This morning, I find myself in the latter portion of Acts 15 as I prepare for worship this coming Sunday. On the surface, this passage would seem innocuous, rather boring, really. But it is far from it and it is raising some serious questions, questions that most likely be the framework upon which this sermon is crafted, but questions that may not be answered in this sermon. They may just be iterated, expounded upon, but not answered. This is because, right now, I’m not sure of the answers. I have my thoughts and the direction in which they lead is one I find very interesting.
One of the things I was taught growing up was that if there seemed to be a contradiction from one part of Scripture to another, it was only imagined for, through deeper study, this contradiction would be proved not to exist. I wonder sometimes if this view of Scripture demands there be no seeming contradiction or tension in order for God’s revelation to be perfect. I also must admit that I wonder if this type of approach to Scripture has given rise to bible idolatry, a practice where God’s spoken word is equated with God himself and worshiped. I wonder, is this approach of there not being any tension like this the proper view and approach of God’s revelation to us? This error is not unprecedented; the Pharisees and their contemporaries had a view of God’s revelation (the Old Testament) that was shredded by Jesus (read Jesus’ words in John 5:31-47).
(Trust me. I realize that I am treading on dangerous ground here.)
What if the proper approach towards God’s revelation to us is of what I would call a “growth process?” What I mean by that is that God’s revelation is progressive and alive, not standing still and static. Think about it, really think about it. The way God relates to those of the New Testament (like the Gentile believers) is different than the ways he related to the people of Israel in the Old Testament. There was a change from Law to Grace. This changed occurred because of Jesus but as I read Paul’s thoughts on law and grace, I see the law pointing to grace as being superior to it and the natural outcome of the law. Law could only point out how far short all people fall of God’s perfect requirements; it gave no way to deal with this situation. Grace, however, came, fulfilled the requirements of the law and accomplished for people what the law never could – salvation. It is a process that God is working out.
During the period of time, situations and context in which the New Testament was being written, this growth process never stopped. And, at times, teaching at a deeper level of growth will be at odds with a shallower level. I remember sitting in Greek class in college. It was my first year of taking Greek, which was a two year study. (Anyone who wanted to have a minor in Koine Greek needed both years.) We were taught the grammar and all of the different rules to the Koine Greek language. I remember, though, early on in that second year. The comment from the professor regarding the rules and grammar he had just taught us the previous year I can still hear. He said that in the first year we learned the grammar and rules; in the second year, we were going to learn how to break them. It was a growth process in truly understanding the language of the New Testament, an understanding that would not be possible if one only stayed rigid on the rules and grammar.
All that being said, this passage in Acts 15 I find in direct conflict with Paul’s teaching to the church at Corinth. The letter from the Jerusalem council to the new Gentile believers in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) was that it was a necessary requirement for them to abstain from certain things and activities, one of which was eating meat sacrificed to idols. The reason for abstaining was in direct connection with the sensitivities of the Jewish believers, but it was a directive nonetheless. This council occurred around 50-51 A.D. Within 5 years, Paul was teaching the believers in Corinth that it was okay for them to eat meat sacrificed to idols within certain parameters, in direct contradiction to the directive from the Jerusalem council. No matter how someone may try to spin it, the opposite teaching is there.
The question is why? I believe the answer becomes clear when the view of Scripture is seen as progressive and alive, not standing still and static. The spirit of Paul’s teaching did not contradict the spirit of the edict from the Jerusalem council, but it did open up avenues of expression of the freedom we have in Christ and grace that had been barricaded by the council’s edict. That shows a growth in the understanding of and living in grace.
That growth continues to this very day. God continues to reveal himself today, growing us in grace and drawing us closer to him all the time as we move forward in this process. There are those today, though, whose approach to Scripture does not see it as progressive and alive. It is this group who see certain teachings of Scripture which were meant for a specific situation, context and time as translating point-by-point to today.
There are two things I see emanating from this group. First, I see incredible inconsistencies. There are passages in the New Testament about which they are adamant in following them, yet other passages exist where that is not true. Why is it that much of this group will tout the passage from 1 Timothy 2 to prove that women should not be clergy, but ignore the passage just verses before where Paul tells Timothy he wants men everywhere to raise up holy hands in prayer? In my experience, it has been the rare case where a group who is against women in ministry doesn’t frown upon hand raising by people. Second, many who are in this camp want things to be done exactly as they were back in New Testament times and want today’s world to abide by these rules and regulations. They tout this as the answer for the problems of this world. Part of this would be subjugation of women. I find it interesting that this very group is very critical of Muslims who espouse Sharia Law in very much the same manner as this group does with the New Testament.
Enough rambling; maybe I’ve actually answered my own questions.