4. Law, Grace, and the New Israel (Acts 15:1-35, 49 AD)

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Claude Vignon (French artist, 1593-1670), ‘Saint Paul with Sword,’ St. Severin Church, Paris, oil on canvas.
Claude Vignon (French artist, 1593-1670), 'Saint Paul with Sword,' St. Severin Church, Paris, oil on canvas.

As Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch after the completion of the First Missionary Journey, there's a lot to reassess. Not so long before, the Christian Church existed primarily in Jerusalem and Judea. Then it spreads to Samaria and Antioch. And with Paul and Barnabas erupted joyfully in south Galatia.

God seemed to be propelling the church forward rapidly. The problem is, we humans don't deal well with change. We need time to process it, to think it through, and then -- when we're forced to -- to change. The early church was made up of humans like us.us.

So many things -- long established in Judaism -- needed to be rethought. This crisis of understanding is precipitated by the Judaizers trying to force Gentile Christians into a Jewish mold. But the roots of change have been present ever since Jesus died and was resurrected. Yes, there is continuity with the history of the people of God. But many things needed to be understood differently.

In this lesson, we'll examine three of the new understandings.

  1. The Law. The Judaizers that plague the church in these early days are ultimately dealt with by the Jerusalem Council in 49 AD.
  2. Salvation by Grace. The concept of salvation by law must give way to salvation by grace through faith.
  3. The New Israel. The whole concept of Israel needs to be rethought -- and what emerges is an understanding of a New Israel, made up of the followers of Jesus the Messiah, who has broken down the barriers between Jew and Gentile.

These new paradigms are thought-wrenching for the Jewish Christians in these early days. But our passionate apostle Paul is at the forefront of these new understandings. So we need to spend some time to work through them. These concepts are core to Paul's ministry and message.

4.1. Judaizers in Antioch and Galatia

Paul's Early Travels, 33-46 AD.
Paul's Early Travels, 33-46 AD  (larger map)

The early disciples come from the Pharisaic understanding of Judaism that righteousness comes through keeping the Law. But Christ's sacrifice on the cross for our sins has changed things forever. Christians believe that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, thus we are saved by Jesus' atonement, not by our own efforts at righteous living.

Teaching Circumcision in Antioch (Acts 15:1, 5)

The conflict between the old wine and the new becomes apparent at the interface between Jews and Gentiles in Antioch of Syria. Antioch has a quite large Jewish community as well as a growing group of Gentile Christians. Antioch is ripe ground for the conflict between the old and new to manifest.

Paul and Barnabas have returned from the First Missionary Journey to Antioch, where they had been ministering for some time previous.

"And they stayed there a long time with the disciples." (Acts 14:28)

Now they settle in to ministry again in the Church in Antioch. The year is about 48 to 49 AD. But a doctrinal crisis faces them immediately.

"Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: 'Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.'" (Acts 15:1)

"The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." (Acts 15:5)

In other words, you have to become a full Jew before you can be saved as a Christian. And to become a full Jew, you go through various steps (such as circumcision) and take upon you various obligations (to obey the Mosaic law). People who teach this are called "Judaizers."

Judaizers in the Galatian Churches

Paul has also received letters from some of the churches just planted in the province of Galatia -- Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (sometimes known as the churches of South Galatia).[142] They, too, are being visited by Jewish Christians who are trying to convince these new believers that they need to be circumcised and become full Jews if they are to be saved. Paul writes to the Galatians:

"6  I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel -- 7  which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ." (Galatians 1:6-7)

Because they are apparently from Judea, these false teachers seek to undermine Paul's apostolic authority. "We from Judea know better than Paul!" In Galatians 2, Paul seeks to convince his readers that his teaching is based on revelation directly from Jesus, which would supersede any so-called authority derived from the leaders in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:11-2:10).

Paul is outraged! He launches into what could accurately be termed a "tirade"[143] against the Judaizers. Remember, Paul is a man of passion!

"But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!" (Galatians 1:8)

A Different "Gospel"

Paul has been preaching "good news." But these Judaizers are preaching anything but good news to the new believers. Paul calls it:

  • "Different[144] gospel" (Galatians 1:6).
  • "No gospel at all" (Galatians 1:7a)[145]
  • "Pervert[146] the gospel" (Galatians 1:7b).
  • "Preach a gospel other" (NIV, KJV) or "contrary"[147] (ESV, NRSV) (Galatians 1:8-9)

As I said, change is hard. When you understand something one way, you try to force everything into the same rigid category. But the gospel of grace isn't a good fit for a religion of law. Jesus predicts this reaction.

"37  And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38  No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 39  And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.'" (Luke 5:37-39)

In this case, the old is not better! And it is not "good" news!

This legalism threatens the very message of the gospel of Jesus Christ! It can't be ignored, since it is sowing confusion among thousands of new converts in Syria and Galatia.

Q1. (Acts 15:1,5) What is the essential demand of the Judaizers? How does that contradict the idea of salvation by grace? What is the danger of excessive legalism in our Christian congregations?

4.2. The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-35, 49 AD)

Paul and Barnabas answer these Judaizers sharply in Antioch and by letter. But, in addition, they demand that the matter be decided once and for all by the leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2).

