The Problem: Those from Syrian Antioch: Part 4
by John Lowe
9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
The fact that they had received the Spirit just as Peter and the Jewish Christians had was proof that God had accepted Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles on an equal footing. He “purified their hearts” by faith. Peter undoubtedly was thinking of his vision: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15). For the Jew, circumcision was a mark of sanctity and purity, of belonging to God’s people and being accepted by Him but in Cornelius, God had shown Peter that true purity comes not by an external mark but by faith. In the account of Cornelius in chapter 10, his faith is never explicitly mentioned but it is certainly evidenced in his following without question every direction God gave him. Here Peter made explicit what was implicit there: Cornelius had been accepted by God on the basis of his faith.
It was faith, not works, that saved, said Peter, speaking out clearly and unmistakably on Paul’s side. The Holy Spirit was in control of the meeting. He was the one who was prompting Peter to speak as he did.
10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples,
which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
In verse 10 Peter gave his conclusion drawn from the experience with Cornelius. It was an emphatic no to the question of Gentile circumcision and the “yoke” of the law. God had accepted the Gentiles at Cornelius’s house without either of these. How can Jewish Christians demand anything more than the faith already shown? To add conditions to God’s plan of salvation that God himself had not added was a serious matter. To demand more would be to put God to the test, to act against God’s declared will, to see if God really meant what He had already shown in accepting the Gentiles apart from the law. Peter’s statement in verse 10 is strong but should not be misconstrued by speaking of the “yoke” of the law, he did not mean that the law was an intolerable burden that Jewish Christians should abandon. Peter was using the common Jewish metaphor for the law that had the same positive meaning Jesus had given it in Matthew 11:291. Peter did not urge Jewish Christians to abandon the law, nor did they cease to live by it. Peter’s meaning was that the law was something the Jews had not been able to fulfill. It had proven an inadequate basis of salvation for them. Neither they nor their fathers had been able to fully keep the law and so win acceptance with God (Romans 2:17-24). For the Jewish Christians, the law would remain a mark of God’s covenant with them, a cherished heritage. It could not save them. Only one thing could—faith, believing in the saving grace of the Lord Jesus (v. 11).
Jesus had described the Pharisees traditions as “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne” (Matthew 23:4). He had swept aside all rabbinical additions to the scriptures as worthless, but still, they multiplied. Even the 613 commandments of the law itself were more of a load than a man could carry. The ritual law, with these hundreds of symbolic regulations, would have driven the Gentiles to distraction.
The Lord Jesus offered something better: “come unto me,” he said, “and I will give you rest.” Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Why would the church want to fasten on anyone’s shoulders the yoke of the law when Jesus had set them free from it, once and for all?
11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
Peter began his speech by pointing out how God had accepted the Gentiles “just like he accepted us” (v. 8). Now the issue was on the other foot. The Gentiles had become the example for the Jews—“we are saved, just as they are” (v. 11). God’s acceptance of the Gentiles had drawn a basic a lesson for the Jews as well. There is only one way of salvation—-“through the grace of our Lord Jesus.” Peter’s ultimate point was that God is free to save whoever and however He pleases.
That was it! Salvation was of grace, not of law. Grace is the unmerited favor; grace is getting something we don’t deserve. Law said, “Do this and thou shalt live”; grace said, “Live! And do this.” Law put the load on man; grace put the load on Christ. Jesus had kept the law fully, in all its details and ramifications, in the spirit and to the letter. In salvation, His life became our life; grace made it available to the believer. Law and grace, as systems of salvation, were mutually incompatible. We are either saved by law, which depends on our accumulating our own merits; or we are saved by grace, which depends upon our accepting His merits
12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.
At the end of Peter’s speech, the entire assembly sat in silence. Paul and Barnabas had already shared their missionary experience with the leaders (v. 4). Now they gave their testimony before the entire congregation. Their emphasis was again on God’s initiative in their mission, His work through them, the signs and wonders that had attested to His presence and affirmation of their ministry. Barnabas told the story of the mission to Cyprus and Galatia, with Paul confirming the story and adding details. The main arguments were offered by Peter and James, the leaders of the apostles and elders. Paul and Barnabas evidently offered no defense of their position on the Gentile question other than the implicit argument that God had endorsed it.
13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:
When Paul and Barnabas had completed their testimony, there was another silence, and then James rose to speak. It was James the brother of Jesus. Paul also mentioned James’s role at the Jerusalem conference (Galatians 2:9; 1:19) and called him one of the “pillars” of the church, along with Peter and John. James was a legalist with a reputation for strictness. It was his name the false teachers had used at Antioch to lend authority to their Judaistic teachings. James had evidently become the leading elder of the Jerusalem congregation, and he was known for his scrupulous attention to all the requirements of Judaism. His leadership of the church has already been indicated in Acts 12:17. Upon Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem, he appears to have been the sole leader of the congregation, and the apostles no longer seem to have been present in the city (21:18-25). Here James continued the defense of Peter’s position that the Gentiles should not be required to be circumcised or embrace the Jewish law. Peter’s argument had been based primarily on his personal experience, which had shown that God had accepted the Gentiles by sending His Spirit on them solely on the basis of their faith. James furthered Peter’s position by giving it scriptural grounding (vs. 14-18).
14 Simeon2 hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.
15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,
16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:
17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.
18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.
The tact of James became evident in his very first word—“Simeon,” Peter’s old Hebrew name. He drew everyone’s attention back to the charismatic figure who loomed so large in Jerusalem, the man God had used to found the Jerusalem church. That was tactful of him.