Today, we are continuing in our Legacy series, our overview of the storyline of the Bible and we are currently in a chapter called ‘The Dawn of the Church’ a look at the major events in the Book of Acts, the one New Testament book that tells us the history of the first years of the church. What we’ve seen in this chapter so far is that once the Holy Spirit came in power on the day of Pentecost it’s been all action: thousands coming to faith, healings, arrests, jailbreaks, trials, a stoning. Phillip out runs a chariot; Paul is remarkably converted; Peter has a life-changing vision and missionaries are sent to the ends of the earth. Acts is well-named; it’s a book of action; a book about empowered people doing exactly what Jesus commanded his followers to do: to be witnesses for Jesus in all places to all people!
But today the story takes a slight turn. As you saw in the drama the story goes from action to a time of discussion and decision making. Now, you’ll soon see that it’s ‘strong’ discussion, plus, there is some action; there is a good deal of travel, a big gathering of important people and hearty rejoicing over the final decision… but to be honest, it’s still a story about decision making… and it’s also a story that as you get into some of the details of the decision, can seem a bit confusing. Still, what ‘happens’ happened in a way that clearly pleased God and we know this because he made certain that this decision is still available to us. And we believe if it was this important to God then it’s important that we look at this passage. So, if you’ll turn to Acts15 page ??? and we’ll get started.
Verse 1 says, ‘Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ We have to remember that that first century Jews lived lives that were purposefully separate from all other people… and this was true in just about every aspect of life: the Jewish diet was different; the kind of cloth you could use in your clothing was different; why, even the Jewish calendar was so different that even it separated Jews from the Romans and the Greeks. And circumcision, the ‘issue at hand’ was a huge separating factor. Now, Jews weren’t the only people in the entire ancient world that practiced circumcision, but Romans didn’t and Greeks didn’t and most of the Gentile believers in Antioch thought of themselves as either Roman or Greek so this was an issue. It’s also important to know that the Jews had long ago decided that if a Gentile man wanted to convert to Judaism he had to do three specific things: first, promise to obey all Jewish religious laws; second, be baptized in water to signify being, as they called it ‘born again’ or ‘born from above;” and third, he had to be circumcised. Now, if you just did the first two you were called a ‘God-fearer;’ you were in, but not all the way in. But if you did all three, you were called a Jew. Again, this was a well-known Jewish tradition and in these early years of Christianity, following Jesus was still viewed by many as a part of Judaism. So, it makes perfect sense that we find ‘certain individuals,’ men everyone agrees would have been Pharisees, coming to Antioch saying Gentile men had to be circumcised to really be saved by Jesus. Pharisees were very serious, highly respected religious men and being from Jerusalem made these men uber-authoritative, as well. And these men, who it seems were serious followers of Jesus but were also convinced about the importance of Jewish law, had traveled to Antioch, a 350 mile journey, to try and ensure that all these new, Gentile Christians lived good Jewish lives. I’m certain they had good intensions but, as you can imagine, this long-held expectation that Gentiles be circumcised had always kept Gentile men from becoming followers of Judaism. You can imagine how much of a shock it would have been to any Gentile man that had believed the gospel and then heard that he had to be circumcised to really follow Jesus. And I’m sure you can also see how the addition of this demand would have made the good news of Jesus something completely different. It’s no wonder that verse 2 says ‘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.’ Can I add that ‘sharp dispute and debate’ is a nice way to say what the Greek tells us was an out and out argument of major proportions! Paul knew that if these Pharisees were successful in convincing everyone that circumcision was a necessity for salvation, it was going to be the end of Gentile men following Jesus; Paul was not going to be moved on this one.
And so a group traveled to Jerusalem to talk to the leadership there. This leadership, made up of the Apostles and the church elders, greeted Paul and Barnabus with open arms and gave them the opportunity to tell all that God was doing through their ministry to the Gentiles. But once Paul and Barnabus had given their report we read this in verse 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 keep the law of Moses.”’ The debate was on! Well, after much ‘discussion’ Peter had had enough and he stood up to set everyone straight and in verses 6- 11 he says, “God chose me to initially give the gospel to the Gentiles; I’m certain that God was behind this! And not only this, but God had gave the same Holy Spirit to the Gentiles that he gave to us Jews. And by the way, salvation is through faith in Jesus… it comes by the grace of God. And God knows everyone’s heart and he doesn’t discriminate. Why should we put a yoke on the Gentiles that has been too difficult for us Jews?” He was fired up and well he should have been.
