Welcome, good to see you, especially if you're hear to support Isao as he's baptised tonight. Getting baptised is a big step for Isao as he publicly announces that he's on Jesus' side – he's put his trust in Jesus, he believes that Jesus died for him, and that Jesus rose from the dead and so he can have life after death too. It's a big step to say that publicly, it's like nailing your colours to the mast, declaring this is who I am, what I want to be, and I'm taking this seriously – from now on I'm going to shape my whole world around this.
In a lot of ways it's a pretty radical thing for Isao to be doing. And it raises a pretty obvious question – what does it mean to be a Christian – what should we expect to change in Isao's life now that he's joined Jesus' team?
It's kind of co-incidental that the passage we're looking at tonight in our regular bible teaching series asks just that same question. We've been reading through the book of Acts – a history of the earliest days of the church. Tonight we're looking at the first part of Acts chapter 15, which looks at one of the most pivotal moments in the life of the early church, a time when the church had to come to a definite answer on the question – what does it mean to follow Jesus – can anyone do it, or do you have to be Jewish to be a Christian?
Now that question might not seem all that important to us tonight – and that's partly because it was answered so clearly way back when in Acts 15 times... but it is actually a window on a question that is very much relevant to us. Because by answering this question 'do you have to be Jewish to be Christian?' the early church gave the answer to all sorts of questions about what you have to do to be a Christian, to be right with God.
I hope to make the relevance increasingly clear as we go on, but let me put it to you now as we start – here in Acts 15 we see the definitive defence of salvation by Jesus alone. The early church declared unanimously that we're saved by Jesus not by what we do – what we need is grace, God's forgiveness, not works, not any sort of list of do's and don't...
Now that might not be completely clear from the reading we heard earlier, so I'm going to take us through it section by section to show how I came to that conclusion.
What I want to show you is firstly:
Grace under fire – law demanded; Grace defended – law rejected; and Grace declared – law repelled
Those will be my three points tonight.
So let's start with...
Grace under fire – law demanded
We can see this in the very first verses of the passage, have a look with me at those – verse 1:
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." This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.
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."
What's going on in these verses?
Well you need just a bit of background to see the issues clearly.
Jesus was a Jew. At first, all of his followers were Jews too.
The things that we're reading about happened probably a bit less than 20 years after Jesus death and resurrection. By this stage the church has grown. Christian Jews were scattered by violent opposition and fled as refugees through out the regions around Jerusalem – Judea, Samaria and Syria (the capital of which is Antioch, where we start our story).
But the church in Jerusalem remains the centre of Christianity – Jesus' disciples and the other church heavy weights stayed there. And it remained Jewish – they were Jews, they went to the temple, they kept the festivals and food laws and ceremonies.
But the churches to the North were interacting more and more with non-Jews, or gentiles. In Antioch, the capital of Syria, they've been labelled 'Christians' rather than Jews, and the church wasn't segregated but meet as one. They'd even sent out missionaries to the gentile cities further north where lots of people had become Christians who didn't have Jewish connections at all.
And in that situation some men come from Judea – the region around Jerusalem – to Antioch. They've come from the Jewish heartland to the melting pot where the Jews and the Gentiles mix freely. And they're shocked.
This isn't how we do it at home. It's not right. They start telling everyone that they've got it all wrong. They can't call themselves Christians unless they become Jews first. That's what they're saying in verse one.
'Unless you are circumcised you cannot be saved'.
If you wanted to convert to Judaism, circumcision was the way you showed it – not unlike Baptism today. When they say you can't be saved unless you get circumcised they're saying you can't be saved unless you become a Jew.
This is much clearer in verse 5 'the gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses'. If they're going to be saved by Jesus then they have to become Jews – they've got to keep the law, just like us.
Seems reasonable doesn't it? Jesus is the Jewish Messiah – or King – shouldn't everyone in his kingdom be Jewish?
It sounds reasonable, but the leaders of the church in Antioch didn't think it was reasonable at all. Look at verse 2 – 'this brought Paul and Barnabas – they were the leaders of the church – into sharp dispute and debate with them' – this is a real barney, Paul and Barnabas react as if this question threatens to undo the whole church.
Why the strong reaction? These men have hit on something fundamental to the whole church.
Notice these men came from Judea, the region around Jerusalem. They probably get into Jerusalem to do the shopping. They probably go to church there, they've probably met people who knew Jesus personally, heard first hand what Jesus was like. They've got their Masters in Christianity from the University of Jerusalem, you'd expect they'd know what they're talking about.
This is like having Ford's chief designer come and tell you your car's been put together backwards, it needs to be completely redone.
If they're right the church in Antioch has got all sorts of things wrong – they've been accepting converts from all over, and they've never asked them to get circumcised or to keep the law. At the very least these leaders in this church are unreliable or misinformed. What else might they be wrong about?
But there were much bigger issues at stake.
If the men from Judea are right and you need to become a Jew in order to be saved, then Christianity is going to look very different. This law of Moses – the Torah – sets out a whole way of life – civil laws for good government in Israel, laws about moral issues like sexual behaviour and law about religious observances, festivals, sacrifices and priests.