You must understand that while James and the other apostles are practicing Jews as well as believers in the Messiah, they are not Judaizers. On a previous visit to Jerusalem, Paul reports,

"Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek." (Galatians 2:3)

But James and the apostles tolerate the Judaizers, "the circumcision party," and, as a result, the problem gets out of hand.

When they get to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas are warmly received and tell all the glorious acts of reaching the Gentiles on their First Missionary Journey (Acts 15:3-4).

Peter's Testimony of the Holy Spirit at Caesarea (Acts 15:7-11)

Now "the apostles and elders met to consider this question," a meeting we refer to as the Jerusalem Council (49 AD). There is lots of discussion. Then Peter gets up and reminds them of what had happened when the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10-11):

"9 [God] made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10  Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11  No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." (Acts 15:9-11)

It is a powerful argument. We'll come back to Peter's mention of salvation by grace later in this lesson.

Barnabas, Paul, and James (Acts 15:12-18)

Then Barnabas and Paul speak.

"The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them." (Acts 15:12)

In other words, God has verified the message of Paul and Barnabas and the salvation of the Gentiles by means of signs and wonders performed among them.

Finally, James, Jesus' brother and lead pastor in Jerusalem, gets up and summarizes what God seems to be saying to the assembled body. He cites Amos 9:11-12 to the effect that the Gentiles are included among God's people (Acts 15:16-18). Then he gives his own opinion about what they should do.

"19  It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20  Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21  For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath." (Acts 15:19-21)

Rules for Gentiles (Acts 15:20-21, 28-29)

James' summary of rules to impose on Gentiles arises not so much from the Law as from pragmatic peacemaking in a Church that increasingly has to accommodate people from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds without offending each other. I get the sense that the rules concerning food regulations are a kind of an interim measure, since Paul modifies some of them in his letters to various churches (for example, in 1 Corinthians 10:25-29). The rule that remains is abstinence from sexual immorality.

Here are the original stipulations made by the Jerusalem Council.

1. Abstain from food polluted by idols. Jews were deeply offended by idol worship -- and rightly so! This stipulation probably refers to meat that is offered to local deities in a pagan temple, prior to its being sold in the meat market. Later, to the Corinthian church, Paul interprets this with sensitivity in a clearly Gentile city in 1 Corinthians 8:4-13, explaining that idols aren't gods and have no real existence.  Then he expands on this a couple of chapters later.

"25  Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26  for, 'The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it.' 27  If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28  But if anyone says to you, 'This has been offered in sacrifice,' then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake -- 29  the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience?" (1 Corinthians 10:25-29)

The principle is now pragmatic; not the food itself, but offending "weaker" brothers. And pragmatism is the basis of the compromise James offers to keep from offending Palestinian Jews.

2. Abstain from blood. Eating blood was offensive to Jews because of clear prohibitions in the Law (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 7:26-27; 17:10-13; Deuteronomy 12:16, 23-24).

3. Abstain from the meat of strangled animals. In order to fulfill the command not to eat blood in the meat, Jews slit the throat of the animal, and then hang it upside down to drain out the blood -- the way Kosher meat is prepared to this day. To strangle the animal would leave the blood in the meat. Paul doesn't mention either abstaining from blood or strangled animals when he discusses eating meat purchased from the Gentile meat market. Unless there are Jewish butchers in the Greek cities, such meat would be hard to purchase.

4. Abstain from sexual immorality. The command against sexual immorality is by no means ignored in the New Testament Church. Rather it is mentioned by Jesus and the apostles many times. This is a moral rule, not one designed primarily to help Jew and Gentile Christians to share fellowship.

The assembly agrees with James' formulation, and, "with the whole church," sends representatives to Antioch to certify that this decision is the official teaching.

'Clean' Food and Circumcision Are Not Required

Three items are clearly absent from James' list of rules:

a. 'Clean' food. Omitted from this list are eating animals unclean to Jews, such as pork. In a classic chapter on refraining from judgment on people with different convictions, Paul says, "I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself." (Romans 14:14a). We see the same conclusion from the author or editor of Mark's Gospel, which probably reflects the preaching of Peter (Mark 7:19b). The Jerusalem Council makes guidelines in the preparation of meat, but not the animals from which the meat is derived.

b. Circumcision. Nowhere does the Jerusalem Council require that Gentile Christians be circumcised, nor had circumcision of Gentile Christians been required earlier by the Jerusalem leaders (Galatians 2:1-2). This is a huge step towards clarifying the nature of salvation by grace through Jesus the Messiah!

c. Sabbath-keeping. Jesus clearly honored the Sabbath -- rightly kept (Mark 2:27-28; Luke 4:16; Matthew 12:9-13; 24:20); so, I would guess, did the Jewish leaders of the early church. I can't see Paul making tents on the Sabbath, even in Corinth or Ephesus! But the Jerusalem Council is silent about requiring Sabbath-keeping by the Gentiles. My guess is that a large percentage of the Gentile believers were slaves or had jobs that required them to work on the Sabbath. Even on Sunday, it seems that some of the meetings were in the evening, perhaps for that reason. I am convinced that if Paul felt Sabbath-keeping were important for Gentile Christians to observe, he would have mentioned it somewhere in his epistles. Rather, his only mention is to prevent Judaizers from judging them:

"16  Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ." (Colossians 2:16-17)

I know my dear Seventh Day Adventist brothers and sisters disagree with me here, but that's my conclusion. (For more on this, see Lesson 9.1). This is not to say, however, that building rest into one's week is not a godly and important discipline for Christians.