Well, after Peter had spoken verse 12 tells us ‘The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.’ Chapter 14 tells us about some of these signs and wonders. Read it sometime soon and you’ll see why the assembly listened so intently. Then James, the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church in Jerusalem, spoke up. This was the big moment! And the first thing he said was essentially, ‘Hey, hey, hey, listen up all of you!’ Nothing oratorical or formal… just, ‘Listen up, people!’ And then he said, ‘Peter was right about God choosing a people for his name from the Gentiles.’ Now, just a little aside, I don’t think I can express how radical and offensive that statement would have been to Jews in the first century… ‘God choosing a people for his name from the Gentiles.’ But to prove that this was true he quoted the prophet Amos from the Old Testament where Amos predicted God choosing the Gentiles! ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things, things known from long ago.’ And then James gave his opinion, actually, his one-man decision, “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 the Law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
James agreed with Paul and Peter that they shouldn’t make it difficult for Gentiles to follow Jesus. Circumcision wasn’t a necessity. But he did list 4 things that the Gentiles should abstain from… things that without some explanation can seem odd… but, they were important to the moment. Here is why: these same stipulations were given to Noah by God right after the flood. They are stipulations that have deep meaning, which I’ll explain briefly in a minute. But most importantly, as I said, these rules were given to Noah and Noah lived long before Abraham, the father of the Jews and Noah lived an even longer time before Moses, the man who first wrote down the Jewish law. In other words, these rules were intended for everyone not just Jews… Gentiles and Jews could legitimately be asked to keep these 4 rules. Now, from what we know only Jews were still paying attention to these rules, but if the new Gentile Christians were to keep them as well, it kept them from being ‘disgusting’ to Jews and made it possible for Jews and Gentiles… and here is the important part, to eat together. We have to keep in mind that the most important celebration of the church at that time was communion, the Lord’s Supper, a time when believers shared a meal. It was important to James that everyone following Jesus could eat together because the shared meal was a powerful sign to the world that Jesus was bringing unity to the world. James wanted a unified church and he knew that if Jews would set aside their rules about circumcision and Gentiles would follow these 4 rules it could create great unity.
I want to quickly explain these rules. There was a given in the thinking of the ancient world that our life, that which makes us alive was held in our blood. This was thought to be true for both people and animals. And when you were going to take an animal’s life for food to make it possible for you to live, you were to do so in a way that showed respect to that animal. You did this by handling that which contained its life, its blood, very carefully. So first, you never ate or drank blood. It would be showing great disrespect to the animal that had given its life for you to eat or drink its life. Secondly, you never ate an animal that still had its life in it… in other words, you didn’t eat an animal that had been strangled to death. And when you did kill an animal you were to drain its blood, its life, through a very careful, respectful process. Thirdly, most ancient people only ate meat on very rare occasions and almost all of these occasions had some connection to a religious ceremony. Butchering almost always, in every religion in the ancient world, took place at a temple of some sort. In fact, temples and butcher shops were usually connected; what was left over after a sacrifice was sold to the public through the temple butcher shop. This was true everywhere, even Jerusalem. James’ point was that meat from the local butcher in most ancient towns and cities had almost certainly initially been sacrificed during some sort of pagan worship. The animal had given its life to appease an idol. It was best for everyone to avoid meat that had been killed in who knows what way in the worship of a false god. And as far as the command to abstain from sexual immorality, while in general we all know what this means, there are good reasons to believe that what James was talking about had to do with marrying someone related too closely to you. This makes sense in the context of many of the Gentile cultures of the time… Jews had very specific rules about the propriety of marrying immediate family members and James wanted Gentiles to be very careful about this. You can see how all four of these rules related in some way to feeling comfortable about having a meal with someone. Also, the bit in verse 21 about ‘Moses being preached in every city’ was simply James’ way of saying that anyone can go to their local synagogue and hear what Moses wrote about these things. You can hear there that these rules were given to all people before ‘the Jews’ were even a people… And it appears that what James said pleased everyone at the council meeting so much that they wrote the following letter and sent with Paul and Barnabus to the church in Antioch. 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. Possibly, the most important point in this letter is found in verse 28 ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.’ This decision represented the heart of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles. And from what we can tell this letter was then accepted by everyone as having come from both the Holy Spirit and the leadership of the church. Listen to verses 30-35. ‘So 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 believers. After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers 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.’
