In part 1, I pointed out that not only did the apostles not “unhitch” their new faith from the Old Testament, but they looked to the OT to explain and inform their actions. But just what did happen in Acts 15? Did the apostles really change the law?
Let me clear this up, in case some folks are wondering if Peter & Co. really did create something new in not requiring Gentiles to follow the law. Adherence to the law was never something God required of Gentiles. Look at this:
Dt. 32.8-9: When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
But the LORD’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
After the incident at Babel, God rejected the “peoples” but chose Jacob as “his people”. He called them his son (Ex. 4.22) and his treasured possession (Ex. 19.5). He gave them laws and rules to live by, but we see from the passages James quoted (and many others) that he always had in mind calling the Gentiles back as well. Think about it: at no time did God require the Gentiles to follow the law. What OT passage has that?
Look at the Sabbath as an example: it was given specifically to Israel, not to any other nation (Ex 31.13). Even when foreigners were bringing items into Jerusalem to sell on the Sabbath, Nehemiah didn’t condemn them for violating the day; he just locked them out. He was concerned for his own people, not for the foreigners (Neh 13.17-18).
I could go on. In every instance, Gentiles were not required to follow the law, and no Israelite expected them to. It’s just that some of the new followers of Jesus (Pharisees and others, Acts 15.5) forgot.
But something big did change as a result of the resurrection of Jesus: barriers were removed. God made it clear that he intends for Gentiles to be able to draw near, both to Israel and to himself. Consider these verses:
Eph. 2:14: For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,
Eph. 2:18–19: For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
You can see what Paul is doing. The apostles made it clear that the Gentiles were no longer unclean, and therefore had access not only to Israelites, but to God himself — not via the temple, but as a result of being the temple. Again from Ephesians:
Eph. 3:12: …in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
Who is the “we” to whom Paul refers? It’s everyone (v10)! With this new thing called the church, Gentiles also (v7) have confident access to God. Israelites always had access to God, by virtual of being Israelites. They could draw near to him in the temple, but Gentiles were forbidden to do so. Now that has all changed.
This is the new thing. This is the big deal which the first Jewish followers of Jesus had to grapple with. God always had in mind to call a people for himself from among the Gentiles, but now the Gentiles can join with the Jews and become the church, together approaching God with boldness and confidence.