Official Condemnation of Judaizers (Acts 15:24)

In an apostolic letter, the Jerusalem leaders distance themselves from the Judaizers:

"We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said." (Acts 15:24)

They also affirm their support of Barnabas and Paul. The Jerusalem delegates Judas and Silas, "who were themselves prophets," come in person to Antioch to report the official decision, and "said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers" (Acts 15:32), before returning to Jerusalem.

"But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord." (Acts 15:35)

Paul and Barnabas continue their teaching and preaching ministry in Antioch for a few months before embarking on the Second Missionary Journey, which we'll study in Lessons 5, 6, and 7.

The Jerusalem Council doesn't completely solve the problem with the Judaizers. They still appear years later in Philippi (Philippians 3:2-3) and Crete (Titus 1:10), but the crisis is over. Paul, who has witnessed the damage they cause, has little patience with them. He calls them "dogs ... mutilators of the flesh" (Philippians 2:2), and wishes that they would "go the whole way and emasculate[148] themselves" (Galatians 5:13).

And though Paul is not compelled to do so by his Christian principles, on his Second Missionary Journey he circumcises Timothy in Lystra, now part of the missionary team, so that circumcision won't become an issue in Paul's ministry in Jewish synagogues (Acts 16:3). Paul is involved in some kind of Nazirite vow on his Third Missionary Journey (Acts 18:18), which we'll examine in Lesson 6.3 and Lesson 9.2. In addition, Paul also takes a vow in Jerusalem to accommodate the stricter Jews there and keep peace in the Church (Acts 21:20-26). Paul is free from the Law, but also free in Christ to operate under Jewish customs when it is important.

Paul retains his Jewish sensitivities, but they no longer define him. He is not under the law, but under the Spirit (Galatians 5:18). Now, to the Jews, he can relate as a Jew. To the Greeks, he can relate as a Greek.ek.

"I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." (1 Corinthians 9:22, ESV)

4.3. Salvation by Grace

The Jerusalem Council highlights one of the bedrock elements of salvation through Jesus Christ -- grace. Peter declares at the Jerusalem Council what they all believe:

"We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as [the Gentiles] are." (Acts 15:11)

The concept of grace isn't new. It is explicit in the ideas of God's loving choice or election in the Old Testament. In Moses' time, Yahweh reveals himself as

"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful[149] and gracious[150] ...." (Exodus 34:6a, ESV)

Grace is a major theme in Jesus' teaching, even though the word "grace" is not recorded on his lips. Nevertheless, we find the principles of grace in his actions and parables. For example, he shows mercy to the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). He often heals because he is "moved with compassion" (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34). Jesus' Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) undoubtedly illustrates that salvation is entirely based on God's mercy, not man's deservedness. The Parable of the Prodigal Son also illustrates undeserved forgiveness (Luke 15:11-20).

However, Paul so clarifies the concept of grace, so clearly spells out the implications of salvation by grace, that passages from Paul's epistles have become the key texts that help define the Doctrine of Grace. Indeed, nearly two-thirds (100 of 154) of the New Testament  occurrences of charis (normally translated "grace") are found in the Pauline letters.

Grace in Acts

We see the idea of salvation by grace several times in Acts:

"The Lord ... confirmed the message of his grace." (Acts 14:3)

"It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved...." (Acts 15:11a)

"[Apollos] was a great help to those who by grace had believed." (Acts 18:27)

"The task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace." (Acts 20:24)

"I commit you to God and to the word of his grace." (Acts 20:32a)

Paul is the ideal messenger of salvation by God's undeserved favor since Paul himself, the attacker of the church and persecutor of Jesus, is so remarkably forgiven.

"7  I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. 8  Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ." (Ephesians 3:7-8)

It is also ironic that Paul, who as a Pharisee had pursued righteousness under Law all his life (Philippians 3:16), now comes to rely completely on God's favor for his salvation.

 Grace, charis

To go deeper we need to define terms. "Grace" is Greek charis, "a beneficent disposition toward someone, favor, grace, gracious care or help, goodwill."[151] In Paul's defining passages, grace is favor shown to a person by the benefactor unilaterally; that is, not on the basis of the recipient being especially worthy, but based solely on the benefactor's desire. Thus one of the characteristic flavors of charis is favor that is neither earned or deserved. It is free from any kind of influence by the recipient of the grace.

When you think about it, the New Testament usage of the word "grace" has similarities with the concept of "election," God's sovereign choice. His election, his sovereign choice, his showing favor, isn't dependent upon the recipient being deserving, but based on his own will. The idea of election, of course, goes back to the Old Testament. Paul develops it in Romans 9-11, but we won't be spending much time on it except to note that Paul is the New Testament author most responsible for developing the concept of election in the Christian era. We'll take another look later in this Lesson under the heading of Predestination and Evangelism (Section 4.4).

Salvation by Grace through Faith (Ephesians 2:8-9)

The key New Testament texts on grace are found in Ephesians. The context is man's inability to save himself. "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins...." (Ephesians 2:1). We are helpless. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions -- it is by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5).

