Reading – Acts 15:1-12
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.” 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. The 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 believers very glad. When 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.
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 apostles and elders met to consider this question. 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. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
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.
Schools are back – hooray. No more home schooling. And yet with the schools back, and having an eldest boy doing A-levels I have well and truly realised that my understanding of maths is so childlike compared to what Josh is now learning. But even for Nathan, Alison and I were chatting about the way in which he has to show his working out for Maths. The old way that I would have done isn’t the way that he is being taught. And even if I do it my way it’s not considered valid because of the teaching style. There’s clearly more than one way of doing the sum, and yet it’s not valid if I do it the way I’ve been taught.
We can probably argue to the cows come home whether one way is more valid than the other, but when it comes to an understanding of the scriptures, there is only one way. In today’s liberal mindset, there is an increasing gravity towards reading parts of scripture and interpreting them in a way that suits where society is going with its values. For example when it comes to the definition of marriage, the only definition for me is what is stated in Matthew 19 and Genesis 2.
And yet like the way my boys do their working out different to me, there’s a danger of thinking that everyone’s interpretation of scripture is ok. ‘Live with it Jonny – it’s not hurting anyone’. But that is not the Gospel if we agree with Paul in 1 Corinthians 2 that the Spirit reveals to us the mind of God.
There have been pivotal moments in history when the decision has taken place to stand up for what the Gospel says and not be led by an interpretation that suits the age. Each moment in history has seen an attack or a distraction by the enemy.
In history classes this week, our Nathan has been learning about one of those pivotal moments, when Martin Luther in 1517 after investigating scripture realises that things need to change within the Church of God. He drives a nail into a church door in Wittenberg, where he lists 95 different protests over the way the Church in Rome is governing the state and so is born the Protestant Reformation. This was a pivotal moment when someone had to stand up for the Gospel. And I think today’s Churches need to do the same.
In our reading today which is actually in the very middle of the book of Acts, we see a pivotal moment in the life of the early church that needs to be addressed where the truth of the Gospel must be defended. And as we are following the school theme, I am going to use a wee maths illustration for each of my points :
I. Belief + Conforming = Confusion
People seem to not be content that accepting what Jesus teaches on issues is all that matters. They feel they need to add things or take things from it, take a different spin on it to make it work and confirm to our modern day context. The danger is it becomes confusing. For example you might think this bottle of water is very refreshing, but if I told you it contained bleach then you now realise just how deadly it could be if consumed. Once you add to it, it never is the same again. And in our reading, we see a group of Pharisee followers from Judea who try to convince the followers that salvation is dependent on circumcision; that there’s an act that has to be carried out to validate their salvation. They can’t simply accept belief in Jesus. It requires something else to be added to make it valid.
For the Jew in that time, based upon their traditional religious views, their external actions like circumcision and following laws were essential. However, Paul had been preaching this message of the Gospel, to the church in Ephesus, to the church in Rome, that by grace you are saved through faith, and that is a gift of God (Ephesians 2), and that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you are saved (Romans 10). The problem with the Judaizers was that their righteousness, them being right with God, was based upon an act which Jesus has come to remove.
And for those seeking to understand the Christian faith, the thing that comes up time and time again is that surely it’s more than just belief. It’s liberating when folks coming to Alpha realise that the traditions of do this, do that are not the focus of our faith. It’s not what we have done, but It’s what Christ has done that matters.
But the implication is that if believing and obeying the teaching of Jesus is all that matters, then people can’t put their own spin on it, can they? For the Pharisees there had been relative silence of God speaking between Malachi and Matthew’s Gospel so they decided to help God along the way with a series of rules to conform to.
Now that was 2,500 years ago, but things have not changed today. So often we see how when people don’t like what scriptures say, they make the decision to start a new church which puts a different interpretation on the Word. That in no way validates the Gospel. We have to constantly be aware and defend the heart and purity and integrity of the Gospel. Paul warns us in Colossians 2:8 to “be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ”.
Today’s society will find the truth of the Gospel hard to listen to, but therefore the answer is not to conform to society’s approach to certain values. Because in turn it confuses the message of the Gospel.
So as we read further in the text, the next mathematical illustration is this :
2. Hearing God’s Word + the Spirit’s conviction = The power of God working in your life
Peter really has come a long way hasn’t he from that person who lacked faith to stand on the water with Jesus, who when it came to the crunch denied that he had even known Jesus, and now recalling in his mind in verse 7 the many encounters he has with Gentiles and how they hear the Gospel spoken to them – the Ethiopian Eunuch, the encounter with Cornelius. He sees the hope that comes when the Gospel is proclaimed with truth, and now he stands to defend it over ritual, tradition and practice. He knows that God has not limited his Word to just the Jews. He knows that Christ died for everyone. God used Peter to witness his love and acceptance to all nations. In each encounter we see how when God’s Spirit speaks through his Word it brings life into each situation that Peter faces. It’s all about the Spirit-filled Word folks, and through it these encounters bring about incredible change as God does a new thing in their lives.
