Sabbath School Lesson for August 18-24, 2018
After a two-year missionary trip to Cyprus and Asia, Paul and Barnabas were reunited with their brethren in Syrian Antioch, who had supported their mission to these Gentile lands. During this time, reports of their unusual successes had been received by the believers in Jerusalem.
These accounts caused many Jewish Christians, including the apostles, to struggle with the idea of accepting these new Christians, who in most cases, had not received the rite of circumcision. In addition, they were not observing other Jewish celebrations and ceremonies, prescribed in the law of Moses.
When delegates from Jerusalem began arriving in Antioch, it was clear that this was no small obstacle for the new Christian church. Arguments on both sides of the controversy were compelling, so it was thought wise for Paul and Barnabas, among others, to go to Jerusalem. It was important for the apostles and Jewish believers to hear firsthand reports about the works and miracles of repentance which marked the ministry to the Gentiles in these faraway places.
Memory Text: ” ‘We believe it is through grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.’ “ Acts 15:11 NIV
It was Peter who first got the attention of the Jerusalem Council by reminding them that we are all saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter, who received direct instruction from God about this matter through a vision and his witness of Cornelius’ repentance, seemed to be leaning on the side of Paul, the newly-recognized apostle to the Gentiles.
The findings of this special Council would prove the turning point in the continued growth of the Christian church. The worldwide mission to spread the gospel depended on the answers they received from the Holy Spirit. The gospel they preached was what was in jeopardy here, as Paul did not hesitate to remind them.
The question of “What must I do to be saved?” was literally on the line, requiring the Jews to be wary of the answers given to these newly-baptized Gentile believers.
Sunday: The Point at Issue
There had been both Hellenistic Jews and uncircumcised Gentile believers worshiping in Antioch without conflict, prior to this time. So, it was disappointing that Judaizers, as they were called, came to the Antioch church from Jerusalem, sowing seeds of discord about the issue of circumcision.
Paul saw the threat this disruption could have on their ongoing mission to reach the world. It would not only affect the unity of the church, but the gospel message that they had been told was for everyone, not just the Jews.
These Judaizers, many of them Pharisees, were called troublemakers and false brethren by Paul. See Galatians 1:8, 2:4, and 5:10. He was particularly concerned about their legalistic approach and that the Gentile converts would be negatively impacted by their insistence on circumcision before they could be have a relationship with the Jewish community, or even with God.
Read Acts 11:19-21 and Galatians 2:11-13. How do these verses portray the diversity evident in the church at Antioch? What are some benefits of living in a diverse population? What are some drawbacks?
Read Acts 15:1-5. What seems to be the main issue for both the Jews and the Gentiles that caused for a council to be called in Jerusalem?
Read Genesis 17:9 and Exodus 12:48. Why were these “proof texts” valuable arguments for the Judaizers? Why was experience (seeing Gentiles receive the Spirit) also necessary in determining Bible truth?
No one can deny that circumcision was God’s plan to signify the covenant He had established with the descendants of Abraham. As long as Israel complied with the provisions of the covenant, God would bless their nation and make them His agent for evangelizing the world through the Messiah.
One purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to inform the Jews that they were not complying with those provisions. They were not keeping God’s commandments with their whole heart, as God had passionately invited them to do. The rite of circumcision had lost its significance, as God shifted the ministry to the Christian church and sent the Holy Spirit to bless the Gentiles through the efforts of apostles like Paul.
The confusion rose from the tendency of the Jews to feel that simply being circumcised and meticulously keeping all the commandments guaranteed their salvation. Something that was only meant to show a covenant relationship with God was misused to bolster their national pride.
Paul was adamant in defying these Judaizers and refusing to let them pervert the gospel message with their legalistic thinking. People, Jews and Gentiles alike, in the Old Testament and the New, are saved by grace alone. Not by circumcision or any other human effort or activity, no matter how noble or righteous.
Paul’s reasoning made sense. If you were saved by circumcision, why would you need a Messiah? See Galatians 2:21.
Read Jeremiah 4:4, Deuteronomy 10:16, and 30:6. What does it mean to have the heart circumcised?
Read 1 Corinthians 7:18 and Galatians 5:6. How did Paul feel about circumcision?
Read Galatians 1:7, 2:21, and 5:1-3, 6. How was insisting on circumcision a perversion of the gospel in Paul’s eyes? How are we really saved?
Tuesday: The Debate
The fact that God allowed foreigners to join the ranks of Israelites through circumcision showed that God was looking for something more than our ancestry, even before the time of Christ. He wanted as many as would love Him to be accepted into His family.
The rite of baptism today indicates our choice to follow God, just as the rite of circumcision showed their choice back then. But neither action provides our salvation. They merely allow us to testify of our salvation and our desire to be in a covenant relationship with Him.
This debate on the surface may seem easy for us to grasp. The Christian church, for years now, has fallen on the side of proclaiming salvation by faith alone. But in reality, no matter what one’s denomination or church affiliation, we find ourselves unwittingly adding to a growing list of “have-to’s” and “do not’s”, in order to feel we are saved.
When this legalistic tendency (adding to the law) is examined closely, however, we will usually find pride entering the picture. The focus shifts from God to one’s self or to the law.
