I’m sitting here reading Acts for the thousandth time. I’ve always read this story of the Jerusalem Council and focused on the theological implications. I’ve reviled in my heart those who were part of the Pharisees. I’ve identified with Paul and Barnabas and the others in their desire to deliver a gospel of grace.
But I’ve never really thought about what it must have been like to receive that news from the Jerusalem Council.
When our second child was born we were living in a small Mississippi Delta town. The day we came home from the hospital, we noticed his lips would turn blue whenever he would go to sleep. We rushed to the ER at the local hospital, and within 24 hours we were at the Children’s Hospital down in Jackson and no one knew what was wrong. He would just quit breathing.
Over the next few days, our son was run through every test imaginable. We wondered if he would live, or if he would have health issues for the rest of his life. We were exhausted, anxious, and emotionally spent. Then the breathing problem just stopped. He was pronounced healthy. You can imagine our relief when we got the news.
They told us to keep an eye on him (as if we’d be able to stop). And they told us he would need regular checkups but he was as healthy a baby as they had ever seen. Our hearts, once so unsure, were now encouraged.
When the representatives from the Jerusalem Council went down to Antioch, they gathered the congregation and delivered the letter. “And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement” (Acts 15:31).
Up until then, these believers had been getting mixed messages. From Paul they had heard they did not need to be circumcised, but other voices said that was incorrect. Yes, they would have dreaded circumcision because of the physical pain, but I’m sure they also didn’t like wondering whether they were justified before God. Their hearts, which were so unsure, were now encouraged.
Still, I doubt the matter was ever completely settled among them. There were—and still are—plenty of Pharisees who want to add to the gospel and do not believe we are fully justified by faith in Christ’s work on our behalf. Heck, I live with a constant Pharisaical conscience that tells me there is something else I need to do before God will truly love, accept, and forgive me. Every time this happens I am unsure how to proceed. My first instinct is that I need to do something really painful or sacrificial to make things right with God, but that is not the gospel.
What we all need to hear in those situations is what those believers in Antioch were so encouraged: we have already been justified by faith and we need to rest in the work of Christ. With this knowledge, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can fight the voices that insist we need to add our own works to a salvation perfectly accomplished by Christ.
Written By Matthew B. Redmond