By David Ney
Readers of Scripture inevitably come to the text bearing specific doctrinal and intellectual concerns. Contemporary readers of Acts chapter 15 often come with inclusion on the brain. We are worried about boundaries, and we tend to think that boundaries are inherently bad because boundaries exclude: they exclude unbelievers from God’s loveand gay people from the Church. We find it easy to project this concern onto the text, and we thereby see the Pharisees and other Judaizers as tyrants who propagate a gospel of exclusion — which is really “no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:7).
But in Acts 15 the reality of Gentile inclusion is not in question, at least not on our terms. Inclusion is in view only in a very restricted sense, and only inasmuch as it relates to the question of praxis. Thus Peter began his speech before the congregation by saying, “You know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7).
All parties present at the Jerusalem Council believed that Christ’s saving work extends to Gentiles. The question on the table has to do with another matter: How might Gentiles go about appropriating Christ’s work in their lives, now that they have put their faith in him? It is this question that the author of Luke-Acts addresses, because it is this question that the Gentile readers of Luke-Acts are asking.
The Gentiles are the workers who have been standing around all day because no one has hired them. But at this late hour — as late as five in the afternoon — Jesus comes and asks them to work in his vineyard and thereby receive the same wages as the Jews who have been working since dawn (Matt. 20:6-7).
But what is this work that the owner of the vineyard has hired his workers, both Jew and Gentile, to do? It is the work that he does, the work of the One who sent him (John 4:34). The Gospels portray Christ as the one who accomplishes fully the work that God sent him to do: “It is finished” (John 19:30). So when we ask How should we then live? we turn immediately to the Gospels.
It is finished is the consummation of the Incarnation of God. Having journeyed through the whole arc of human life, Jesus enters into human mortality. And he thus brings to completion his divinely commissioned work. But the Gospels do not contain a comprehensive account of this work. Indeed, all the books in the world could not adequately give such an account (John 21:25).
The Gospels do not tell us about Jesus’ childhood, his family life, his work as a carpenter. Nor do they give a detailed description of his daily life even during his climactic few years of ministry. They boisterously restrict themselves by zeroing in on a few key episodes: mostly miracles and teachings. This is a substantial shortfall when relying on the Gospels exclusively as a blueprint for those of us who wish to do the works of God — especially if we are not itinerant miracle workers!
The Gospels stand in need of supplementation. Matthew 5:17-18 helps us to see how we might go about finding it:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Jesus does not fulfill the Law by waving his hands over it or giving it his intellectual assent. He fulfills it in the way he enacts it in the flesh. This means that you should look at Jesus if you want to know how to obey the Law. And not just some of the Law. All of it. Not one iota will fall away and disappear because Jesus holds it all together in his person. His embodied life is the perfect interpretation and enactment of every letter of the Law of Moses (Matt. 5:18).
This means that if you are a Jew and you want to do the works of God, the place to start is not the corpus of Rabbinic writings, helpful though they may be (Acts 15:10). The place to start is the life of Christ. Christ the mediator mediates to the Jew the proper Jewish interpretation and implementation of the Law.
The same principle applies to Gentiles. The Gentile who sets out to do the works of God, and thereby appropriate Christ’s work through enactment, must look to Christ to determine what it means for a Gentile to follow the commands of God.
St. James and the Jerusalem Council take for granted that Gentile Christians will do just this. The directives St. James gives them in his definitive pronouncement are not taken from an amorphous and universal Noachide covenant, appealing though this idea has been to many interpreters in the last 500 years. The injunctions to “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” all harken back to the Law of Moses (Lev. 17 and 18). Thus James, in his judgment, is simply reiterating some of the basic guidelines that the Law imposes on Gentiles living in the midst of the people of God. As I. Howard Marshall puts it, “Gentiles do not have to become Jews (i.e. proselytes) when they come into the new people of God, but they are required to keep the commandments that applied to Gentiles living in Israel” (“Acts,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson [Eerdmans, 2007], p. 593).
The theology of the Jerusalem Council is consistent with the theology St. Paul puts forth in Ephesians 2:8-9. The Council takes for granted that God has purified Gentile hearts by faith (Acts 15:9). St. Paul doesn’t think this is the whole story, and neither does the Council. For the God who saves by grace through faith is in the business of fashioning handiwork: Jews and Gentiles alike were “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for [them] to do” (Eph. 2:10). The Jerusalem Council agrees with St. Paul that the works the Gentiles must do are already in place. They have been prepared in advance. They are old works, works already established and deployed in the Old Testament.
Jesus commands his disciples to search the books of the Old Testament because he believes that this search will lead them to him (Luke 24:13-35). The Old Testament is a field in which Christ, the treasure, is hidden and then found (Matt. 13:44). And as Jewish and Gentile Christians find him there, the words of the Old Testament will become words to live by and thereby words of life (John 5:39-40).
This is the backdrop of the historic Christian affirmation that the Ten Commandments (Decalogue), along with the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster) and the Apostles’ Creed, are the foundation of Christian catechesis. This affirmation stands at odds with the contemporary gospel of inclusion, which presumes God’s favor. But it is not at odds with the gospel of the Gospels, which is merely a crystallization of the gospel of the Old Testament: “Come, follow me” (Matt. 4:19; 19:21; Mark 1:17; 10:21; Luke 18:22).