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Acts 15:2-3 no small debate

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, September 8, 2020

2 And after Paul and Barnabas had an argument with them—no small debate—Paul and Barnabas and some others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this point of disagreement. 3 So, sent on their way by the church, they went through both Phoenicia and Samaria. They described how the Gentiles had been converted, and they brought great joy to all the brothers.

The question of doctrine, do we need to do anything in addition to what Jesus did to be saved, brought about an argument that became a debate. Luke calls it “no small debate” to show just how serious things were (Luke used a similar expression in Acts 12:18). The conclusion of the debate isn’t given, and the way most debates go, it seems likely that there wasn’t a victory on either side. In fact, since Paul and Barnabas were sent off by the church to check in at Jerusalem about it, it would seem that the outcome was probably one of three:

a, The circumcision group conceded that they were perhaps in the wrong, but wanted Paul and Barnabas to bring this up with the apostles just to be sure.

b, The circumcision group was not at all convinced by Paul’s argument, and demanded that he bring it up with the apostles.

c, The circumcision group agreed not to press the point but demanded that Paul go and bring it up with the apostles.

Of these, I suspect that options ‘b’ or ‘c’ are what really happened. Since this becomes a regular point in Paul’s letters, this remained a problem in the early church for some time (Romans 2:25-29; 1 Corinthians 7:18-20; Galatians 2:12-13, 5:6-12, 6:15; Ephesians 2:11-13; Colossians 2:11-12). The Jews who would have been debating with Paul would have been as steeped in Old Testament law as Paul had been, but without the revelation Paul had from Jesus in person. Even if they could agree that the one sacrifice of Jesus for man’s sake ended all sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10-12), they could not let go of the covenant of obedience to the law of Moses.

While on their way, Paul and Barnabas did not complain or much discuss the reason for their journey to Jerusalem. They could have stirred everyone up against the doctrinal error, but instead they seized the opportunity to tell everyone about the great success they had among the Gentiles. This, after all, was the purpose for their mission trip, the task that the Holy Spirit had given them to do (Acts 13:2, 13:46).

The trip found them traveling through Phoenicia, to Israel’s northwest, and then down through Samaria. Why? Because of the mission work done there by Peter, John, and Philip. It was a good time for Paul to meet with them, as a bearer of good news. The news he carried was the conversion of the Gentiles. This by itself was evidence that there is no obedience involved with salvation apart from the obedience of Jesus on our behalf. What the Jews could not keep perfectly, the Gentiles certainly could not keep. But if the Jews could be saved, so could the Gentiles, as the woman from Phoenicia once testified: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27).

In a Japanese Haiku poem, there is a strict 17-syllable limit: 5 syllables, then 7, then 5. It must include a word to serve as kireji, a ‘cutting’ word to provide either a satisfying conclusion or to turn the poem in the middle to an often-emotional conclusion. Haiku were classically supposed to be nature-poems describing a single moment in time, with a reference to the season of the year. Since our Christian faith is focused on more than God’s creation of nature, but truly on the sacrifice of Jesus, this Haiku seems appropriate today. The cutting word or turning point is “until.”

  Friday: Man was made
  Then fallen, condemned, until
  Friday: Man was saved

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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