“Conference in Jerusalem”
From Jerusalem to Pennsylvania: The Book of Acts
January 8, 2012
After a brief holiday break, we now return to our study of the book of Acts which we are calling, “From Jerusalem to Pennsylvania.”
Jesus told his disciples that they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth – which is where we now live!
And we’ve watched as the gospel has gone out. Starting with a bang at Pentecost in Jerusalem and then slowly but surely moving outward. Up to Samaria and then the establishing of that great missionary church in Antioch in Syria.
And, when we last left off, that Antioch church had sent Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey? Do you remember that?
Paul and Barnabas (and John Mark) had left Antioch, gone to Cyprus, gone to Perga. John Mark bailed on them there. Then Paul and Barnabas had gone to Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe.
And they encountered trouble at every spot. Sometimes they were taken for gods, but most of the time, they met with riots and had to leave in a hurry.
But they also established churches among the Gentiles!
And then they got back home and gave their report.
That’s where we left off last time.
The first missionary journey was wildly successful, especially among Gentiles.
Gentiles were turning to the Lord in good numbers.
And that’s exciting for us because, guess what we are? Gentiles.
In fact, the gospel is growing so much at this point that it won’t be long until the church is full of Gentiles, and Jews become a minority!
That was unthinkable at the beginning. The church was almost all Jewish, some weere Hebrew speaking, some were Greek speaking–but they were all Jews.
And then, we had those Samaritan half-breeds and that Ethiopian official. And then Cornelius. And then the folks up in the international church of Antioch.
And now this. Gentiles are coming in in droves!
And that presents a problem.
You might think that everyone would be happy that this is happening.
But not everyone is happy. There are, in fact, some people who are very unhappy.
And they present a problem to the church.
And the problem can only be solved by holding a big conference.
“Conference in Jerusalem.”
Acts 15 is pretty much the center of the book of Acts. We’ve read about half of it, and now, we’ll head into the second half.
This is a “hinge” chapter, moving from the first baby steps of the newborn church to reaching out across the whole Roman world.
But first, they’ve got to get this question settled:
“What does it take for a Gentile to become a Christian?”
What does it take for a Gentile to truly become a real Christian?
And the answer affects us today, doesn’t it?
Because we’re all Gentiles.
What does it truly take for a Gentile, like you and me, to become a Christian?
And to settle that question, they had a big conference...back in Jerusalem.
Conference in Jerusalem.
This chapter has often been called the “Jerusalem Council.”
And that’s because they hold an important meeting, a council or a conference in Jerusalem to settle the question, “What does it take for a Gentile to become a Christian?”
What do you think the answer is?
What do you think the possible answers were?
Acts chapter 15 verse 1 exposes the problem.
“Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’”
Do you see the problem?
Folks from the “home office” visited the great church in Antioch and brought some teaching. And the teaching was, “Unless you are circumcised [this is for the men], according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’”
Circumcision was the mark of the covenant that was the sign and symbol of belonging to the people of God in the Old Testament.
It was given by God and encoded in the law of Moses.
And these men came from the home office saying that the Gentiles needed to do that to be genuine Christians.
In other words, to become a Christian, you first had to become a Jew.
You had to take on circumcision which was a marker of taking on the law of Moses.
And these guys didn’t just say that it was a good idea.
They said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”
And those are fighting words. V.2
“This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.”
I’ll bet it did.
Paul and Barnabas did not agree.
And they could not stay quiet about it.
Were Paul and Barnabas circumcised?
Of course, they were.
Was it bad to be circumcised?
No way. It was good! But was it required to be saved?
Was it true that “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”
So there is a church rumble going down.
Paul and Barnabas will not allow this teaching to go unanswered.
The gospel is at stake.
What are they going to do about it?
You know, it might be that the apostles are teaching this down in Jerusalem.
These guys who came to the church in Antioch were from Judea. What are they teaching down there? V.2
“So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.”
They need to have a conference. This has got to be settled. V.3
“The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad.”
They don’t wait to make their case. As they work their way to Jerusalem, they tell everybody the good news about the Gentiles conversions.
And then (v.4), “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.”
And then, they had their debate. V.5
“Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.’”
This is how they answered the question, “What does it take for a Gentile to become a Christian?”
Their answer, “It takes circumcision and obedience to the law of Moses.”
It’s not surprising that these men were Pharisees.
They are also believers in Jesus.
These are not guys who are denying that Jesus is the Christ.
They believe that!
These men believe that Jesus is the Christ.
But was Jesus was a Jew. They are Jews. Salvation is from the Jews.
