20 Mar 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 15:1-4. The point at issue (continued).
(….The gospel was in dispute. The very foundations of the Christian faith were being undermined.)
The apostle Paul saw this with great clarity, and was outraged. His indignation increased when the Judaizers won over a notable convert in the apostle Peter, who was also in Antioch at the time. Before they arrived, as Paul explains in Galatians 2:11-14, Peter ‘used to eat with the Gentiles’. True, they had not been circumcised, but they had been converted. They had believed, received the Spirit and been baptized. So Peter, remembering Cornelius, was entirely happy to associate with them freely, and even to eat with them, doubtless including the Lord’s supper, recognizing them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. But when the circumcision party arrived in Antioch, they persuaded Peter to withdraw ‘and separate himself from the Gentiles’.
Unfortunately that was only the beginning. What happened next Paul rehearses in Galatians 2. The rest of the Jewish believers followed Peter’s bad example and ‘joined him in his hypocrisy’ (for Paul knew Peter was acting from fear, not conviction), and even Barnabas, in spite of everything he had seen during the first missionary journey, was carried away by the flood and ‘led astray’. Paul was hot with anger – not from personal pique, because his position was losing ground, but out of concern for the truth. He saw that Peter and his followers were ‘not acting in line with the truth of the gospel’. So he ‘opposed him [Peter] to his face, because he was in the wrong’, and rebuked him publicly for his inconsistency. His behaviour was a disgraceful contradiction of the gospel. So he said to him: ‘We…know [you and I, Peter and Paul, are agreed about this] that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no-one will be justified’ (Gal. 2:15-16). How then, if we know this and have ourselves experienced it, can we preach a different gospel to Gentiles? Further, if God has accepted them by faith, as he has accepted us, how can we break fellowship with one another? How dare we reject those whom God has accepted? Paul’s logic was incontrovertible. His courageous confrontation of Peter evidently had the desired result. For by the time Peter reached Jerusalem for the Council, he had regained his theological equilibrium and went on to bear fruitful witness during the assembly to the gospel of grace and its consequences for Gentile-Jewish fellowship. Barnabas had recovered too.
The issue can be clarified by a series of questions. Is a sinner saved by the sheer grace of God in and through Christ crucified, when he or she simply believes, that is, flees to Jesus for refuge? Has Jesus Christ by his death and resurrection done everything necessary for salvation? Or are we saved partly through the grace of Christ and partly through our good works and religious performance? Is justification *sola fide*, ‘by faith alone’, or through a mixture of faith and works, grace and law, Jesus and Moses? Are Gentile believers a sect of Judaism, or authentic members of a multi-national family? It was not some Jewish cultural practices which were at stake, but the truth of the gospel and the future of the church.
We are not surprised, therefore, by the ‘fierce dissension and controversy’ (2,NEB) which arose. We may be thankful that the church of Antioch grasped the nettle, and took practical steps to ensure a resolution of the issue. The calling of a Council can be extremely valuable, if its purpose is to clarify doctrine, end controversy and promote peace. *So Paul and Barnabas were appointed along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question (2). The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad (3). When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them* (4).
Tomorrow: Acts 15:5-21. 2). The debate in Jerusalem.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.