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“What Kind of Church Shall We Be?”

Acts 15:1-35
Bob DeGray
February 6, 2005

Key Sentence

We require nothing more than the Gospel requires, and expect nothing less.

Outline

I. Shall We Add Anything? (Acts 15:1-19)
II. Shall We Expect Anything (Acts 15:20-35)


Message

        Churches through the centuries have shown spiritual priorities through their architecture. The earliest buildings were modeled after synagogues, but as the church developed, buildings began to soar, culminating in the great cathedrals of the middle ages with flying buttresses and pointed arches, lifting eyes and hearts to God. The Protestant reformation reformed church buildings as well, leading to a simpler architecture that still soared, but freed the worshiper from distracting ornamentation. This idea culminated in the simple, white Puritan churches of New England. Modern trends have added a new twist - a strong tendency to emphasize the horizontal, to become a space to meet people rather than, necessarily, God. So a church architect today has to ask “what kind of church is this going to be?’ Is it going to be horizontally oriented, vertically oriented, ornate, plain, modern, traditional?

        What kind of church shall we build? In the book of Acts the same question was being answered, but on a more profound level. These early pioneers weren’t concerned with the nature of church buildings, but with the nature of the church itself, it’s most basic characteristics and values. In Acts 15 we watch the early church trying to determine ‘what kind of church shall we be?’, especially for the Gentiles. Did the Gentiles have to essentially become Jewish when they believed? Did they have to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses? The underlying question was ‘what does it take to be saved? What is the heart of the Gospel, and shall we add anything to it?’ That’s a question we need to ask ourselves. But the flip side is ‘what shall we expect of believers?’ Surely becoming a part of the church must entail some change for these new Gentile believers. What shall we expect of them? That’s a good question for us as well. The answer we need to cull from Acts 15 this: We require nothing more than the Gospel requires, and we expect nothing less.

I. Shall We Add Anything? (Acts 15:1-19)

        Let’s look at this compelling account. In the first half we’ll ask ourselves ‘do we add anything to the Gospel?’ Acts 15:1-19. 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." 2This 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. 3The 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. 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. 5Then 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."

        6The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7After 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. 8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now 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? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."

        12The 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. 13When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15The 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, 17that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things' 18that 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.


        The tranquility of the church at Antioch was shattered by the arrival of a group with a dangerous agenda. Falsely claiming James as their champion and focusing on Paul as their opponent, these Pharisees were teaching 'Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved'. Nor was circumcision their only demand: Gentile converts, they insisted, were also required to obey the law of Moses. We need to be clear about the point at issue: the Judaizers insisted that circumcision was a condition of salvation. They were telling Gentile converts that faith in Jesus was not sufficient for salvation: they must add to faith circumcision, and to circumcision observance of the law. They must let Moses complete what Jesus had begun, and let the law supplement the gospel. So the issue was immense. The way of salvation was at stake. The foundations of the Christian faith and gospel were being undermined.

        Paul saw this clearly and was outraged. His indignation increased when Peter, also in Antioch at that time, went over to the legalists. Many commentators agree with John Stott who says “Paul's Letter to the Galatians was written to the churches of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, which he and Barnabas had just visited on their first missionary journey; he dictated it during the height of this theological crisis before the Council settled it . . . therefore the situation Luke describes at the beginning of Acts 15 is the same as that to which Paul refers in Galatians.” Listen to what Paul says in chapter 2, verses 11_16.

        “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 14When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? 15"We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' 16know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”

        So decisive action was needed to resolve this critical dispute. The church in Antioch was wise enough to say ‘we’ve got to work this out’. They prepared a delegation to the leaders in Jerusalem to ask what was required of the Gentiles, and Paul and Barnabas were appointed. They traveled south through Phoenicia and Samaria and shared the joyful news of how the Gentiles had been converted. When they came to Jerusalem they were warmly welcomed, especially by the apostles and elders. But it wasn’t long before controversy broke out afresh. The party of the Pharisees said, 'The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses' Notice the word 'must'. Circumcision and law_observance, they insisted, were essential for salvation. So the church was gathered to consider this question.

