Rituals cause Conflict in the Early Church

After Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, they reported to the church on what God had been doing in Asia, especially in the Gentiles coming to faith in Christ. While they were there, some men from Judea came to Antioch and wanted to add to the requirements of salvation saying that the Gentiles couldn’t really be saved if they did not follow the practice of circumcision that God gave to Moses. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant made between God and Abraham, but it couldn’t save him. Abraham had to believe the same as we do. Rituals, regardless of what they are do no save us and when we add to God’s plan, conflict occurs. A debate ensued between Paul and these Judeans that ended with them sending Paul to Jerusalem for clarification.

Paul brings the conflict over rituals to the Jerusalem Council

Jerusalem, at this time, was still the center of the Christian movement and the apostles and elders were there. So Paul brought his case of rituals being required for salvation to the Jerusalem Council. Given that Christianity has its roots in Jewish history and customs, it is understandable that the church had to grapple with this issue as it transitioned from Old Testament Covenant to the New Testament Covenant. Isn’t the same true in our churches today. When make traditions and rituals and then attempt to change them, churches will split over them.

Peter addresses the conflict over rituals

After “much dispute,” Peter stood up and presented the Council with four truths:

1. God had chosen Peter to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles

We find Peter’s call to spread the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10:1-43. This is where Peter has the vision of clean and unclean food items that are lowered on sheet from heaven and God instructs Peter to “kill and eat.” Peter replies with “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” The voice speaks to Peter again and says, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” Shortly before this vision, Cornelius, a Roman centurion has a vision of his own and voice tells him to send men to Peter and bring Peter back to his home. He does so. The men arrive at the house Peter is staying at and explains why they are there and Peter goes back with them and preaches Jesus to Cornelius’ entire household.

If God gave instruction that what he cleansed should not be called common or unclean, then the Gentiles have the same rights to salvation that the Jews do and God was offering the free gift of salvation to all mankind.

2. The Gentiles believed and they placed their faith in Jesus.

Peter tells the Jerusalem Council that the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home believed – just as the Jews did. In fact, that is why Peter was sent to them. We find at the beginning of Acts 10 that Cornelius was a devout man who feared God and prayed to God always. Cornelius and his household had already chosen to believe. Peter was sent to disciple them.

Philip had already been in Caesarea and preached the Gospel there.

If we look backwards in Acts a little further we find that Philip had already been in Caesarea preaching to the Gentiles. Perhaps this was when Cornelius and his household placed their faith in Jesus. But there probably were not many strong Christians in Caesarea at the time and Cornelius was hungry to know more about God. So he had been praying. We don’t learn until verse 33 exactly what he had been praying for. He told Peter, “So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.”

There was not a LifeWay Christian Bookstore where Cornelius could run down to pick up so he could read about God. There wasn’t a Christianbook Distributors where he could order a Bible to be sent to him. He needed someone to tell him about God and he was praying for God to send that person. God nominated Peter – and Peter went.

3. When the Gentiles believe, they received the Holy Spirit

In verse 44 of Acts 10, it says that while Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. The result of Peter preaching to Cornelius’ friends and family was they all believed and then they received the Holy Spirit – just as the Jews had. They had not been circumcised between believing and receiving. There had been no rituals performed. Peter was still speaking. He hadn’t finished his sermon. But the Holy Spirit showed up. And I think that’s the point Peter is making. Rituals were not a part of the Gentile salvation experience in Caesarea. The believed, placed their faith in Christ, and the Holy Spirit showed up.

4. The pattern of Gentile conversion was the same as it was for the Jewish believers.

God was making no ethnic distinctions in the building of His church. The process was the same whether Jew or Gentile. Whenever we attempt to add rituals or anything else to the gospel, we can expect conflict. Anytime we attempt to make salvation about what we do and not what Jesus did, then we are guilty of trying to earn salvation. But salvation is a free gift. Jesus paid the price for our sins and our redemption is His free gift to us. Salvation = Jesus + nothing. There is absolutely nothing we can do on our part to earn salvation. We just have to reach out and accept God’s gracious gift by placing our faith in Christ. Peter’s argument to the Jerusalem Council was that was exactly what the Gentiles had done. They believed. Therefore, they received the Holy Spirit.

No Rituals Involved

Based on these four things, Peter said the men that came from Judea and claimed the Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved were testing God and putting a burden on the Gentile converts that which neither the Jewish fathers or the Jews of their day could bear (Acts 15:10). Since it is impossible to perfectly keep the law, Peter insisted that salvation is only through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ as a free gift – no strings attached. There’s no fine print. No rituals involved. We simply believe and accept Jesus’ forgiveness of our sins and place our faith in Him.

Salvation is not acquired through rituals but is received Only By Grace through Faith

Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by Me.”

Rituals such as circumcision, baptism, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, or any good works cannot save anyone. It is only by placing our faith in God’s gracious sacrifice of Jesus that we become a Christian.

Salvation is only through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ as a free gift – no strings attached. (Eph 2:8-9, John 14:6) Rituals such as circumcision, baptism, Lord’s Supper or any good works cannot save anyone.

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