Turning points

Turning points. Many of us, if asked to tell our personal story, would describe one or more events that changed the course of our lives:

  • We got laid off from a job, and realized we needed to reinvent ourselves.
  • We fell head over heels in love and knew this was the person with whom we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.
  • We barely escaped death, and determined to live more fully.

Life stories can take dramatic turns. At first, we may be continuing along in a predictable direction. But then something happens; we’re confronted with a new reality. We find ourselves at a proverbial fork in the road, and must decide what to do. Left? Right? The choice matters.

Many believers would say that hearing the gospel for the first time was just such a turning point. Think of Saul meeting Jesus on the road into Damascus. The zealous Pharisee, defender of the Law of Moses, persecutor of the heretics who followed Jesus: this man, in a moment, had his entire world turned upside down, and joined the heretics he once tried to kill. Soon, he became a bona fide apostle of Jesus — to the Gentiles, no less. A more dramatic turnaround can scarcely be imagined.

In a sense, the entire book of Acts describes a turning point, in which the good news of the coming of the Jewish Messiah embraces the Gentiles. That’s the story that Luke’s patron, Theophilus, wants to hear. (In the larger scheme of things, of course, this is only a turning point from a human perspective; as the prophets of old would have insisted, God’s salvation had always been for the entire world.)

Moreover, Luke’s story has its own turning point, which conveniently occurs smack in the middle of our modern translations, fourteen chapters into a twenty-eight chapter tale. As we’ve seen, chapter 14 brings Paul’s first missionary journey to a close. Chapter 15 then addresses the pushback that results from the rapid influx of Gentiles into the church. A council has to be convened in Jerusalem to deal with the controversy. 

Before we dive into the story of the council, however, we need to create a bit of narrative context. And to do that, we have to consider how Acts 15 relates to what Paul says in his letter to the Galatians. 

Scholars debate the who, when, and why of Galatians: to whom was the letter addressed, when was it written, and in what context? Part of the problem is that Paul visits different parts of the province of Galatia on different journeys. Moreover, in Galatians 1:13 – 2:10, he gives a partial chronology of his trips to Jerusalem and his missionary work, and scholars disagree on how this lines up with the events Luke describes in the pages of Acts. 

Rather than try to detail the various arguments and their pros and cons (as if I were even competent to do so!), let me simply set out the reading that I find the most compelling:

  • The first trip to Jerusalem described in Galatians (1:18-19) happens three years after his conversion. At that time, Paul met with Peter and James. It’s the same trip as described in Acts 9:27, coming after his experiences in Damascus, and before being sent back to Tarsus. 
  • Paul’s second post-conversion trip to Jerusalem, described in Galatians 2:1-10, is when he and Barnabas brought the collection from Antioch for the poor (Acts 11:30).  They met privately with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, and James, Peter, and John all affirmed their ministry to the Gentiles. At the end of that meeting, they were encouraged to “remember the poor” (Gal 2:10, NRSV), as befits the charitable mission that brought them there in the first place.
  • In Galatians 2:11-21, Paul describes a dust-up with Peter, who had come to Antioch. Peter had been enjoying table fellowship with the Gentile converts (as he had in Acts 10), but pulled back when he heard that more conservative believers who insisted that Gentiles should be circumcised were coming. It’s hard to imagine this happening after the Jerusalem Council; else, why wouldn’t Paul simply point Peter back to what was decided there, and indeed, what Peter himself had said at that meeting?
  • Thus, both the conflict between Paul and Peter and the letter to the Galatians must be dated to before the council, and before the missionary trip that would take him into the north of Galatia. Galatians, in other words, was probably written from Antioch to the churches he planted on his first missionary trip (Acts 13-14). 

Again, biblical scholars are divided on these issues. But I believe the above reading makes good sense of this important event in Acts. The success of the mission to the Gentiles has brought the church to a turning point: how will the “Gentile issue” be resolved? A powwow was needed. We’ll take a closer look in coming posts.