Jesus Continues to Build and Unify His Multi-Ethnic Church
The plan from the beginning is that all the families of the earth would blessed by being reconciled back to the Father (Genesis 12:1-3). Families being the clans, tribes, peoples, nations, divided at Babel one chapter back in Genesis 11.
God started with Abraham and from Abraham the gospel was to infect all nations.
Israel did not get that mission fully accomplished. They did disciple some people into the faith, however. But let’s not think that the mission had failed. God was working his plan.
Jesus was advancing history on his terms through his appointed people in his appointed way until he would come on the ultimate rescue mission to eradicate sin and firmly plant the cornerstone of his kingdom.
The failure of Israel was that they took the law and made it the means of salvation rather than the expression of their salvation. The indicative comes before the imperative! “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have…” Exodus 20:2ff.
The law was never the vehicle of salvation. It was the expression of their separation from the nations who did not know the Lord. It was to draw people in NOT keep them out.
Galatians 3:24 reminds us that the law was the guardian, or school master until Jesus came and secured justification and adoption by faith.
Remember, Jesus has been including the “outsider” since the beginning (don’t forget Abraham was an outsider until God saved him from his pagan roots, opened his eyes, and made him his own).
Therefore, early on in Acts we have seen the Gentiles included and God testifying to their inclusion by giving them the same Holy Spirit he gave the disciples at Pentecost.
But the inclusion of the “outsider” has come to a head in Acts 15 when some loyal to the law as an addition to faith are teaching that circumcision must be practiced by the Gentiles in order for them to be saved.
These people are continuing to use the law as a means of being saved rather than an expression of their salvation for any who would enjoy to do so.
This issue would become so troubling that Paul would pen the book of Galatians to deal with this exact issue in these Gentile churches later on.
Dealing with false teaching was/is vital because lies are potent and can quickly infect a people.
How do the leaders address this issue and lead the church to doctrinal truth and preserve the unity of Jesus’ multiethnic church?
What do we see? What does it mean?
The Situation: Some men have begun to teach Jesus plus circumcision is how people are saved 15:1-5
The first missionary journey has just completed and Antioch has received the news of its success.
A group of cultural evangelists have attacked the purity of the gospel. 15:1
And the next thing we read in the story is that a group of Jewish believers have come to Antioch to “toss some cold water over into their warm shower” of these fired up Gentile disciple makers by telling them that this is all no good unless they all get circumcised according to the “Law of Moses”.
“The modern reader can only appreciate with difficulty how compelling the argument unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved would have been to the early Jewish Christians. Centuries of reading the NT writers’ solutions have blunted the sharpness of this question for us. These were people who believed that the God of the Scriptures (there was of course no ‘New Testament’ yet) was the same God who sent Jesus. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, the answer to Jewish questions, the fulfilment of the Jewish law and prophets, sent by the same God who sent those laws and prophets. How could a person claim to accept Jesus and the Father who sent him, while refusing to listen to the other things that God had said and asked? It must have appeared, even to those Jewish Christians who were prepared to see ‘even the Gentiles’ (10:45; 11:18) become part of the chosen people, that they should do so completely and become Jews before thinking they could become fulfilled, believing Jews. Even Paul writing to the Romans some while after this controversy writes about the Gentiles as ‘honorary Jews’, grafted into Judaism (Rom. 11:17–21). Yet, the tide was clearly changing, for when Paul and Barnabas told people on their travels how the Gentiles had been converted, this news made all the brothers very glad, which seems a healthier attitude than Peter faced in 11:1–3.”
This is a tough situation.
As stated in our introduction, much of Judaism had taken what was to be an expression (not the expression) of their salvation to be the means of their salvation.
They have taken a cultural manifestation of God’s presence and made it a requirement for entrance into the kingdom of God. They would say that a person must not only believe what we believe but must become a Jew culturally as well.
Paul and Barnabas dispute this claim. 15:2
Paul, a Pharisee, and Barnabas, a Levite, have been making disciples among Gentiles and have properly understood the intent of the Law. Therefore, they put up a good and proper fight and decide to head to Jerusalem to deal with this problem.
“Dissension” – Take a stand. To stand.
“Debate” – Exchange of words. To argue a point.
Paul and Barnabas continue to tell the story of the gentile’s salvation on the way to Jerusalem, and it produces great joy. 15:3
Testimony in Scripture is vital.
Isaiah, in Isaiah 8:20, call the people back to the “teaching and the testimony”.
The Psalms talk about the Lord’s “testimonies” are a delight.
Eyewitness accounts of God’s activity have huge significance.
After being welcomed by the church, apostles and elders, the group of Pharisees state their case. 15:4-5
One of the very first false teachings begins to arise out of adding something to Jesus’ work, and it’s the religious elite that does it.
Side Note: Much heresy comes from elite education. Excessive thinking leads to a failure to exercise faith. James tells us that the poor are rich in faith.
Don’t misunderstand. This is not an excuse to reject proper education. It is a warning that learning does not lead to faith. Learning can lead one away from the truth if that learning is not properly baptized in a Christo-centric worldview that is fully submitted to the authority of Scripture.