The key verses in Ephesians 2:8-9 are well worth committing to memory.

"8  For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9  not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV)

As mentioned above, "grace" (charis) means simply "favor."[152] "Gift" (verse 8b) is dōron, "gift, present."[153] But to show the close tie between grace and gift, be aware that charis can not only mean "favor," but also, "gracious deed, gift." In fact, a related word, charisma, plural charismata, is used to describe spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12.

To show grace is to bestow favor. Verses 8 and 9 make it clear that grace has nothing to do with reward for "good behavior." The benefactor doesn't show favor because we have earned it, but simply because he wants to. He is under no obligation to love because we have somehow driven him to it. He just loves. The impetus for the favor is entirely the prerogative of the giver, like a great aunt who delights to send things to her nieces and nephews even though they neglect to write and thank her.

"Dear Santa, I've been a good boy this year, so I deserve a lot of presents under the tree at Christmas." No, you're not really good boy, but a spoiled brat who wants to subvert the spirit of the season to your own selfishness! God isn't some celestial Santa Claus, "making a list and checking it twice, trying to find out who's naughty or nice."[154] That view of Christmas was invented by manipulative parents trying to leverage the holiday to induce good behavior. It isn't about grace!

We grossly misunderstand God's favor if we see it in terms of wages or rewards[155] -- that would be justice not grace. Grace is about gift-giving, pure and simple. Like the runner to first base who knows he didn't quite make it, but the base umpire lifts his hands and shouts out "Safe!" "That was a gift," mutters the first baseman under his breath. Yes, our "safe-ness" is a gift, not our due. We were "out." We missed it. We've been rescued from what is our due.

When we like someone, we want to send flowers, shower upon her expressions of our love. Cards, presents, unexpected gifts. Please open it. Now? Yes, I just want to see the expression of delight upon your face. This great abandon and excess of God's favor exists on his terms and not ours. Grace and gift-giving go hand in hand, undeserved, given out of love and favor.

"For by grace you have been saved through faith...." (Ephesians 2:8a)

"Saved" is the Greek verb sōzō, while "salvation" is the noun sōteria.[156]

When speaking to non-Christians (and Christians, too, for that matter) I often substitute the word "rescued" for "saved," since that word "rescued" is processed by the hearer in its normal sense; The word "save" has become a caricature of Christian-jargon and isn't effective in secular culture.

So we've examined the ideas of rescue (salvation) and God's inexplicable but very real favor towards us (grace, gift). Now we need to look at "works."

Working Our Way into God's Good Graces (Ephesians 2:9)

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Paul was raised a strict Pharisee, whose highest value was exact and minute obedience to the Torah, God's law. If he obeys, then he is righteous. If he disobeys, then he is unrighteous. It is black or white. Unfortunately, the Judaism of Jesus' and Paul's day had largely reduced the faith principles of God's law into inflexible and often petty rules. The rules are a "hedge" around the law, the Torah, the Pharisees would say. Keep the petty rules, they reasoned, and the "hedge" or fence prevents you from breaking the actual law.

Of course, Pharisaical law-keeping is, at its root, prompted by a desire to obey God. But eventually they mistook the petty rules for the Law itself. Examples:

  • Don't say "God" because you might take his name in vain, so you substitute "heaven" for God and you're safe. When God's name appears in the sacred text as Yahweh, you pronounce it as if it said "Lord" (Adonai).
  • A minor verse in the law said, "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk," obviously intended to instill some sense of mercy towards the animals one was butchering for food (Exodus 23:19b). Judaism turned it into a system of keeping a Kosher kitchen with one set of pots and pans used for dairy products, and a completely different set used for meat products, lest they inadvertently boil a kid in its mother's milk. You get the idea.

Pharisaical Judaism sometimes degenerated to strict and blind adherence to man-made rules. Then it elevated obedience to these man-made rules into a system of earned righteousness before God. By their right actions they put God in their debt. Never mind that their hearts were still self-centered and self-serving. Never mind that they lived their whole lives to save themselves. They were officially righteous. That was what counted. When Paul describes his life as a Pharisee "as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Philippians 3:6b), this is what he is talking about. When Paul says in our text Ephesians 2:9 that you have been saved "not by works, so that no one can boast," this is what he is talking about -- "works" of the law.

In Lesson 1.3, we explored Paul's realization of justification or righteousness by faith. This is a closely-related concept of God's gracious gift of salvation. (See Appendix 4. Metaphors of Salvation).

This Not from Yourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Let's go back and look at our verses.

"8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- 9 not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

By now we've looked at each of the important concepts contained in this classic passage except for one: "and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8b). Okay, Paul, exactly which thing is the gift here? What does "this" refer to? Let's look at the candidates: grace, salvation, and faith. The phrase "and this not from yourselves" could refer grammatically to any or all of them.

This grace is certainly not from us -- by the definition of the word. Grace is the favor of God given against all odds, against all of our self-centered, rebellious history. Grace is certainly not from ourselves.

This salvation? The rescue operation, which culminated in the cross, was launched by the Father with the willing cooperation of his Son Jesus. We had nothing to do with it that we can boast about. Unless we can boast about uttering a feeble "Help" at some point when we were acutely aware of the desperateness of our plight. Certainly the rescue, the salvation, is not from ourselves.

