The Letter Alleviating Levitical Laws

Acts 15:1-29

And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. And after they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. “And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, IN ORDER THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,’ SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM OF OLD. “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and they sent this letter by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. “Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”

As I write, it is the winter solstice, a mere four days before Christmas. That is, it is four days until we celebrate Christmas. Today is the day with the shortest time between sunrise and sunset and it also happens to be very cold where I am in northern New England. These two factors can lead to seasonal depression but not for me, not this year, I have music playing which reminds me of the birth, life, death, resurection and reign of Jesus Christ. “But Russell P, I thought you hated Christmas songs?” I do, for the most part, but some are not bad with a little litary license, and I am not listening to them, I am listening to songs written about “the Messiah” in general, written for the resurection celebration. A group of songs whose lyrics come straight out of the Bible, unlike many of our Christmas songs and “hymns.” It reminds me of the first time I confronted people with the disparity between our “hymns” and the Biblical account, preferring to play Handel’s “Messiah” over Silent Night.

“Ah distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December” when each of my Bible study’s members’ young, but taught, jaws hit the floor. Vainly I had sought to teach, and painstakingly I tried to preach, about what Christmas should mean to each, so much more than they had known before. But nothing could penatrate these, whose minds concerning Christmas were at at ease, and whose thoughts wouldn’t cease, knowing only what they were taught before, only this and nothing more. Until that little light came on, presuppositions now were gone, learning only from song, they now realized that they were wrong, led astray from birth by poems from the golden days of yore. Oh how we cling to the way that things were before!

Poetry is fairly ambiguous and requires literary license and language that can be difficult to interpret–here’s what happened in plain English. We rewind the clock about six years, though to me it seems like yesterday. I had become co-director of the Youth Group at the church of my youth. A generation had recently “graduated” and a new generation arrived, made up mostly of 13 and 14 year olds. Most of the few attendees of the Wednesday night Bible study were what we would call “churched.” I told them that I had two main goals; “to get you off Veggie Tales and for you to know God.” Essentially I wanted them to grow in grace and truth because that’s what discipleship is all about, growth–moving foreword towards the goal. I had a group of teenagers whose Biblical depth was rooted in a singing cucumber and a talking tomato, neither with hands. Veggie Tales is directed towards very young children, and men like me who enjoy a good laugh. Nevertheless, one should not get their theology from watching TV, of any kind. For example: in the story of David and Goliath, Veggie Tales presents David as a tiny, little weakling. However the Bible presents David as one who has killed at least one lion and one bear, with his own hands.

We can certainly understand a cartoon created for kids not being entirely accurate but what about our sacred songs? The young teenagers argued with me when I stated that the Bible never records a single, solitary instance in which we see an angel sing. Whether fourteen or forty, fifteen or fifty, sixteen or sixty, the reaction is always the same, “Yes it does, choirs of angels sang to the shepherd’s during the birth of Jesus.” They quoted, and many of you will also​ qoute, one or more of the following: “Hark the herald angels sing, ‘glory to the newborn king;'” “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plain;” “Whom angels greet with anthem sweet;” “The blessed angels sing…To hear the angels sing.” There are numerous Christmas “hymns” that claim the angels sang, except that they didn’t–accept that they didn’t. As a reminder to those who have read my rants against angels singing, and to those who are reading them for the first time, what made the teenagers jaws drop was a simple reading of the following: “And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men awith whom He is pleased.’” Not only do we see an army of angels, not a choir, we don’t see them sing and we also see that many songs misquote what they said. It is jaw dropping. 

The dogmatic dispensationalists, among many others, have waged war on the “contemporary” music in today’s, modern, worship service. I can’t remember all of the arguments made to me about how important it is for songs in church to be doctrinally accurate. To which I always argue the Silent Night paradox. It is the most beloved song of all time but it is not only inaccurate but theologically speaking, it’s horse manure. I’m sorry, but it is true, metaphorically speaking. The line, “radiant beams from thy holy face,” is the exact opposite of what the Biblical account suggests. Jesus came as humbly and humanly as possible– that’s the point. He laid aside his majesty, emptying himself to dwell amongst mortal men. The only way to accept silent night as anything but heretical is to grant it copious amounts of literary license.

I listened to a rebroadcast of a dogmatic dispensationalist radio program last night, which was rebroadcast and not live because of the need for time off around Christmas (I won’t get into that). I had heard this broacast before, entitled, “Worship Wars.” In it, the dogmatic dispensationalists argued for doctrinally correct music in the worship services of the churches. They picked apart many modern songs with one in particular. The song is by Cory Asbury and the lyrics are as follows, minus one, single, solitary word:

“Before I spoke a word, You were singing over me
You have been so, so good to me
Before I took a breath, You breathed Your life in me
You have been so, so kind to me
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, [BLANK] love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, [BLANK] love of God, yeah
When I was Your foe, still Your love fought for me
You have been so, so good to me
When I felt no worth, You paid it all for me
You have been so, so kind to me.”

What makes this song unacceptable for worship in the minds of the dogmatic dispensationalists?

One, single, solitary word, the word which I omitted from the quote; “reckless.” I agree with the dogmatic dispensationalists that “reckless” is a very poor choice when describing the love of God. God’s love is anything but reckless, it’s not without care, it’s perfect. Nevertheless, with a little litary license and considering the context of the song, can we not see the author’s aspirations in singing that God’s love is reckless? He is not saying that God is careless with his love but that God gives grace to sinners. It is obvious that the author is singing about his sinful state and that God loves even the sinners, which we all are. But the dogmatic dispensationalists don’t consider the context of the song. It’s not even about the lyrics–one lyric to be precise–it is, as it always is, about the loss of their culture.

