“Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” Acts 15:10
The Test – This translation softens the language. That’s not so unusual. Many translators remove the punch in texts in order to lessen the controversy. But we need to feel the impact of Peter’s words if we are going to understand just how important this statement really is. Unlike our contemporary translations, Peter doesn’t pull punches.
The Greek really says, “Why do you tempt God?” (ti peirazete ton Theon). It’s not merely a matter of testing or proving. In this context, the word specifically implies soliciting a sinful response from God. Imagine the impact of Peter’s statement on this audience. These are devout men. Many are Pharisees, meticulous about keeping all the torah. When Peter’s words explode from his mouth, they were hit with a verbal closed fist. To tempt God was one of the worst offenses imaginable. Certainly Peter used the Hebrew word nasah, recalling the apostasy of Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 17:2). Even more importantly, this word is part of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:16). Suggesting that these men are tempting God places them in mortal danger. You can bet that they were really listening after Peter said this!
Notice that Peter does not cast this controversy as a religious or ecclesiastical issue. In Peter’s view, this is about fidelity to the one true God. If God accepts the Gentiles on the basis of grace alone, no man has the right to question God’s decision. God decides the issue of salvation, not you or me. Peter recognizes that this controversy is not about obedience after salvation. The controversy is about the basis of salvation. These men suggested that a Gentile needed to live according to Jewish laws in order to be saved. Peter says “Absolutely not!” He points out that even the children of Israel were not saved by being obedient. In fact, that kind of thinking placed such a heavy burden on the Israelites that they collapsed under the weight. No man is saved through obedience. It’s simply impossible. The Israelites could not bear this yoke and neither can the Gentiles. Legalism is a redemptive failure no matter how it arrives or what it entails. Wherever men require more than God, they put God to the test. Heaven help them.
If you read the rest of the report of the first church theological council, you will see that the issue of God’s saving grace is forever put to rest. Salvation comes about because God chooses to be gracious toward men. There are no other conditions. How we respond to that grace makes a world of difference in completing God’s mission and in experiencing fulfilled lives, but we are not saved because we did something to gain credit with God. Understanding this is crucial, even today. The deceptiveness of legalism always lurks in the hallways of the church, waiting to add just one tiny requirement to the salvation formula. Baptism, moral living, tithing, creeds, dress or any number of tiny additions divert us from the great love of the Father. Every addition is a challenge to God’s character. Be very careful!
The difference between Law and Grace was a problem in the first century. We still struggle with that problem today. The issue keeps coming back. Every generation must re-assert the freedom of God’s grace and the purpose of obedience. Every Christian must live according to that difference. What about you? Are you free to obey?
Topical Index: Legalism