Day 78 – The Authority of the Church to Interpret Scripture

Today’s reading: Acts 15:1-21

As we reach the end of Acts chapter 14 and the beginning of chapter 15 we see Paul’s first missionary journey coming to an end.  Paul returns to Antioch and a controversy arises.  As the text tells us, some of the recent converts believe that circumcision is required of new converts to Christianity:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

And we have a clue in the texts as to WHO IT WAS, that was teaching this.  It was the Deacon Nicholas.  Recall, Acts 6:

And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.

We are not told anything about the other deacons but we are told information about Nicolaus.  Why?  A proselyte is an adult male convert to Judaism.  That means that as an adult Nicolaus would have had to have been circumcised to convert.  Nicolaus was obviously serious about his faith.  He was willing to undergo circumcision to join God’s people.  One can understand why Nicolaus would take the position to insist on continued adherence to the law of circumcision.  We why we also see were told he was from Antioch.  So we are told that Nicolaus is a proselyte from Antioch and this controversy about circumcision at conversion to Christianity arises in Antioch.

One can also understand why the requirement of circumcision would in most cases be a deterrent to converts.  Paul takes the position that circumcision in no longer required under the New Covenant.  But notice, even though Paul was made an Apostle by the risen Christ, even though he speaks with great eloquence and passion and with the Holy Spirit and he has been converting people wherever he goes, he cannot resolve this controversy.

So what does Paul do?

To understand what happens next (in Acts 15) we must flashback to Matthew 18, when Jesus taught the Apostles what to do if they had a dispute about doctrine:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18* Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

This is exactly what Paul and Barnabas do!

Nicholas is a brother – he is a deacon – and he has sinned against them – he is teaching something different than the Church and they cannot agree.  So what do they do?  They try to address it with two witnesses, Paul and Barnabas, but when they cannot solve it, what next?  They take it to the Church!  The Apostles assembled in Jerusalem.

Now we reach Acts 15 and can understand what is happening.  Paul and Barnabas have come from Antioch (most likely with Nicolaus) to put the question of whether circumcision is still required under the new covenant to the Church assembled in council.  Again, this clearly shows that from the outset there is a Church, it has hierarchy and authority.  And notice what question they are actually answering!  The question is: do the requirements of scripture (to us the Old Testament) for circumcision require converts to be circumcised in light of the teachings of Jesus / the New Covenant.

Further, look at what happens.  There is a heated debate and then Peter speaks,

Brethren, you know that in the early days God made 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 did to us; and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.  Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But WE believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.

Notice, when Peter speaks he does speak just for himself but rather he makes a decision for the entire Church and declares what the doctrine is!  After Peter speaks, “And all the assembly kept silence…”  If anyone has ever been in the board room of company or charity, or in the military, etc, you can see what is happening here.  All the VP’s, colonels, etc are debating the issue and at the end the CEO / General declares the decision he is making for the group / organization.  Peter is the leader.  Peter is in charge.  He makes the decision and declares the doctrine thus fulfilling the end of Jesus’ charge in Matthew 18, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

What happens next is to be expected.  The other Apostles next go about discussing HOW the decision will be implemented.  Notice, when James speaks, he speaks for himself about practical, pastoral matters.  James is pointing out that while circumcision is not required, it is still necessary for the gentiles to have good morals and move away from the trappings of paganism.  The other Apostles agree to his plan and agree to send a letter and representatives announcing their decision.

The events of Acts 15 are known as The Council of Jerusalem and marks a pivotal event in the life of the early Church.  This is the point in which Christianity leaves the nest of Judaism and sets out on its own.  This is also the pattern that will be repeated over and over again in Church history.  The Council of Nicea, The Council of Trent, Vatican II, etc, all of these are the same.  A dispute arises among the faithful, the Church meets in council, debates the matter, makes a decision and declares it to the world.  This is how the books of the Bible were finalized, how the Trinity was defined, etc.  A point to note here, the Church does not create new things with these councils, it merely clarifies what was already there.  So, with the Council of Jerusalem for example, it was always true that circumcision was no longer required but Nicolaus just couldn’t accept it.  Peter’s decision does not change the old rule to new rule, rather he defines or fills in, that which was not previously explicit.

Finally, we must note, what ever happened to Nicolaus?  The council makes his decision and he has a chance to accept it but it seems that Nicolaus refused to accept the decision of the council.  Remember the end of Matthew 18, “…and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  So what happens?  The Holy Spirit Himself treats Nicolaus as a gentile and a tax collector.  That is why his name does not appear again after Acts 6.  Gentiles and Tax Collectors were not allowed in the inner court yards or the temple.  They were kept out.  The Holy Spirit, keeping faith with what Jesus said in Matthew 18, keeps Nicoluas’ name out of the Scripture.

Nicolaus would go on to found his own sect of Christians that would be called by his name, The Nicolaitans.  Here, I must jump ahead because Scripture tells us what Jesus thinks of these first “Protestants” but it is not until the Book of Revelation, but by then some of importance of the story may have faded in our minds.  In Revelation, Jesus reveals to the Apostle John:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.  “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear evil men but have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and found them to be false; I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.  But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.  Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.  Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’

Notice, Jesus says that he hates the WORKS of the Nicolaitans because they did not hear what the [Holy] Spirit said to the Church.  This confirms what Jesus has said before. The Holy Spirit speaks through the Church and therefore what the Church says is bound in Heaven because it comes from Heaven in the first place.  We also see at work here the great Christian truth, “hate the sin, love the sinner.”  Jesus doesn’t hate the Nicolaitans themselves but he refuses to accept their actions.


Tomorrow: Acts 15:22-41

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