Serving Christ and sharing the Gospel

A council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-22)

What happens when Christians disagree? How do we resolve our differences or should I say how should we? The Early Church faced a major issue that threatened to tear them apart. We can learn a lot from how they faced this challenge.

1. Challenging the Issue (Acts 15:1 & 2)

Jesus was Jewish and all His disciples were Jewish. To begin with, the early Church was mostly Jewish. However, we know that Jesus commanded His followers to take the Gospel to all the nations. As those early Christians preached the good news, Christianity began to spread further & further – making an impact in the Roman Empire & beyond.

More & more Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) became Christians. When this happened, however, some Jewish believers, especially those from a very strict & traditional background, did not find it easy. They had various religious, cultural & racial prejudices to overcome. They did not mind Gentiles becoming Christians but some of them felt Gentile believers should start following Jewish laws & customs, including male circumcision. It was as if they were saying, “As long as you Gentiles become like us & do everything the way we do, then fine. We will accept you.”

One of the great things about being British is that on the whole we accept others even when they are very different to us we do this very well as long as we are not being wind up by aggregators with alter motives, like power over people. Now I am not blind death and dumb and for some races it takes longer to be accepted than others, but they are accepted by normal people, and even more so within church community’s that understand that we are all brothers and sisters.

Yes, we all come from different backgrounds. The cultural gap between us can at times be quite wide.

There certainly was a huge gap between Jewish believers & Gentile believers in the early Church. In fact if it were not for Jesus they would probably never have had anything to do with one another. How did the early Church overcome such differences? How did they deal with the natural tendency for differences to become divisions? How did they overcome being divided by a “them” & “us” mentality? Was the answer for all the Gentiles to simply become Jews? Of course not!

In Acts 15 the core issue the Church had to resolve was, however, far more serious than simply learning how to get on together. In v.1 we read, “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch & were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised …you cannot be saved.’” These Jewish visitors from Judea were teaching the Gentile believers that unless they were circumcised they could not be saved. They were saying that if a person wanted to be accepted by God, it was not enough to confess their sins & put their faith in Jesus – they must also follow Jewish customs & laws & they must be circumcised.

Thankfully we don’t have this particular problem today, but we do have other problems. Some Christians mistakenly claim that a person can only be saved by joining their church or denomination. But we must remember being saved has nothing to do with belonging to a particular church or denomination. Being saved is all about belonging to Jesus. Some very legalistic churches expect people to do certain things or not do certain things in order to be saved. If they don’t conform then obviously they cannot be saved. However, we must remember salvation is by grace alone. It is not based on our performance (i.e. our outward deeds). Of course once we are saved the Holy Spirit works within us moulding us to be more like Jesus, & this does change us – our values, attitudes, words & actions - but being saved is based on God’s grace alone & not on our performance.

It is no surprise that Paul & Barnabas disagreed strongly with the men from Judea. We read, “This brought Paul & Barnabas into sharp dispute & debate with them.” (v.2a) I am sure Paul & Barnabas pointed out to them that, “…righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew & Gentile, for all have sinned & fall short of the glory of God, & all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:22-24) It is not circumcision or keeping certain Jewish customs that saves us, no, it is God’s redeeming grace which we receive as we put our faith in Jesus. And in Ephesians 2:8 & 9 Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – & this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”

When there is dispute over the fundamentals or essentials of the Gospel then there can be no concession. Just as Paul & Barnabas spoke up, these are times when we too must speak up. We have to hold firmly to the truth & defend the truth when it is under attack.

So the issue was being confronted. Now we turn to our second point:

  1. Discussing the Issue (v 2-12)

Paul & Barnabas discussed & debated with these so-called teachers. Yet they knew this was such a serious matter they needed to bring it to the elders & apostles in Jerusalem. Unless the issue was settled, the future of the Church itself could be at stake. The issue could not be ignored or swept under the carpet. So we read, “Paul & Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles & elders about this question.” (v.2b)

Even though they were leaders in the church in Antioch, Paul & Barnabas & the others with them did not go on their own authority. “The church sent them on their way.” (v.3a) They went with the authority & blessing of the whole Antioch church.

