The Gospel Comes to Europe

Day 55

Acts 15 & 16

Before the gospel could come to Europe — which would eventually become the stronghold of Christianity for over a thousand years — the church first had to settle the issue of Gentile salvation. Could a Gentile be saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone, or did they have to go through a “Jewification” process of circumcision and the observance of certain Jewish ritual? Much was at stake with this question. Had it been decided that to be saved a person essentially had to become Jewish first, then Christianity would have become little more than a sect of Judaism.

Ever since Peter had preached the gospel to the house of Cornelius several years earlier, the apostles had apparently agreed that Gentiles need to do nothing more than believe in Jesus to be saved. But some of the Pharisees who had become Christians were putting pressure on Gentile believers to conform to Jewish observances and telling them they could not be saved otherwise. This was not really an issue in the Jerusalem church, which was entirely Jewish and where the members continued to practice many of their Jewish rituals. It became a problem when uncommissioned preachers from Jerusalem began to preach this to the Gentile believers in Antioch. To settle the dispute the church held its first council — the Jerusalem Council.

From the outset all of the apostolic leaders were in agreement. Peter (the preeminent apostle), James (the pastor of the church in Jerusalem), Paul and Barnabas (the apostles to the Gentiles) all agreed that the Gentiles could be saved by faith in Jesus alone; it was only the Pharisee Christians who contended otherwise. And the spiritual descendents of the Pharisee Christians are still among us today, contending that to be saved you have to belong to a certain denomination or you have to be baptized in a certain way or you have to worship on a certain day of the week, etc. This is rooted in spiritual elitism and a desire to have proprietary control of the Kingdom of God. These kinds of Christians always impede the real progress of the Kingdom.

I think it is worth noting that this dispute was settled by the local church, with Pastor James presiding and giving the final decision. This testifies to the preeminence of the local church in the purposes of God.

In the end it was decided to simply encourage the Gentiles in their faith in Jesus Christ and make it clear to them that in becoming followers of Jesus they had to make a clean break with idolatry and immorality. Of course following Jesus involves more than giving up idolatry and immorality, but these two sins are particularly destructive and must be forsaken if there is to be any hope of really making it as a Christian. I’m sure I’ll have much more to say about this when I reach Acts 15 in “The Unvarnished Church” series.

I also note that although an amiable resolution was reached at the Jerusalem Council, Paul and Barnabas were unable to reach an amiable solution in their disagreement over the role of John Mark in their ministry together…so they parted ways. Who was right? Who knows? Probably both. Barnabas was the encourager who prioritized relationships and later Paul would acknowledge the usefulness of Mark. On the other hand Paul was the great pioneer missionary called to take the gospel into the strongholds of paganism and couldn’t have a potential deserter on his team. Personally I think they both did what they needed to do and it’s encouraging to realize that personal disagreement in the body of Christ does not mean the end of the world.

So it was Paul and Silas who broke into new territory taking the gospel to a new continent: Europe. The challenges were enormous; and though there were astounding miracles to help propel the gospel, this advance of the Kingdom would not come without tremendous risk, sacrifice and suffering. We often say we would like to have had an opportunity to have been with the Apostle Paul, but I suspect most of us would not have lasted as long as Mark did before heading home. Paul and his companions really were remarkable champions of the gospel.