Case study no. 2: how the apostles applied the Bible

Posted Jan 19, 2022

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Daily Scripture

Genesis 17:9-14

9 God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants in every generation. 10 This is my covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Circumcise every male. 11 You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a symbol of the covenant between us. 12 On the eighth day after birth, every male in every generation must be circumcised, including those who are not your own children: those born in your household and those purchased with silver from foreigners. 13 Be sure you circumcise those born in your household and those purchased with your silver. Your flesh will embody my covenant as an enduring covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male whose flesh of his foreskin remains uncircumcised will be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.”

Acts 15:4-19

4 When they arrived in Jerusalem, the church, the apostles, and the elders all welcomed them. They gave a full report of what God had accomplished through their activity. 5 Some believers from among the Pharisees stood up and claimed, “The Gentiles must be circumcised. They must be required to keep the Law from Moses.”

6 The apostles and the elders gathered to consider this matter. 7 After much debate, Peter stood and addressed them, “Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. 8 God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. 10 Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

12 The entire assembly fell quiet as they listened to Barnabas and Paul describe all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity. 13 When Barnabas and Paul also fell silent, James responded, “Fellow believers, listen to me. 14 Simon reported how, in his kindness, God came to the Gentiles in the first place, to raise up from them a people of God. 15 The prophets’ words agree with this; as it is written,

16 After this I will return,

and I will rebuild David’s fallen tent;

I will rebuild what has been torn down.

I will restore it

17 so that the rest of humanity will seek the Lord,

even all the Gentiles who belong to me.

The Lord says this, the one who does these things [Amos 9:11-12]

18 known from earliest times.

19 “Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God.

Galatians 5:1-6

1 Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.

2 Look, I, Paul, am telling you that if you have yourselves circumcised, having Christ won’t help you. 3 Again I swear to every man who has himself circumcised that he is required to do the whole Law. 4 You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace! 5 We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit by faith. 6 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.

Reflection Questions

Christians have wrestled with parts of the Bible throughout history. In the first century, some thought it was wrong to accept uncircumcised Gentile men into the faith. They could quote Genesis 17:9-14 to say any uncircumcised male was outside God’s covenant. But Peter, Paul and James didn’t believe that settled the matter. God, they said (based on other texts like Amos 9:11-12, and Jesus' example), was leading differently in their day, pouring out the Holy Spirit on all who showed faith in Jesus.

  • These readings are a useful case study because few Christians today demand circumcision. After the Christian Pharisees (Acts 15:5) urged a circumcision requirement, James quoted the prophet Amos, who’d said God aimed to reach all nations. Based on the apostles’ evidence that God accepted Gentiles who had faith, the apostles agreed it was better to follow Amos than Genesis in this case. What can we learn from their example about how to apply the Bible?
  • Paul passionately urged the Galatian Christians not to give up their freedom in Christ. No one today is trying to force Christian men to be circumcised. But what are other ways you’ve seen “rules” pressed as crucial to salvation? How can living in Christian freedom produce “faith working through love”? When have you honestly thought you were right on a secondary point, but let it go out of love rather than pressing it on other believers?

Prayer

Lord Jesus, like all your children, I miss the mark at times. I’m so thankful you died to set me free from guilt, and that you empower me to keep living into your love in the freedom you offer. Amen.

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Dr. Amy Oden

Dr. Amy Oden

Dr. Amy Oden is Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality, teaching at several seminaries. Teaching is her calling, and she looks forward to every day with students. Her latest book (Right Here, Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness, Abingdon Press, 2017) traces ancient mindfulness practice for Christians today.

I’m so grateful for this theme of doubt in Pastor Adam’s current sermon series! One of the gifts of doubt is the way it invites us into awe and openness. I believe there is a holy invitation within doubt. A holy invitation to:

  • Remember we don’t already know everything
  • Be surprised that the world is more mysterious, beautiful and amazing than we thought!
  • Bump up against the limits of our categories and labels
  • Humility and openness
  • Curiosity about God, others and the world
  • Holy unknowing
  • Love bigger than certainty

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai describes something of this holy invitation available through doubt:

The Place Where We Are Right

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
—Yehuda Amichai (A Touch of Grace, 2000)

“Doubts and loves”-–yes! God is at work in our doubts and loves, digging up the world, plowing with whispers. Befriend your doubt today. Listen for its holy invitation.

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