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Lesson 37: When Concession is Right (Acts 15:12-35)

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We live in a day of much spiritual and moral compromise, even among evangelical Christians. For that reason, many of us abhor any thought of concession or compromise. Those words imply a weak, wishy-washy, kind of Christianity that isn’t worth following. We value men of conviction who stand firm no matter what. We want nothing to do with concession.

But I have seen people who are so strong on their convictions, even about minor issues, that no one can get along with them. If you don’t agree with them on every minor point of doctrine, they write you off as being a liberal or a heretic. If you confront such a man with his lack of love, he will write you off as a person who does not stand for God’s truth.

Spiritual maturity requires discernment, so that we stand firm when it comes to essential truth; but, on matters not essential to the faith, where godly men may differ, we elevate love over our rights. In other words, as we saw last week, there are times when unity is wrong, namely when it compromises the essentials of the gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But, also, there are times when concession is right:

Concession is right when it does not compromise essential truth and it is done out of love to avoid offending others.

We see both sides of this important principle in our text, which reports the conclusions of the Jerusalem Council. The main issue at stake was, must a person be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses to be saved (15:1, 5). Peter powerfully showed that we all, Jew and Gentile alike, are saved in one way only: by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, through faith in Him (15:9, 11). To add our works to faith alone is to pervert the gospel and put ourselves under God’s eternal condemnation, as Paul argues in Galatians 1:6-9. As we saw, Paul and Barnabas did not set aside this crucial truth in the name of love and unity. Rather, they had great dissension and debate (15:2) with those who taught the necessity of works being added to faith for salvation.

The force of Peter’s argument silenced even those who had disagreed, at least for the moment. Then Paul and Barnabas began to relate how God had worked through them as they preached the gospel to the Gentiles, confirming their message with signs and wonders (15:12). Paul could have launched into a defense of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as he does in Romans 3 & 4. But here his emphasis was on what God had done through them, so that their opponents would know that the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles was God’s doing. The miracles that He granted confirmed His will through them (Heb. 2:3-4).

After Paul and Barnabas finished speaking, James took the floor. This was not the brother of John, who was killed by Herod (12:2), but the half-brother of Jesus, who later wrote the Epistle of James. He was the presiding elder of the church in Jerusalem. It seems to me that in some ways, James never did come to the depth of understanding of God’s grace that Paul had (see 21:18-25). When he stood up to speak, the Judaizers were hoping that he would champion their cause. But they were taken aback when he affirmed Peter’s message, backing it up with Amos 9:11-12. And, without mentioning them by name (until the letter, 15:25), he backed Paul and Barnabas’ view that the Gentiles need not be circumcised (15:19). Then, out of concession, he enumerated four things that the Gentiles should abstain from so as not to offend the Jews (15:20-21).

When everyone agreed with James’ judgment, the church chose two leading men to return with Paul and Barnabas to relate verbally to the Gentile churches the outcome of the Council (15:22). This would protect Paul and Barnabas from any false charges by the Judaizers that they slanted the report in their favor. Also, the final resolution was put into a letter that was to be circulated among the Gentile churches (15:23-29). The outcome was that the Gentile churches were greatly encouraged and the unity of the churches, made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers, was preserved (15:30-35). There are three main lessons that we can learn from our text:

1. Concession is never right if it compromises essential truth from God’s Word (15:12-18).

There are several difficult interpretive issues in James’ use of the quote from Amos 9:11-12. For one thing, he does not cite the Hebrew text, but rather the Greek Septuagint version, and even there he differs at several points. Perhaps he was citing it from memory and modifying it to give the sense of it as it related to his application. Also, it has been pointed out that James’ citation agrees exactly with one of the Jewish Essene sect texts of Amos 9. If some of the scrupulous Jewish Christians in his audience came from this sect, James may have been showing them that their own version supported the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s purpose (Richard Longenecker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 9:447).

The main difficulty concerns the interpretation of the quote from Amos. Most premillennial commentators interpret it to refer to the second coming of Christ and the future restoration of David’s throne, followed by worldwide witness to the Gentiles in the millennium. Thus James would be arguing that since Amos predicted the future inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s purpose apart from their becoming Jewish proselytes, there is therefore no need for them to become Jewish proselytes in the present situation (John MacArthur, Jr., Acts 13-28 in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Moody Press], p. 69).

It seems to me, however, that James is using the quote from Amos to refer to what God was doing in the present, not to what He would do in the future. This is not to deny a future aspect and greater fulfillment of the prophecy in the millennial kingdom. But I think James uses the quote to establish that God’s purpose in the present age includes the calling of the Gentiles apart from their becoming Jews (Ray Stedman, Acts 13-20, The Growth of the Body [Vision House], pp. 64-65).

Another problem concerns the interpretation of verse 18. The quote from Amos 9:12 ends with “says the Lord, who does these things.” The rest of the verse is James’ comment. The problem is, his comment is so elliptical (incomplete) that it is hard to make sense of it. This resulted in a number of textual variants introduced by scribes who expanded the phrase into a complete sentence (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [United Bible Societies], second ed., p. 379). Probably James’ brief comment means, “The Gentiles’ inclusion in the gospel was no surprise to God, who knew it from eternity.”

