Formations 04.29.2018: The Traveled Gospel

Acts 15:1-2, 12-21

Erhard Etzlaub’s map showing pilgrimage routes to Rome.

The other night I washed dishes while listening to a Tift Merritt concert. After the silverware but before the plates, I dried my hands to check the YouTube description. It included the standard information—record label, band members, and producer. The last sentence offered another expected piece of information, but in a way I had never seen. It said, “these songs were written and traveled by Tift Merritt.” That idea of traveling songs struck me. And it strikes me again in the testimonies of the Jerusalem council.

When some Christians preach in Antioch that circumcision is a necessary response to grace, believers convene in Jerusalem to settle the matter. After much debate, Peter offers his testimony. He alludes to Joppa where he met with and blessed Cornelius, learning that God “made no distinction” between circumcised and uncircumcised (vv. 7-9; see 10:44-48). Then, Paul and Barnabas report on their journeys. They tell “of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles” (v. 12).

I’ve heard some singer-songwriters identify songs as unique among other forms of writing. Songs, they say, grow in new rooms with new audiences. Each night, writers hear them again in light of experiences accumulated everyday. As they go, the songs may change. It might be the arrangement, the melody, or even the lyrics, but they become the songs imagined from the beginning.

That dynamic of freedom and responsibility shows up as the disciples affirm and carry the traveled gospel in Jerusalem. It’s present in James’s interpretive work, in Peter’s memory, and in Barnabas’s solidarity. Only two weeks ago, Barnabas went to Antioch from Jerusalem as a representative of the central church. This week, however, he has come as a representative and member of the community of Gentiles in Antioch, who practiced their faith at the margins. Walking with this gospel burdens him with caring for his brothers and sisters. But it also blesses him with “signs and wonders.”

For nearly two thousand years, this gospel has accompanied communities of faith. Sometimes it has been expanded, and in others, it has been restricted. We have the opportunity and responsibility to take it with us in our everyday lives. Along the way, we might be surprised by how the gospel grows. Then, too, we might be amazed by how it grows us.

Discussion

• When has your understanding of the gospel changed? What requirements and freedoms accompanied this change?
• When have new experiences or encounters shaped your church? Explain.
• What unexpected groups of people and what types of experiences might your church grow to walk with? What blessings and what responsibilities might follow these decisions?

Reference Shelf

Movement in Acts

Channels for the geographical expansion of Christianity were cut already by the Jewish synagogues all over the Roman Empire. The struggle came in crossing religious and social lines separating Jews, Samaritans, and gentiles. That is the struggle traced in Acts, the struggle for an “unhindered” gospel (28:31). Luke-Acts shows how what began in the piety of Judaism, at home in synagogues and Temple, broke through to Samaritans, God-fearing “Greeks” (gentiles already attracted to Judaism), and finally to uncircumcised gentiles. With this triumph is shown the cost, the separation of Christianity and Judaism over the issue of including uncircumcised gentiles.

Acts 1:6 introduces the basic problem, the disciples’ anticipating the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. This linkage of the kingdom with Israel persisted, some seeking to impose circumcision and its cultic implications upon gentile converts (15:1). It was Stephen’s stance that God has never limited himself to any nation or land that infuriated Saul of Tarsus until his own traumatic conversion (6:8–8:1). Peter required a special vision before his eyes were opened to the fallacy of viewing uncircumcised persons as “unclean” (10:15). The apostles in Jerusalem were slow to accept Peter’s new stance (11:1). James validated the gentile mission without the requirement of circumcision (15:13-21), but he was not comfortable with Paul’s gentile mission (21:27-26). Acts closes with Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem on the charge of taking uncircumcised men into the Temple (21:27-36), his imprisonment and trials over his gentile involvement, and finally his arrival in Rome, where for two years under house arrest he preached to any who would hear, “unhindered.”

Frank Stagg, “Acts of the Apostles,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, eds. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 49.

God’s People

Both Peter and James appear insistent that Jews and Gentiles stand on an equal footing before God. Peter spoke of how God “made no distinction between them and us” (v. 9) and that both Jews and Gentiles “will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (v. 11). James concluded that God has “visited” the Gentiles and taken out from among them “a people for his name” (v. 14). Yet Leviticus 17–18 assumes a clear distinction between Israelites and “aliens.” If proper behavior of “aliens” who wish to associate with “Israelites” is what is driving James’s judgment, it would appear that James is undermining the very point that both he and Peter have been trying to make: both Jewish and Gentile believers constitute the people of God, between whom God makes no distinction.

Ben Witherington provides a possibly helpful alternative approach to James’s decree. James, Witherington argues, is not offering advice to Gentiles who wish to have fellowship with Jews; rather, he is urging Gentiles who have turned to the true and living God (cf. 14:15) to shun those practices that are indicative of pagan worship. The exhortation to avoid the pollutions of idols or food offered to idols amounts to requiring Gentile believers to shun pagan, idolatrous practices, most especially feasts at pagan temples. Even the reference to abstaining from blood and things strangled alludes to non-Jewish methods of cultic sacrifice. Finally, the exhortations to avoid porneia refer to the avoidance of cultic prostitution, though other sexually immoral practices are also forbidden by such a requirement.

James, therefore, is not explicitly motivated by a rereading of Leviticus 17–18 to place restrictions on Gentiles that they might have fellowship with believing Jews. He is making clear that there are patterns of worship and sexual activity found among pagans from which Gentile believers, by virtue of the fact that they are included among the people of God, must abstain. This is consistent with what Paul also required in his letters to Gentiles who had turned to God (1 Thess 1:9). Paul exhorts his readers to shun idolatry (1 Cor 8–10) and sexual immorality (1 Thess 4:1-9; 1 Cor 5:1-8; 6:15-20). Fortuitously, and even providentially, if Gentile believers were to follow James’s counsel, Jewish believers sensitive to the legal requirements of Leviticus 17–18 regarding association with “aliens” should also be satisfied.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 260.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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