October 9, 2022


Passage: Acts 15:1-29

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.”
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.”
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, 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.’ 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.”
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 15:1-29, ESV

Here is the story of the church growing up, the gospel gaining clarity, and the Christian life getting some boundaries.  As far as the church is concerned, she is about eighteen years old at this point.  She’s old enough to drive, old enough to vote, but not quite old enough to drink alcohol, although they (like us) enjoyed real wine at communion.  Growing pains have surfaced, mostly caused by a clash of cultures, Jewish and Gentile.  The Jews held seniority in the church, but the Gentiles were gaining a majority.  Certain issues had to be settled.

Thus convenes the first great Church Council, held in the religious capital the world, Jerusalem.  All the major players are present.  James, the half-brother of the Lord Jesus Christ, asserts himself as the real pope, first among equals, senior pastor of the Jerusalem Church.  Simon Peter, star of Act I of Acts, makes his final appearance as the narrative gives way permanently to Paul, who has recently completed his first missionary journey with Barnabas.  There is much to discuss and much to be decided about the gospel and the Christian life.

The Gospel is Free

A little later in the book of Acts, a Philippian jailer is going to ask the greatest question of all time.  “What must I do to be saved” (ref. Acts 16:30).  The right answer is rigorously debated and decided in this very chapter in the history of the church.

“Some men” (vs. 1) wanted to put a price tag on the gospel.  They were Pharisees from Judea who came to be knows as Judaizers.  While they, being Jews, had become Christian, they asserted that all Christians had to become Jews, Pharisaical Jews like them.  Paul would go on to write a book about them, actually an epistle, called Galatians.

Let’s give the rascals some credit before Paul emasculates them.  They believed in grace, that God graciously shined on some in order to forgive their sins and grant them eternal life.  They believed in faith, and professed such in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of David, the Son of God, the crucified and resurrected Messiah, Savior of Jews and Gentiles (ref. vs. 16-17 or Amos 9:11-12).  But, in order to receive God’s grace through faith in God’s Son, males had to be “circumcised according to the custom of Moses” (vs. 1) and all had to “keep the law of Moses” (vs. 4).

In other words, their argument suggested salvation is not by grace, alone, God does His part but you must do yours.  Salvations is not by faith, alone, for you must decide for Christ and then take part is some religious ritual or code to be saved.  And the major code in question involves adhering to all of the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws of the Old Testament, along with the plethora of extra-biblical commandments developed by the Pharisees.  No wonder Simon Peter called this “a yoke on the neck” (vs. 10) exponentially heavier than the true gospel offered by Jesus (ref. Matthew 11:30).

Salvation by, or even partially accomplished by, human works is the oldest heresy in history.  When pride is wounded but not killed, when sin is conditionally confessed (yes, I’m a sinner, but I’m not as bad a sinner as so-and-so), when credit can be taken for salvation because of a religious ritual or the keeping of a commandment, then the gospel gets contaminated like poison poured into pure water.

Such poison was being served up by the Pharisees here.  It continues throughout church history.  It is offered up in cans and bottles today by Catholic sacramentalism, Protestant altar calls, baptismal regeneration in both camps, and in the rampant Unitarianism that transcends all traditions and preaches all souls go to Heaven because all people are basically good.

Drink it and you will die.  However, you can live forever, by a free gospel furnished with grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Jesus Christ, alone!

Such a doctrine is declared and defended at the Jerusalem Council by Simon Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James the Just.  Together they make it evident that salvation is by “the grace of the Lord Jesus” (vs. 11) alone.  It is received “by faith” (vs. 9) with repentance (“turn to God,” vs. 19) alone.  Such sovereign grace and saving faith is evidenced by persons who follow Christ by the power of “the Holy Spirit” (vs. 8, 28).

It cost Jesus everything to save you.  It costs you nothing to be saved.  The gospel is free.  It opens the door to the Christian life, of which admission is free, too.  But, in the Christian life you are not free to do as you please, but free to do what pleases God.

