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[GULP!] …I Might Have Been a Legalist

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us…The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written… Acts 15:6-8, 12-15

Have you ever noticed that the process of spiritual discernment is often much more complicated than merely examining the evidence logically?  The more background I read about the Jerusalem Council and its crucial considerations in Acts 15, the more I worry I might have voted the wrong way, if I had been among them. As it turns out, being a legalist is a lot easier than we would like to think.

Circumcision, to the very first Hebrew Christians in Jerusalem, was a big deal…every bit as big a deal as baptism is to the Christian church today.  It was clearly not an act “stumbled upon” through some twist of tradition and men’s preferences…it was an act given to them by God Himself.  There was a plethora of Holy Scripture which required it [insert your favorite among a half dozen or so Old Testament stories showing God’s clear directives about circumcision here].  It was a non-negotiable to them, because it was  non-negotiable to God.  “Scripture says it…I believe it…and that settles it.”

So, when Gentiles began wanting into our little movement, it honestly does not seem that big a stretch to me for the Judaizers to point to those scriptures and insist on compliance.  Does that make me a legalist? Perhaps. And when Paul and Barnabas, who had obviously developed an affinity for these uncircumcised Gentiles (and by that I mean a bias on this issue) took issue with that stance, there was going to have to be some clear and convincing evidence (in my mind) that God intended for us to just abandon this otherwise scriptural requirement.  Out of this background, the Jerusalem council was convened…in order to discuss the matter and in order for us to examine the evidence.  So let’s do that.  Let’s examine the evidence, and I’ll give you this lawyer’s thoughts on it as it comes in…

Peter is first.  He reminds us all that God came to him in a dream and told him we need not be “kosher” any longer with our food choices.  Recall (Acts 11:18) that we never really had a problem with that testimony.  We do trust Peter.  But isn’t it a bit of a stretch to conclude from that dream that, along with the kosher food requirements, other requirements are now out the window as well?  And if that is true, who among us gets to choose which other requirements we no longer need to keep?  Peter goes on to make the case that God Himself seems to want the Gentiles “in”, and that Cornelius’ house proves that.  But it seems to this lawyer that Peter is missing the issue here…we are not questioning whether or not Gentiles get to come in.  Rather, we are simply saying they must still follow God’s laws.  This lawyer is not all that impressed with Peter’s testimony as it relates specifically to circumcision, and I find myself wondering where it is really coming from.

Paul and Barnabas are next.  No big surprise what their position is, as they have built a large and growing church of Gentiles by letting them off the hook on this circumcision issue.  They have much to lose here and have a pretty clear bias.  So, what is their “evidence”?  They say, “Look at the numbers!” They say, “Isn’t this evidence that God is blessing us?”  “Everybody is joining us!”  It reminds this lawyer of the very tired argument of every teenager who says, “But everyone else is doing it!”  To be clear about my skepticism here…God has NEVER used popularity as a guide for us to follow.  As a matter of fact, Jesus Himself said the world would hate us, not love us.  Are we to then hear this testimony about sheer numbers of Gentile converts as some type of evidence that God wants to do away with circumcision?  Really?  This lawyer admires Paul’s and Barnabas’ love for their people, but this lawyer wants to remind them that love is NOT giving people what they want…it is giving them what they need.

Lastly, Pastor James speaks, and he is opening scripture.  Finally!  We can now turn to what matters the most!  James shocks us with his selection.  He skips all references in all of scripture to circumcision.  All of them.  He selects an obscure two verses out of an obscure prophet (Amos) and reads words about God’s desire to have Gentiles bear His name.  And that is it.  Nothing about circumcision at all.  This lawyer finds himself asking, “Really, James?  That is it?”  Again, it seems to me that James (like everyone else) has missed the issue.  Nobody here is questioning whether or not Gentiles get to come in!  Nobody!  Aaauugghhhhh!!!!!

And that, my friends, is a summation of all the evidence presented.  How would you have voted?  I am pretty sure I know how I would have voted!

Except for one other thing…

There is also the unpredictable and inexplicable work of the Holy Spirit among those men (and among us today).  And who but the Holy Spirit could have caused those brilliant minds to look at THAT evidence and come to a consensus to do away with the requirement of circumcision for the Gentile believers?  That little factor has a way of changing everything, doesn’t it?  God’s plans have a way of confounding the best logic men can produce.  Our attempts at “weighing the evidence” mean nothing…NOTHING, apart from the Spirit and its influence on us.

So, what does that mean about your next church business meeting?  Your next “important” committee meeting?

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  John 15:5

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” Isaiah 55:8

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