Acts 15:1-34 records the trouble caused by those who insisted that one cannot be saved without being circumcised according to the custom of Moses (v. 1). Concerning this matter a conference of the apostles and elders was held in Jerusalem (vv. 1-21). In this message we shall consider what took place at this conference and what was the solution to the problem (vv. 22-33).
“When much discussion had taken place, Peter rose up and said to them, Men, brothers, you know that from the early days God chose among you that through my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, the Knower of hearts, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit even as also to us; and He made no distinction at all between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith” (vv. 7-9). Peter’s word about the cleansing of our hearts by faith indicates that God does not care for outward legalistic ordinances which cannot cleanse man’s inward being; rather, He cares for the inward cleansing of man’s heart. This corresponds to the Lord’s emphasis in Mark 7:1-23. The cleansing of man’s heart can only be by the Holy Spirit with the divine life, not by outward ordinances of dead letters.
In Acts 15:10 Peter continues, “Therefore why are you now testing God by placing a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” This yoke is the yoke of the law, which was a bondage under slavery (Gal. 5:1). The yoke in slavery in Galatians 5:1 is the bondage of law, which makes the lawkeepers slaves under a binding yoke. To require people to keep the law of slavery not only enslaves them but also tests God. Even God could not and would not make man keep the law of letters.
In Acts 15:11 Peter goes on to say, “But through the grace of the Lord Jesus we believe that we are saved, in the same way also as they are.” This grace comprises the Lord’s Person and His redemptive work (Rom. 3:24). Peter and the Jewish believers were saved by this grace, not by keeping the law of Moses. As far as God’s salvation is concerned, to keep the law means nothing either to the Jews or the Gentiles.
According to 15:7, Peter spoke only after much discussion had taken place. Actually, Peter should not have allowed all that discussion. Immediately he should have said, “Brothers, let me remind you of what the Lord Jesus said to us. He told us that we would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and even unto the remotest part of the earth. Do you think that the Lord meant that we need to circumcise all the Gentiles? Certainly He did not mean this.” If Peter had spoken in this way, those attending the conference would have listened to him.
Peter’s speaking in 15:7-11 was good, but it was not strong enough. Why did he not refer to the Lord’s word in 1:8? Why did he simply remind them that God had chosen that through him the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe? Peter should have said, “You know that from the early days the Lord Jesus told us that we should be His witnesses even to the remotest part of the earth.” In Acts 15 Peter may still have been somewhat fearful. He was not bold, and he did not exercise the authority assigned to him by the Head. If Peter had exercised this authority, he would have solved the problem and cut off the flow of the “poison” of heresy. He would have dealt with the very source of this flow. Peter, however, failed to do his job adequately.
In 15:8 Peter refers to God as the Knower of hearts. This is a rather weak expression. Peter should have said that God is the Planner of His economy, the One who formed His economy, His dispensation. Paul, who was bolder than Peter, spoke of God in this way in his Epistles. Was God’s giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles only due to the fact that He knew their hearts? Was this the only reason that He cleansed their hearts by faith? Did the Lord give Peter the keys merely that God may come in to cleanse the hearts of the Gentiles? No doubt, Peter makes a number of good points here, but his presentation is too weak. This weakness may cause us to question whether he really knew God’s economy adequately.
In 15:10 Peter asked, “Why are you now testing God?” Actually, they were not only testing God—they were nullifying God’s economy. Once again, Peter’s word in verse 10 was good, but it was still weak. Peter was the leading apostle, and the Lord had given him a measure of authority. However, in Acts 15 he did not exercise this authority. Nevertheless, we praise the Lord for Peter’s testimony and fellowship.
We have pointed out that Peter should have reminded those at the conference of the Lord’s word in 1:8. Peter should also have testified to them concerning the vision he saw in Joppa (10:9-16). He should have said, “Let me tell you what happened to me in Joppa. While I was praying, I saw a vision of a vessel like a great sheet in which were all the four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth and birds of heaven. Then the Lord told me to slay and eat. When I refused to do this, the Lord told me a second and a third time to slay and eat. The Lord told me that what God has cleansed I should not consider common. After seeing this vision, I went to Caesarea. As I was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon those in the house.” Peter should have testified concerning the Lord’s word in 1:8, the vision he saw, and what happened in the house of Cornelius. Peter should have taken these things as the ground to tell those at the conference to forget about the law, circumcision, and the Levitical dietary regulations. But Peter lacked the boldness to do this.
When the Lord Jesus referred to the cases of the widow of Sarepta of Sidon and of Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:25-27), implying that His gospel would turn to the Gentiles, those in the synagogue were filled with anger and wanted to kill Him. In contrast to the Lord in Luke 4, Peter was very cautious, not daring to mention the vision he had seen. The fact that Peter did not mention the vision given to him by the Lord may indicate not only that he was lacking in boldness but also that the atmosphere in Jerusalem was very heavy.
Actually when this heresy concerning circumcision arose at Jerusalem in the very beginning, Peter should have exercised the gift that the Lord had given him to clear up the cloudy situation in Jerusalem concerning God’s New Testament economy, according to the revelation that the Lord had given him and the other apostles in Acts 1:8 and the vision he had received at Joppa in Acts 10 concerning the Gentiles. If he had done this, the Judaic heresy would have been cut off at the very beginning in Jerusalem and would not have spread to the churches in the Gentile world. But he failed to do this, so Paul had to rise up to perform the surgery to cut off the racial cancer that could have destroyed God’s New Testament economy and killed the Body of Christ.
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