“As they were sent off and on their way, they told everyone they met about the breakthrough to the Gentile outsiders. Everyone who heard the news cheered — it was terrific news!

“When they got to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were graciously received by the whole church, including the apostles and leaders. They reported on their recent journey and how God had used them to open things up to the outsiders. Some Pharisees stood up to say their piece. They had become believers but continued to hold to the hard party line of the Pharisees. ‘You have to circumcise the pagan converts,’ they said, ‘You must make them keep the Law of Moses.'” Acts 15:3-5 (The Message).

This Jew/Gentile thing was a really sensitive issue in the early church. It was the subject of the first general church council recorded in Acts 15. The leaders of the infant church had to deal with issues as they arose, some of which were relatively simple matters of administration, for example, the neglect of the Greek widows in Acts 6, and some with far more significant matters of understanding regarding the work of Jesus.

Jesus had chosen twelve men to be with Him so that they could learn His yoke. It would be their responsibility to interpret and apply His yoke when He was no longer there, and that was what they were doing now. The Pharisees in the church in Jerusalem were speaking out of turn because they were not part of the original group of men trained by Jesus. They had not lived with Him intimately and understood His heart and the heart of the Father.

God’s intention, from the beginning, was to work through one nation whom He called into fellowship with Himself in a marriage covenant, to reveal Him to the whole world. He had taught them His Word, a way of life that would reflect His nature and requirements for people who belonged to Him.

However, the Jews misinterpreted God’s intention, believing themselves to be superior to the Gentiles, despising them and isolating themselves from them. The Pharisees in particular, hated Jesus because He showed them that God loved and accepted all people. They were so stuck on the letter of the Law of Moses, regardless of the fact that they didn’t obey it themselves, that they could not embrace the real meaning of God’s plan. He dealt with sin through Jesus’ sacrifice, once for all, so that all people, Jews and Gentiles, could come to the Father without having to do anything but believe.

It was important for the apostles to decide what the yoke of Jesus was in this situation — His interpretation of the heart and disposition of the Father which He both taught and practised. It was not a matter of thumb sucking, but of examining the evidence and reaching a conclusion based on what they saw and heard from Jesus as well as what was happening in their current situation.

There would be another important spin-off from the outcome of this meeting. It was imperative that the church remain united. It would be a serious matter if some were teaching one thing and others another. In the early days of the church they had worked hard to keep the unity in their relationships with one another. Now a far more serious and sinister issue had arisen — which had the potential to splinter the church around doctrines that hit at the very heart of their faith.

How relevant this is for the church today! Over the centuries the church has become fragmented over this very issue — what is the yoke of Jesus? Had church leaders only stuck to the criteria of Jesus Himself, His words and His ways, and a passion to keep the unity of the Spirit instead of allowing reason and opinions to dominate them, perhaps the prayer of Jesus, “that they may be one”, would be much nearer to being answered than it appears now.

Luella Campbell

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