Acts (Part 22) - Salvation by Circumcision?
Luke tells us in Acts 14 that the city of Iconium was divided. Some sided with the Jews and their insistence that their religion of circumcision, sacrifice, and Law was still what God wanted for relationship. The others sided with Paul and Barnabas and their message of the fulfillment of the Law’s righteous demands in Jesus. What is interesting is that in verse 4 Luke calls Paul and Barnabas apostles. This is the first use of this word for anyone other than the Twelve. Of course, we discussed in the early parts of this series that Paul rather than Matthias was God’s replacement for Judas Iscariot. But here in 14:4 we have Barnabas also referred to as an apostle. Were there 13?
Actually, besides the Twelve (including Paul), eight others in the New Testament are called apostles: Baranabas, here; Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16:7; Timothy and Silvanus by implication, Timothy in 2 Corinthians 8:23 and both in 1 Thessalonians 2:6; James in Galatians 1:19, Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25, and finally Jesus in Hebrews 3:1. The meaning of the Greek apostolos is delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders (Thayer’s Lexicon). Simply put, an apostle is one sent out to perform a specific task. The Twelve had a special apostleship in witness of Jesus’ teachings and his resurrection. We all have an apostleship in that we who know Christ as Lord and Savior are all sent out to share the gospel. Yet, it does appear, due to the limited use of the term in the New Testament, that the ones designated as apostles by Luke, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews, are so-called because of a specific sending to areas that had not beforehand been reached with a gospel witness.
As chapter 14 unfolds, Luke describes the reception in Lystra by the townspeople who witness the miracle of the lame man’s healing. Paul and Barnabas are thought to be gods. The priests of the temple of Zeus want to sacrifice bulls to them. Learning of this, both Paul and Barnabas rush out to stop the worship, claiming to be mere men just like everyone else. They insist that they are men worshipping the one true God of heaven and earth. And even with these protestations, Luke tells us that they “scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifices to them” (14:18). What a strange and sudden change of events, then, as we learn in the very next verse that Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrive and transform the perspective of the crowds from worship to murder!
The quick change had much to do with the insistence by the Jews. They had traveled close to 100 miles from Antioch just to warn against Paul and Barnabas. These Jews were official representatives of the religion. They could point to a tradition that spanned a couple thousand years. They held the Scriptures. They had received the commandments of God. Who were these two apostles to try to change what had been God’s truth for them for so long?
You can almost picture the crowds as now they stood unsure. Their zeal to offer worship deadened both by the insistence of Paul and Barnabas and now these Jews. But the charge now was heresy and blasphemy. Were they sure that these two were not gods? Perhaps that which sealed the deal for the Jews was to point at Paul and question whether a god could be someone like that! What that was is described more fully in Galatians 4:8-15. The book of Galatians was written to the Gentile converts of this region. Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, and Derbe were all located in Galatia. Paul mentions in Galatians 4:13: “You know it was because of (or better, through) a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first.” In this verse, Paul reminds them of the very incident we are studying in Acts. He reminds them that he came to them with a bodily ailment—the “thorn in the flesh” that he mentions in 2 Corinthians 12:7. What was this ailment? Many believe it was tremendously weak eyesight. Although Scripture doesn’t tell us for certain, we know that Paul did not write his letters physically, but always employed a scribe. At the end of his letters, however, he would often give a greeting in his own hand. At the end of the letter to the Galatians he does so, saying, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand” (Galatians 6:11). The large letters indicate his weak sight.
The bright light Paul saw in his Damascus road conversion had caused temporary blindness. The purpose was to humble Paul, teaching him of his relationship to the Lordship of Jesus. And although he regained his sight, 2 Corinthians 12: 7-9 indicates that the continued weakness of his eyesight was meant to remind him to remain humble. Thus, he mentions his affliction in the Galatians letter, reminding them of his apparent weakness as he delivered the gospel to them. They were overjoyed as they received the gospel message from Paul, and in love had desired, if possible, to even have “gouged out [their] eyes and given them to [him]” (Galatians 4:15) to help him in his weakness.
The Jews succeeded in turning the crowds against Paul and Barnabas. And in believing that the apostles were attacking the Jews’ religion rather than giving the good news of its fulfillment, they took up stones according to the Law and pelted Paul for his presumed blasphemy. We are not sure whether the stoning of Paul actually took his life. In his discussion in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4, Paul seems to be referring to himself as having a death or near death experience. But whether he did in fact die from the stoning or was merely crushed by the stones but still alive, God miraculously healed him, restoring him to the disciples who had gathered round him (Acts 14:20).
