Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, 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. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Acts 15:5-11.
A crucial moment for the future of the church! Yes, the door was to be open to non-Jews … but only if they took upon themselves all the trappings of Judaism as well as their new-found faith in Christ: that was what some Pharisees in Jerusalem who had become Christians wanted. But Peter’s NO is loud and clear. He refers them back to moment when everything changed — when, at God’s command, he visited the house of the gentile Cornelius and when, even before he had finished preaching the gospel, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (Acts 10:44). In the light of that, he says, how dare we think of placing on people any “yoke” that God isn’t placing on them?
In the first century, “yoke” was the term used to describe the set of rules laid down by any particular rabbi or sect for living in a way that was pleasing to God; and it was in that sense that Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). In a word he dismisses the “yoke” of the Pharisees — their 613 commandments and the countless rules of application that festooned them — and replaces them with his “yoke” of love towards God and neighbour (Matthew 22:37-40).
And isn’t that what Peter is saying in this morning’s verses? That the only yoke that should rest on the shoulders of any Christian is the yoke of Jesus … a yoke that any Christian is happy to carry when the Spirit fills his or her heart and provides the enabling.
But, I have to ask myself, do I have a different yoke ready to drop on the shoulders of any who would become Christians today? Do I not have in my head a hundred rules for the proper behaviour of people who have come to faith — unwritten, of course, but there just the same (eg, thou shalt not have piercings or tattoos; thou shalt not chew gum in church)? Can I be content with the test that Peter invokes: Is the Spirit of God in them? … Yes? … Then that’s enough.
Lord Jesus, help me to be fully accepting of all those in whom your Spirit dwells, however different they may be from me. Amen.