The dogmatic dispensationalists hide behind the veil of doctrinal purity but in reality they are trying to preserve their preferences. It cannot be about one single, solitary word when their sacred song says, “silent night,” when the town was bustling with people, in a culture of which, we have seen, stays up late–a host of angels spoke to shepherds and a virgin gave birth! What about any of this is silent? Also consider  the following: “all is calm, all is bright.” How is it bright when we just sang “night?” And we certainly see that it wasn’t calm that day. But the furthest from doctrinal purity is the “radiant beems from thy holy face”–that is preposterous. The dogmatic dispensationalists are being Pharisees, see the similarities in their hypocrisy.

You thought I forgot about today’s text. “And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.’” I’m not writing this to debate whether we worship with this song or that (I’m done with that argument because the hypocrisy is at a fever pitch), but to point out our modern hypocrisy so that we see the hypocrisy in the first-century synagogues and churches. See it, taste it, digest it and admit that we cling to “how we’ve always done it.” The dogmatic dispensationalists can’t possibly be fighting over a single word, used metaphorically with literary license, when their sacred song is even more doctrinally inaccurate. They are waging the worship war over style and preferences, clinging to their contemporary culture and traditions. It’s a perfect example of having the right argument but the wrong heart. That is, music in worship should be doctrinally correct. Nevertheless it is hypocrisy of hypocrisies to point to a song of which one doesn’t like, claiming it’s not doctrinally correct, when one’s preferred song is less doctrinally correct. It is the proverbial pot calling the kettle black–it is hypocrisy of the worst kind, jumping down the throat of a young, struggling believer, doing his best to communicate God’s love through song, holding him up to a standard that they themselves cannot keep as the sing “radiant beems from thy holy face!” In the exact same way the Pharisees in today’s text cling to their culture and traditions, of which they could not keep, and insist that the gentiles follow the same rules and regulations; again, that they themselves could not keep. See the similarities!

“And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.” Literally, these men came from Jerusalem to Antioch and said that they were not saved. And it caused such a great division that Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to discuss the situation with the other apostles.

“Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.” I love this part–Paul and Barnabas don’t make haste to get to Jerusalem so that the matter will be resolved as quickly as possible but take the time to stop, encouraging and ministering to the churches along the way. You are probably thinking that I should take my own advice and consider the context including the cultural context, meaning that Paul and Barnabas had to walk to Jerusalem and since people can’t walk 24 hours a day but need rest, it would only make sense that they would rest within the walls of the brethren. Therefore they would tell them about the gentiles coming to the faith flock. This is absolutely true but zoom in on the context and see that they explained in detail how the gentiles came to faith. Paul and Barnabas took the time to fellowship with the followers on the way to Jerusalem.

“And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.’ And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?'”

And there it is, our beloved Peter let everyone else speak first but then shot down their flawed argument. A super-short summary; many people, including believing Pharisees, taught that no one is saved without following the Law of Moses. But Peter proclaimed that this can’t be true because they received the Spirit without works of the Law or circumcision, just like Abraham as Paul demonstrates in Romans 4. But beyond this, Peter rails at them for requiring the gentiles to do something of which none of them could do, just like the dogmatic dispensationalists and their worship wars. What’s the problem, why all of the confusion and debate? How could there be such a division over something as simple as this? “Oh, tradition!” Unless we are learning for ourselves, we only know we have been taught. Furthermore and more importantly, we are selfish sinners seeking only our own personal preferences apart from Biblically based self sacrifice.

The Lord’s biological brother and the prophets will agree with Peter as Peter continues; “‘But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.’ And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. And after they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, ‘Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, “AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, IN ORDER THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME, ‘SAYS THE LORD,’ WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM OF OLD.” Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.'”

Besides the hypocrisy of the dogmatic dispensationalists’ war on worship, Peter and James, Moses and the prophets, destroy dispensationalism itself, here in the council alleviating the levitical laws. First, in that the Jews and gentiles are saved in the exact same way, by grace, and second by the fulfillment of prophecy in their eon, not a far future epoch. But we can continue to consider the dismantling of dogmatic dispensationalism as we continue in Acts. But I want to focus on something that is not in the context of the letter from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, to the gentiles in Antioch and the surrounding region. We have heard the debate or lack thereof, now let’s look at the letter.

“Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and they sent this letter by them,

The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”

Strange, but not one word about the style of music. I am well aware that this is very early on in the history of the church, in fact, we will see that these four essential behaviors will be limited to one–but that’s getting way ahead of ourselves. Nevertheless we see that the apostles and elders were not concerned with expression but with behavior and a behavior of avoidance. They didn’t tell them how to act, how to sing, how to dress or how long is too long for a man’s hair to be. They didn’t force their Jewish customs and traditions onto them. The opposite is true; the letter arose from “some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls,” trying to make the gentiles follow their customs and traditions. Again, customs and traditions that no one could follow.

Merry Christmas, enjoy singing Silent Night and lighting candles. Fill up your traditions to the fullest measure. All I ask is for you to not judge me for not partaking in your traditions and that you pray for the persecuted church across the globe; one country for every candle lit, present opened and song sung. Silent Night is wholly heretical unless a broad brush of literary license is painted over it. Think about this before you criticize the expression of others.

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