        After some debate, Peter spoke, and reminded the assembly of the Cornelius incident, which had taken place some ten years previously: ‘God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.’ Peter emphasizes that ‘God made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith’. It is the inward purity of the heart which counts, not the external purity of diet and ritual. This leads Peter to the obvious question: “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?” We Jews have not obtained salvation by obedience to the law; how can we expect Gentiles to do so? 'We can’t!' Peter says, 'We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are'. So Peter argues, like Paul in Antioch, that salvation is 'through the grace of Jesus Christ' and 'by faith in Jesus Christ'. Peter says what I’ve said so many times - it’s not a works system, it’s a grace system. Salvation is a free gift freely available to all people, not matter who they are or what they’ve done.

        In verse 12 Luke goes on to summarize what must have been an extensive report by Paul and Barnabas, describing how God was working among the Gentiles through them. Luke doesn’t give any details because he knows his readers are fully acquainted with the first missionary journey, having just read Acts 13 and 14.
        Then James speaks in verses 13 to 21. This James, Jesus’ brother, had probably come to faith through a resurrection appearance. As leader of the Jerusalem church, and evidently moderator of this assembly, he waited until the missionary apostles Peter and Paul had completed their evidence. Then he summarized: “Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself” His statement is significant: the expression 'a people for himself' is used of Israel in the Old Testament. James was asserting that Gentile believers now belonged to God’s true people, chosen by God to glorify his name. To substantiate his claim, James quotes Amos 9:11_12: "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.” God’s promises are for both Jews and Gentiles. He will restore Israel so that the Gentiles will seek the Lord. Thus, through the messiah Gentiles will be included in the new community.

        So James, whom the circumcision party had claimed as their champion, declared himself in full agreement with Peter, Paul and Barnabas. The inclusion of the Gentiles was not a divine afterthought, but foretold by the prophets. This led James to his conclusion:“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” That’s as far as we’re going with this first section, and it leads us to apply the question to ourselves: “What shall we add to the Gospel?” The obvious answer is we should add nothing to the Gospel: we should require only what the Gospel requires. The glory of the Gospel is that it helps the helpless, gives hope to the hopeless, offers God freely to the Godless.

        But through the centuries sincere men and women have been guilty of placing burdens on men’s backs no one can bear. In the early church there were these Judaizers, and later the heresy of Gnosticism, which insisted that one had to have a certain hidden knowledge to be saved. As the Catholic church developed, so did works mentality, which said that certain things like going to mass and praying to saints and having certain rites performed over you were necessary for salvation. Even today the Catholic church insists that it is faith displaying itself in these works that saves - not just faith alone. Luther and the other reformers protested, saying it was grace alone through Christ alone by faith alone that rescued people from the tragedy of sin.

        But the Protestant church has not been immune to a works mentality. We sit this morning in a building built by the Church of Christ, which has some wonderful people in it, but also many with a doctrine of salvation which is a doctrine of works. I saw a Church of Christ web site last week which contends without hesitation that there are five steps to salvation: Hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized - then be saved. Now these are good things, and in some sense they accompany salvation, but they are not works you must perform in order to be saved. Yet this site went so far as to say that in order even to hear, you must first get rid of all wickedness. That’s Biblically ludicrous: your wickedness is what you are saved from when you believe.

         Peter says of the Gentiles that they heard the Gospel message and believed; their hearts were purified by faith; they were saved by grace as we are. So we have to ask: do we add anything to the Gospel of grace that leads to salvation? I think I know this group well enough to know that you don’t want to do that - you want God to be glorified by saving helpless people entirely through his free grace. But the little caution I want to extend is that if that’s what we want to be the focus, we can’t come across as having a list of behavior requirements necessary for people to really be saved. Faith has to come first. It’s not faith and church attendance, it’s not faith and changed behavior, it’s not faith and good works. It’s faith alone that saves.

