It will soon be 36 years since the time I was first employed by a church in ministry – beginning as the minister of music at a rather small church in Cherry Hill, NJ. And I was doing church ministry in varied ways for several years before that – particularly as a summer intern.
A lot has changed about ministry over the years. I have changed a great deal also. From the perspective of 1977, I could have never possibly envisioned the different ways “doing church” would morph. Back then, I would have presumed that I would always be in a church with a pipe organ, hymnals, choirs, and pulpit. Beyond the on/off switch, nobody thought about lighting and staging. Computers and video projection were unimaginable. All good Christians attended church twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday night.
In many ways, I wish nothing had ever changed – I could use a lot more of my traditional education if it had not! I have spent my life in ministry fighting for acceptance of change – always working to embrace new methods of telling the timeless truth of Christ so that the latest generations may hear it and follow the savior of my ancestors. If I could have seen at the start as to how much pain this would bring to my life, I really do not think I would have done it. But I do not doubt that I have obeyed God in my advocacy for visionary people and modern methods of communicating the Word.
In a phrase, I have spent four decades in (what I trust has been loving) combat with the brothers and sisters comprising the Christian forces of “But we’ve never done it that way before.”
So I think I understand Paul and Barnabas in our passage today. At Antioch, some teachers from Jerusalem were advocating that to be genuinely saved, it was necessary to follow certain prescriptions from the Law of Moses. Rightly understanding that this teaching entirely opposed the grace of the Gospel, Paul and Barnabas confronted it in debate. The conflict was such that it was necessary for it to be settled at what we historically know as the first church council in Jerusalem.
As the missionary duo spoke with the church leaders in Judea about all they had seen and experienced, some traditionalists with Pharisaic backgrounds stood to insist that the Law of Moses needed to also be kept. Paul and Barnabas shared with the council the incredible signs and wonders that accompanied the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles – particularly emphasizing that the same Spirit had come upon the Greeks just as it had come upon the Jewish believers. Clearly this was one new work of God – not a repeat of old legalistic stuff that nobody then or before was ever able to observe perfectly!
James – the leader of the church in Jerusalem – gave the decisive word by quoting from the Scriptures in Amos that this was indeed a prophetic fulfillment. He also spoke some words of wisdom in terms of what should be communicated to these new Gentile believers as they were welcomed into this new work of the Church of Jesus Christ. In tomorrow’s reading, we will see that this is agreed upon and enacted, though Judaizers (those insisting on observance of the Law of Moses along with believing in Christ) would be a thorn in the side of Paul and the early church for decades – being addressed especially in the book of Galatians.
There is a famous bell curve often written about in leadership circles that illustrates change and the ways people adapt to it. At the front end are the innovators and early adapters; at the back end are the laggards who struggle to ever accept it. Paul is a classic innovator, while the Jerusalem church embodied the laggards.
Change is not good simply because it is change, but it is inevitable and needs to regularly be embraced with wisdom – like James brought to the Jerusalem Council.
The Council at Jerusalem – Acts 15:1-21
15 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 traveled 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 might 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 Simonhas 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’—18things 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.”