Upon This Rock (26): Robbing Christ of His Honor (18)

Previous article in this series: February 1, 2016, p. 203.

We ended our last article with the convening of the Council of Jerusalem, which had been called at the request of the church in Antioch, specifically to decide the place of the Levitical rites in the calling of the Gentiles. The question had not originated in that church but had, rather, been foisted upon it by Judaizers from Jerusalem, who insisted that “except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). To the calling church for the work of ‘foreign missions,’ that was a matter of no small importance. The two missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, we may be sure, did not waiver for a minute from their insistence that God had spoken decisively on this matter—first by the giving of His Spirit to the household of Cornelius the centurion, an uncircumcised Gentile, and then by the fruit He gave to their own ministry among the heathen. In their report to the church of Antioch, they would not have allowed for robbing Christ of any of His honor in the saving of His people. No room for compromise on this issue.

David, as we saw, would have been equally adamant. Bitter experience had taught him that if his own salvation depended on anything he could bring in his hand, there would be no hope for him. He says as much in Psalm 51, a psalm in which, as we saw, David reaches as it were for the kingdom of Christ, in which no place is left for the sacrifices that are strictly required under the law.

How far David was ahead of his time is evident from Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council.

And I’m not thinking now of the Judaizers.

Recall, if you will, what we witnessed on the housetop of Simon the tanner in Joppa. Peter’s “Not so, Lord, for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean” was a kind of visceral clinging to a shadow, when the time for shadows was past. But what the Judaizers were bringing to the table at the Council of Jerusalem was a deliberate clinging to… merit. And that’s something totally different.

As to the heart of Psalm 51:16, Peter and David were on exactly the ‘same page.’ David looked forward to the ‘coming’ of the kingdom that Peter was privileged actually to embrace. Both saw the same Christ (one from a distance, the other close up), who would accomplish (had accomplished) the reconciliation that the blood of a lamb could only foreshadow. And, like David, Peter had learned by bitter experience the folly of looking, for anything, to self. “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended” (Matt. 26:33). From the depths of their souls, David and Peter could say, “Nothing in my hand I bring.” They were, I say, on the same page.

The Judaizers were not.

Clinging to shadows. And clinging to merit. Two separate issues really. The latter was the more serious of course, and it was the immediate occasion for the calling of this assembly. But the former, as we shall see, was not overlooked—either in the deliberation or in the adopted ‘position paper.’ It will be worth our while, I think, to consider briefly those proceedings.

First, the Judaizers. It seems that they were given opportunity at this assembly to state their case, and that some attempts were made initially to answer them. After “much disputing” (15:7), Peter arose to make the decisive case for the gospel of Christ, the truth of salvation by grace alone. God Himself, Peter argued, had in effect abrogated the Law when He “put no difference between us [the Jews] and them [the Gentiles], purifying their hearts [not by circumcision but] by faith” (v. 9). To insist now on the necessity of circumcision would be, therefore, a tempting of God (v. 10), putting a “yoke” on the neck of the Gentiles that “neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.” That’s powerful. The “yoke” is, of course, the burden of the Law. Which, says Peter, never could be borne—either by us or by our fathers. Which is to say, writes Calvin,

that the Law was not given to the fathers so that they might obtain salvation from it, and that the ceremonies were not added so that they might acquire righteousness by observing them, but that the whole Law had one single aim, that, having cast away reliance on works, they might transfer all their hopes to the grace of Christ.

All of the ceremonial laws, in other words, including those concerning circumcision, were intended to serve as helps only. In the nature of the case, therefore, they were temporary. When, Christ, the reality, came, the ceremonies of the Law, which were but shadows of spiritual realities, must fall away.

Paul and Barnabas then recounted “what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them” (v. 12). Yes, what God had wrought. Same emphasis as Peter’s. The miracles constituted God’s seal of approval, with an exclamation point, on the receiving of the Gentiles into the church of Christ without any regard to Levitical rites.

End of discussion. “They [the delegates to this assembly] held their peace” (v. 13).

Time, therefore, for the chairman to wind things up. After presenting a masterful summary and conclusion (vv. 13-18), James offered what is considered to be a proposed motion for adoption by the assembly. “Wherefore my sentence is,” said James, “that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God” (v. 19). Trouble them not—that is, by imposing on them the yoke that neither we nor our fathers were able to bear. Which is exactly what we would expect from this gathering of “apostles and elders” (v. 2), namely, a clear repudiation of the Judaizers. And very likely without a dissenting vote (confer the “one accord” of verse 25). Settled and binding, that matter now is, in the apostolic churches.

But we have not yet considered the whole of the proposed motion. “Trouble not the Gentile converts to Christianity with the Levitical rites.” That was the first part. Then this: that those Gentile converts “abstain… from things strangled and from blood” (v. 20). Straight out of… Leviticus.

That might look on the surface like a compromise. Or a concession of sorts. It was not. Rather, it was the assembly’s recognizing, and dealing with, the reality of that second ‘clinging,’ the clinging to shadows, when the time for shadows was past.

