A Commentary by John Stott
Acts. 15:1 – 16:5. Permanent lessons b). Fellowship: an issue of Christian love.
It was one thing to secure the gospel from corruption; it was another to preserve the church from fragmentation. Paul was resolutely unwilling to compromise ‘the truth of the gospel’ (Gal.2:14). He resisted the Judaizers, rebuked Peter publicly, and wrote a passionate appeal to the Galatians (e.g. Gal.1:6-9; 3:1-5; 5:2-6). At the same time, he was extremely anxious to maintain Jewish-Gentile solidarity in the one body of Christ. So how could he unite the church without compromising the gospel, or defend the integrity of the gospel without sacrificing the unity of the church? His answer reveals the greatness of his mind and heart. Once the theological principle was firmly established, that salvation is by grace alone, and that circumcision was not required but neutral, he was prepared to adjust his practical policies. He made two notable concessions, both for the same conciliatory reason. First, he accepted the four cultural abstentions proposed by the Jewish leaders to Gentile converts, because Moses was widely read and preached, and this Gentile restraint would ease Jewish consciences and facilitate Jewish-Gentile social intercourse. Secondly, he circumcised Timothy (he who had just been fulminating against circumcision!), out of consideration for the Jews who would be offended if he remained uncircumcised.
Some commentators have been so astonished by the apparent discrepancy between Paul the inflexible, who opposed circumcision, and Paul the flexible who circumcised Timothy, that they have pronounced them irreconcilable. This was the main reason why F.C.Baur wrote: ‘the Paul of the Acts is manifestly quite a different person from the Paul of the Epistles’. But the fact is that the discrepancy is found within the Acts narrative itself. Besides, Paul’s concessions in Acts 15 and 16 are entirely in keeping with the conciliatory teaching of his letters. He urged Christians with a ‘strong’ (or educated) conscience not to violate the consciences of the ‘weak’ (or over-scrupulous). A strong conscience gives us liberty of behaviour, but we should limit our liberty out of love for the weak (e.g. Rom.14 and 1 Cor. 8. Again, though free, Paul was willing to make himself a slave to others. To those under the law he was prepared to become like one under the law, in order to win those under the law (1 Cor. 9:19-20). Was that not exactly what he was doing when he circumcised Timothy, as also when some years later he accepted James’ proposal in Jerusalem that he join in certain Jewish purification rites (21:17-26)?
We may say, then, that the Jerusalem Council secured a double victory – a victory of truth in confirming the gospel of grace, and a victory of love in preserving the fellowship by sensitive concessions to conscientious Jewish scruples. As Luther put it, Paul was strong in faith, and soft in love. So, ‘as concerning faith we ought to be invincible, and more hard, if it might be, than the adamant stone; but as touching charity, we ought to be soft, and more flexible than the reed or leaf that is shaken with the wind, and ready to yield to everything’. Or as John Newton once said during a meeting of the Eclectic Society in 1799, ‘Paul was a reed in non-essentials, – an iron pillar in essentials’.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts: Becoming a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.