Blessed Solemnity of Saint Joseph!
For lack of time to complete any other posts, yet wanting to get a move on the pieces I have in mind for UbiPetrus.com, and to honor St. Joseph, I am posting some extended notes I made on themes in the Acts of the Apostles.
Let us begin in the Acts chapter 15. At this juncture of the book, Pentecost has established the Church, persecution has led to the initial spread of the Gospel, Saul has been converted and, having taken the name of Paul, made his first missionary journey. Because a number of Gentiles have believed the Gospel message as preached by Paul, the issue of circumcision comes up. Here is where we pick up our initial part of the narrative.
15:1 Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” 2Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question. 3They were sent on their journey by the church, and passed through Phoenicia and Samaria telling of the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, as well as by the apostles and the presbyters, and they reported what God had done with them. 5But some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.” 6 The apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter. 7 After much debate had taken place, Peter got up and said to them, “My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8And God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting them the holy Spirit just as he did us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts. 10Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.” 12The whole assembly fell silent, and they listened while Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them. [Bold added for emphasis].
Firstly, we note that, in effect, Peter ends the debate that was full of “no little dissention.” Peter’s statement brings all the debaters to silence, and the light of his assertions is a new lens of faith by which those at the council re-hear the accounts of Paul and Barnabas. They have a new paradigm of faith, as confirmed and clarified by Peter, for the consideration at hand.
After Paul and Barnabas describe the “signs and wonders,” there is a fresh contemplation of the work that the Holy Spirit has been accomplishing. James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, takes the issue and moves it forward. But the response of James can be puzzling. He jumps in thus…
13 After they had fallen silent, James responded, “My brothers, listen to me. 14 Symeon [Peter] has described how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name. 15The words of the prophets agree with this, as is written: 16‘After this I shall return and rebuild the fallen hut of David; from its ruins I shall rebuild it and raise it up again, 17 so that the rest of humanity may seek out the Lord, even all the Gentiles on whom my name is invoked. Thus says the Lord who accomplishes these things, 18 known from of old.’ 19 It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, 20but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood. 21 For Moses, for generations now, has had those who proclaim him in every town, as he has been read in the synagogues every sabbath.”
Let us leave for later the issue of disciplines and moral instructions that conclude James’s suggestions. Let us take the doctrinal part first. The scriptural quotations that have entered the Apostolic deliberations here are of great importance. They also are not all clearly applicable. First let us identify the Scriptures.
The command to circumcise every man of the covenant is found in Leviticus 12:3. There are various New Testament passages to be considered in Peter’s response, but of first interest is the passage from Amos, which, apparently, James thinks will bear out Peter’s stance on the matter. Here is the passage from Amos as the Hebrew text would be directly translated.
On that day I will raise up the fallen hut of David; I will wall up its breaches, raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old, That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all nations claimed in my name— oracle of the LORD, the one who does this. (Amos 9:11-12)
Here we question, how on earth could James propose that this scripture stands as a witness to the truth of salvation-in-Christ that Peter has articulated? One can see how this is of great importance, that “the rest of humanity may seek out the Lord, even all the Gentiles on whom my name is invoked.” But how does this show that circumcision is replaced by faith and baptism? If the Gentiles are included in the rebuilt “hut of David,” why not be circumcised like David? How do we get, from this passage, to affirm that “by faith [God] purified their hearts,” meaning the Gentiles, making circumcision unnecessary for them?
For a clue let us look at some passages which speak about the “hearts” of men, for, I believe, this is where a profound truth was hidden in Amos’s prophecy.
The first passage is that one penned by David.
A clean heart create for me, God; renew within me a steadfast spirit
It is, of course, in Psalm 51 (AKA the Miserere), 51:12. But let us also note verse 19
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn
And also verse 6, the first mention of the heart:
Indeed you love truth in the heart, Then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom
Now the next passage for consideration is a clear reflection of the great, salvific significance of the verse in Ps. 51:12. The last chapter in the book of Isaiah, in reference to the soul, contains an allusion very much akin to the “clean heart.” Even if not done intentionally by the prophetic writer, this stands nonetheless as a partial reflection on the Miserere, so well-known to the Jews at that time.
Thus says the LORD: The heavens are my throne, the earth, my footstool. What house can you build for me? Where is the place of my rest? My hand made all these things when all of them came to be—oracle of the LORD. This is the one whom I approve: the afflicted one, crushed in spirit, who trembles at my word. (Is. 66:1-2)
Those who are familiar with the speeches in the Acts of the Apostles may notice that I have taken us on a tour of heart-themed passages in the Acts. For, this passage in Isaiah is the exact one quoted by Saint Steven in Acts Chapter 7, where – we take note – a most stinging Psalm-51-like, heart-themed statement is made, as a rebuke of the “Synagogue of so-called Freed-men”!
Steven quotes this verse of Isaiah (66:1-2) as part of an accusation against the Synagogue (Acts 7:49-50), and then in the next verse he immediately ads this most stinging rebuke…
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the holy Spirit; you are just like your ancestors! (Acts 7:51).
Let us take a breath before we jump in deeper. In short, Psalm 51 is reflected in Isaiah 66, by a connection of praising a “contrite heart.” Saint Steven happens to have quoted Isaiah 66 as his immediate preface to rebuke the “uncircumcised hearts” of his persecutors. This makes me say, that I believe that a hermeneutical key to understanding the Old Testament backdrop, which James invoked in Acts 15, can be found, of all places, in the account of Saint Steven’s martyrdom.
