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Last week, Pastor Mike told us that there were some men trying to add to the Gospel. There was such dissension between this new idea introduced that the brethren decided clarification from the church in Jerusalem was needed so they sent Paul and Barnabas back to Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas take advantage of the opportunity and continue sharing the good news of Gentile conversions as they make their way back to Jerusalem through Phoenicia and Samaria. We left last week with some Pharisees saying that circumcision and observing the Law of Moses was necessary for salvation. This morning, we’ll look at the argument and see the decision made by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
Our passage for today comes from Acts 15:6-29. Take the time and read this great passage.
Here’s the argument. For years, civilized society has engaged in debate. There are a number of hot topics in the news today. Gun control in light of school shootings. entitlements. Abortion. Race and religion. Social Justice. The push to remove historic monuments that seem to offend a few. Immigration. Open borders. Sanctuary cities. Debates also find their way into the church. Traditional vs. contemporary worship which I always find amusing given that singing and music are elements of worship. Baptism as a requirement for salvation and then is it by immersion or is sprinkling okay. What translation of the Bible is the approved one. Free will vs. predestination. Chairs vs. pews. Tile vs. carpet. What color a wall will be painted. Obviously, there are matters of preference that really can’t be effectively debated because it’s based on personal opinion.
That’s not quite the issue facing Paul and Barnabas. Some men have come alongside them, not to assist or help, but to challenge them on what they know to be true. I assure you folks, there is room in the church for healthy, honest, soul searching debate on matters of Scripture. Your pastors do not have a corner on the market for understanding the Bible and as we grow, our knowledge and understanding of the Bible grows as well. The same is true for you. Unfortunately, many times in debating topics of Scripture, there is a side that comes to the table without that understanding of Scripture. People that have been in the church a long time want to impart what they believe to be true. Notice I said have been in the church a long time, not necessarily walking with God a long time. So here we have some men that have come against the simplicity of the Gospel. The matter before the apostles and elders is this question: how are gentiles assimilated into the faith community? For the Jewish Christians, they believed that Gentiles should be circumcised and follow Mosaic Law. Any Gentile converting to Judaism was required to follow the Law, that’s the way it’s always been. The first Christian converts were Jews, right? So here we have the dilemma. Should Gentile converts to Christianity submit to Jewish requirements, particularly circumcision? How can Jews and Gentile converts live together in a faith family?
Paul and Barnabas head back to Jerusalem to get the answer to this question. Luke says, “The apostles and elders came together to look into this matter.” Luke leaves out all the specific aspects of the debate but there, “was much debate.” I’m sure that arguments from both sides were taken up. There was point/counter-point. There was passion and I’m sure some elevated speech patterns. Peter, who we have not heard from in a while, stands up and provides the following answer. Look at vs. 7-11.
There are a number of very important aspects of Peter’s answer. First, he shares that he was the one chosen by God to deliver the message of salvation to the Gentiles. Peter mentions, “In the early days.” Remember in Chapter 10 that Peter was sent to Cornelius opening the door to widespread Gentile evangelism. That was about ten years earlier. Every nation is welcome at the foot of the cross. Every tribe, every tongue, every background, every socioeconomic class of people can find forgiveness through the Messiah, through Jesus Christ! In God’s eyes, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Hearts receive cleansing by faith, not by ceremony. Peter asks the rhetorical question, “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?” That yoke of bondage, of keeping the law, didn’t work for our forefathers, why do you think it will work now? We couldn’t keep the Law, the people before us couldn’t keep the Law, why do you expect people today to keep the Law? Peter is reminding them of the inadequacy of the Law to affect salvation because no one could keep the Law. Jesus even addressed this in Matt. 11:29-30 when He said, “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.”
Peter doesn’t hesitate when he says, “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” Grace is unmerited favor. Your Jewish lineage won’t save you. Your ceremony won’t save you. Your Law won’t save you. Remember that Peter is speaking from personal experience. He has tasted the freedom found in Christ. He has been delivered from the bondage of the Law and has been set free by the power of the Holy Spirit to preach a message of redemption to all people. Salvation is by grace through faith! Peter gives the proverbial salvation mic drop. The liveliness of the debate was over and the people sat in stunned silence. At some point when Peter finishes, Paul and Barnabas talk about, “The signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” The apostolic response is not over. After Peter shared from his personal experience and Paul and Barnabas share, James gets up and says, “Brethren, listen to me.” Referring to this Jerusalem conference in Gal. 1:19, Paul said he saw, “James, the Lord’s brother.” In Gal. 2:9, Paul said that James, Peter, and John were pillars of the church at Jerusalem. It looks like James has taken on the role of the leading elder at Jerusalem.
