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"The Jerusalem Council"


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          This morning, in our study of the book of Acts we come to chapter 15 that records one of the most important moments in church history.  As we have seen in the last four chapters, the gospel is now going out to the Gentiles and the church is increasingly being seen, not as a sect of Judaism, but as a new people of God including both Jews and Gentiles.  In fact, by the time we get to chapter 15, the Gentiles are streaming into the church as they trust in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.  Most Jewish followers of Jesus in the church would have assumed that the newly converted Gentiles would be extracted from their Gentile culture and absorbed into Israel by circumcision and that they would observe the Jewish Law as those who are in covenant with God.  That’s not what was happening however and many Jews were very distressed about it.  Gentile converts were being baptized but not circumcised.  They were claiming to follow Christ, while retaining much their own cultural identity as members of Gentile nations.[1]  Chapter 15 details the conflict this precipitated and the church’s response to it.  The decision the church makes here opens the door to a massive influx of Gentile converts as the church affirms that they—without need of circumcision, are fully members of the people of God through their faith in Jesus Christ.

          I see four main truths here as Luke fleshes out that decision-making process. The first is: God’s gospel of grace is a scandal and brings opposition from those who want to be acceptable to God by their performance.  This opposition is at the center of this account.  Paul and Barnabas are happily recounting their missionary exploits to the Gentiles in Antioch and discipling the Gentile believers there when, according to verse one, “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.”  This message completely contradicted their gospel and they decided to take this matter to Jerusalem where the elders of the Jerusalem church and the apostles would discuss it and issue a formal ruling on it.  When they arrived in Jerusalem, Luke records other Jewish believers who opposed what was happening with the Gentile converts.  “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.”

          What these circumcision folks and Pharisaic believers didn’t realize is that with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a seismic shift had occurred in salvation history.  Because Christ had fulfilled the Law by keeping it perfectly for his people, it wasn’t mandated as a condition for salvation.  Because Christ was the predicted “seed of Abraham” through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed, the door had been opened to the Gentiles.  A new era had dawned and now sinners would enter into a New Covenant relationship with God by the Holy Spirit, NOT through works of the law—but through faith in Jesus Christ.  Apart from the theological headache that gave to the Jewish believers—think about the purely human response.  Imagine a man who had worked hard his entire life to be acceptable to God by observing the Law.  He’d been circumcised and watched his infant sons being circumcised--he’d spent 1000’s of hours in the temple listening to the Law--had gone to a hundred Jewish feasts mandated by the Law--had given dozens of animals to be sacrificed according to the Law in order to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  He had kept thousands of Sabbaths in obedience to the fourth commandment and scrupulously avoided all the unclean food of the Gentiles so that God would accept him as righteous. 

Think about how THAT person would respond to a swine-eating, Gentile “dog”— who claimed to be in covenant with his own Hebrew God—the God of Moses and David and Elijah.  This Gentile however, hadn’t been circumcised and felt no obligation to keep the Jewish Law he had spent years struggling with in order to be saved.  The Gentile had simply trusted in Jesus when he was preached to them.  Most Jewish believers would have been utterly scandalized by that and the most law-conscious among them—the Pharisees who had trusted in Christ, went ballistic over this proposition. What’s worse, this scandal was being propagated by one of their own---the Pharisee of Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus now known as the apostle Paul.  This man was teaching things like, 15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” [Gal.2:15-16]  That’s pretty clear—your works don’t have anything to do with giving you a right standing before God.

Peter said in his address to the council in verse 11, “But we believe that we [Jews] will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will.”  The presence of God’s grace through Jesus completely leveled the playing field between Jew and Gentile regarding salvation and many of the Jews rejected that.  This gospel is still being rejected by those who think God will accept them based on the fact that they are good people or devout people or church-going people or respectable people or virtuous people.  The gospel is a scandal because as the hymn-writer says, “it pours contempt on all our pride.”  We have nothing to boast about—Christ gets all the glory.  We can do NOTHING to merit God’s favor—Christ must do it all.  We have NO righteousness in ourselves, we must trust totally in Christ’s righteousness.  We are spiritually filthy before a holy God with no way to clean ourselves up. Christ alone can wash away the filth of our sin and self-righteousness.  We are spiritually dead and Christ must give us life in him. That was and is today a scandal to those who consider themselves “good people.”