II. Shall We Expect Anything (Acts 15:20-35)

        But you’ll say to me ‘Bob, doesn’t the Scripture expect a change of behavior in those who believe?’ It does. The last half of this chapter presents the expectations that the apostles and elders were willing to put on the Gentile believers. But they were not expectations of law, but expectations of love, and so should ours be. Let’s read verses 19 to 35: 19"It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead 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. 21For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath." 22Then 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) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. 23With them they sent the following letter:

        The apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. 24We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul-- 26men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29You 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.

        30The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers. 33After spending some time there, they were sent off by the brothers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. 34 35But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.


        

        While not wanting to make things difficult for the Gentiles, James suggests the council write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. Having established the principle that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, without works, James wants to appeal to these Gentile believers to respect the consciences of their Jewish fellow_believers by abstaining from practices which might offend them. And he contends that even the Gentiles are aware of those things because the Jews have been practicing Moses among them for centuries. This focus on behavior that would not be grossly insulting to the Jews explains the content of the list. The council didn’t say ‘don’t murder’ or even ‘love one another’ or give any other obvious moral command. Instead the four things they chose were aspects of pagan worship particularly offensive to Jewish believers. Food offered to idols would be defiled. Temple prostitution, which is an implication of ‘sexual immorality’ would be anathema. Eating meat that had been strangled, meat with the blood still in it would appall them. Thus, though not stated, the underlying call is really to love one another. I think these prohibitions are an application of that core command.

        The Council agreed with James's summary, and the apostles and elders, with the whole church - notice the somewhat congregational nature of the decision - choose some of their own and sent them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, carrying the letter James had recommended. They chose Judas and Silas, two of their own key leaders - and Silas later became a partner to both Paul and Peter. The letter itself has been described as 'a masterpiece of tact and delicacy' It makes three important points. First, it dissociates the church from the circumcision party and the requirement of circumcision: ‘These men went out from us without our authorization.’ Second, it makes it clear that the men they had now sent had their approval to confirm the letter by word of mouth. Third, it announced the unanimous, Spirit-led, decision not to burden Gentiles with anything beyond a call to these four restraints imposed by love. The apostles clearly intended to preserve the faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone nature of salvation, and yet call them too to love their brothers.

        Having shared with his readers the text of the letter, Luke describes its reception by the Gentiles. In Antioch they gathered the church together and delivered the letter, and it was received gladly as good news. Judas and Silas stayed on for a time before going back to Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas stayed longer to teach and share.

        Thus the early church answered the question: “What should we expect of the Gentiles?” They chose not to expect full conformity to the law, because such conformity was both unnecessary and impossible: they themselves were no longer judged by that expectation. But they did expect behavior motivated by love; restraint motivated by love. And Paul’s letters, as well as Peter’s amply confirm this expectation. Living as a believer saved by Christ alone, saved by grace should make a difference, a change that is not required for salvation, but possible because of salvation.

        This is what Paul commends in his letter to the Galatians. He says, ‘because you now have the gift of the Holy Spirit, you should see his works in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. We can and should strive for these things in ourselves without being legalists or Judaizers, because we strive for them not in order to be saved, but out of gratitude for salvation and in dependence on the Spirit. And we can expect other Spirit dependant believers to begin to exhibit this same fruit: We can and should encourage one another to love and to good works.

        But I want to throw one little caution in here as we close. It is so easy to focus not on the fruits themselves, but on a list of behaviors we think illustrate them. Our list might include having a certain brand of spiritual life or worship style, or family life, or schooling choices, or social involvements. It may even include a list of ‘nots’: not working outside the home, not watching TV, not dating. But this kind of list quickly loses sight of the virtues it is intended to illustrate and becomes instead the list of requirements. I don’t think the Apostles made that mistake; their list focused on the outworking of love and was intended to prevent the imposition of law. That should be our focus as well.

        So what shall we add to the Gospel? We can add nothing, for it is all of grace. What shall we expect of believers? We can and should encourage one another to a growing dependence on the Holy Spirit that allows him to display his fruit in our lives. We are saved by grace through faith: we live by grace through faith, and it is grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone which leads to the restraints and behaviors of love.