This faith? Faith is certainly something which comes from us, isn't it? Well, the best we can say is, "sort of." The New Testament is filled with what John Wesley called "prevenient grace," grace which comes before, grace which precedes the actual event of our salvation.

"You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," exclaims Peter. "This wasn't revealed to you by man," Jesus retorts, "but by my Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:16-17). Peter's faith-insight into Jesus' true nature is a God-given revelation, not from himself.

"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him," Jesus said (John 6:44). So our faith is in response to the Father's gentle drawing, in response to the Holy Spirit's persistent conviction that we are sinful and that God will forgive us (John 16:8-11). We can't take credit for our faith, either.[157] Even repentance is a gift (2 Timothy 2:25). While faith isn't meritorious as far as God is concerned, nevertheless, it is important.

So which is the subject of "this"? Grace, salvation, or faith? We look to Greek grammar. Each noun in Greek is inflected with a gender -- masculine, feminine, or neuter. Since the pronoun "this" (Greek houtos) is in the neuter gender, it can't refer to "faith" (feminine gender) or "grace" (feminine gender). So it seems to refer to being saved (which is expressed here as a verb). Our salvation is a gift. Praise God! But it's obvious that God's fingerprints can be seen all over the whole process.

So here it is: the classic statement of salvation by grace:ce:

"For it is by grace you have been saved,
through faith --
and this not from yourselves,
it is the gift of God --
not by works,
so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Q2. (Ephesians 2:8-9) What is a simple definition of "grace"? Why aren't legalism and "works" to please God compatible with grace? What part does our faith have to do with our salvation?

 Other Pauline Passages on Grace

God's grace is a major theme for Paul, so it shouldn't surprise us to find multiple verses that state and spell out the implications of grace. Here are a few:

"I do not set aside[158] the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained[159] through the law, Christ died for nothing! " (Galatians 2:21)

"[God] who has saved us and called us to a holy life -- not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time." (2 Timothy 1:9)

Paul has a deeply theological passage in Romans 3. To explain every word would take too long here. It's rich!

"21  But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24  and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood...." (Romans 3:21-25a)

If you look carefully, you can see several doctrines of salvation mentioned here: grace, righteousness and justification by faith, redemption/ransom, and atonement (See Appendix 4. Metaphors of Salvation.)

Though there are many more verses on grace, here is one last passage that clarifies the free-ness of grace.

"5  At the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6  And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace." (Romans 11:5-6)

This verse also hints of election and predestination, which, as I mentioned, are closely related to grace. After all, predestination and election demonstrate God's free choice to bestow favor, since the volition is on God's part, not man's part.

4.4. Predestination (Acts 13:48b)

This brings us to a passage in Acts that we should explore briefly. We see God's sovereign work among the large group of believers who come to Christ in Pisidian Antioch under the ministry of Paul and Barnabas.

"All who were re appointed[160] for eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48b)

In Corinth, God tells Paul,

"I have many people in this city." (Acts 18:10b)

Yes, the New Testament indicates that God predestines people to be saved (John 6:44, 65; 10:6; Philippians 1:29).

We encourage people to make a "decision" to trust and serve Christ, as we must and are called to do. But we must realize that God has been at work behind the scenes. We call this "prevenient grace," the grace that comes before. We read in the New Testament:

"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:44)

The Father draws people, that is, leads them by an inward power or attraction.[161] This fact causes some Christians to question: Do people come by their own free will? Or is there no real free will? Can God's drawing be resisted? Does a human "decision" have any real meaning?

Somehow, I believe it is "both-and." How it works is a mystery of God. Jesus calls men and women to follow him, but not all do (Matthew 19:21-26). These are real decisions. On the other hand, without the help of the Holy Spirit none of us would come to faith -- or be able to come! Mysteries. Let's recognize them as something we don't fully understand, containing truths that we can't fully reconcile. Peter tells us:

"[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9)

Not all will come. God knows who will. As Jesus said about the Jews and the Gentiles.

"I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring[162] them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd." (John 10:16)

Salvation is ultimately Jesus' work. Without him we are lost. We owe him everything! It takes a miracle to see through the blindness with which Satan afflicts people (2 Corinthians 4:4), who then blindly follow Satan's way (Ephesians 2:1-3). It is by God's grace and favor we are saved (Ephesians 2:5). It is a mystery, but a wonderful mystery.

Predestination and Evangelism

One response to predestination is to become lazy and fatalistic about evangelism, and leave it all to God. The best example of this is in the retort given to the first Protestant missionary to India, William Carey, who, before going, declares to his minister-brothers his excitement in bringing the gospel to the unsaved. One old pastor reputedly tells him: "Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine." I'm glad Carey didn't obey him.

Another response is to be driven by tremendous guilt to preach the gospel, acting as if it all depends on us. That is also an extreme. The key verse behind this extreme is: "Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me..." (Ezekiel 3:17). The problem here is that we are not Ezekiel, and we can't preach to everyone, fearful that their blood will be on our hands. To preach out of guilt or fear is selfish, not really loving, and will show up in the way we treat people.