          A second supporting truth is:  God’s gospel of grace must be zealously defended.   When Paul and Barnabas heard the claim of the Pharisees and the circumcision party that a Gentile must become a Jew before they could be accepted into the church, they erupted in a searing defense of the truth.  They would go to the wall for this issue—this was a hill Paul and Barnabas would die on 1000 times.  This struck at the heart of the gospel.  One reason the circumcision party was trying to remove the scandal of the gospel is because it was this truth of the gospel that brought believing Jews into deep conflict with non-believing Jews, many of whom were their friends and relatives.  Paul says to the believers in Galatia, “11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.” The Jews persecuted Paul so ruthlessly because part of the offense of the cross is that it renders circumcision and Law-keeping irrelevant to making you acceptable to God—only faith in Christ can do that.  When Paul and Barnabas heard this compromise of the gospel by these Jews, Luke says in verse two, “…Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them…”  That word translated “dissension” is a very powerful word in the original.  It means “a deep and profound division” and in other places is translated as “riot” or “revolt.”  This is an impassioned disagreement.

          Later, when the issue came before the entire council in Jerusalem, verse seven begins, “After there had been much debate…”  The word translated “much” appears first in the Greek text, which is Luke’s way of saying that a very prominent quality of this debate was that there was MUCH of it.  This went on for a LONG time and that tells us something.  It tells us that the apostles and elders did not try to squash the opposition.  They let the Pharisaic Jews assert their position.  They knew this matter needed to be thoroughly aired out, but though this debate was long, there is no indication the discussion ever got out of control.  We must assume from the final decision, which verse 22 indicates was unanimous, that though the debate was impassioned, it was generally civil.  That is a model for us in the church today—impassioned opinions and discussion, yes—personal attack and divisive comments, no.       

We get a flavor for Paul’s passion about the integrity of the gospel of grace from Galatians chapter one where the church in Galatia had been deceived about the gospel by false teachers of the circumcision party.  In Galatians 1:8 Paul says, “8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. 10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  Paul pronounces a curse on anyone who departs from the gospel of grace.  If an angel from heaven comes to you with a gospel by works, then God damn that angel—that’s what he says.  He also implies that if you present a false gospel without God’s scandalous grace, then you are man-pleaser and not a servant of Christ.  There are many issues over which we in the church can disagree and still maintain warm fellowship—teachings about the end-times, spiritual gifts, Reformed theology vs. Arminian theology and worship styles, etc…  These issues are not unimportant, but they are not the gospel.  Where the gospel of grace is being challenged, we must draw swords because nothing less than God’s glory is at stake—if the way to God is not through his grace alone, then we get the credit and not God.

          A third supporting truth is found in the comprehensive nature of the arguments the church leaders make to establish their case.  The main point for us is: God convincingly confirms the sufficiency of the saving power of his gospel of grace.  Peter makes three arguments here.  He says beginning with verse seven, “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.”  The first of Peter’s arguments is to remind these men that the notion of the Gentiles becoming part of God’s people is not a new development and that it was God’s idea, not his.  This is an argument rooted in recent history.  At this point, it had been about ten years since he first preached to Cornelius and his Gentile friends who were saved and filled with the Holy Spirit.  God was the active participant here and he who knows the heart would only give the Holy Spirit to those he knew he had genuinely converted.  No one else prompted this development and Peter was originally repulsed by this notion.  The inclusion of the Gentiles into the church was solely a work of God.

          Peter next points to the elephant standing in this room full of Jews by asking—why would God place Gentiles under the yoke of the Law, when none of us fallen Jews have ever kept the Law?  This argument is a practical or pragmatic onethe law doesn’t work to get people to God and we Jews are the proof.  Finally, Peter gives a theological argument in the form of this confession in verse 11, “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.  That is the formal view of the leaders.  After Peter silenced the crowd, Luke records in verse 12, “they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.”  This would have been a powerful witness to God’s intervention because as we have seen, these signs and wonders attended the apostles virtually everywhere the gospel was shared among the Gentiles.  These were the same kinds of signs and wonders Jesus did—healing, deliverance and things like protecting Paul from death by execution.  

          The presence of the miraculous alone would NOT have been sufficient proof, but when combined with the historical, practical and theological arguments, it makes for a very strong case.  To add the decisive argument to the case they are making for Gentile inclusion into the church without circumcision, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church (and probably the brother of the Lord Jesus) seals it with a Scriptural argument.  Verse 13 begins, “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.’ 

James quotes Amos 9:11-12 where the prophet speaks of a future rebuilding of the fallen tent of David.  Let’s explain that.  In Second Samuel chapter seven, God promised David that from his family would spring an everlasting dynasty to rule over the people of God.  The problem was that David’s dynasty had not had a king on the throne for over 400 years because the Jews had not had a king.  In that sense, the “tent” of David’s dynasty was “in ruins” and needed rebuilding. Jesus, as the Son of David, the Messiah and everlasting King had come to rebuilt that fallen tent and assume the throne of David.  The purpose of this rebuilding according to Amos is NOT a restoration of national Israel as THE people of God--as the Jews assumed. No, their own prophet predicted that the reason David’s dynasty had been rebuild was for the purpose of bringing all the Gentiles—all the nations—to God who seek the name of the Lord.  The God of Abraham is more than a tribal God—he is the God of all nations and the Son of David will rule forever over all God’s people.