The Christian Life Has Rules

The Jerusalem Council condemned the Judaizers for adding human merit to the free grace of the gospel.  But, it agreed with them that there must be some standard of ethics and morality to govern the Christian life.  The Judaizers wanted it to be Judaism, in a somewhat adulterated, pharisaical form.  The Apostles listened, sympathized with the claims of the Old Covenant (they were all Jewish, too), then offered a beautiful, simple, spiritual, New Covenant way of living.

Our Anglican friends call the decision rendered by the Council the “Jewish Quadrilateral,” four Jewish influences necessary for the Christian life.  They are the four abstentions delineated here.  Live for Jesus and “abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (vs. 20).  Are these four distinctive commandments?  Are the last two the same, making the four standards three?  Or, are numbers three and four related to number one, making the mandates only two?

Idolatry had been the bane of Old Testament Israel and the reason for their various bondages.  Sexual immorality was strictly forbidden in the top ten and various other commandments.  As Jews mixed with Gentiles in the days of Jesus and the Apostles, Gentile markets often offered food sacrificed to idols before it was sold, and they ate animals from which the blood had not been drained, an unhealthy and unlawful practice for Jews.  The Apostles took this into consideration as they forged a New Testament ethic for Jews and Gentiles alike.  I think, like Jesus, the Apostles summarized all of the moral, ethical, and spiritual demands of God upon His people into just two rules live by.

Remember Jesus’ summary of God’s commandments.  They were simply two, love God, and love your neighbor.  Such love lived out rightly could cover every other commandment and demonstrate true Christian faith and faithfulness.

The weighty words of James the brother of Jesus reflect the same clarity and simplicity.  Avoid idolatry and immorality, for in doing so one practices true love for Christ and the right kind of love for other people.

An idol is a false god or anything else that is placed above the true and living God and Lord Jesus Christ.  The Greeks and Romans of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ day literally worshiped pantheons of false gods, and such idolatry has existed throughout human history.  Gentiles who accepted the Jewish Messiah needed to put away all these other gods.  And all Christians of all nationalities need not put anyone or anything ahead of pure devotion to Jesus Christ.

Does your philosophy of life trump the clear commandments of the word of God?  You have an idol.  Does making money rank higher to you than making progress in the spiritual disciples of the New Testament?  You have an idol.  Are friends, family, or hobbies more important to you than the worship of God on the Lord’s Day, communing with God daily in Scripture and prayer, and putting forth effort to serve other people in Jesus’ name?  You have an idol.  Please, for God’s and the gospel’s sake, put them away.

Then, there is the matter of “sexual immorality” (vs. 20, 29), a hot button issue in every era.  The first century was and the twenty-first century is filled with every kind of “porneia” known to man.  The term has nothing to do with magazines and films, which did not exist when the Bible was written.  The term covers any and all kinds of sexual intercourse between humans outside the confines of holy matrimony as defined by Holy Scripture, which is between one man and one woman for one lifetime.

Does God love people who are engaging in sex outside of marriage?  Does God love the person who commits adultery?  Does God love gays?  I would say so, but I would also say they are not loving God, nor loving their neighbor, in the way God requires.  Jesus Himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (ref. John 14:15).

Every commandment of Scripture is serious.  They should all be intelligently interpreted, emotionally attached, and volitionally followed.  Clearly it is the moral, not the civil and ceremonial Old Testament commandments that should be followed by New Testament Christians (Seventh Day Adventists and Messianic Jews, who are our fellow Christians, excepted).  Every New Testament commandant, and there are many, should be honored by Christians and the church.  But the simple, powerful summaries of Christ and His Apostles provide clear wisdom for knowing God and making Him known.

Are you saved?  Yes, if by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  Will you lose your salvation and go to Hell if you let an idol creep into your life or commit some kind of sexual sin?  No, but chances are you won’t take anyone to Heaven with you.  And this is what is so important about the book of Acts at this critical junction, the Jerusalem Council.  The aim of the Christian life and the Christian church is to believe the gospel and spread the gospel.  To believe it unto salvation we have to get the gospel right.  To spread the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth, we have to live right, reflecting the holiness of the Spirit who regenerated us by grace through faith in Christ.

Do you believe the gospel?  Are you living the Christian life so that others can see the gospel in you, and want the gospel for themselves?  You have freedom in Christ.  You have responsibilities as a Christian.  Embrace both.

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