I wonder today can you confirm that same thing. Can you honestly say that there was a point in your life where you heard the Word of God proclaimed, that you remember how the Spirit of God spoke in to you through it, and how it convicted you to a place of repentance and a new beginning. The danger again with practice and tradition folks, is that if you have been part of an Institution all your life, for example you’ve been baptised in it, you’ve been confirmed in it, you’ve always been in it, it seems to tick all the boxes, and yet you can’t say in your heart there was a point where God spoke and brought you to a place of repentance, to start a new life determined by his will and not your own, well can I bold enough to say that you belong to a Church community but are you a Christian? In the same way as I can be a member of Ballyclare Golf Club but not actually play golf. Today the Spirit of God is using his Word to speak to you, but it requires action on your part. Peter was able to declare what the Spirit had done as the Word was proclaimed in different encounters. Seek that today if you haven’t before.
So remember Belief + conforming to society will bring about confusion
However hearing the Word + the Spirit’s conviction will result in God working in your life.
And then finally, as we conclude our reading in verses 10 -12, our maths illustration is this :
3. Relationship + Rules = Captivity
Peter queries the actions of these followers of the Pharisees as to why they are testing God’s will for the Gentiles. He says, “Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” In fact this word test is more accurately translated as trying to find fault. The pharisees were full of scepticism. Surely this Gospel you are preaching is too good to be true. Surely there has to be more to it. They weren’t willing to simply accept the relationship which Jesus had opened with the Father that all could receive, and that freedom he declared. Instead they had to find fault in it.
Why do we always feel that there’s got to be more to things than just simply accept. Frankly I think it’s because we don’t understand grace. We very quickly turn our faith into a series of rules. You know for a little while there I got really annoyed that I had not done my bible readings over a week, but when I did pick it up again I felt I needed to catch up on all the days I had missed. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but what became my focus was more about getting through all the reading rather than what God was wanting to say to me in the readings. It had become a legalistic exercise. I had made the exercise a burden around me. It’s a rather dangerous trap that we get into, because actually God has called us to freedom. God has called us into relationship, not into a checklist that keeps us captive.
And so as not to be misunderstood, do my actions matter? Yes they do. We’ve studied James before. Faith without words is dead, however the trap of rules will lead you to doubt and fear. Remember that we did nothing to earn our salvation. It is a free gift of God. There’s nothing that I can do or have to do to keep my salvation. It is sealed through the promise of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing that I can do to lose my salvation, because it has been made right through a covenant relationship of what Jesus did in relationship with His Father.
I can remember that as I grew up some of my relatives would definitely restrict their Sunday. It wasn’t that they became days of rest, instead they became more focused on the guilt of doing anything. I can remember that in my home church it seemed to be all about how low someone bowed towards the altar during the Apostles’ Creed. And then because I couldn’t understand, and frankly still don’t understand the bowing to the front of the church, that I actually started to doubt at a young age my worthiness. Can you see where I am going? Can you see how easy it is to fall into a trap of being captive to a set of rules? What we have to be reminded of in the purity of the Gospel is, it is about what He has done. It is this free gift, and He does that so that I can’t boast or brag about me and the rules I have followed.
Folks, Acts 15 is this pivotal point to decide what is important for the sake of the truth of the Gospel. We are not going to be a church community that washes down the message of the Gospel. We have, each of us, to pursue after the Holy Spirit that we might know more about what is on the heart of God in the scriptures so that we can defend it at any cost. We have not to distort the Gospel and allow it to fit in with the view of the world out there. This book defines how we are to live in the world, not the other way around. And so how do each of us respond.
Well for some of you, there needs to be a removing of all the rules and practices, and come honestly in repentance before a God who wants to shower you in his grace, and allow you to walk in freedom today. You are not saved by simply what you have done. You are saved by what he has already done.
For many of you, I believe in these times you need to be much more disciplined in the study of God’s Word. We are starting up our small groups again, and actually with some new ones, both physically in the church and some online. And so I feel for many of you, I’d love it if you would commit to one so that you can being to filter what God says to you in scripture against what you see in society, and that through it you allow scripture to shape your daily life, so that you see people and situations through the eyes of God. Don’t miss the opportunity.
Let me pray as I finish.
Father we acknowledge out need of you today so that we would guard the integrity of your Word in our lives, that would not allow the world to distort what you are saying through it for today’s generation. Help us to have the courage to defend the Gospel at any cost. I pray Lord for those today who through the truth of your Word have recognised they have not truly given themselves to you, and so help them to follow your Word faithfully from today onwards. And for us that already follow you, forgive us if we have fallen into a trap of practice or rules, and so may we realign our lives so that we live in step with what you say to us daily in your word. Give us a sense of reprioritisation in our schedules so that studying your word and being part of a small group will become our focus so that we can live in this world but not of it. God we trust you in all you have taught us this day, in Jesus’ name, Amen.