Obedience coupled with love is the correct course. Lord, what do you want me to do? We do what God sends us to do and leave the results to God. Paul and Barnabas obey when the Holy Spirit says to set them apart of the work he has called them to do (Acts 13:3). We obey, we pray, we depend on him. Then we trust him to bring whatever results he desires. In many cities, Paul sees a great harvest, but in others just a meager few (Athens, for example). Love for Jesus and obedience, and love for the lost should drive us, not fear or guilt or the weight of dying souls -- that's too heavy for us.

Many times recently I've come back to Paul's explanation of the importance of bringing the good news to the lost, where preaching is a means of God's grace to save people.

"13 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' [Joel 2:32] 14  How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15  And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!' [Isaiah 52:7]" (Romans 10:13-15)

Jesus sees lost men and women, boys and girls, and has compassion on them. He tells his disciples,

"The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field." (Matthew 9:37-38)

Notice the instruction. It's not, meet the need! Rather, it is to ask the Lord of the Harvest to send workers. He is in charge of bringing in the harvest, not we. But we are to be obedient workers as he shows us what he wants us to do.

Q3. (Acts 13:48; Romans 10:13-15) How does an understanding of God's pure grace fit together with the idea of predestination? How might a belief in predestination make us lazy with regard to evangelism? Does God "need" us to bring salvation to the world?

4.5. The New Israel of God

Another implication of what we've read about the Council of Jerusalem is a major shift in understanding the people of God. Previously, the Jews were seen as God's people, as opposed to all Gentiles. But now the Gentile believers are considered part of Israel. Paul comes at this concept of the New Israel from several directions. Clearly it is part of his core understanding of the church.

The Promise of the Gentile Salvation

It had long been chronicled that God's salvation will reach the Gentiles, especially by Isaiah. For example:

"Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth;
for I am God, and there is no other." (Isaiah 45:22)

"I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6b)

"All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God." (Isaiah 52:10b)

"I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
I was found by those who did not seek me.
To a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, 'Here am I, here am I.'" (Isaiah 65:1)

"All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations will bow down before him." (Psalm 22:27)

Indeed, some Pharisees had taken this mandate to convert the Gentiles seriously. Jesus says:

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!
You travel over land and sea to win a single convert,[163]
and when he becomes one,
you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are." (Matthew 23:15)

The Pharisees tied up these proselytes in knots with legal observance; there was no Holy Spirit regeneration. They weren't bringing good news, but further "yokes" and "burdens" (Acts 15:10). In contrast to this legalistic religion, Jesus says:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

The Mystery of Gentile Salvation

Exactly how the Gentiles would come had been a mystery. The Jews saw it as the Gentiles becoming Jewish. But Paul sees it another way. Several times he uses the word "mystery" to refer to this. Mystērion was used in Greek to mean, "secret, secret rite, secret teaching, mystery." But when Paul uses it, he is referring to "the unmanifested or private counsel of God, (God's) secret, the secret thoughts, plans, and dispensations of God." A "secret" or "mystery" too profound for human ingenuity.[164] It can't be figured out; rather it is revealed by God to Paul (and some others).

"You will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5  which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. 6  This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:4-6)

"... the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints ... which is Christ in you [Gentiles], the hope of glory." (Colossians 1:26-27)

Paul comes back to this amazing, unexpected mystery time and again (Romans 11:25-26; 16:25-27; Ephesians 1:8-10).

What is the mystery? That the Gentiles aren't second-class citizens, subservient to the Jews, but that together they are "one body," sharers in the promise of the Messiah.

Christ Breaks Down the Division between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-22)

In an extended passage in his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds the Gentiles that they were once not God's people.

"At that time you were separate from Christ,
excluded from citizenship in Israel
and foreigners to the covenants of the promise,
without hope and without God in the world." (Ephesians 2:12)

That's the bad news. Now the good news.

"13  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away
have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
14  For he himself is our peace,
who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier,
the dividing wall of hostility,
15  by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two,
thus making peace." (Ephesians 2:13-15)

So there aren't two divisions -- Jew and Gentile -- but "one new human being" (anthropos) out of the two. One doesn't become the other. But since the coming of the Messiah, they both join something new -- and they do this "by one Spirit." The Holy Spirit binds us together with each other and Christ! This reflects God's ultimate purpose: "to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ." (Ephesians 1:10)

As a result, says Paul to the Gentiles in Ephesus:us:

"You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household." (Ephesians 2:19)

Paul now likens this "house" or "household" (oikeios[165]) to a holy temple "in which God lives by his Spirit" (Ephesians 2:20-22).

All Israel Will Be Saved (Romans 11:26)

In his Letter to the Romans (chapters 9-11) Paul exposes the depth of his pain for his Jewish people who have rejected Jesus as Messiah.

"I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart." (Romans 9:2)

In this passage he talks about calling and election and predestination -- matters too deep for our study here. But in Romans 11, he uses the figure of a deep-rooted olive tree that represents the people of God (Jeremiah 11:16). Some of the branches (the unbelieving Jews) have been broken off because of their unbelief, and the Gentiles ("a wild olive shoot") has been grafted in, being nourished by the root (Romans 11:17-24). Ultimately, Paul sees unbelieving Israel will be saved by faith in the Messiah and grafted back in again.

"Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved." (Romans 11:25b-26a)

The point here is that there is one tree -- the People of God. It is not a Jewish tree or a Gentile tree, but God's tree, which he nourishes.