We take for granted that James did not, so to speak, pull this second part of his proposed motion out of the air. It was, rather, a summary statement of a concern he must have heard repeatedly expressed on the floor of this assembly, namely, What about Jewish sensitivities? That comes out in the ground that James offered for the second part of the motion: “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day” (v. 25).

“In every city.” Not, you see, just in Jerusalem, with its thousands of Jews. But in every city of any importance in the Roman Empire. There was in them all a Jewish presence. And, more often than not, a synagogue. Where Moses was preached. And where Paul also would preach when he first arrived on the scene of a potential new field of labor. In every newly-organized Christian church in Gentile lands, therefore, there would be a number of Jewish converts—Jews whose former church home was the synagogue, where they had been religiously instructed in Mosaic law. What, then, had they heard read to them from Sabbath to Sabbath? Well, among other things, this: “And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cast him off from among his people” (Lev. 17:10). Perhaps because of the central place of blood in what we might call the ‘Christology’ of the Old Testament, this prohibition, among all the food laws, was the most prominent. And it became so also in the minds of the saints of old. It was ingrained in their minds, after being part of Jewish life for centuries! To the point where the consuming of blood and the eating of things strangled (which would therefore have had the blood yet in them) would be abhorrent to them!

This very Council, as we saw, was prepared to give formal recognition to the truth that all of the old Levitical regulations were dead. James, however, reflecting the mind of the assembly, understood well that it would take some time for many Jewish Christians to become accustomed to the new state of affairs. Especially that regarding blood! With commendable foresight, the Jerusalem Council cautioned the Gentile churches to be careful, in their exercise of what could for them be considered their Christian liberty, not to give unnecessary offense. “Commendable foresight,” I say, because Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (chapters 8 and 10) reveals how easy it is for those who consider themselves to be in possession of a higher level of ‘knowledge’ about such things, to flaunt their liberty. “Take heed,” Paul warned the Corinthians, “lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak” (10:9).

In this second part of the proposed motion at the Council of Jerusalem, the assembly was looking out for the spiritual welfare of the churches.

But… I’m afraid I have digressed. The point is that the time for shadows was past. And it was so hard to let them go!

How hard? And for how long? Just one more example, if I may.

Some years later, Paul returned to Jerusalem, at the conclusion of his third missionary journey. A meeting with James and the elders of the church in Jerusalem was a high priority (21:17-18). After hearing, and surely rejoicing in, the missionary’s report of what “God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry” (v. 19), the elders had some advice for him. The advice itself, which had to do with how Paul might be able to gain the confidence of the church in Jerusalem, is not our concern here. What is our concern is the reason for it. Listen to the elders: “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: and they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses…” (vv. 20-21). Zealous of the law. Which means this, that still very much alive and well among the Jews in Jerusalem was a clinging to the shadows. And, with it, a suspicion of Paul. Our first reaction might be disbelief. Can it really be true that they still do not have it all straight? However, though their clinging to the Jewish customs cannot be said to be entirely without defect, we must nevertheless not forget the times. Herman Hoeksema, in an old SB article, explains it thus:

But we must remember that those days were a period of transition from the old dispensation into the new, from the bondage to the law into the liberty of the free sons of God. The child had grown into manhood, but could hardly become accustomed to his new freedom. Already it had required a special revelation to convince the church that salvation was for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews. But even now, it was not easy completely to break away from the ordinances of the Old Testament, the law of Moses.

We ought also, however, to be clear on exactly what that “defect” in their understanding was. Interestingly, concerning those thousands of Jews in Jerusalem who were zealous for the law, William Smith writes that “their understanding of the gospel had not kept pace with their numbers.” Ah yes, their understanding of the gospel. Their zeal for the law was not simply a matter of their wishing to continue, for example, to distinguish between meats, clean vs. unclean, in their diets. They could feel perfectly free to do that. It must have gone beyond that, to the point where compliance with the old practices was considered to be somehow necessary still for a godly walk. And their suspicion of Paul cannot be said to be simply a matter of misinformation. They must have known that Paul taught that it was the coming of Christ that had put a ‘period’ to the ceremonial laws of the old dispensation. But they could not rid themselves of the notion that to abandon the Mosaic law was a defection from and a despising of the law.

So far from despising the law, Paul was in fact elevating it, to heights that they did not yet comprehend. What they could not yet get a hold of was that, as Calvin put it, “it is a very different thing from defection from the Law, to show its proper aim, that, with figures coming to an end, the spiritual truth may always prevail” (emphasis added).

And I do not think it is too much to say, that it was exactly that, that David was getting a hold of in Psalm 51. “Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering” (v. 16). And that is the point here. We need but to think of the many thousands of Jews in Jerusalem who a quarter of a century after Pentecost were still struggling with that concept, to see how far David was ahead of his time.

(Not quite finished with this subject. Will return to it, D.V., after Rev. Miersma completes, in our shared rubric, another unit in his excellent series on the book of Ecclesiastes.)