The council of the apostles and elders, having considered the matters brought to them by Paul, Barnabas and the circumcision party of the believers, came to a decision as to the way forward. The next step of the process for them was to communicate this decision back to the Gentile churches.
To do this they collectively wrote an open letter to the churches to be hand delivered by devout men chosen from among the believers so that all would learn, understand the purpose and decision of the council and be encouraged to follow that decision for the benefit of the churches and the individuals.
The content of that letter is still resonating today and there is much to learn and understand in the words of this letter. It is as important to hear what the letter says and also to understand what it does not say for there are things we will recognise in this decision of the early leaders of the church that the modern leaders could learn a thing or two about. Indeed there are some today who seem to have forgotten this letter and the significance of what it says for they have turned away from the decision and gone back to old ways.
Contents of the Letter
The letter is interesting for there are three key parts to the letter.
First in the introduction we see they make it clear that the council were of one mind in the resolution of this issue. They had discussed the issue and come into agreement as to the way forward and were ALL in agreement.
This was not a consensus or a voting majority issue, unlike the way motions are carried in many businesses and other organisations. It was a TOTAL majority. 100% agreement among all the members of the elders and apostles as to what the answer should be. To ensure that he churches understood it was a total majority the apostles and elders also sent others who had been in the meeting to attest by word of mouth that the contents of the letter were true. They wanted the Gentile churches to know and be certain about this decree so there would be no misinterpretation or doubt in this important decision.
This is the way it must be in The Lord about matters of doctrine. There are no half truths in Jesus Christ and the truth must be firmly understood and accepted by all. This is especially important for the elders and leaders of a church as it is they who must ensure the truth is maintained and established for the sake of the congregation.
About the Issues
Secondly we see the issues addressed. They make it clear that the two issues, which were that the Gentile churches had to be circumcised and then charged to keep the law of Moses, had now been addressed.
First they point out that they understood the Gentile churches had been upset in mind and unsettled because of these issues. But they also make it clear that the instruction about having to be circumcised and to keep the law did NOT come from the council of elders and apostles. Instead it was individuals working on their own who had brought up this doctrine believing it was necessary to maintain the old rites, rituals and processes of the Jews.
In the deliberations of the council and in their letter they point out that nothing could be further from the truth. Their discussions showed that the Jewish nation had not been able to keep the law so why would The Lord require the Gentiles to do so? In effect they recognised that to attempt to force the Gentile churches to keep a law that they could not keep would be setting them up to fail.
Jesus did not come to set us up to fail. Instead He came to give us victory and to establish the way to success in our walk with Him.
This is what the letter pointed out to the Gentile churches. It said in effect that they wanted the churches to succeed in their walk with Jesus Christ and that could not be done by following the old Jewish rites, sacrifices, processes and especially the laws of Moses. The way forward was to follow Jesus Christ and to walk according to the processes He established and taught during His time on earth and which the early apostles and disciples were rolling out across the known world.
Behaviours and Expectations
Finally we see the behaviours and expectations that the council recommended in the letter to the churches. It is important to note here what they did not say as much as what they did say.
They did not instruct the churches to keep the letter of the law or to enforce circumcision. They did not tell them that they must follow all of the clothing laws, purification rites, sacrifices and so on. They did not tell them they had to tithe or give the many offerings under the law or keep the Jewish holidays and days of worship or anything else that was proclaimed under the Old Testament law. They did not tell them they had to be under the Ten Commandments or any of the other laws.
Why? Because these are the very things that the Jews themselves failed to keep.
In Jesus a new way has been established to be able to come to a place of perfection through the working of the Holy Spirit in a person's life so that they can stand in the presence of God. Jesus came to set you and I and all who come to Him free. He sets us free from sin and free from the law. And it must be pointed out that the perfection attainable in Jesus Christ is much, much better than the reminder of sin in the law.
Now consider this. How many of these things do churches today preach and teach as doctrine in direct opposition of what the council of apostles and elders instructed in this letter? How many teach that you must keep the Ten Commandments? How many teach that you must tithe or you are robbing God?
And aside from these things, how many other things do they teach that are not even part of the scriptures?
Instead what the letter from the council of elders and apostles DID focus on was that the Gentile churches needed to keep the morality of the law. All of the things such as clothing laws, purification rites, tithing, sacrifices, offerings, days and times of worship and so on related to the physical aspects of life. These are matters of the flesh to assist man to live a clean, healthy and good standard of life in the flesh.
But we see in the last few verses of the letter that the apostles and elders instruct the Gentile churches to live moral lives. Verses 28-29 says,
28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
All of these things relate to living a life that is moral before both God and man. To abstain from idols and blood sacrifices is to be moral towards God and not to provoke God to anger. Blood sacrifices were offered to all of the many different pagan deities the Gentiles had escaped from when they came to Jesus, and they needed to understand that those things were now past.
And likewise the instructions to abstain from what is strangled and from sexual immorality are the moral commandments between people and towards oneself. It was an abomination to eat flesh with the blood still in it, for the life of an animal, like the life of a man is in the blood. God forbade man to eat the blood of any creature and this strangulation as a form of killing an animal was seen as particularly heinous. The Greek word that is the root of the word translated as “strangled” is similar to pneuma, which means “spirit.” Strangulation takes away the spirit of a man and it is the spirit that God is interested in, not the flesh. When we come to Christ, we come in the spirit for God is spirit and we must learn to live and worship Him in spirit and in truth as it says in John 4:24.
Likewise sexual immorality was abhorrent to God and is similarly abhorrent among His people. All forms of sexual immorality are covered in this statement too, whether adultery, fornication, sodomy, bestiality or any other, all are abhorrent and many are called abominations by God. As an aside, the Greek word translated as “sexual immorality” is porneias, from which we derive our English word pornography. No need for me to say that all forms of pornography are also sexual immorality and thus are to be shunned.
In Jesus's ministry He made this point abundantly clear when addressing the Pharisees, calling them hypocrites. He showed them that what is really important is not the physical aspects of the law but the moral aspects and it was these they were neglecting. They put on a good face and a good show, but were failing in their hearts which Jesus showed in Matthew 23:23-24 saying,
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
The Pharisees looked good on the outside but neglected what was really important. The letter the apostles and elders sent to the Gentile churches was saying the same. Focus on the morality of the law and what is really important, which is our relationship with God and our relationship with our fellow man.
Paul also made a similar point in his letter to the Romans for he also showed that it is the morality of the law that is the key. He said in Romans 8:3-4,
3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
He did not tell them to keep the letter of the law but to focus on the “righteous requirement of the law.” This is the morality of the law and it is morality that should guide our relationships in Christ Jesus. The faith that we have sets us free from sin and the law and enables the Holy Spirit to work with us to transform us into the image of Christ. But it is the morality of the law based in the love of God that guides and builds our relationships with Him and with each other.
(Photo sourced from stock.xchng taken by John Evans)
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