Let us proceed further. The salvation to which St. Steven “witnessed” by his martyrdom was the purification of the heart by faith in Christ. Psalm 51 and Isiah 66:2 show us that God will dwell in the “holy house” made up of those who have humbled themselves in faith, allowing God to “create a clean heart” in them.
Saint Steven identified an unclean heart with an uncircumcised heart: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart.” It was only what the prophets had done.
We see, in the condemnation of the “uncircumcised heart,” a clear echo of David’s prophetic message in Psalm 51. Indeed all the prophets affirmed it. Just for one other example…
Be circumcised for the LORD, remove the foreskins of your hearts, people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! (Jer. 4:4a)
Further, if Steven’s words carried any inference, which would apply the rest of Psalm 51 to the situation of the Apostolic Church, we may note very clearly the means by which the “hut of David” is rebuilt.
[Lord] treat Zion kindly according to your good will; build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will desire the sacrifices of the just, burnt offering and whole offerings; then they will offer up young bulls on your altar. (Ps. 51:20-21)
The Miserere is usually considered to be David’s prayer of repentance for his sins against Uriah and Bathsheba. This means the phrase “build up the walls of Jerusalem” must be metaphorical, because the walls were not literally broken down during this part of David’s life. So, in truth, it is actually the forgiveness of sins that “walls up the breaches” in Jerusalem. Such was prayed by David himself. That which forgives sins will raise up the fallen house of David. For, to use the words of Steven, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands!”
Again, in the words of David, as Psalm 51 had affirmed rather clearly, the rebuilding of Jerusalem (the hut of David spiritually speaking) happens by the forgiveness of sins. This forgiveness is not a circumcision of the flesh, but one of the heart!
Where does the Most High dwell? In “the humble contrite heart who trembles at his word,” that is to say, who obeys it (here let us think of Saint Joseph!). In the Acts of the Apostles, the forgiveness of sins is first effected on the day of Pentecost, when those who heard Peter’s sermon were “cut to the heart”! And when they asked Peter “what shall we do?”, Peter’s response was that they should be “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (a phrase of sacramental theology and not of liturgical formula). They should be baptized so that their sins may be forgiven and that they may receive the Holy Spirit. This showed that their “circumcision of the heart” was made a reality by baptism. We say it twice: Baptism, synonymous with “calling on the name of the Lord” for the forgiveness of sins, is the circumcision of the heart. This is clearly by faith, and by grace, for they never would have accepted Peter’s command to be baptized had they not been “cut to the heart.”
We come back to Acts chapter 15 where we started. This truth, baptism-equals-the-circumcision-of-the-heart, operative at Pentecost and then articulated on the lips of St. Steven, is precisely why, once Peter had affirmed that “God circumcised the hearts of the Gentiles by faith,” James’s exhortation jumped to Amos and to the rebuilt “hut of David” with the inclusion of the Gentiles. It was happening! By the means that David indicated in Ps. 51, by the means that Jeremiah had affirmed, by the means and to the effect clearly expressed in Isaiah 66, and according to the pattern and prophecy uttered by Steven (which must have been in the minds of the Apostles who contemplated such a witness by holy deacon), the scene that the prophet Amos had described had been brought about by God!
Such is how the hut of David was the rebuilt with the inclusion of the Gentiles. And such is the reason James rejoiced to quote such scriptures as soon as Peter had made his statement on the matter.
There is, at this point, only follow-through of how things should proceed for the baptized believers. And while there may be much to the proposals of St. James, what I can say about it is rather brief in our context.
James seems to base his suggestions on the fact that “Moses, for generations now, has had those who proclaim him in every town, as he has been read in the synagogues every sabbath.” It is not immediately evident why. However, regarding Moses, we can actually go back (again) to the words of Steven. In Steven’s overall theme of his witness speech the point was made that the greatest portion of God’s plan of salvation had been revealed to Moses, and that plan was evident from the tabernacle, long before David venture to build a “house made with hands” to hold the ark. The fact that “Moses has been read in every town” should have been a clue that the whole pattern of salvation was established before the temple was built, before David ruled in Jerusalem. Really, the pattern of salvation, as suited to the situation of sin, was going to reach every town and not be limited to the temple building. In his speech, Steven came to the figure of Moses by saying
When the time drew near for the fulfillment of the promise that God pledged to Abraham, the people had increased and become very numerous in Egypt. Acts 7:17
But, if the time for the fulfillment of promises was near, what problem prevented the fulfillment?
Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. Acts 7:39
“In their hearts” they turned back to Egypt. They tore down the walls of Jerusalem before they ever set eyes on the city which would become David’s. David had not yet been born of Judah, and yet his hut was already ruined! They were unwilling to obey Moses.
The immediate application is this: as the Israelites were still too close to Egypt in that day, so now the Gentile Converts were too close to their own spiritual Egypt even when cleansed by faith: “Pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood.”
These, I infer must have presented especially grave spiritual dangers for the newly circumcised hearts of the once-pagan believers. It is obvious also why they might have been a spiritual danger to Jewish Christians. St. James’s proposal of the “minimal” disciplines deemed necessary to avoid apostacies in the Church was a similar application of pedagogical laws of Moses. The Jews were to learn from their Mosaic sacrifices to welcome the Christ. The Gentiles were to learn from the Mosaic morality how to conform their entire lives to the Christ.
In conclusion, as a Gentile myself, I pray that the intercession of Saint Joseph, whose heart was circumcised by faith in the most admirable of all degrees, save that of his Spouse, help me conform my entire life to Christ! Amen.