The New Israel

Paul hasn't given up on the Jews, but he sees in the Gentile believers the harbinger of a New Israel who follows God's Messiah -- Jesus Christ the Lord. Consider these verses:

"Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God." (Galatians 6:16)

"For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh." (Philippians 3:3)

Everything is new. The prophets' words have come to pass. As Peter puts it (commenting on Hosea's prophecy):

"9  But you are a chosen people,
a royal priesthood,
a holy nation,
a people belonging to God,
that you may declare the praises of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
10  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy."
(1 Peter 2:9-10; Hosea 1:9-10)

Those who were "not a people" have become "the people of God" -- all by God's grace. Hallelujah!

Q4. (Ephesians 2:13-15; Galatians 6:16) In what sense are believers in the Messiah the "New Israel"? Who makes believing Gentiles one with believing Jews? Who makes believing Protestants one with believing Catholics?

Unity in Christ, Not in Practices or in Emphasis

Let's conclude by reflecting on what we have learned and applying it to the present day.

 The Gentile churches are one with the Judean churches! But they're different! Gentile churches don't celebrate Sabbath, Judean congregations do. Gentile churches meet on Sundays, Judean congregations on the Sabbath. Gentile churches are more casual; Judean congregations use a lot of the same rote prayers and customs that developed in the synagogue system. Gentile women dress differently than Judean women. Gentile men are often clean-shaven, while Judean men wear beards. The list goes on and on. Language, culture, tradition.

However, Paul has said that "[Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility," ... creating "in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace" (Ephesians 2:14-15). The unity is in Christ himself. Not in form or practice, but in Christ.

You may have been raised to hate Protestants, or Catholics, or the Orthodox. You may think Pentecostals are too emotional and Presbyterians are too frozen. That Episcopalians are tied to their prayer book, while other churches seem to have no liturgy whatsoever. Some immerse, some sprinkle, some do neither. Some baptize babies, others dedicate them. There are liberal churches and conservative churches. Some emphasize social action, others emphasize evangelism, still others emphasize holiness or discipleship or spirituality. Some churches emphasize traditions and doctrines that aren't spelled out in Scripture and sometimes seem to us to conflict with it. There are megachurches and tiny gatherings in homes, and all in between.

Once I worshipped in a small Pentecostal mud-and-wattle-and-corrugated-metal-roofed church in the slums of western Kenya. Two days later I worshipped in the second largest church in the world -- St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Both worshipped Jesus -- though one group danced and clapped, while the other was quite staid.id.

It is not ours to judge who are "true" Christians and who are not. Our biases and prejudices and lack of experience of the whole body of Christ make us very poor judges. Christ will judge, we must love.

We cannot let our differences define us. Christ is our unity. He defines us. Christ himself is our peace. And so we are brother and sister to every other Jesus-lover around the world, no matter how different he or she might be from us. Because of this, we must be very careful to contend for unity with all that is in us. We are one in Christ!

"Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit
through the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:3)

Lessons for Disciples

You may be a bit confused at this point since we left the historical narrative and got into all the theological implications of the Gentiles being saved by faith through grace -- and theology tends to be abstract.

But here's where we've been. We examined the Jerusalem Council (49 AD) and what its conclusions meant concerning (1) the law, (2) salvation by grace, and (3) the New Israel.

Here are some of the lessons that we disciples can apply to our lives.

  1. You don't have to become a Jew to be a Christian. In the same way, you don't have to become Catholic, or Baptist, or Orthodox to become a true Christian. We are saved by grace directly by Christ. And we join Him!
  2. Grace is God's favor, pure and simple, that has nothing to do with how good or bad or deserving we are. We're saved by grace, not by our personal goodness (Ephesians 2:8-9).
  3. If we could save ourselves by being good, then Christ wouldn't have had to die for our sins -- his death would be unnecessary and meaningless (Galatians 2:21; 2 Timothy 1:9).
  4. Legalism, following a rule-based religion, isn't the way of faith. Unfortunately, many flavors of modern Christianity are laced with legalism. Christianity is essentially not a religion of do's and don'ts, but a relationship of following Jesus Christ as our Lord through his Holy Spirit. If we're led by the Spirit, we're not under the law (Galatians 5:18; Ephesians 2:8-10; Matthew 23:15).
  5. While grace involves God choosing or electing people to be saved, that doesn't leave us with nothing to do. We obey him and serve him as workers in his harvest. We are some of the "means" by which He accomplishes his will (Acts 13:48; Romans 10:13-15; Matthew 9:37-38).
  6. That the Gentiles would become the people of God is a mystery revealed only in New Testament times. Both believing Jews and believing Gentiles become a New Israel based in the Messiah, and become one in Jesus (Ephesians 2:13-15; Galatians 6:16). We are one with all believers, and should demonstrate our unity with them.