And they think that to become a Christian, you must become a Jew first.
Christians are just Messianic Jews, right? So to be a true Christian, you must come into Judaism. Circumcision and the Law of Moses. Right?
The question is not whether or not Gentiles can be saved.
Of course, they can. But must they also be circumcised to be saved?
“Yes,” say the Pharisees in the church.
“No,” say Paul and Barnabas.
What will everyone else say?
V.6 “The apostles and elders met to consider this question.”
I love it.
This was worthy of discussion. Of debate. Of listening to both sides and considering the question.
And then coming up with an answer that was right and wise and loving and faithful to the gospel. They held their conference at Jerusalem.
We don’t know how long they talked or all of what they said. It might have gone on for days and days.
But eventually, it was time to settle the question.
And that happened through 3 speeches.
The first was from Simon Peter. Verse 7.
“After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. [What’s he talking about? He’s talking about Cornelius. Acts 10. That vision of the pork picnic that God gave to Peter and then the conversion of Cornelius and his household. They knew that that was God’s work. V.8] God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. [I love that phrase.] Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?”
What’s he mean there? He’s talking about the law.
Is the law good? Yes.
Have the Jews kept it? No.
Why would you want to put the Mosaic law on the backs of the Gentiles if you didn’t have to? V.11
“No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
What does it take for a Gentile to become a Christian?
Just one thing, according to Peter.
“We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Grace, grace, God’s grace. Grace that is greater than all our sin.
And grace ALONE.
Not works of the law.
Now, this is immensely important for you and me today.
But it doesn’t seem like it.
If I were a betting man, I’d be willing to bet a boatload of money that no one here has been worried about whether or not they need to be circumcised to become a Christian.
Or even if they must submit themselves to everything in the law of Moses from tassels on the garments to the sacrificial system.
I’ll bet no one read Leviticus this week wondering if they were truly a Christian because they haven’t done everything in that book.
So, at first glance, it seems like we aren’t tempted by the first answer to the question.
But, how many of us flirted with some other form of it instead of embracing grace?
Last week, I told you about my testimony of being a “good boy.”
I was trusting in my niceness and my rule-keeping.
Not the law of Moses, but the law of mom, the law of the school, the law of good-little-boyness.
That’s not grace.
Any answer to this question, “What does it take for a Gentile to become a Christian?” that isn’t, “God’s grace in Jesus Christ alone,” is the wrong answer and is no gospel at all.
Our adult Sunday School classes wrestled through Galatians together this Fall, and we discovered this same thing.
There is legalism lurking everywhere. You must obey this law to be a Christian.
You must be circumcised.
You must be baptized.
You must be a part of our church.
You must follow the ten commandments.
You must give a certain percentage of your money.
You must be religious.
You must attend these classes.
You must practice these religious rituals.
You must climb this religious ladder.
You must do this or do that.
Legalism spells salvation, “D-O.” Do.
True Christianity spells salvation, “D-O-N-E.” Done.
That’s grace. God’s riches at Christ’s expense.
God’s unmerited favor.
God’s unearned blessing on sinners.
That’s what I said last week happened to me when I gave my testimony.
Is that your testimony, as well?
By the way, I still want a goodly number of people to give their testimonies in 2012 here at church. Talk to me if you are willing to do it.
It doesn’t have to be long. It just needs to be about grace.
Peter says, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
There is not one plan of salvation for the Jews and another for the Gentiles.
It is the same for both. Grace. God’s free gift.
Are you trusting in God’s grace?
The wonderful grace of Jesus?
It is the only way to be saved.
Don’t listen to the lies of the world telling you to do it this way, do it that way.
Believe the gospel that it is already done.
Jesus did it for you.
Here’s something interesting. This is the last time that the apostle Peter appears in the book of Acts.
He’s got more to do and to say in the epistles.
But this is it in the book of Acts.
The last thing he says is “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Now, the second speech is made. This is a joint-speech between Barnabas and Paul. V.12
“The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”
I think that is so cool.
Isn’t it cool how respectful they are of one another and how respectful and in awe they are as they hear what God has done?
Next Sunday, we’re in for a treat. We’re going to have a report from Henoc Lucien in Sunday School at 9am and a sermon at 10am and luncheon with him at noon.
Henoc has been planting churches and pastoring churches and nurturing Christians for decades now.
Last weekend, Henoc did a joint wedding of 10 couples. They have recently been saved and convicted of the sin of living together outside of marriage.
And they all got married at the same time. Isn’t that awesome?
And the same weekend, they had 55 baptisms. We had 10 last year, and we thought that was great.