It's a whole system for life. But how far reaching is the system? Two key verses spell it out –
Leviticus 18.5 says 'the man (or woman) who does these things will live by them'
Deuteronomy 27.26 'cursed is the man (or woman) who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out'.
It's law all the way down. How you keep the law dictates how God treats you: keep it and you'll live – you'll be right with God, you'll be saved. But if you fail to keep the law, even just a little bit, then you will not live, you will not be saved, you will be under God's curse.
Sounds harsh, I know. But that's how law works, it's about blind justice – giving to each what they deserve.
But that's not how Grace works. Grace is giving people what they don't deserve. And Paul and the other apostles have taught that Christianity is all about Grace. Jesus gives forgiveness as a gift, not because we deserve it, but because he's generous. With forgiveness he gives us a whole new life with God, a new relationship.
What these men from Judea are saying, whether they realise it or not, is that Christianity isn't about grace really, but about the law – it's not about free gifts, but about getting what we deserve. It's not enough to believe in Jesus, something else has to be added to him.
Does that surprise you? Don't most people think of Christianity more or less like those men from Judea? Not that we have to be Jewish, but that Christianity is summed up by a list of rules, a list of 'do's and don'ts'.
One of the things about being a minister is that people ask me what I do for a living, and straight away we're talking about Christianity. For some reason, most people seem to think that the best way to deal with a minister is to tell them that you're already a Christian. (maybe they're worried I'll try and convert them). I can't tell you the number of people I've met who say 'I'm a Christian, I don't go to church but I do ... and then they tell me what they think makes them a Christian – try and be a good person, or keep the golden rule, or read a bit about all religions, or keep the 10 commandments, stick to the sermon on the mount...
They say 'I'm a Christian because I do X, Y and Z'. Implication being - that's what being a Christian's all about - being a good person so that God will let you into heaven.
If that's what you think it means to be a Christian you need to listen very carefully to this passage. That's what the men from Judea thought. They put it in terms of the religion they knew – Judaism. People today are more likely to put it in other terms, but the idea's the same. Being a Christian boils down to doing some things and not doing other things.
But that's not what the early church believed – when they heard that people were being told that had to become Jews to be saved the whole church responded.
What these men from Judea are saying is that the church in Antioch has got Christianity completely wrong. This comes out in the second point...
Grace Defended – law rejected
Look at verse 2:
2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. 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. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. 4When 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. 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." 6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question.
Do you see how important this issue was to the church? When they heard about it the leaders in Antioch made sure everyone knew that they disagreed – Christianity is not about what we do, you don't need to become a Jew to be saved. And they thought it was important enough to take a trip to Jerusalem to make sure everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet.
The church in Jerusalem seems to agree. By gathering all the church leaders together they were signalling that this needed to be sorted out straight away.
We've already said that the church in Jerusalem remained Jewish, so it's not super surprising to hear that there were Pharisees in the church. These guys were zealots. They loved the law. They don't mind gentiles converting, but it's a no-brainer they'll have to keep the law.
From verse 7 it seems that there was quite a discussion on the topic, but the issue was settled when Peter stood up to speak. If you don't know - Peter was the leader of Jesus' disciples. Back in the day when Jesus was around Peter had always been the first to speak up – usually to put his foot in it!
Peter has a unique insight into this question because God explicitly sent him to tell the gospel to the Gentiles. The story was well known (you can read it in Acts chapter 10 and 11), but it seems some people hadn't realised how it related to the question at hand.
Look what he says:
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. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 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? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."
You almost hear the exasperation in Peter's voice as he tells them the story all over again. Don't you remember – how God made the choice to accept gentiles? Don't you realise what that means?
Think about it – God accepted them – God doesn't make distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. Why not? The issue isn't on the outside – like circumcision – but on the inside, the state of our hearts. God knows our hearts, what we're really like.
He doesn't say it here, but whether we're Jews or Gentiles, what God sees on the inside is pretty messy. We act all nice and civilised on the outside, but on the inside we're full of envy and bitterness and pride and lust and we're ungrateful, and we don't love others and we're a mess. That's why he calls the law a yoke that the Jews haven't been able to bear – because their hearts kept going astray. So, Jew or Gentile, what we need is to have our hearts purified, and that is what God does by faith in Jesus. He purifies Jews who believe, and he purifies gentiles who believe. By Faith.
Faith doesn't mean a blind leap in the dark. Faith just means trust. When Peter preached to the gentiles he told them that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through him. That's the gospel he preached and they believed. So, as he puts it here, their hearts were purified by faith – trusting in Jesus was the instrument God used to purify their hearts.
So what does this have to do with keeping the law? Everything and nothing: their hearts were purified by faith – not the law, so it has nothing to do with the law. But that means that right relationship with God comes without keeping the law. If they didn't need the law to get right with God, then they didn't need to keep the law. Peter's saying God's has already given a decisive answer to this question – we simply need to trust in Jesus to be saved. We don't need to become Jews, we don't need to keep the law. We don't need to add anything beyond putting our trust in Jesus.