The ‘issue at hand’ was over. But, of course, the big question for us is where does anything in this intersect with our lives? Some say this passage tells us that we are supposed to work things out through discussion and prayer. And I believe this; I know that I have seen this at work here at Grace; I can recall a number of times when there was honest discussion and a lot of prayer and we could say without any hesitation that our decision seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. Others say that this passage tells us that we shouldn’t live lives that are so ‘outside of the boundaries’ that we seem disgusting or even worse, foolish to others. I think this is true as well. I believe that Christians are supposed to be the sanest people in the world… not the strangest. These lessons are well-founded and helpful. But, I keep thinking about something different and it’s this: there was a very solid opposition to the message of freedom that was emerging in the new Church; there were Pharisees who were open minded enough to follow Jesus but they also felt it was important to hang on to long-held tradition such as circumcision and they were willing to go to great lengths to make sure these traditions were maintained. And yet, what we see in the end is a complete capitulation on their part once a decision had been made by leadership. Any discussion about circumcision disappears from the book of Acts; these Pharisees either retreated into their own worlds without any further influence in the church or they agreed to go along with this new direction of the Spirit. And from all that I can tell it seems they admitted that it was time to let go of the old traditions and go along with this new direction for the sake of unity. And the result of this unity was that there was great joy and a new-found energy in the spreading of the Gospel. We don’t find a lot of outward action in this passage but I’m convinced that there was a ton of inward, heart action… action that resulted in changing the world. And this is the sort of action that I’ve been thinking about; it’s the kind of heart change that I have to be willing to consider if I’m serious about going into the world with the message of Jesus. Certainly, there are some givens… things that we have to stand firmly for; but, there are also a whole lot of things that we need to be open-handed about for unity’s sake and to keep us from looking like people from another planet. As I was been thinking about all of this I remembered that when I was in the 3rd grade my family visited my great-grandparents in Florida and one morning I got up really early and found my great grandfather alone at his kitchen table having his devotions. Well, for some reason he told me that he’d waited to follow Jesus until he was retired from the railroad because of all of the things church people had said he’d have to give up to follow Jesus: swearing; playing cards with his railroad friends; movies; having his weekly bucket-o-beer. He’d have to buy a suit… he knew that meeting these expectations would be impossible while being a railroad worker, so, he waited to make a decision to surrender to Jesus and follow him until after he’d retired and wouldn’t be seeing his railroad buddies much any longer. This sounds crazy and extreme today. But it makes me wonder what in my expectations of others might be keeping people like my great grandfather from following Jesus? Do I give off a, ‘you have to be like this if you are going to follow Jesus,’ vibe? Also, I can’t help but wonder if I am harboring any animosity toward anyone in my past who put expectations on me? A lot of people that let me know that I didn’t meet up to their standards back in the day. I can’t help but wonder if I’m still operating out of some of my anger towards them. Also, in this vein, I can’t help but ask myself if there are some people I need to make amends with for the sake of unity? I can’t imagine that Paul and the Pharisees he so opposed over circumcision spent the rest of their lives not speaking… We are about to share communion together. This is the very meal that James was so concerned about. The last thing I would want any of us to do is enter into this time with some things hanging over our heads… particularly things that break the unity that we are to have as followers of Jesus if we are going to successfully be witnesses for Jesus to all people in all places. And so before communion we thought it wise to give us all some time for some inward, heart action, time to consider some questions related to unity. But you can use this time to go to God in any way that will prepare your heart to take the Lord’s Supper. Let me pray for us and after a few moments our host (Mike) will come and lead us into communion.