One of the hardest things for a Christian to truly understand, having come from darkness and learning to live in the light, is the free gift of salvation offered by God. It is hard to believe that works play no role in our standing with God, other than to condemn us. We cannot be justified before God by our works – this is a clear New Testament teaching:
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. Romans 3: 19- 20
If the New Testament distinction between law and grace is hard for us to understand, even though we have the Scripture available to us and two thousand years of Christian theology, imagine how hard it must have been for the early Jewish converts to understand, who had no written New Testament, and whose primary theological context was living under the God-ordained Mosaic covenant within the God-ordained nation of Israel, albeit with the false teachings of the Pharisees and others perverting God’s truth.
It took time for some of those Jewish Christians to work out the implications of the gospel in their lives; they could not simply “flip a switch” and move from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant in their thinking and practice. In fact, due to this dilemma of moving from the Old to the New, a church council had to be held. There occurred such a serious debate as to the true nature of salvation that there had to be a meeting of the leaders of the church. The early church had to work through the reality of Gentiles coming to faith in Christ and yet not abiding by the commands of Moses. The important details of this council were recorded in Acts.
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 some 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. 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 some 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.” The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 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 would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified 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.” All the people 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. Acts 15: 1 – 12
In this council, Peter and Paul and Barnabas spoke about their preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles and the signs and wonders they performed; their testimony was offered as proof to the Pharisee converts that the things occurring were of God. But no good Jew should simply rely on religious experience as proof of God’s activity, for Moses warned about such things:
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamers of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Deuteronomy 13: 1 – 3
Surely to some degree the message of the apostles seemed like the dreams of a dreamer, calling people away from the God of Israel to worship a new God, Jesus. But the apostles did not simply rely on their experiences as the proof that their ministry was true and ordained by the God of Israel. The apostles went to the Scripture (the Old Testament) and demonstrated where the gospel was foreshadowed by the Law and the Prophets. In this Jerusalem council, the apostle James referred to a passage from Amos as proof that God was indeed opening up salvation to the Gentiles and that the experiences related by Peter and Paul and Barnabas have precedent in the Scripture.
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. 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, so 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 long ago. Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles…Acts 15: 13 – 19
James quoted Amos to prove that the prophets spoke of God calling the Gentiles. It was not sufficient to solely rely on the experiences related by the apostles, especially when considering the warning from Moses about false prophets and false signs and wonders. It was of paramount importance for the apostles to relate the gospel to the Old Testament, and this was not a method of their own invention, but taught to them by Jesus Himself.
Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Luke 24: 44 – 47
We can learn much from the apostolic method of gospel preaching and from the Jerusalem council in which Amos’ words were invoked. For if we are to preach the gospel to unbelievers in a manner worthy of the apostles, we cannot only rely on sharing our personal experiences with Christ. We must also endeavor to demonstrate to the lost how Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled so many prophecies – prophecies which were hundreds and thousands of years in advance – prophecies like the one spoken by Amos, in which the God of Israel boldly declared that one day the nations would call on His name.
It is a powerful thing to show how God has interacted throughout history, in both declaring things in advance and bringing them to pass. This is how the apostles taught the Christian Pharisees that God was opening up salvation to the Gentiles and that they would not be required to bear the Mosaic Covenant. That same message of grace is what we, and our neighbors, need to hear.
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith…Romans 3: 21 – 25
Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. Ephesians 2: 11 – 16