          This lends Biblical support for their case because this inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God was prophesied “from of old” by Jewish prophets.  After James provides the Scriptural proof, it’s over.  The historical, experiential, theological and Scriptural arguments are enough to convince any reasonable person that God has indeed brought the Gentiles into the people of God and circumcision or keeping the Jewish law was not necessary.  The case has been comprehensively made and James renders the verdict, which by this time would have been clear to most everyone.  He declares in verse 19, “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.”

          That raises a very obvious question.  Why would James, immediately after declaring that the Gentiles were free from circumcision and any requirement to keep the Jewish Law in order to be saved—then give them four directives—all of which are found in the Jewish Law?  Isn’t he undermining what has just been so convincingly argued?  The answer is “no,” if, for no other reason that--you can bet Paul and Barnabas would have confronted him to his face if this was opposed to the gospel.  So why are these additional requests not in contradiction with what the council has just ruled about the Gentiles?  The fourth truth explains it and is: God’s gospel of grace is no license to sin and it also implies loving sensitivity to cultural distinctive differing from your own.  It’s true that James cites four requirements of the Jewish Law, but it’s important to distinguish the nature of these laws.  The command to abstain from sexual immorality is part of the moral law of God—that which expresses his holy character.  Because the moral law expresses God’s character and his character never changes, the moral law has always been in force.  In Romans chapter two, Paul says it is written on the heart of every person.  In the New Covenant in Christ, however, the moral law is now kept willingly from the heart to maintain warm fellowship with God, not as an external policeman that puts us into bondage.

          The pagan Gentile culture at this time was permeated with sexual immorality.  In this respect, it was just like ours.  In fact, their pagan religion included shrine prostitutes who were used within their so called “worship.” James’ point in referencing sexual immorality was to remind these Gentiles that, even though they were under grace and saved by grace, that was not a license to sin.  As followers of Christ, they will, because of their new nature, be distinct- different from the world around them and a crucial, representative expression of that distinctiveness in the sex-soaked Gentile world is--sexual purity.  That is not putting them under the Law; it is just a gentle reminder of who they are in Christ in contrast to the Gentile culture’s defining sin.

          But what does James mean by forbidding these other food related practices?—abstaining from 1. things polluted by idols, 2. from what has been strangled and 3. from blood?  Those laws are not moral laws to be universally observed in all cultures.  They are ritual laws or ceremonial laws and these laws were part of the Old Covenant and intended only for national Israel, not for Gentiles.  In order to see why he directs Gentiles to carry out these laws meant for Jews, we need to back up and get the bigger picture.  The result of the council was to decisively rule that Gentiles who placed faith in Christ and who had received the Holy Spirit were fully members of the people of God—just as equally as Jewish believers.  There was a profound spiritual unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.  But we must remember, the Gentiles had joined a predominantly Jewish community with strong Jewish roots and that culture had very different cultural distinctives.  We must understand that when the council declared that the Gentiles did not have to become Jews by keeping the Law in order to be saved—it was NOT saying—the Jews should not keep the Law.  This was not a prohibition for Jews to keep the Law.

          Paul himself—when he was in a Jewish context kept the Law.  When Paul took on Timothy as his disciple, he had him circumcised because Timothy’s mother was a Jew and therefore the Jews would have seen him as a Jew.  Paul didn’t want to confuse the Jews he was trying to reach by bringing along a Jew who had not been circumcised. At this early point in salvation history, that would have been huge stumbling block to the Jews.  He did NOT have Timothy circumcised in order that he might be saved.  He already was saved by grace through faith.  He did it to not disrupt fellowship with the Jews he was trying to evangelize.  What James is directing here with respect to these ceremonial food laws has nothing to do with salvation.  It has to do with one of the central implications of being part of a culturally diverse people of God. 

That is—love your new Jewish brothers and if that means eating kosher when you are around them to keep them from a guilty conscience, then do that.  Live as loving people of God by keeping these Jewish brothers from stumbling over laws many of them still kept.  The Law wasn’t just a list of rules for the Jews.  It was deeply engrained in their psyches and was a central part of their Hebrew culture.  That means that most Jewish Christians in the first century and even some Messianic Jews today eat Kosher—not to be saved, but because it’s part of their culture.  That’s the point of these stipulations--this was very much a church with two very distinct cultures in it and a very important part of maintaining fellowship among believers was eating together.  Just as Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to be saved, neither do Jews have to give up their kosher traditions in order to have fellowship with them. 

