Through the New Testament in a Year

Today's Reading – Acts 15:1-35 – What must I do to be saved?

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In Acts 15 we read that some Jewish Christians travelled from Jerusalem to Antioch saying that if Gentile believers were not circumcised they could not be saved. This teaching was vehemently opposed by Paul and Barnabas who, with a number of others from the church at Antioch, were sent to Jerusalem to get some assurance from the apostles. This is a controversy that will henceforth dominate Paul's ministry.

It’s interesting to note that as Paul and his party made their way through Phoenicia and Samaria towards Jerusalem, “they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad” (15:3). In those days of slow travel, the party would have stayed each night with Christians in whatever village they had come to. So the news of what God was doing in Antioch was spread throughout the intervening Christian communities. We may value our ability to travel quickly across hundreds of miles by plane or by motorway, but perhaps we are missing out on face-to-face sharing of what God has been doing in our corner of the kingdom.

Peter reminded the leaders in Jerusalem of the way in which God had first sent him to preach to a Gentile. When Cornelius and his family believed the message Peter preached, God made no distinction between them and the Jewish believers: they also, through faith, received the Holy Spirit (15:8-9). Peter then underlines his point by turning the whole argument around: he reminds his listeners that they, as Jews, had to come to trust in Christ for salvation just as the Gentiles were now doing. Both Jew and Gentile are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus (15:11).

James, speaking on behalf of the church in Jerusalem, agreed with Peter. He recognised that what was happening in Antioch was the fulfilment of prophecy. It was God’s declared purpose that through the Messiah the Gentiles might seek the Lord and bear his name (15:16-18).

If we are asked what someone must do to be saved, we may well answer as Paul did to the Philippian jailer, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." But we need to understand that for the early church the question was not simply, "What must I do to be saved?", but also, "What must someone do to be accepted into fellowship with other believers?" The two were not separate questions. And here we are often not nearly as clear in giving an answer. Are we not often guilty of insisting upon our own additional qualifications for acceptance into fellowship? And in doing so, are we not guilty of acting like the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who troubled the church at Antioch?

These are hard questions, and I'm not sure that even the Jerusalem Council got this one right. In requiring abstention not only from idol-worship and immorality but also from things strangled and from blood, were not they also seeking to lay unnecessary burdens on Gentile Christians? Was this not the very lesson that Peter was being taught when the sheet full of animals was lowered from heaven and he was told, "Kill and eat"?

We need constantly to examine ourselves that we do not place unnecessary burdens on ourselves or others for acceptance with God and acceptance into the fellowship of his family. It is through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Lord Jesus, thank you that you have done all that is needed to bring me into fellowship with the living God. May I always see that this is true concerning others as well as myself – they need nothing but you. Keep us from constructing additional barriers to Christian fellowship.

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Peter Misselbrook