Acts 15

This devotional is written by Owen Hopwood.

Acts 15

The council at Jerusalem
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: 'Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.' 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

5 Then 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.'

6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: 'Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles should hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.'

12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. 'Brothers,' he said, 'listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:

16 '"After this I will return
and rebuild David's fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things"
18 things known from long ago.

19 'It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.'

The council's letter to Gentile believers 
22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:


24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul - 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 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.


30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.

Disagreement between Paul and Barnabas 

36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, 'Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.' 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.


In this passage the Jewish believers are insisting that the Greek believers in Antioch must become circumcised and adhere to the laws of Moses. For the Jewish believers, their laws are not just a list of rules, they are an integral part of their lives. These laws contain culture, history and identity and are what has set them apart as chosen people of God. So asking the Greek christians to follow the laws of Moses is actually an invitation to participate in the Jewish communal and cultural life. It might be difficult to view an invitation into circumcision as a kindness but I believe that this is the intention here.

But what they are yet to understand is that an invitation has already been made. One that is extended to all people. Without condition. Without exception. An invitation into communal life with the living God. One not dependent on rules, rites or rituals but an infinite out-pouring of grace.

This is a struggle we see throughout Acts: God's ever expanding story opening out beyond what the church can comprehend. And this is our struggle still today. Sometimes we forget that God is always moving independent of our understanding, theologies and creeds. We forget that our finite understanding could never contain an infinite God.

God, help me to see the ways that you are at work in the hearts of all people and in all creation. Help me to let go of my own finite understanding, to find peace in the unknowing and rest in your infinite grace.

"You can't get the ocean into a thimble but you can drop the thimble into the ocean" - James Finley --------------------------------------------

If we are not careful to remain open we will end up getting in the way of what God is doing simply because it doesn't line up with our finite understanding of the infinite God.

God's story is bigger than ours. One big enough to hold all of our My Stories and Our Stories.

Stories are important. They give us identity and help us to understand our place in society. They remind us where we've been and inform where we are going. In this passage we have two groups each with their own stories. The jewish believers and the greek. The jewish believers are inviting the greeks into their story. They are saying that to be a part of this story requires the following of their laws including circumcision. For these jewish believers, laws are not just a list of rules, they are culture and identity and what has set them apart as chosen people of God. It can be quite difficult to view an invitation into circumcision as a kindness but I believe that is the intension here.

Ironically though, this is the same invitation that Caesar made to nations he conquered. Leave behind your story, culture and identity and join the story of Rome. For Caesar, Rome's story was the story and all others would be absorbed and assimilated. But there is and always has been a much bigger story in play. That is God's story and it is the true the story. The pharisees in this passage, who had fought so hard to keep their own story alive under Roman occupation, have mistaken their story as God's story and as a result acted more in line with Caesar than with Jesus.

This is a struggle we see throughout Acts, a church making sense of God's ever expanding story opening out beyond what our it's own stories can handle. And this is our struggle today. God, help me to see that my story matters. Help me to see that the stories of my neighbor matter. Help me to partake in the work of reconciling all stories into your ever expanding story of all creation

"Grace of course makes demands on each of our lives as individuals and as communities. However, this transformation leads us into our authentic selves, rather than away from them."

Fr Richard Rohr helpfully identifies 3 types of story with an image he calls the Cosmic Egg (Stay with me here!). The image works like this. The yolk of the egg is the "Me Story". This is how I distinguish myself from others. My family, my job, my relationships. The white of the egg is the "Us Story". This is the story of how groups distinguish themselves from other groups. The story of nations, of cultures, religions, football teams etc. And finally the shell of the egg encapsulating all of these stories is the "The Story". This is God's story of all creation and all of our stories fit inside God's infinite story.

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