Monday, June 16, 2008

In Search Of Truth


Acts, Chapter 15

This chapter has some interesting significance for modern Christians, since the majority of us are non-Jews, or as the Bible calls us, Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas had been at the city of Antioch for probably around a year. (During this time Paul wrote "Galatians".) At some point, a group of men came to the city, teaching that men first have to be circumcised before they can be saved by faith in Jesus. After some debate with these men, Paul and Barnabas were sent, by the local church, to Jerusalem, to get input from the apostles and elders regarding this controversial issue.

Surprisingly, there were some among the Jerusalem believers that were also Pharisees. (Pharisees were a group devoted to the Old Testament Law and spent a lot of time examining and reinterpreting it, causing a fair amount of over-emphasis on the law.) They believed the Gentiles should all be circumcised and required to obey the same ceremonial laws as the Jews.

Peter had some personal connection to the issue. You might remember that in Acts 10:28, God made it clear to Peter that there should be no barrier between Jews and Gentiles. In verses 44-48 of the same chapter, Peter and other Jewish Christians saw that Gentiles were also given the Holy Spirit when they believed. Because of these two events, Peter concluded logically that God was not imposing any kind of barrier between himself and non-Jews.

Peter also saw another fatal flaw in the Pharisees' logic: If obedience to the law is even partially required to earn salvation, both Jews and Gentiles are doomed. It's so easy for the simplicity of salvation to be polluted. Peter recognized that this might happen if he didn't speak up, so he strongly stated, "No! We believe it is through the grace (undeserved favor) of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."

Paul and Barnabas use examples from their experiences to support Peter's claim. Then James uses prophetic scripture to do the same, quoting Amos 9:11-12. If you look at this Old Testament passage and compare it to James' quotation, you may notice that it reads a little different. (Grab your Bible and get ready to dig in!)

There are two reasons for this. First, James is quoting from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Second, he has paraphrased a small portion to make his point, something common among Jewish interpreters of the day. However, this isn't done in a

manipulative or deceitful way. There are two changes we can see by looking at the NIV translation. But first we have to understand what a "tent" is.

Amos 9:11-12 is prophecy indicating that God would "restore David's fallen tent". (We would say "house" or "family" to parallel what is meant here by "tent".) David's "house" was restored to its former glory by his descendant, Jesus, who is a king like no other. And he rules like no other king, allowing time for people to willingly submit to him before he eventually brings absolute justice. So when you see "tent" here, think of David's bloodline first, and then think of Jesus. Now, back to the differences between Amos and Acts:

Amos 9 says that the remnant of Edom will be "possessed" by David's bloodline. In the original Hebrew, this word implies a forceful takeover. And this will eventually be the case, when God is finished waiting. (2 Peter 3:9) But James modifies it slightly, probably to reflect the "in between time" that we are currently in, instead saying that "the remnant of men may seek the Lord" during this period. Both versions capture the truth of Jesus' reign, but during different periods of time.

The second change is from "remnant of Edom" in Amos, to "remnant of men" in Acts. The Edomites were enemies of Israel. By saying specifically the "remnant" of Edom, instead of Edom itself, Amos is saying that the enemies of Israel will come under the control of the bloodline of David (meaning Jesus). This will ultimately be fulfilled in the future when Jesus physically returns to the earth. James modifies this slightly, demonstrating that even now, Gentiles, those who were once enemies of Israel, are being included in the kingdom of Jesus.

So James is using this prophecy to say, "Hey guys, what Peter is describing here is in line with what God says he has planned." (Just FYI, Simon is Peter's Hebrew name.) In order to avoid unhealthy conflict with the culture (described in verse 21) surrounding them, the apostles and elders create a short list of activities to avoid. Some of which are part of moral law that should be followed regardless of culture, and some that are purely cultural, but were held to strongly in the Jewish communities. Sometimes, we are to obey laws and customs that God does not require of us, so that we can more easily get along with others. For more on this issue, look at Romans 14 and 1st Corinthians 8.

At the close of this chapter, Paul suggests that he and Barnabas re-visit the towns they'd preached in to see how the local churches were doing. Barnabas wanted to take Mark along, but Paul didn't like the idea because Mark had abandoned them during an earlier trip. The disagreement was so strong that Paul and Barnabas decided to part ways! We don't get any insightful commentary telling us who is right and who is wrong. But we do gain one helpful bit of wisdom: Even in ministry and even among the best of men, conflict happens.

If we look for Christian churches and communities where the people and the leadership never have strong disagreements, we'll be looking forever. The Utopian church does not exist. We can expect a good church to be talking through those disagreements and doing their best to peacefully resolve them, but disagreement should not keep us from being connected to a Biblical church community.

Next Week: Paul and Silas do time in the slammer!

Coffee House Question

What kinds of things do you enjoy that people around you don't seem to understand?

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