Peter’s Response: Faith alone! 15:6-11
The apostles and elders gather to consider the situation. 15:6
Peter recounts how God determined that the gentiles should hear the gospel and have a chance to believe. 15:7
Peter reminds them about Cornelius in chapter 10 and how the Lord sent him to preach the gospel to these non-Jews.
The evidence that the Gentile are included in the faith is the Holy Spirit being given to them not their cultural distinctives. 15:8-9
“…having cleansed their hearts by faith.”
Peter responds by calling the laws lived for salvation a “yoke” that their fathers or themselves could not bear. 15:10
Peter states that Jew and Gentile alike are saved by the grace of Jesus! 15:11
What Peter is effectively saying here is that Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith in Jesus without any help from the law!
This is huge, and the reason is that salvation by faith in Jesus alone redefines the law for those who believe they are more saved or more spiritual for keeping the law.
Rather than seeing the law as a teacher to lead them to Christ, they saw it as their salvation.
Peter reminds them that the law does not save.
Barnabas’ and Paul’s Response: Gentiles are saved without keeping the law! 15:12
The fact that the assembly falls silent is an indicator that the Spirit was at work massaging this glorious gospel truth deep into the souls of his people.
Barnabas and Paul give a report of how the Lord has been working among the Gentiles without circumcision. 15:12
James’ Response: Based on the Scriptures and the testimony of those who are working among the Gentiles, which agrees with the Scriptures, we will not burden them with the law! 15:13-21
James appeals to the Scriptures and the testimony that agrees with the Scriptures as evidence that there should be no stumbling block for the Gentiles who come to Jesus.
Question: So, why then does James give three items that Gentiles should abstain from if they don’t need to keep the law to be saved?
Answer: Although there is nothing to add to Jesus to be saved, there is no such thing as unfettered freedom to offend others with our freedom!
Galatians 5:13-15 “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
James tells them that they are to abstain from:
- Thing polluted by idols.
- Sexual immorality.
- From animals strangled and blood as they choose food from the market or food they process themselves.
There are Jews in every city and Moses is read there every Sabbath. 15:21
What does that mean?
It means that there is one body that is diverse with Jew and Gentile. Therefore, don’t let their freedom from the law be a stumbling block for those who still have the law and are bound in their consciences to remain culturally Jewish.
Let the Jews act like Jews and don’t tell them to stop or inject doubt into their conscience moved practice.
Let the Gentile act like Gentiles and don’t tell then to stop or inject doubt into their conscience moved practicd.
“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
The Whole Church’s Response: Unity and encouragement 15:22-29
At some point, the elders and apostles brought the church together to deliver their verdict and there was unity and a desire to send a delegation of the fellowship to witness to the leadership’s decision. 15:22
It was clear that the Holy Spirit was at work in the unity being brought about, so it seemed good to the Spirit and the church to encourage the Gentiles. 15:28
Abstaining from the three requests would be “doing well” not saved! 15:29
The church was brought to unity by the Spirit as they related the work and compared it to the Scriptures and they wanted to make sure the Gentiles knew that whoever came and relayed the troubling words to them were not sent by them.
Antioch’s Response: Rejoicing and encouragement 15:30-35
Antioch rejoiced at the relief and unity between the churches.
What do we do with this?
- We must read the Old Testament law correctly not as cultural prescription but as a school master to reveal sin, lead us to Jesus, show us the gospel, reveal to us the glory of God and delight our heart with the testimonies of God’s people who went before us.
All Scripture predicts, prepares for, reflects and results from Christ’s person and work.
Predicts…lets us know Jesus is coming and what we can expect.
Prepares for…cultivates our desire of the King through dead ends (awful leaders) and bridges (good leaders who still fail and also die)
Reflects…Exodus 20:2 as the basis for salvation by grace through faith and laws as manifestation of the inward change not as means of salvation.
Results from…David, the people and good kings broke the law constantly and were pardoned by grace through faith (Matthew 12:1-8 shows us Jesus quoting Hosea 6:1-8 to defend David in 1 Samuel 21:1-6 breaking the law and it being nothing because David was acting in faith).
- We must not elevate cultural laws to spiritual laws.
Jesus plus anything ruins everything!
Elevating cultural rules to spiritual necessities will “tribalize” the church and kill work of the gospel.
- We must be willing to have biblical dissension and debate over things that threaten the gospel, the authority of Scripture and nearly 2,000 years of orthodox Christian practice.
There are some things worth fighting for.
- We must not make non-biblical requirement of others.
How one dresses.
Worship style preferences.
- We are to gladly restrict our freedoms for the sake of others.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
- We are to value the kingdom over our tribe.
Jesus taught us to pray for his kingdom to come.
We are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Try this: study the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7), read it daily for one month, repent when you fail at any point, give grace to others trying to live it out, repeat.
If we are seeking the kingdom we will be more concerned about our city than we are about our church!
If we are more concerned about our city than our church, Jesus will build his church with new citizens added to his kingdom as it is manifest in our church.
If we receive what Jesus gives us and focus on simply living out Matthew 5-7 (and there is much more in the Scriptures we can live out) we will be in unity and diverse and taste the rule of Jesus’ kingdom over us.
Psalm 147:1 “Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting.”
 Conrad Gempf, “Acts,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson et al., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1088–1089.