Over the past couple of months we’ve been studying chapters 6-12 in the book of Acts, in which it is detailed for us how the Holy Spirit had led the church, which had up to that point been a entirely Jewish entity, to a church for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. We noted how this section is vitally related to the question Luke is trying to answer for his reader, Theophilus, a Roman living in Rome: “How can I be sure that the gospel is for people like me?” And so as we’ve progressed through these chapters, we’ve seen the Holy Spirit tear down the “dividing wall of hostility” that once separated Jew and Gentile, slowly bringing the church to some major world-shattering revelations. This led to the establishing of a church in Antioch, a church for all people, where they were now called Christians, for there is no other appropriate label to call this new family of brothers and sisters. Today we’re skipping ahead a few chapters because I want to show you how what God started in Antioch we continued as Paul and Barnabas were sent out from there to go and take the message of the gospel of Christ to the rest of the world. In every city, the initially preach the gospel among the Jews, but facing opposition from them, they turn their preaching to the Gentiles and find a hearing among the Gentiles. And so when their missionary efforts are concluded they return to Antioch, “14:7 And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.”
The winds of change have blown in Antioch, and now those same winds of change have been blowing throughout the Roman world. Whenever there are winds of change, there is always blowback. And that’s what we have in Acts 15. there is going to be one last push against the idea that Gentiles can be included in the church as they are, and so I’m skipping ahead to this chapter as it is in a very real way, God’s final word on this issue of whether His Church is to be a church for all.
In verses 15:1-5 we see the blowback, the pushback, even as the church in Antioch is celebrating the report of the success of the mission work among the Gentiles.
Acts 15:1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
A couple of things about these people who were pushing back:
- They Sought to Control the Conversation: Notice that no one invited these people to come. They just showed up, uninvited. Also notice that God did not send them, nor did any church, which is very conspicuous in the book of Acts. No, these self-appointed men came to control the conversation. They had a doctrine that they were dead-set on teaching.
- They Had Made Customs Their Christ: Look at the message that they brought: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” You cannot be saved! These people had turned circumcision and the customs of Moses into their Christ. Circumcision was indeed an important sign to the Jewish people as it set them apart from the nations around them as the people of promise, but these men were insisting that it constituted an essential requirement leading to salvation. This is the different gospel that Paul fought argued against in the letter to the Galatians especially, which was written at about this same time. You can read Galatians on your own, maybe this afternoon, but the heart of Paul’s argument is that if salvation could be attained through circumcision, than Christ died for no purpose - in short, if you add any requirement to the work of Christ, then it is not Christ who saves, but your custom that save. Your custom becomes your Christ. That’s a different gospel. That’s what is at stake, “2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
- They Could not Celebrate Conversion: I love this little detail that Luke includes about Paul and Barnabas’ journey to Jerusalem, as they are travelling and as they arrive in Jerusalem, they are telling stories about God’s work among the Gentiles - testimony party, and it brings great joy to everyone. Everyone is celebrating God’s work. Except for these guys. These guys can’t celebrate grace because conversion to Christ is not enough for them. Repentance is not enough for them. Faith is not enough for them. New life is not enough for them. Turning from idols to serve the living God is not enough for them. The power and testimony of the Holy Spirit is not enough for them. Nope, they cannot celebrate until all these new believers in Jesus become Jewish like them.
Now, these guys had a theological case for their position. They thought they were doing God’s will. After all, it was God who had initiated the covenant of circumcision, and it had been true ever since Abraham, that while it may be true that God at rare times may have saved people outside of the covenant community of Israel, if a person was to join themselves to the God of Israel, they were to be circumcised along with every male member of their household. And so, even though these guys were dead wrong, I think we should be more sympathetic to these guys, and more critical of ourselves when we do the same things and we have no theological case to do so at all. Because we give out these messages quite often without even realizing we are doing so.
- “Unless you wear your hair the right length, and for heaven’s sake do not die it or shave it, you cannot be saved.”
- Unless you remove certain words from your vocabulary that our culture has deemed unacceptable, you cannot be saved.
- “Unless you listen to the right genre of music and forsake the “beats of the devil” and the pagan tribes, you cannot be saved.”
- “Unless you stop begging and clean yourself up and get a respectable job, you cannot be saved.”
- “Unless you renounce your affiliation with whatever political party you support, you cannot be saved.”
- “Unless you start speaking English and learn to hate your native culture and traditions, you cannot be saved.”
See what I mean? At least they were trying to preserve something that God had once commanded to mark them a his people. We do the same things at times, but we don’t even try to base our positions in scripture, we just make up our own cultural markers. We control the conversation and make our cultural customs our Christ. When we come to this passage in Acts 15, we should at least pause and consider how much we are liable to be on the side of the Pharisees.
Let’s now look at Luke’s report of this conference held in Jerusalem.