All the interpretive problems aside, the bottom line is that James was using Scripture to support Peter’s argument, that salvation for all people, Jew or Gentile, is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The quote from Amos and James’ concluding comment support what Peter emphasized in verse 7, that the salvation of the Gentiles originated with God, not with man. It was not something that Peter or Paul and Barnabas dreamed up. God purposed to do it from eternity, and He revealed it through His prophets centuries before.

As we saw last week, the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is not to be set aside or compromised in the name of love and unity. It is the only way of salvation, both for Jews and for Gentiles. If we compromise the gospel, we have given up the very essence of the Christian faith. Any unity that is achieved through such compromise is not Christian unity in the biblical sense of the word. Included under the term “the gospel” are the essential truths of the sinfulness of all humanity, of the inability of people to save themselves, and of our need for a spiritual new birth that can only come from God.

Beyond the matter of the gospel and how we are saved, there are several other biblical truths that we cannot yield or we compromise the essence of the Christian faith. The inspiration, authority, and total trustworthiness of Scripture must never be compromised or we have no objective, authoritative basis for our faith. The nature of God as a Triune being, one God who subsists in three equal and co-eternal persons is another essential. We must affirm both the full deity and the full humanity of Jesus. It is also essential to affirm His sacrificial death on the cross, His bodily resurrection from the dead, His bodily ascension into heaven, and His bodily return in power and glory to judge all the living and the dead. Any concession on these essentials, even if it is for the sake of unity, is wrong because it is to join with those who are Christian in name only, but not in God’s sight. Concession is never right if it compromises essential truth from God’s Word.

2. Concession is right when it is done out of love to avoid offending others (15:19-29).

James sums up his judgment first by affirming that the Gentiles should not be forced to adopt circumcision and the keeping of the Law of Moses (15:19). Some think that James’ conclusion and the letter are weak in that they never state directly that these things are not required (James Boice, Acts [Zondervan], p. 266). Perhaps James and the Council were trying to be diplomatic, while still making the point, which the church at Antioch understood (15:31).

Then (15:20-21) James mentions four things that the Gentile Christians should abstain from for the sake of not offending the Jews. Three of these were not essential doctrinal matters, but rather matters that took into consideration the social situation and sought to avoid needlessly giving offense.  There are several views of verse 21. Without going into all of the possibilities, it seems to me that James is saying, “The reason that the Gentile believers should abstain from these four behaviors is that almost every city has adherents to the Jewish faith. So as not needlessly to offend Jews who need to believe in Christ as Savior, and so as not to offend recently converted Jews who are in the churches and thus cause divisions, Gentile Christians need to abstain from these four things.”

The four things are repeated, although in slightly different order, in the letter (15:29), which James probably drafted with the approval of the whole body. The tone of the letter is not authoritative and demanding, with warnings of judgment if it is not obeyed. Rather, the overall tone is kind and encouraging toward the Gentile believers, and supportive of Paul and Barnabas and their outreach to the Gentiles. It also makes it clear that the false teachers had acted without the approval of the leaders in Jerusalem.

The fact that three of the requirements seem to be related to the Jewish ceremonial law, whereas the other seems to be moral, has led to many textual variants and interpretations. Some take them all to be moral; others take them all to be ceremonial. I think that three of the items related to Jewish ceremonial laws, and the other (fornication) related to a moral issue toward which many Gentiles would be insensitive because of their culture.

The first item, “things contaminated by idols,” or “sacrificed to idols,” referred to meat that had been offered to pagan gods, but then was sold in the marketplace. It would be offensive to most Jews if Gentile Christians ate such meat. “Blood and things strangled” referred to eating meat that had not been killed by draining the blood from it, thus violating Jewish dietary laws (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 3:17; 7:26; 17:10-14; 19:26; et. al). While the Gentiles were not subject to these laws, the Council requested that they abstain from these practices so as not to offend the Jews.

The last item, “fornication,” has been variously interpreted. Since the other three items are ceremonial, and since the prohibition against sexual immorality would apply to every believer as a moral absolute, some understand it to refer to the levitical prohibition of marriage to a near relative (Lev. 18:6-18), which the rabbis described as “porneia” (Metzger, p. 380).  The problem with this view is that it is an unusual use of this Greek word, and most Gentiles would not have taken it in this sense.

I think that we must understand the word as the Gentile recipients would have, to refer to sexual relations outside of marriage. But, why did this even need to be mentioned, since it is a part of God’s moral law? Sexual immorality was so commonly accepted among the Gentiles that there were probably some who professed faith in Christ, but did not yet understand God’s moral standards. They came out of a background where temple prostitution and having a mistress for sexual gratification were shrugged off as standard practice. If they professed faith in Jesus Christ, and yet continued these practices, unbelieving Jews who held to the sanctity of marriage could never be reached with the gospel.