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Father, thank you for our salvation. Because of your love, your grace, your mercy, you reached out to us and drew us to yourself. We deserve no credit, Lord. So thank you, thank you, thank you! Help us now cooperate with you in your work of bringing salvation to all mankind. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: 'Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.'" (Acts 15:1, NIV)

"We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." (Acts 15:11, NIV)

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV)

"I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! " (Galatians 2:21, NIV)

"[God] who has saved us and called us to a holy life -- not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time." (2 Timothy 1:9, NIV)

"At the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace." (Romans 11:5-6, NIV)

"All who were appointed for eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48b, NIV)

"You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household" (Ephesians 2:19, NIV)

"Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God." (Galatians 6:16, NIV)


[142] This assumes that Galatians is written shortly after Paul completes his First Missionary Journey. If it were later, you'd expect Paul to cite it in his letter the ruling by the Council of Jerusalem.

[143] Tirade: "a protracted speech usually marked by intemperate, vituperative, or harshly censorious language" (Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary, 2003).

[144] "Different" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "another" (KJV) is heteros, "other," here, more specifically, "pertaining to being dissimilar in kind or class from all other entities, another, different" from what precedes, externally or internally (BDAG 399, 2).

[145] Technically, the word euangelion doesn't appear again in verse 7a, but is represented by a pronoun.

[146] "Pervert" (NIV, NRSV, KJV), "distort" (ESV) is metastrephō, "to cause a change in state or condition, change, alter" (BDAG 641).

[147] The preposition is para, "beside," here, "a marker of that which does not correspond to what is expected, against, contrary to" (BDAG 756, C6).

[148] "Emasculate" (NIV, ESV), "castrate" (NRSV), "cut off" (KJV) is apokoptō, "cut off, cut away," here, private parts are implied, "make a eunuch of, castrate," following examples in ancient Greek literature, Philo, etc. (BDAG 113, 1a).

[149] "Merciful" is raḥûm, "compassionate." This root refers to deep love (usually of a "superior" for an "inferior") rooted in some "natural" bond. It can refer to a mother's or father's love, as well as the feeling of mercy people have for each other by virtue of the fact that they are human beings (Leonard J. Copps, rāḥam, TWOT #2146c).

[150] "Gracious" is ḥannûn, "gracious," from the root ḥānan, "be gracious, pity," cognate with Akkadian enēnu, h̠anānu, "to grant a favor," Ugaritic ḥnn "to be gracious, to favor," and Arabic ḥanna "to feel sympathy, compassion." The verb ḥānan depicts a heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to one who has a need (Edwin Yamauchi, ḥānan, TWOT #694d).

[151] Charis, BDAG 1079, 2a.

[152] Charis, "a beneficent disposition toward someone, favor, grace, gracious care/help, goodwill (almost a technical term in the reciprocity-oriented world dominated by Hellenic influence). Active, that which one grants to another, the action of one who volunteers to do something not otherwise obligatory." (BDAG 1079-1081, 2a).

[153] Dōron, BDAG 267.

[154] Words from "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," by J. Fred Coots and Henry Gillespie (1934).

[155] There is a clear New Testament concept of rewards for service, but it is not the same as grace.

[156] Colin Brown explains that in classical Greek, "... both the verb and the noun denote rescue and deliverance in the sense of averting some danger threatening life. This can happen in war or at sea. But that which one is delivered from may also be an illness. Where no immediate danger is mentioned, they can mean to keep or preserve" (Colin Brown, "Redemption," New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT) Colin Brown (editor; Zondervan, 1975-1978; translated with additions and revisions from Theologisches Begriffslexikon zum Neuen Testament, Coenen, Beyreuther, and Bitenhard, editors), 3:205ff). Sōzō, "to preserve or rescue from dangers and afflictions, save, keep from harm, rescue." Here transcendent danger or destruction is in view: save, preserve from eternal death" (BDAG 982-983).

[157] Most recent commentators see "this not from yourselves" as referring to salvation by grace as a whole, including faith (Peter T. O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary; Eerdmans, 1999), p. 175, fn. 91).

[158] "Set aside" (NIV), "nullify" (NRSV, ESV), "frustrate" (KJV) is atheteō, "to reject something as invalid, declare invalid, nullify, ignore" (BDAG 24, 1).

[159] "Could be gained" (NIV), "comes" (NRSV, KJV) is not in the Greek text, but implied by the context.

[160] "Appointed" is tassō, generally, "put in place," but here, of a person put in a specific position, "assign someone to a (certain) classification," passive, " belong to, be classed among those possessing" (BDAG 991, 1b).

[161] "Draw," helkuō, is "pull, drag, draw." Literally it means to move an object from one area to another in a pulling motion, "draw." Here, it is used figuratively, "to draw by inward power, lead, impel," (Thayer, p. 204, 2), "attract" (BDAG 318, 2).

[162] "Bring" is agō, "lead, lead off, lead away," then "take along" (BDAG 16, 1a).  Also Acts 13:23.

[163] "Convert" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "proselyte" (KJV) is prosēlytos, originally, "one that has arrived at a place, newcomer, stranger, sojourner" (Liddell Scott, Greek Lexicon), here in a technical sense, "one who has come over from polytheism to Judean religion and practice, convert" (BDAG 880).

[164] Mystērion, BDAG 662, 1b.

[165] Oikeios  means literally, "belonging to the house." In our literature it refers to "persons who are related by kinship or circumstances and form a closely knit group, members of a household" (BDAG 694, 2). It is also used in Galatians 6:10 to refer to "the family of believers" (NIV), literally, "the household of faith" (ESV, KJV).

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