Acts 15:6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Acts 15:12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
Acts 15:16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’
Acts 15:19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
Some Questions Need to Be Resolved Through Dialogue With The Greater Christian Community We live in such an individualistic age, in which we think that we ourselves are sufficient in discerning and applying truth. And to be honest, scripture is sufficiently simple enough for us to come to an apprehension of the gospel and to make some moral judgements on our own. Yet at times we need to humble ourselves and accept that some questions for how to live out are faith in this world are more difficult and we need to seek resolution through the counsel of other Christians, whether it be our Sunday School teacher, our church leaders, our denomination, or the broader Christian church scattered throughout the world and throughout history. This question of whether it was necessary for Gentiles to become Jewish as part of their conversion, was one that was threatening the unity of the church and the ongoing mission of the church, and so it needed to be settled through a broader dialogue than the Antioch church. So they sent leaders to Jerusalem to debate the topic with the elders of the Jerusalem church along with other elders and apostles working among the surrounding churches. Debate was held, testimony was given, key leaders (Peter, Paul and Barnabas) spoke of their experience. The representation was such that coming out of this conference, the church would be said to have one position on this issue. There would be clarity.
This is very important in the age of blogs and self publishing. It is so easy to surround ourselves with the echo chamber of only listening to the points of view that we want to hear. We also need to take care that we do not throw out the experience of Christians who have come before us, or are scattered throughout the world now, lest we may mistake our personal position or the position of our church as settled, especially if it flies in the face of established church teaching through the centuries and throughout the world.
As an example, we just held a theological conference in our denomination last week on gender and sexuality. Part of that conference was trying to understand what a loving, understanding response would be to someone experiencing gender confusion or same-sex attraction, without flippantly tossing aside what has been church consensus through the centuries, and around the world today. The point is, be very careful in straying far from church consensus. How many times have you been taught some church doctrine and thought, “What? Christian believe that?” only later on you find yourself looking at it once again and now understanding, “Oh i get it, now. Good thing I didn’t write a bog post about it. That would have been embarrassing.”
All Questions Need to Be Settled Through Careful Handling of God’s Word
Notice what happens at this conference. Everyone is debating. Peter and Paul and Barnabas and others are testifying. But what brings the conference to an end? Careful handling of God’s word.
13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written
Before we go on to look at what James concludes from the words of the prophets, it must be noted that this ends the debate. James carefully packs the word of God on this issue of the Gentile inclusion, and basically the matter is settled. Its not Peter’s testimony that settles the debate, or Paul’s or James, it is finding agreement in the words of the prophets. That’s the point of the Jerusalem Counsel - not that the church met and pronounced infallible truth, but that the church met and was guided by the infallible Word. Our trust is not in church counsels, but in the very Word of God.
And so James turns the church’s attention to the scriptures, specifically to the book of Amos 9, but you’ll notice that if you compare James’ quotation with the verses in Amos 9, they are not exactly the same. Probably the best way to understand why is that James is actually pulling from a number of key prophesies from Isaiah and Jeremiah, and kind of paraphrasing them together, but the key points are that the prophets testified that when the Messiah came to rebuild the tent of David (that is, David’s dynasty) the blessings of the Lord would not only extend to Israel, but to “the Gentiles who are called by my name”. This is the key phrase that James points out - that God is taking from the Gentiles a people for his name. See the Jewish people understood that they were set apart as a people for God’s name, but the issue here is that God foretold that when Messiah came, that the Gentile nations themselves would be called by God’s name. And James point cannot be missed. Now that Jesus has come to restore David’s tent, God is taking from the Gentiles a people for His name.
The Final Word And so here is the final word:
Acts 15:22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
Acts 15:30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.
God’s Gospel Alone is the Gatekeeper We cannot add to the gospel additional requirements for people to keep. Our culture is not the gatekeeper. Our preference is not the gatekeeper. We preach a simple faith, a simple Gospel. Our salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ Alone. It doesn’t matter what your background is, what you’ve done, where you’re from, where your ancestors lived, what your skin colour is, all of us go through the gate of Christ, and there is not other gate.
God’s Word Alone is Our Authority I’ve spoke on this already today, but are you willing to humbly submit your life and experience to the authority of the Word of God. The Apostles themselves did.
God’s Glory Alone is Our Great Goal Why does James add the requirements? For the sake of unity in the church. Remember what James said, “21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” The basic idea here is that the letter is asking Gentile Christians to be sensitive to their Jewish brothers and sisters by not causing them to stumble in their table fellowship as a church together, by bringing in meat sacrificed to idols or with the blood still in it, or associated with any cultic practices. And the Gentile Christians got the letter and rejoiced. Why? Because it is easy to be sensitive and submit to others sensibilities when your goal is the Glory of God alone. As Paul says in another place, I’ll never eat meat again if it causes my brother to stumble.