From these four prohibitions, we can draw three applications:

1) Out of love for the lost, we should not do culturally offensive things that would cause them to reject the gospel.

Paul deals with this at length in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.

Paul was always sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of those he was trying to reach with the gospel, and he tried not to do anything that would put up a barrier between them and their need for Jesus Christ. Every missionary needs great wisdom to discern which issues are merely cultural, that he can go along with, and which issues are biblically essential, that he cannot compromise.

Some matters may need to be set aside temporarily, until people come to saving faith, and then introduced later. For example, if you are trying to reach Muslims, you probably should not begin by emphasizing the equal standing of the sexes before God. While that is a biblical principle (Gal. 3:28), it would probably keep most Muslim men from believing the gospel, since male dominance is a major cultural issue with them. But if a Muslim man comes to faith in Christ, he then needs to be taught to treat his wife as a fellow-heir of the grace of Christ (1 Pet. 3:7), and to respect women as co-laborers in the cause of the gospel (Phil. 4:3).

2) Out of love for fellow believers, we should not do morally permissible things that would lead them into sin.

Paul deals with this in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14. Some Christians felt free to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, and in Christ, they had such freedom. It was not violating any moral command of God to eat such meat. But, there were some weaker Christians whose consciences would be violated if they ate such meat. They had come out of pagan idolatry, and to eat such meat might lead them back into their former practices. Out of love for their brethren, Paul tells the stronger Christians to give up eating such meat so as not to cause their brothers to stumble.

There is a lot of confusion over this principle in our day. Often, legalistic church members set up their own unbiblical standards and impose them on newer believers. For example, they require that these newer believers adopt a certain manner of attire for church, although the Bible does not stipulate such. If a newer believer does not conform, he is told that he needs to conform so that he doesn’t cause this older believer to stumble. But “causing your brother to stumble” does not mean that. It refers to doing something that is morally permissible for you, but it would be sin for another Christian, and your behavior would lead him to join with you and thus to sin.

I might add that it is impossible to live so as not to offend anyone. This decree from the Council no doubt offended many of the Jewish believers, who still found it difficult to accept any Gentiles in the church who did not live as Jews. So we can’t get too hung up about not offending anyone. We should seek to live in good conscience before God, seeking to please Him. If we know that we are offending another Christian, we should go to him and seek to get the matter resolved if possible.

3) Out of grateful obedience to God, we must never do things that are culturally accepted but absolutely forbidden by His Word.

We live in a day when many who profess to be Christians are ignorant of God’s holy standards for His people. I have met college students who say that they know Christ, but who do not feel that it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage. Divorce has become so widespread, even in evangelical circles, that many professing Christians walk away from their marriages as if divorce were just an unfortunate event, rather than a grievous sin. God’s moral standards do not change over time or from culture to culture. We must not be so influenced by our culture that we violate God’s holy standards. This leads to the final section of our text:

3. Our authoritative guide for all faith and practice is God’s Word, which should be taught and learned (15:30-35).

Judas and Silas, who accompanied Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch, “strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message.” I like that! And Luke reports that Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, “teaching and preaching, with many others also, the word of the Lord.” In Acts 11:26, we saw how these men “for an entire year met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”

We often forget that the Great Commission is not just evangelism. That’s the first part of it; but the Great Commission also requires “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Churches today are starved because pastors are expected to do all sorts of things, with teaching and preaching God’s Word low on the list. It should be at the top.

Also, the church has always been plagued with false teachers like these Judaizers, whose words unsettled the souls of the saints (15:24). The Greek word “unsettled” occurs only here in the New Testament. It was used outside the Bible to refer to going bankrupt or to a military force plundering a town (James Moulton & George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 37). Paul later warned the Ephesian pastors that from among their ranks, men would arise, “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). So we always need to be growing in our knowledge and application of God’s Word, so that false teachers do not plunder our souls.

Conclusion

During 1977, millions of people lined up at museums across the United States to view the treasures from the tomb of King Tutankhamen of Egypt. It is interesting that Ali Hassan, the curator of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, discovered that some of the jewels in the tomb were not genuine, but were only colored glass. When he was asked how this could go undetected for so many years, Mr. Hassan answered, “We were blinded by the gold. One just assumes that real gold and real gems go hand-in-hand. This is a case where they don’t” (“Our Daily Bread,” Fall, 1978).

Satan mixes truth and error to deceive Christians. He gets us to compromise and unite over doctrines where we should not budge an inch. And, he gets us to fight and divide over issues where we need to concede our rights out of love. We need God’s wisdom and discernment to know essential truth where we must never concede, and to know areas where it is right to concede out of love so as not to offend others.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we determine which doctrines in the Bible are essential to the faith and which are not as important?
  2. What are some examples of offensive things that Christians can do that keep unbelievers from believing the gospel?
  3. What are some examples of offensive things that Christians can do that could lead weaker believers into sin?
  4. What are some culturally acceptable practices that the Bible says are always wrong, but where Christians are in danger of imitating the world?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Fellowship, Love