Look at vs. 14-18. James provides scriptural evidence to support what Paul and Barnabas were teaching. James calls on the prophets Amos and Jeremiah. He shares truths from Moses, Isaiah, and Daniel to help the Jews understand what is happening regarding the Gentiles. Remember, this is all new to them. James has established from Scripture, the handbook for all things in Christianity, that Gentiles and Jews are one in Messiah. Here’s what James says, “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles.” The only restriction to membership was that Gentiles accept Jesus by grace through faith. Of course, that’s the same restriction now. Anticipating some possible push back from the Jews, James issues what has been called apostolic decrees. Since Gentiles were not required to keep the Law as the Jews thought they should, these decrees were designed to allow fellowship between Jews and Gentiles.
There are four decrees in James’ conclusion to the matter: “We write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.” Three decrees are ceremonial and are no brainers for a Jew. They were a huge part of their daily lifestyle. Abstain from food offered to idols. Idolatry was absolutely detestable to a Jew and the devout Jew would want to stay far away from this. Abstain from what is strangled. This referred to any process of killing an animal that did not remove all the blood. Jews could not and would not eat an animal that still contained blood. Abstain from blood. This falls in the same category as the previous one. Don’t consume the blood of any animal. Blood was considered sacred to them. There is one decree left that has to do with the moral code. Abstain from fornication. This is also translated sexual immorality. In a nutshell, any sexual activity outside the confines of biblical marriage is prohibited. The reasons for this are many and if we adhered to this principle, much heartache could be avoided in our lives. As long as Gentiles followed these four decrees, fellowship between them and Jews would be possible. If you’re thinking, hold on, aren’t there many, many more principles to follow? The short answer is yes. The issue being brought to Jerusalem is fellowship. Jews were arguing that they couldn’t have fellowship with Gentiles on the fundamental premise of ritual Law. They weren’t talking about the fundamental principles of holy living which can be assumed based on what we’ve already since throughout Acts. That’s likely why James said this in conclusion: “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
What’s the effect? I love how we conclude this potentially explosive situation. The first part of v. 22 says, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church.” The conclusion to the issue was satisfactory with everyone involved. I wish that all debates ended this well. The varying positions and opinions were evaluated. A conclusion was made and was agreed upon by the leadership of the church and the church as a whole. Perhaps you’ve seen a church wide debate that didn’t end so well. Lines of division are drawn and no one is willing to see the other side, no one is willing to evaluate the issue based on the illumination of Scripture. Unfortunately, many times in the modern church, the issue is not a matter of Scripture, but a matter of personal preference. Again, too many times, those stronger voices will not stop after a decision has been made by leadership. Some in the church think their voice is the only voice that matters and if things do not go their way, then all hell will break loose in the church. On behalf of all the pastors and leaders at Three Rivers, we will not let unbiblical behavior go unchecked, we will not allow unholy or ungodly attitudes prevail. Yes, we will listen, we will pray, we will search the Scriptures, we will consider varying viewpoints and experience, we will labor over decisions, but we will not compromise on the truth of Scripture. Now, what of matters that we find are not as clear as others. That is where we will wait. If we don’t know or aren’t sure, we will commit to pray. So, here’s what they did. The church chose, “men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas – Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and they sent this letter by them.” Much like we do when an issue arises, we’ll send an email, put something in the Current, post it on Facebook, or anything to get the word out about a policy implementation or a change to how we have been doing things or what we’ll do from here on out. That’s exactly what the Jerusalem church did with this issue.
The letter they sent is found in vs. 23-29.
An issue was raised by people in the church at Antioch. There was dissention among the people and they decided they needed insight from the church in Jerusalem. The points were argued and after hearing the issue, a decision was made by the leading elder and leading apostle based on the truth of Scripture. A policy letter was sent to the church at Antioch and if the people will follow the apostolic decrees as well as the other Scripture they have available, he says they will do well. What about you? How do you respond when problems arise? Are your problems a scriptural issue or a preference issue? When issues arise, and they will, if you handle them in a biblical manner, following biblical principles of behavior, holiness, and godliness, I assure you, it will be well with you.