Here we see that God is doing something new in the world and is for the new outreach of the Gospel to the Gentiles. God keeps moving the church to extend the saving grace of the Lord Jesus to all the world and that means Jew and Gentile will now be one in Christ Jesus. And God is on the side of more flexibility in how people go about being and doing church. No longer will circumcision be a sign of the New Covenant or required of new converts. The Gentiles do not have become Jewish to become followers of Jesus That’s the direction of the growing church going forward. And this is a break with tradition, “the custom of Moses.”
It’s a startling new direction and venture for Jewish Christians and for some in the Church of Jerusalem, mostly a Jewish Christian, Church experience. The Church in Antioch, a leading city in Syria and Cilicia, is primarily Gentile and it is growing rapidly. Furthermore, this growing church is sending out missionaries to the Gentile world. And the question in Jerusalem is what about circumcision for the new Gentile Believers? Hey, wait a minute before this new direction gets out of control, breaks too much with our tradition, let’s remind the new folks of our important traditions and history.
There’s a conflict, and the church leaders get to work. They meet, they talk, they listen, they discuss, and review what God has been doing through them, and they read God’s word in Amos 9:11-12. The scriptures and their understanding of what God is doing align and confirm the new direction; no circumcision for the Gentiles. The grace of the Lord Jesus is enough. They come to a decision and send the letter and representatives to the Antioch Church and Community of believers.
They reduce hundreds of Old Testament Laws to four things for the Gentiles: 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.
Why add these four things? The editors of the TNIV Study Bible noted, “These were in the areas in which the Gentiles had particular weaknesses and where Jews were particularly repulsed by Gentile violations. It would help both the individual and the relationship between the Gentile and Jew if these requirements were observed. They involved divine directives that the Jews believed were given before the Mosaic Laws.”
Some of the four had to do with pagan religious festivals and temple worship. Thus we see in this new direction of Gospel outreach to the Gentiles that there is a great flexibility; no circumcision; but there is also some give for the Gentiles. The church through the power of the Holy Spirit, the grace of the Lord Jesus, and providential action of God will unite Jew and Gentile as one in Christ. And what happened? The Gentile believers were glad for this encouraging message. The Jerusalem Church was enthusiastic of what God was doing in the Gentile world. A most significant conflict for the early church was resolved; the Gospel goes forward.
May we have the grace, discernment, and flexibility to appreciate and accept the new things God is doing in the church and in the world and support them. May we also have the wisdom to work with others to incorporate the essential traditions as we go about the life, ministry, and mission of our church. May we be one in Christ for the Good News of the Gospel.
Unfortunately our passage ends with a conflict between Paul and Barnabas that was not resolved. They parted ways and the two teams go out in different directions to share the Good News of Christ. The parting of ways is painful and yet God uses the two teams in furthering the Gospel. Later in Paul’s life he changes his mind about John Mark and writes, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (II Timothy 4:11).