It’s our pride that makes us want to do something to merit God’s grace. Just as it was pride that caused the Jews to promote circumcision. They were proud to be Jews. In the same fashion, we often feel the need to parade our righteousness before God or others, instead of acknowledging that God’s righteousness alone saves us.
Read Acts 15:6-11. How had Peter’s previous dream and experience with Cornelius prepared him to take this stand with Paul?
Read Acts 15:12, 13, Galatians 1:19, Acts 1:13, 14, and 12:2. Who was James, who spoke after Peter at the Council? Who was James, who had been martyred by King Agrippa?
Read Acts 15:14-17. Why was James’ contribution, including the reading of the Scriptures, important in turning their Jewish minds in the right direction?
Wednesday: The Apostolic Decree
The Jewish believers seem to have been won by the argument that it is only by God’s grace that any of us are saved. Therefore, circumcision, or any other rite or ceremony, does not provide us with any security, when it comes to our salvation. In addition, God’s obvious impartiality in this matter was demonstrated by bestowing on uncircumcised Gentiles the same spiritual gifts, as they had received at Pentecost.
Therefore, the final result of their findings was recorded as a decree to be read to the Christian church in Antioch and elsewhere. It focused on only a few simple requirements that pertained to paganism. Each of the requirements listed was designed to sever their ties with pagan religions. Such a stand was needed, in order to fully come fully into the Christian faith.
Here are issues that were deemed necessary, as listed in the decree. They were to abstain from…
- “things offered to idols”
- “things strangled”
- “sexual immorality”
Read Acts 15:28, 29, . How was the Holy Spirit involved in the decisions made at the Jerusalem Council?
Read Leviticus 18:30, and 1 John 2:15. Why was it necessary for take a firm stand against paganism, when one wanted to become a Christian? Would this also apply to taking a stand against worldliness today? How do you define “the things in the world” that we are not to love?
Read Revelation 2:14, 20. How has paganism continued to plague the world? How do worldly practices lead to a worship of Satan, without even a person’s acknowledgment of Satan’s authority or existence? How do they lead a person away from God?
Thursday: The Letter From Jerusalem
The decree was written in 49 A.D., which is probably the date of the Jerusalem Council as well. It represents one of the earliest Christian documents, and confirms the importance of the Jerusalem church in the Christian world at that time. The leadership of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem was considered official in the eyes of believers everywhere.
In order for full disclosure and accountability, two delegates from Jerusalem were sent to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. There would be no question about the authenticity of the findings of the Jerusalem Council. The written decree was verified by the spoken witness of Judas and Silas, chosen brethren who accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their trip back to the Antioch church. They were qualified to help explain the newly-determined requirements that were deemed essential for the Gentile converts.
The requirements of the decree were perceived favorably by the Gentile believers. They were encouraged by the news brought back to them by their beloved evangelists, Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:31). It seemed reasonable to expect new believers to break ties with their pagan background and not participate in those practices any more. After all, Jesus Himself said you cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).
All seemed well and good for the time being. Paul and Barnabas had even received the right hand of fellowship from their Jerusalem brethren while there, indicating the trust that was placed in them to bring the gospel to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:9). Later, however, an incident involving Peter’s acceptance of the Gentiles was brought into question. Read about it in Galatians 2:11-14.
This unfortunate circumstance shows us that agreeing with something verbally is often followed by difficulties in practice. Our loyalty to God is tested moment by moment, and we must always look to God for guidance, as we strive to serve Him. No man, even one as spiritually-gifted as Peter, is above making grievous mistakes.
Read Acts 15:22-29. Why were two delegates sent back with Paul and Barnabas? What did their presence mean? What were they expected to do?
Read Acts 15:30-33. How was the decree received in Antioch?
Read Galatians 2:11-14 and 1:6. Why is it easier to preach the truth than it is to live it?
The decision made at the Jerusalem Council was nothing short of a miracle. It illustrated how God moved the heart of a people, the Jews, and guided them into thinking about the Gentile world with totally different eyes.
The apostles and their Jewish brethren had ample Scriptural evidence for believing that every new Christian should be circumcised. But Jesus had been trying to make them understand their faulty thinking about their Gentile friends.
Through various experiences and evidence, they were led to see that the gospel was for everyone. Their salvation did not depend on their national heritage at all. God’s grace was sufficient for the whole world. There was nothing they could do, no commandment they could keep, that would even come close to allowing them to enter God’s Kingdom. The price for our salvation had been paid at Calvary.
Thinking about the Advent Movement that took place in the 1800s, under the ministry of William Miller, one can see a similar misunderstanding of God’s word, which had to be dealt with. They had definite Biblical evidence that Jesus was coming again in 1844, according to the prophecies in the book of Daniel.
But their experience told them differently, when the event did not take place on the predicted day. Fortunately, there were some who studied more deeply and came up with the reason for their misunderstanding.
The lesson for us today might be that Biblical knowledge is not enough. Knowing our proof-texts won’t guarantee us a relationship with the author of those texts. Only through a humble search for Him with our whole heart and open minds can we find the answer to life’s most troubling questions. We too can miss the mark, without the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a desire to follow God, even if it means following a path we did not want to take.
Next Week’s Lesson: The Second Missionary Journey (Acts 16-18)
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All Outlook blogposts by Teresa Thompson, are at http://outlookmag.org/author/teresathompson/