Tom Schreiner sums it up this way.  The decree, then, was not mandated for salvation [of the Gentiles] but was rather proposed …to regulate fellowship between Jews and Gentiles in areas particularly sensitive to the Jews.”[2]  The dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles was broken down by Christ and that freed both groups to love each other.  One way of expressing love to people in other cultures is to adopt their cultural practices when they do not conflict with the Bible.  There is nothing unbiblical about eating kosher unless you are eating kosher in order to be acceptable to God.  James and the council are saying to these Gentiles, “Love your Jewish brothers and sisters to whom you have been joined through Christ and don’t use your freedom from food laws to cause them to stumble.  The important thing here is not your liberty from eating kosher; it’s loving your Jewish brothers.  Enjoy fellowship with them as those who are one in Christ with you by keeping the blood out of your meat by not strangling the animal and not eating anything that smells of your former pagan idols.” That’s why these restrictions are not inconsistent with the main ruling of the council.

In our closing moments, let’s make some brief application.  First, we must guard the grace of the gospel as it wars against our own self-righteous flesh.  These Jews are not the only ones to struggle with trying to be acceptable to God by being good people or going to worship or fulfilling what they see as God’s “requirements.”  That self-righteous streak is in all of us.  All of us in our fallen nature strive to compel God to love us and accept us by what we do for him.  If you didn’t read the Scriptures yesterday morning or lied to someone and that caused you to feel unworthy to come to him in prayer later in the day, you struggle with legalism because it says that you have to earn your way into his presence.  If your trust in God’s love for you is impacted by your practice of the spiritual disciplines or your involvement in various ministries in the church, you struggle with works righteousness.  If you feel a bit smug because you are particularly conscientious in a given area of your spiritual life, you struggle with legalism.  If you ever look down your nose at any person for any reason, you struggle with legalistic self-righteousness.  You’re not living by the axiom, “There but by the grace of God go I.”  Paul and Barnabas aren’t the only ones who must zealously defend the gospel of grace—we must ALL do that within our own souls every day.  We must remember the words of Jerry Bridges, “We are brought into God's Kingdom by grace; we are sanctified by grace; we receive both temporal and spiritual blessings by grace; we are motivated to obedience by grace; we are called to serve and, finally, we are glorified by grace. The entire Christian life is lived under the reign of God's grace.[3]  Don’t ever forget that we must be as concerned about guarding our liberty in Christ as we are about abusing our liberty in Christ.  Does that describe you?

A second point of application is:  We must know that God will also convincingly confirm the saving power of the gospel in our lives.  We saw several convincing arguments intended to assure the Jews of the genuineness of the Gentiles’ salvation through faith in Christ.  It’s no less important that we be assured of our own salvation, than it was for the Jews to be assured of the Gentiles’ salvation.  It’s just plain wrong and spiritually unhealthy for a genuine believer not to be assured of their salvation—to think that a believer can’t know that they are right with God because of what Christ has done for them.  It may feel arrogant to some people for a believer to state that she knows she is saved, but it’s actually quite the opposite if you understand grace.  Our assurance, if it is Biblical is based NOT on what we have done, but on what Christ has done for us and God intends that we be assured of that. 

John’s purpose for writing first John is in 5:13,  13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”  The Scripture provides tests that either assure us or should cause us to doubt our salvation.  First, the promises of God in Scripture.  Acts 2:21—Peter says,“21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”  John 6:37—Jesus says,“37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.  Acts 16:31—31… Paul says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.  A second test is the presence of spiritual fruit in your life.  Matthew 3:8—John the Baptist said, “-8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”   Matthew 12:33—Jesus says, “33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. “ John 15:5 –Again, Jesus says, “5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”  If you are in Christ, you will increasingly act like him—bearing much fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Finally, evidence of our salvation is found in the inner witness of the Holy Spirit to us.  Is there that inner testimony that tells you that you are no longer estranged from God, but have in fact been adopted as his dear child?  Romans 8:15—“15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:66 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”   

Those three sources of assurance are not equally important.  The testimony of the Word of God must take precedence, but the promises of God are not sufficient by themselves.  Just as it was crucial for the Jews to be assured of the salvation of the Gentiles for the health of the church, so our personal assurance of salvation is also crucial to our spiritual health.  In the church today, there are believers who do not have assurance and they need the truth to beat down their nagging doubt.  The Bible doesn’t anywhere teach that assurance is necessary for salvation, but it’s very important in our faith walk.   There are also people who think they are believers, but have no ground for their assurance—they fail the Scriptural tests for assurance but are deceived into thinking they’ll be ok at the judgment.  May God give us the grace to know the gospel, guard the gospel and be assured of the reality of the saving power of the gospel for God’s glory and our joy.

[1] Stott, John, The Spirit, the Church and the World, IVP. P 241.

[2] Schreiner, Tom, New Testament Theology, Baker, 2009, p.639.

[3] http://dailychristianquote.com/dcqarchive609.html


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