But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” – Acts 15:1-5
When I was growing up, I would go over to my next door neighbor’s house and just walk in the front door. I didn’t knock. I didn’t ask if I could come in. I just went in. I would find Kenny either in his bedroom in the basement, or watching TV in the living room. It’s just the way things were. I just presumed that I could go into his house.
In somewhat the same manner many Christians today presume upon God, believing that we can just enter into his presence with little or no fanfare, or minimal trepidation. It seems quite the case for North American Protestant Christians. We belong to the church. We can simply go into any church and presume to be served a good sermon, a great choir, a comfortable pew, and a warm welcome. In fact, if we don’t find these things, we are prone often to complain about it.
What if, however, we were to take a different approach to entering into the presence of God and claiming a fellowship with other believers? What if we considered it a high privilege to call God, “Father,” and be welcomed into any fellowship of believers? We take for granted our equal access to God’s grace and easy acceptance by God’s people.
That makes it difficult for us to grasp fully the quandary and sincere debate that was to be had in Jerusalem over the entry of the Gentiles into the rule and reign of God. That God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles meant something. But just what did it mean? And when Paul and his company shared that Good News with the people in Jerusalem was it seen as unmitigated Good News?
Many years ago I was leading our church to become more inviting and accepting to people who were not yet part of our fellowship. Two reactions to our plans and the prospects of success stand out in my mind even today. At a leaders retreat our long-time church secretary said, “We don’t just want all these other people to come in here, do we?” She was literally afraid of the implications of that. She apparently felt threatened by having to deal with “all these people.” Another younger person (who was 16 going on 60) said, “Why can’t they (the people we were inviting into our church fellowship from outside the church family) become like us (first, before coming into our church)?
This was the question that would be put to the leaders in Jerusalem on the occasion of Paul and Barnabas’ visit there. What would be necessary for the new Gentile believers in order not only to be received into the fellowship of the believers, but even to be saved?
We might think this is a slam-dunk question, and that those who were asking these questions were petty and small-thinking. That may be true. It may also be important for us to watch carefully as this issue unfolds in the early church. While Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension with those who wanted to impose the Mosaic laws on the new Gentile believers, this would not be the last of those conversations. And apparently Paul and Barnabas thought this was important enough – and that those who were saying this deserved to be engaged in the conversation – that they spent the “no little time” it would take to talk this through.
They didn’t just throw up their hands in disgust and dismiss these Pharisees. But neither did they dismiss the new believers. Fellowship in the church is earned by Jesus, and not by our efforts or behavior. When we start there we are truly representing the heart of God.