From there Paul and Barnabas travel to Derbe, southeast of Lystra, continuing to preach the gospel. From the direction of their travels, they had been heading toward Tarsus and in Derbe were very close to Paul’s hometown. But the apostles decide to turn around at that point and retrace their steps back to the cities in which they ministered instead of continuing on to Tarsus. The news of their persecution and stoning certainly would have reached back to Iconium and Antioch, and they were concerned about the new Christians in those cities who, without a Christian network of support as we have today, may have been discouraged or overwhelmed by the Jews’ arguments. Paul may have also not wanted to create tension with Barnabas by insisting on traveling to his hometown when he had pulled his partner away from Cyprus, Barnabas’s homeland. But we read of the apostles’ encouragement to the Galatians in 14:22, exhorting the new Christians to remain faithful even though tribulation would come for their hope in Christ.
After passing through the cities in which they had ministered, Paul and Barnabas arrive back at the coastal cities of Perga and Attalia and secure passage back to Antioch of Syria. Their report to the church in Antioch was not to fulfill duty to a sending church holding them accountable, as some scholars have imagined. We had noted that it was the Holy Spirit and not the church that had sent them off on their journey in the opening verses of Acts 13. Their report was merely to witness of the work of the Holy Spirit, as they would have done to any established church in any city. Thus, we have no example or modal established here or anywhere in the New Testament for church authority in sending missionaries. Our accountability is always to our Lord’s authority, not to presumed earthly authorities.
In chapter 15 we find that men from Judea had come to Antioch insisting that Gentiles must be circumcised for salvation. Of course, Paul and Barnabas vigorously opposed this teaching. The controversy was great because of the intimation that these men from Judea were speaking according to the beliefs of the church in Jerusalem—and that church included the Twelve. To settle the matter—not to receive commandment, but to satisfy these Antiochan Christians that the Jerusalem church was of the same mind in what salvation entailed—Paul and Barnabas set out for Jerusalem.
So that we understand the timetable, the following list provides approximate dates for Paul’s travels:
Mid 30s – Paul meets Christ on the road to Damascus
Late 30s – (3 years later) Paul arrives in Jerusalem for 15 days
Mid 40s – Paul and Barnabas bring famine relief to Jerusalem
Late 40s – First missionary journey
AD 49 – Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem to discuss the matter of circumcision
Galatians 1:15 – 2:1 details Paul’s 15 day stay with Peter in Jerusalem and this Acts 15 trip in AD 49.
After much discussion in which Peter confirms the understanding of salvation by faith alone, the council in Jerusalem, through the leadership of James, decides to issue a letter to the churches that they agree that Gentiles do not need to be burdened with the demands of the old covenant in embracing the New Covenant. Notice that the letter states that these who sent the letter were of “one accord” and had chosen Paul and Barnabas to be emissaries with this letter. But we need not think that only leaders were involved in the decision. Acts 15:22 makes it clear that the choice of Paul and Barnabas (and by the letter’s implication, the decision) was made by the apostles and elders and the whole church. Here then is no intimation of a hierarchy of authority. The purpose of the letter was to explain the church’s position, not to issue commandments. And it was the whole church that made the decision.
At first reading, the letter seems to contradict James’ words that they did not wish to burden or trouble the Gentiles with old covenant requirements. The letter states that Gentiles should “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” (15:29). Was it the council’s intent to pull a few old covenant obligations out from the Law to require of the Gentiles? And why these laws and not other old covenant commands? If these were not meant as old covenant commandments, why would the council mention these activities and not other obvious sins such as murder, theft, etc.?
The four requirements must be seen as a group. These four activities were the exact activities of pagan worship. Idol worship in the pagan temples of Greek society was defined by these four activities. Rather than merely picking out old covenant requirements, the Jerusalem church was encouraging Gentile Christians in the understanding of a monotheistic attitude in worship. If you have turned to Christ, the letter informed them, you must turn away from worship of idols. This was the meaning, and this is why Paul, Peter, and the others agreed with the instruction. It did not add works to the religion, but encouraged faith alone in Christ as the only means of salvation.