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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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