That's because we're saved by grace, not because we deserve it, but because God is generous. That's what Peter says in verse 11: it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved. Jew or Gentile, we're saved by being forgiven, not by doing the right thing.
Let me try and illustrate that for you. I met someone here last week from Poland and he said I lived further away from here than he did – good point. But this is how he put it – you could, he said, swim and walk to his place, but you never could to mine. I'd never considered walking and swimming to Poland. I imagine it would take quite a while. But it's possible isn't it? Some extremely capable people, have managed to swim the English Channel. I guess if you were motivated enough you could then go on to walk the rest of the way to Poland – if you can swim the channel you can probably walk that far.
But it is inconceivable that anyone will ever swim from here to Australia. It's just beyond the human capacity.
And that's what getting right with God is like. A lot of people think that it's like getting to Poland. It's not easy, and not many will manage it, but it's physically possible, under the right conditions, with the right support, an exceptional person might make it.
Of course, some people think it's like getting to Newcastle – it's not hard at all, there's plenty of routes that'll take you there and pretty much any fool can manage it.
But God says it's like swimming to Australia – try as hard as we like and we'll never get there. The gulf is too large, we don't need to keep a set of rules – no matter how good the rules, we'll never manage it; we need to have our hearts changed.
So Peter is absolutely emphatic, there can be no adding 'keeping the law' to believing in Jesus. That would mean fundamentally changing what Christianity is about – that would mean changing 'by grace', by God's gift, by Gods kindness, into 'by effort, by what we do, by works'. As if we could swim to Australia, if we just had a little help along the way. And it would mean changing 'by faith in Jesus' to by trusting in the things that we do. As if our arms and legs are more reliable than Jesus. It would mean turning Christianity into Judaism, simply adding Jesus to keeping the law.
But, if we're going to get to Australia, someone or something else is going to have to transport you there. I'll go by plane, you might choose a ship if you want to, but don't bother trying to swim.
Same with getting right with God – Jesus needs to do it for you. Don't bother trying to do it without him.
In the third section of our passage the decision is handed down from James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, to be written down and sent to the churches. We're going to be looking at that in more detail, so I won't go into it in any great detail. But we do need to notice where the church comes down on this.
So very briefly point three –
Grace decreed, law rejected
Read vs 12 with me:
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. 13 When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16 "`After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things' 18 that have been known for ages. 19 "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 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. 21 For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath."
James adds his weight to the testimonies of Peter and Paul and Barnabas and says we'll all in agreement. God's made it clear, so we're not going to go against God. vs. 19 my judgment is to say 'stop bothering the gentiles'– leave them alone, stop trying to make it hard for them.
He suggests a very short list of things they should avoid – not because doing those things rules them out of going to heaven – by grace remember – but because doing those things might offend their fellow believers who've heard the law teach that they shouldn't be done. We'll look more at these next week, so I won't go into details. I'll just say this – these seem to be things that the Gentile world did freely and the Jews never did. The gentiles should avoid them because Moses has been preached all over the place so people all over the Roman world would know that these things offend the Jews. (sexual immorality probably means marriage within the forbidden degrees – marrying close relatives, but the word used includes all sorts of sexual immorality).
Notice his ruling refers to OT prophecy – the promise that the tent of David – that's a poetic way of referring to the dynasty of King David – would be restored (remember Jesus is a descendant of King David, and now established as King himself, that's what the Messiah is, King David's descendant and heir re-instated in David's rule). So Jesus fulfils the promises about the Messiah – but notice what else is promised – when King David's dynasty is restored the nations will seek the Lord, the Gentiles will bear God's name, that is they will be known as belonging to God. So James is pointing out that the prophets already predicted that when Jesus came the nations would be saved – this re-instated dynasty would not be just for Jews, but for gentiles as well, the Messiah would rule the nations. So Jesus is not just for Jewish people, but for all people, Jewish or not.
That agrees with what Peter said. So what's the significance of it? Simply this – it demonstrates how the church worked out what God's will was. They didn't get together and work it out for themselves, they weren't staring at tea leaves in a tea cup, they read God's word to see what he said. Ultimately they didn't intend to be leading God's church by their own wisdom, but to be listening to God and following his lead. They didn't understand straight away all of the things that the Bible said, but they kept coming back to them to see how they made sense of the situations they were in.
And God's decision had already been declared, it simply remained for the Jerusalem Council to make God's ruling known. James says 'leave the gentiles alone, God's ruling is clear, they are his, as Gentiles, they don't have to become Jews to belong to God.
The implications for everyone ever since are these – the gospel is the news that Jesus has died and risen again to open the way to everyone to come to God. Anyone who puts their trust in Jesus can be forgiven and have new life in him. Not everyone who does this and doesn't do that; but everyone who trusts in Jesus. None of us can do enough to deserve it; he offers life to the undeserving.
What does it mean to be a Christian then? Simply this – to come to Jesus and admit that you need help, you need to be forgiven; to ask him for forgiveness and new life. And to trust that God forgives you because Jesus died and is now alive. If you want to know more, or if you want to think more about what that means, come along on Thursday and join in our Christianity Explored Course.