Isn’t it awesome what God is doing? Come out next Sunday and hear more about it from Henoc.
These folks listened intensely to Barnabas and Paul give their report.
And it was a report about God saving Gentiles by grace.
One more speech and the conference will come to its conclusion. V.13
“When they finished, James spoke up...”
James is a Jew. James is like the pastor of the Jerusalem church.
I think he’s calling for a vote and summing up everything that has been said.
And he calls for something of a compromise. Not a compromise of the gospel, but a solution that protects the gospel of grace and at the same time is careful to care for the Jews in the equation. V.13.
“When they finished, James spoke up: ‘Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 'After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things that have been known for ages.”
In other words, it’s biblical. The Gentiles were always supposed to come in.
This is a quote from Amos, chapter 9. “I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent.” That’s talking about the Messiah. That’s talking about Jesus.
And the Christ will come to rebuild that tent so that the remnant (the faithful Jews) may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name. Not the Gentiles that bear the Law, but those who bear the name. Who believe in the Christ.
Who put their faith in the grace of our Lord.
So, James says, (v.19), “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Now, I think what’s going on there is what I’m going to call GENTLENESS.
It is sensitivity. It is carefulness with convictions and consciences.
James proposes that they send a letter to the new Gentiles coming into Christianity telling them to watch out for idolatry and other things associated with idolatry and those things which would make it really hard for a Jewish Christian to relate to a Gentile Christian.
Now, of course, they should refrain from idolatry itself. And from sexual immorality, especially that kind that comes with idol worship.
But it would also be good to avoid food that is dedicated to idols and from meat that is clearly against the kosher food laws that the Jews will practice. Meat strangled and from meat that hasn’t had the blood drained like Moses taught us to.
Why? V.21 again, “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
There are lots of Jews everywhere. Don’t alienate them if possible.
There are lots of people reading Leviticus. Don’t alienate them if you can help it.
This law of Moses is a good thing. Don’t flaunt your freedom in front of people who are your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Be gentle. Be careful.
Most Christians Jews in this period are going to feel kind of dirty associating with Christian ... Gentiles.
Gentiles just seem dirty. They seem attached to paganism. Idolatry.
If you could just keep away from all of that, it would really help matters.
Now, is James saying that they must be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses?
No! He is saying that the gospel is all about grace.
But grace makes us gracious.
Grace teaches us gentleness and sensitivity and carefulness with those who have different convictions than we do.
I love how careful everyone is in this story with each other.
There is so much love in this chapter. Everyone except the strident legalists are incredibly careful to be gentle and respectful of one another. See? Verse 22.
“Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) [son of the Sabbath, that’s a Jew for you!] and Silas [we’ll hear more about him soon], two men who were leaders among the brothers. With them they sent the following letter: [Quote] The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul–men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. [End Quote.]
Nothing in there about circumcision. It’s just a “be careful with others” letter.
And it calls these Christians, “brothers.”
And they don’t just send the letter. They send people. I think that is so gentle, so thoughtful, so careful.
People are precious, friends.
And we need to be gentle with them as much as possible.
We need to be firm and unshakeable on the gospel of grace.
But gracious with people.
Is there someone in your life right now that you need to extend gentleness to?
V.30 “The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers. After spending some time there, they were sent off by the brothers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.”
Here’s my last G-word for applying today’s message.
Did you notice how much joy there is in this story today?
Verse 3 - “this news made all the brothers very glad.”
Verse 12 - “The whole assembly became silent”
Verse 31 - “The people read it and were glad for its encouraging mesage.”
Verse 32 - “Judas and Silas ... said much to encourage and strengthen the brothrs.”
Verse 33 - “Sent off by the brothers with the blessing of peace...”
The gospel of grace not only makes us gentle.
It should make us joyful.
And full of gladness.
You know if a church has got the gospel if they have love for one another and joy in their hearts.
Over the holidays Heather and I got have dinner with another couple who is planting a church out in Ohio.
And it was a chance for us to brag on you.
I love telling people about our church.
We are not perfect. In fact, our church is full of sinners.
But there is grace here.
And it has made us gentle with each other to a great degree.
There is a real concern for unity here.
Just like these brothers trying to protect the gospel and their relationships and bridge unity between Jew and Gentile.
And willing to listen to each other and even sent men places to make sure there is gospel unity.
And there is joy here.
I got to tell this church planter and his wife that it’s a joy to be your pastor.
Because I know that this church family knows grace.
Monday, January 09, 2012
“Conference in Jerusalem”