One of the most divisive issues the early church faced was over this question: “What do Gentiles have to do to become Christians (read: to be saved)?” Luke places this question at the center of the Book of Acts as a testimony to the strong leadership of the early church and the willingness of Christians to follow the lead of God, even when it may take you places you don’t really want to go!
After the conversion of Cornelius, those who objected to Peter eating and staying with a Gentile brought up this issue. Peter explained his vision and his actions! “When they heard this they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life’.” (Acts 11:18) Unfortunately, after the mission work of Paul and Barnabas more objections arose. “Certain people came down from Judea to
and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the
custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1) Of course, Paul
and Barnabas objected to this to the point that they were sent to Antioch to discuss the
issue with the apostles and elders there. Jerusalem
As Paul and Barnabas were reporting to the church all the details of their missionary journey, some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5) Luke, very modestly, says – “The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After MUCH discussion…” (Acts 15:6-7 Emphasis mine). Having sat through meetings with much discussion, I am painfully aware what that means!
Then something truly remarkable happened. Peter got up and said: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.” Then Paul and Barnabas told about “the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.” And then James chimed in, “Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this,…” Then he added, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” Notice the sources of authority they displayed: the choice of God, the work of God through the Holy Spirit, the words of Scripture, and finally their own judgment. They were willing to follow God’s lead!
It is remarkable to me that every person in the room that day had believed at some point the Gentiles were unclean and must be circumcised to be saved. But the gospel of Jesus changed their hearts and their minds! CHANGE. That is what is so hard about following God’s lead, because he continually leads us to new ways to spread the gospel and new audiences to share it with. Will we follow?
- Kenny Payne