Travelling through Phoenicia & Samaria (present day Lebanon & northern Israel) we read, “…they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad.” (v.3) When they reached Jerusalem, “…they were welcomed by the church & the apostles & elders.” Again they had the opportunity to share about “…everything God had done through them” (v.4) during their earlier missionary travels.

They were welcomed by the Church in Jerusalem but it was not long before the reason for their visit became clear. V.5 tells us, “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up & said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised & required to keep the law of Moses.’” The Pharisees were very strict when it came to keeping the Jewish law. It was in there DNA a big part of their lives.

There was a lot of discussion. I imagine their discussion got quite heated at times. We read in v6 “…apostles & elders met to consider this question.”  Possible a rather larger understatement.

So after much debate, “Peter got up & addressed them.” (v.7) Peter told them how some ten years earlier the Lord had sent him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles gathered in the home of the Roman army officer Cornelius. I am sure he reminded them of how bigoted he had been against the Gentiles. Yet on that unforgettable occasion even before he had finished his sermon, God poured out His Spirit upon those listening. In vrs 8 & 9 Peter says, “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 & them, for He purified their hearts by faith.” Peter’s experience showed it is God who changes hearts not external things like circumcision or eating not eating certain foods or keeping other regulations. Peter finished with the words, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (v.11)

Next it was the turn of Paul & Barnabas. V12  “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas & Paul telling about the signs & wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”  The assembly listened with rapt attention as Paul & Barnabas shared one testimony after another of how God had chosen & changed former pagan idol-worshipping Gentiles. Yes, prejudices are broken down when we see God at work in people’s lives.

When growing up in the 70’s I saw how black & white could overcome prejudice & learn to live with one another and in the church I have seen how black and white learn to love one another as brothers & sisters in the Lord. Together we come in worship before our wonderful Lord & Saviour who has saved us by His grace & made us one in His family.

Finally then we come to our third heading:

  1. Solving the Problem (v 13-22)

The time had come for decisions to be made. The recognised leader of the Church in Jerusalem was James, the half-brother of Jesus. James was someone who kept Jewish customs & laws more faithfully & diligently than almost anyone. He stood to speak & said, “Simon / Peter has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for His name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this…” (vrs 14 & 15) Backing up what Peter had just said, James quotes from the Old Testament, from the prophet Amos. Amos had said it was God’s plan for the Gentiles to become part of His people.

The fact James quoted from Scripture is very significant. It played an important part in helping the early Church find the will of God & move towards resolving this issue. When we need God’s guidance regarding issues in our lives or situations we face, there is nothing as powerful as the Word of God to show us the way. Personal testimonies can help but the final authority must be the Word of God.

James proposes a plan of action. He says, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them

If we are talking about non-essential things, then we can agree to disagree without compromising the truth. We may feel very strongly about something but just because others hold a different view does not necessarily mean they are wrong or teaching heresy. One present-day example of this, I believe, is the controversy over science & creation. Some Christians claim, for example, that modern science is wrong about the age of the earth while other Christians see no problem. All Christians believe God is the Creator but not all agree on the way to interpret Genesis 1. My son had this difficultly and I said to him do you believe God made the earth and the universe he said yes so I said what difference does it make if it was 7 days or not, shortly after that he give his life to Christ. Some issues are not worth worrying about, is Jesus your Lord and Saviour, yes great let have a cup of coffee.

The Council in Jerusalem accepted James’ suggestions. Not only did they write the letter but they chose trusted brothers to return with Paul & Barnabas to deliver it. In the letter they said the decision reached had “…seemed good to the Holy Spirit & to us…” (v.28) Here is another very important principle in how to resolve conflict or disagreement in a truly God-honouring way. We must humbly & earnestly seek the will of the Holy Spirit - what the Lord wants, not necessarily what we want. When this happens we come to unity & when we have unity there is blessing. As Psalm 133 puts it, “How good & pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! …For there the LORD bestows His blessing.” (v 1 & 3)
Under the leading of the Holy Spirit, the Church in Jerusalem resolved the question of whether or not Gentiles needed to follow Jewish customs. My prayer is that the message today will help us learn how to resolve any differences we might have with other believers – so that truth & unity are preserved & the Lord’s Name is honoured.

Let’s Pray: Lord, we thank you for your word in the Bible, we thank you for your Holy Spirit and that with these two things we can be guided by you in all our dealings with each other. Amen