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Lest We Forget

Learning How to Discern God's Will from the Apostles
Bobby L. Graham

The will of God is discernible from the Bible, for God has so revealed it in a way understandable to the mind of man (Ephesians 3:1-6; 5:1). To believe otherwise is to classify the Bible as a useless document and impugn the wisdom of God or His love. Did He not care enough to make His will known in an understandable fashion? Did He lack the power to do so?

Not only the content of the will of the Lord can be gained from a study of the Bible, but the very means by which the apostles set forth matters as authoritative, having the force of divine law, can also be learned from a study of their teaching. The apostles were designated by the Lord to be forever the teachers of the world; we must let them teach us how to discern the divine will.

Peter’s Trip To Caesarea

In harmony with His will that Gentiles be included in the kingdom of Christ, the Lord instructed Peter to teach Gentiles, though in an indirect way. Through the miraculous vision and the mandate to eat the various animals, the Lord was leading the apostle to understand the distinction between clean and unclean foods, as well as between Jew and Gentile, had been removed. He also provided the situation to which the lesson would be applied when the messengers from Cornelius arrived and the Spirit directed Peter to accompany them without any doubts or misgivings (Acts 10:20). Upon arrival at Cornelius’ house, Peter then explained the process that had led him to Caesarea, as well as the conclusion he had reached concerning the propriety of teaching the Gentiles.

After the introductory matters had been tended to, the Lord’s apostle taught the Gentile candidates about the Lord who had died for them as well as for the seed of Jacob (Acts 10:34-48). The result of the preaching was the conversion to Christ of those taught, culminating in their baptism into Christ.

How Peter Learned God’s Will

A series of supernatural events aided in prodding Peter to do the unthinkable, go to teach Gentiles and admit them into Christ’s body. The angel’s appearance to Cornelius, Peter’s vision and God’s instruction to eat unclean animals, the Spirit’s command to go with the messengers from Cornelius, and the Spirit’s coming on the Gentiles so that they spoke in other languages all formed the learning process. The presence of the miraculous element in no way makes such a continuing necessity in the present day. What Peter learned by miracle, he later taught to others by divine revelation. From divine revelation you and I must gain insight into God’s will, and that revelation is in the Holy Scriptures.

Divine commands also instructed Peter in his responsibility. First, God told him to slay and eat the unclean foods. Next, he was told by the messengers from Cornelius of the angel’s instruction to send for Peter, who would bring a message for them (Acts 10:2).

Necessary conclusion or inference was also part of the process through which the apostle learned what God desired him to do. God did not spell out the specific conclusion stated by Peter in Acts 10:28 in so many words, but by the miraculous events earlier noted and the commands from God, Peter was forced to reach this conclusion. The information supplied was such that he could draw no other conclusion from it. Peter was expected by the Lord to use his mind’s reasoning powers in deriving the proper conclusion from what God had told him and shown him. Another conclusion, or the same conclusion differently stated, is found in Acts 10:34. Peter’s understanding resulted from the foregoing processes at work.

How Peter Taught God’s Will

At the house of Cornelius, Peter taught the Gentiles with a number of statements of truth (Acts 10:36-43). While Peter’s statements were declarative in nature, Scripture also makes use of other kinds of statements: commands, admonitions, exhortation, figurative, literal, questions, and others. After the Holy Spirit’s evidence that these Gentiles were acceptable, Peter then pointed out to them the need for baptism into Christ by the use of a command (Acts 10:48).

When the apostle later had to justify his conduct to objecting Jewish brethren, he did so with the same basic methodology by which he had learned God’s will on this matter. He recounted what had happened, including divine statements, commands, and necessary conclusions that he had drawn.

About ten years later when Judaizers insisted on circumcision as observance of the Law as necessary to salvation, the apostles spoke by revelation to show God’s will on that matter. Peter then merely cited what had transpired in that earlier situation, here studied from Acts 10. In doing so he cited an approved example to show God’s will relative to the matter at hand.

Statement/command, approved example, necessary conclusion — is God’s way of teaching apostles and others His will. Such processes conform to the mental powers and processes of human beings and are the very ways in which people learn whatever they learn — physics, English, geography, tailoring, gardening, or whatever. Such processes did not originate with man but with God, and they form a part of the essential means of acquiring all information. Not until God changes the way in which the human mind operates and learns shall there be any change in the process of learning God’s will from the Word.

