The controversy causing “much discussion” in Acts 15 was an objection raised by “some of the believers” in the Jerusalem church that to be saved “Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses,” verse 5.
But why shouldn’t the Gentiles be circumcised and obey the laws of Moses when God had required those things of the Jews, and it was in their scriptures too?
But in Acts 10 Peter had experienced Cornelius and his household receiving the Holy Spirit for simply believing “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is lord of all,” verse 36. Peter also realized in verse 43 that “All the prophets” had also made it clear that “every man who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” So that was in their scriptures as well.
That’s why Peter was so adamant in Acts 15:11 that it was purely “through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved,” and especially since he’d seen what happened to Cornelius and his household when he’d taught that to them. It was also what Paul and Barnabas had experienced in Antioch, backed up by “miraculous signs and wonders” too, in verse 12.
It’s not surprising in verse 10, then, that Peter asked those pushing for obedience to the law of Moses, “Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” In other words, why demand something you can’t even do yourselves, and nor could those before us either?
It was “testing God” to make such demands, and especially after he’d made it abundantly clear through Peter, Paul and Barnabas – and scripture – that “he accepted the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them,” verse 8, with NO strings or requirements of any kind attached.
Well, that brought the whole room to silence – and the readiness to listen too – as Paul and Barnabas told the story of what “God had done among the Gentiles through them,” verse 12.
Imagine being there as a diehard Jew, though, and having your entire belief system and cultural identity as God’s chosen people, and the anchor you’d depended on to secure your relationship with God, ripped out from under you. But it’s not that hard to imagine when a pandemic has done the same thing to us. It’s brought the entire system of Christian tradition and ritual to a grinding halt.
But tradition and ritual have nothing to do with salvation anyway, just like Jewish tradition and ritual had nothing to do with the salvation of the Gentiles. Christian rituals like baptism and communion may serve as illustrations of the salvation that only Jesus can give us, but they are never “must do’s” or requirements, because Jesus saves us by his gift of grace alone (Acts 15:11).
And perhaps we discovered during the pandemic how much of a burden and a yoke we’ve put on ourselves in the past trying to keep up with all our rituals and traditions too. Could any of us have foreseen not being able to meet in a church building or take part in any other church tradition we’ve held dear? But it happened. And for some, perhaps many, it was a great relief.
It came as a huge relief to those in Acts 15 too, when they too realized the unbearably burdensome system – that had consumed their lives, and set standards that even the great names in their history could not meet – was no longer necessary. And didn’t Jesus say, “Come to me, all you who are wearied and burdened….For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30)?
Acts 15 then backs up what Jesus said too, because in showing what Christianity is, it’s all good. And all good in three clearly explained ways too. That all it needs to get started is a good heart (verse 8). God then gets the good news message to that good heart (verse 7), which includes the Holy Spirit purifying that good heart (verse 9), so that we can say “good riddance” – the third “good” – to anything else that people try to burden us with beyond that.
In Acts 15, then, we’re given a simple and clear definition of what Christianity is, and isn’t, and the Gentiles loved it (verse 31). No wonder they were responding so favourably (Acts 13:48).