plainly and simply, interpreting  everything just as it is and coming to the right answer all by ourselves. None of us can do that.  In our struggle to see and understand Jesus, we all must stand on the shoulders of giants, beginning with the personal knoweldge and witness of the apostles.

    • One more thought. The temple was the place that sacrifices were offered. The tearing of the curtain on Good Friday signified, among other things, that the period of bloody animal sacrifice was over. But the sacrifices persisted for another  15 years or so after the council until the temple was destroyed in 70 AD.  After the  resurrection of Jesus, his  followers spent considerable time at the temple. They participated in public prayer and worship there. They may have even persisted in acrifices and offerings, as Paul himself did  according to  Acts 21:26.

    • david bychkov

      And even now, when we do have whole Bible, it is not really easy to resalve this questions about low. If so why do we have so many groups who are holding the lows – even circumsicion and even rules of food, not to say about different things like – head-dresses, skirts, baptism with full submersion and so on (I don’t wont to offend anyone here). And even many christians who are not doing this still do not really know what is the purpose of the low. it still confusing for them.

    • At first I  was confused by David Bychkov’s comment.    When he says “low” I believe he means “law.”

    • david bychkov

      yes, sure. sorry and thanks for correction.

  2. I have no clue, good head-scratcher though. David L, you said that they had the words of Jesus, but how do we know they have specifically Matt 5:17? What if they had just heard Mark’s version or Luke’s version? Is there a comparable passage in the other gospels? I did a quick run though of the gospels and didn’t see anything (I said quick so I probably did miss it if it’s there). I’m sure it was hard for the Jews to hear that they didn’t have to be so rigid about a code their people had had to follow for the past thousand (or two?) years or so.

  3. I am assuming that many of them were actually there when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount…

  4. Joshua Yoon

    According to Joe’s instruction, I was not to  peek at Acts 15 and further chapters. But our chapter are in the middle of Acts studies and covered up to chap 23. So I will try to put aside the recent learnings and think from the persective of Jerusalem council. If I  were a traditional Jew who upholds the Mosaic laws and  the value of  circumcision (in a physical sense), I would be on the side of  those who would be  resist  to welcome the Gentiles Christians  as brothers and sisters in Christ unless they are circumcised. Circumcision  had been  pivotal to their identity as God’s covenant people for thousands of years. Including the “uncircumcised” in their genealogy was unthinkable to most Jews. Breaking away from the custom and traditon built just over a few decades is not easy. When the gospel travels across the culture and ethnicity, the recepients do not just receive the gospel alone, but usually the culture and practices and traditions of the deliverers. In retrospect to quater century missionary life in North America, I acknowledge myself not so different from the traditional Jews. It was only until a few years ago that I had no keen sense of the way I had served the ministry. I am reminded of one incident which shows a slice of the ways we missionaries treated North Americans whom we tried to help to grow as disciples of Jesus. One student seemed to be growing well. At one regional conference, this person had a long hair which was pretty atypical among UBF  members and missionaries. He was supposed to deliver an evening message. Then senior leaders advised him to cut his long hair before delivering the message  as an expresstion to obey  God and decision to be an inlfuential leader. He accepted the advice and had his long hair cut. Many leaders including myself rejoinced at his decision of “faith”. No one objected it. It was celebrated. Later this person had some struggles and left the ministry. I don’t know how this involuntary haircut incident  affected his identity or commitment within the UBF which bears its own ministry culture mixed with Korean culture. This is only one example.  I wonder if it was necessay to help this person to change his hairstyle to learn obedience to God. It took  more than 20 years to begin to acknowledge the serious impact of my own culture and the ministry’s culture and practices on the gospel ministry among North Americans. The longer in the ministry or in the ethnic community, the harder to lay down our own culture and tradtions. It is pretty understandable why the Jews resisted the obvious work of God among the Gentiles and opposed Paul. Unless their hearts and eyes were opened by the work of the Holy Spirit, it  was not easy to break a long history of valuing Moses’ laws and circumcision and their pride grounded in their faithful observance of “God’s will.” It would be the same with any church or group. UBF is not exceptional.

  5. Joe, i love your thought-provoking questions.

    If i had been Jew back then who had studied OT scriptures extensively and who was then converted to Christianity i would have probably opposed the decision of the Jerusalem Council. The decision of the Jerusalem council is so radical and so drastically counter-cultural to Jewish customs that i probably wouldn’t have been able to bear the stretch.  So, thank God, that i wasn’t there back then. :)

    My question is though: can the situation at the Jerusalem Council be applied to us one-to-one? I cheated and i peeked. :) The Jerusalem Council explicitly mentioned that it pleased the Holy Spirit not to burden Gentile Christians with mosaic laws, which made the mosaic covenant obsolete and irrelevant for Gentiles. It is the same Holy Spirit who not too long after these events inspired all the NT authors to write and finish the rest of the bible. To me it seems that their situation was a particular one that one should be careful with comparisons to our situation…

    (by which i don’t want to say that this passage doesn’t teach great principles concerning the Holy Spirit.)

    • Hi Henoch. You are anticipating some of the questions that are coming. This series of articles is not finished yet. There  are many  surprises to come

      I think that every story in the Bible is a particular one, and a one-to-one correspondence with any situation that we face today should never be assumed. That’s why it is unwise, for example,  to read what Paul says about women being silent in church and automatically assume that this is a law or principle that must be applied today.  Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. That needs to be considered very carefully. I will say more about this in the upcoming articles.

    • All right. I will be looking forward then! :)

  6. great question. From a jewish perspective i would have advocated circumcision, but from a gentile view i would not. Could you say the same thing about how missionaries view “ubf spiritual legacy/heritage” vs say a ‘second gen’ or native shep?

  7. Joe Schafer

    Andrew, I believe that ubf absolutely needs to think about how the early church clarified its understanding of circumcision and law in light of the gospel.

    The central question — what does one actually have to do in order to become one of God’s people? — was the driving force behind Paul’s letters to Galatians, Romans and Ephesians. It is a dominant theme in the New Testament. If the apostles had not decided this issue correctly, then the gospel could not have spread to the Gentile world as it did.

    Requiring people to be circumcised to join the church was wrong. It was more than just a bad practice. It was a fundamental denial of the gospel. That’s why Paul opposed it so passionately.

    It is my view that many of the practices that ubf leaders have traditionally imposed upon members are unnecessary and damaging to the gospel witness. These practices may have been helpful for some at certain times, just as circumcision was good for some at certain times. But to claim them as principles that should always be followed as the secret to success — as ubf leaders have often done — is foolhardy and wrong. Unfortunately, it seems to me that some ubf leaders love those practices and heritage more than they love Jesus and the gospel. (They may even think those practices *are* the gospel.)

    A couple of years ago, I was asked to prepare some Bible study material for the North American senior staff on Acts chapter 15, so that we could discuss these questions openly. But a few weeks before the meeting was to take place, the plan was nixed.