God has revealed His will in such a way that people of reasonable intellect can understand it, for they are its intended beneficiaries. He has set it forth so that men might know and do those things pleasing to God, for apart from divine revelation no one would have any idea about His will. What God has said is authoritative: people must embrace it in faith and practice it in life. To it all must restrict themselves (1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 John 9).

The discerning of the will of God is not the mysterious and puzzling endeavor that many claim. From the apostles themselves, Christ’s teachers and personal ambassadors, people can learn all that the Lord desires of them (John 16:13). The procedure employed by the apostle Peter, as he learned God’s will for the Gentiles and later set it forth to Jewish brethren, is highly informative on this matter. Additional light can be supplied as we look to the apostles’ disclosure of the will of Christ respecting the same issue in Acts 15.

The Background

After the taking of the gospel to those gathered at Cornelius’ house, other Gentiles began to turn to Christ, resulting in Jewish insistence on their keeping of the Law, particularly in circumcision. The spread of this Judaizing influence especially began after the formation of the largely Gentile church in Antioch and after Paul and Barnabas began their trip to convert Gentiles. These insistent Judaizers came from Judea and seemed to represent themselves as authorized so to teach by the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1,24). As they required circumcision after the custom of Moses as a requirement of salvation, the Antioch brethren decided to send Paul, Barnabas, and others to Jerusalem concerning this issue. There the apostles were available, and the statement was from some of them at Jerusalem and from the apostle Paul as well.

What happened in that Jerusalem meeting was neither a church council building a consensus that would represent the church at large, nor a democratic effort by a local church to determine the wise course on the issue. The God of heaven was there revealing His mind on the matter through the apostles whom Christ had chosen. Divine revelation addressed a particular concern in the first century church.

Three Apostolic Arguments

After much debate Peter spoke in verses seven through eleven. His focus was what God had done by him in identifying Gentiles as subjects of the gospel by the Spirit’s witness in the tongues spoken at Cornelius’s house. In fact, stress seems to be laid on their hearing the same gospel, receiving the same Spirit, and enjoying the same cleansing (15:7-9). He was citing an account of approved action initiated by the Lord. This approved example was then used as the basis for the necessary conclusion stated in verses ten and eleven, It involved Jews and Gentiles alike being saved in the same manner — through the grace of the Lord Jesus exerted in the gospel, not through the Law. This inference or conclusion was forced (made necessary) by the line of argumentation used by Peter. The only proper conclusion possible was that Peter acted properly in teaching and baptizing Cornelius and not requiring his circumcision. The persuasive effect of such reasoning is seen in the multitude’s silence in verse twelve.

In verse twelve Barnabas and Paul related God’s work through them on their recent journey, recorded in chapters 13 and 14. They gave special attention to the signs and wonders done by the Lord among Gentiles. The Lord’s work surely constituted an approved example; by it He gave sanction to the preaching done and the Gentiles as fit subjects of gospel obedience. Though this inference was not stated, it is easily seen as necessary from the premises used and relevant to the issue. Circumcision must not be bound on these Gentiles.

The last speaker was James, who based his speech on a statement from God recorded in Amos 9. His point was that God was redeeming people who were Gentiles (v. 14), just as Amos had said would happen under the restored tabernacle of David (in the reign of Christ). From this direct statement he then concluded that they not trouble the Gentiles with Mosaic requirements (vv. 19-21)

The Element Of Silence

When the letter was written for distribution to the churches, a disavowal was made of the teaching at issue. Without commandment (authority) from the apostles the Judaizers had done their teaching. Apart from any apostolic instruction, neither those teachers then nor any teacher today has any right to declare God’s will on any matter. The apostles’ teaching formed the basis of all approved teaching and authorized action in first century congregations (Acts 2:42; 1 Peter 4:11). Also seen in this statement of disavowal in verse 24 is the prohibitive nature of silence. In a time of difference over silence’s permissive or prohibitive effect, it can here be clearly seen that in the absence of divine revelation man is prohibited from initiating his own idea or way. Nadab and Abihu learned that lesson the hard way (Leviticus 10).

May we resolve to learn how to discern God’s will from the apostles and, having learned it, be content to practice it.