but some men came down from judea and were teaching the brothers, “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of moses, you cannot be saved.” and after paul and barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, paul and barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. [acts 15:1-2]
the dispute in galatia over circumcision and the law versus by grace alone through faith alone was not the last time paul would have to speak to this issue. he had already encountered it in antioch when peter came from jerusalem and was swayed by peer pressure. paul had to correct peter publicly to confirm the truth to the congregation. then the same false gospel was sneaking into the galatian churches by preachers who were telling these gentiles they had to live like jews in order to be saved. and here in acts 15, back in antioch, paul’s home base, the same false message is being taught again! paul and barnabas know the truth! they’ve been teaching the truth! they defend the truth! but apparently their testimony is not enough for the church. and this is where God’s gift of church government is so beautiful.
this week in systematic theology (shameless plug!), we discussed church government. here in acts, we see churches all over being set up by apostles, on the authority of the scriptures and the testimony of Jesus, and prayerfully selecting multiple elders in each church to continue teaching these truths, while being subject to these truths and to the leading of the Spirit. each congregation was under the guidance and authority of these elder groups, understanding that God had appointed them to shepherd their flock. this is church government, the structure of leaders to govern and guide. so when we see a question arise here in antioch, what a relief it must have been for paul to know he could consult the jerusalem church, knowing they would be faithful to the truth, knowing they would have his back, knowing that Christ will preserve his word through his bride. although he held the authority of an apostle, he also had the authority of this network of faithful men. (we also have this network in place for matthias’ lot. pray for them!)
if you read on through this passage, you will see paul and barnabas retell all of the amazing things God has done among the gentiles. you will see the jerusalem church rejoice over these things. you will see more pharisees stand up and declare that these gentiles must follow jewish law in order to be part of the church.
then you will see the apostles and elders discuss. there is biblical consideration of the matter, not just gut feelings or cultural experiences guiding the discussion. then you will see peter stand up to preach salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ! the one who had been publicly called out for acting in opposition to the truth now publicly defends the truth and paul who is teaching it! his final statement is this…
but we believe that we [jews] will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. [acts 15:11]
saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. salvation for all who will believe. Jesus plus nothing else. the true gospel.
Father, you alone preserve your glorious gospel. through your word, through your Spirit, and through your bride do you declare the truth of reconciliation through your Son. lead us in your truth. plant it deep in us. saturate our leaders in it that they might be of one mind and spirit. and let us with one voice proclaim it to the world. amen.
~ arwen eastman