A Tale of Two Disagreements
Bible Text: Acts 15:1 – 41 | Speaker: Clayton Fopp | Series: Acts – What Kind of Church? | Acts 15
Take the truth of your word. Plant it deep within us, whether we are preaching it or listening to it.
Let me ask you a question,
I don’t need you to yell out your answer or anything, but what proportion of the people here, do you think have a problem, with at least one other person here?
How many do you think have some disagreement,
A difference of opinion,
Different ideas about the way they’d like things to be done?
I think we’d say everybody, right?
Everyone would disagree with at least one other person, over something!
Except of course, if you’re new!
So welcome, welcome to Trinity, the church where everyone disagrees!
I say that, but in God’s kindness, I actually don’t think we’re a church that struggles with disagreements, but the church being made up of people, and people being what they are, disagreements happen, and so we need to know what are those things that we can disagree on, and what are those, on which we can’t just agree to disagree.
Acts chapter 15 presents us with 2 different disagreements.
Disagreement 1 – the nature of salvation
The first disagreement takes up the first 35 verses, so Luke’s majoring on this one, much more so than second one,
But when you read Acts 15:1 – 35, what do you think is the point of this story?
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch , that is, to where the Christians were not Jewish, and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.
And then the case is stated again in verse 5, The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.
On the surface it sounds like a pretty minor issue.
A petty disagreement.
To circumcise or not circumcise, that is the question!
It doesn’t seem like that big a deal, does it?
On the face of it, I think I’ve had bigger disagreements than this!
But what’s actually the issue here?
The issue is, how does someone get into a right relationship with God?
What do you need to do, to be saved, from the due punishment for a life lived in rebellion against God?
So this is a disagreement, about the nature of salvation.
This is a disagreement, about just how much Jesus’ death achieves. Does he take all the penalty for our declaration of independence from God, so that we can stand before God with a clear conscience, having been declared “Not Guilty”, or is there something that we still need to do?
Do you see, far from being just a , petty disagreement, the stakes could not possibly be higher.
If you’re a Christian, this is about whether you’re going to be welcomed into heaven, or whether God is going to slam the door shut in your face.
And if you’re not a Christian, and you’re thinking “I know I haven’t lived the kind of life that God would be pleased with, I’m good, but I’m not perfect, How could God possibly let me into heaven, when I’ve basically ignored him my entire life?”, If that’s you, well, your answers hang in the balance too.
Can you see how high the stakes are?
The first Christians were Jewish. And when they first realised that Jesus was the Messiah, the leader that God had been promising to the Jewish people for centuries, they , naturally, kept hold of much of their Jewish identity.
If, all your life, you’ve eaten certain foods and avoided others,
If you’ve taken part in rituals like circumcision,
If you’ve been careful to obey certain laws and followed different customs, you’re not likely to drop all of those things immediately, even if you know, that Jesus fulfilled all of those things, and met the requirements of all of those things in a way that no other person ever could.
But, as we’ve seen in these last few weeks, as the years past, the church changed.
We’ve seen God fulfilling other promises he had made in centuries past, promises to draw to himself, not just one nation, but people from all nations of the world,
And so the church is now filling with Gentiles, non-Jews.
People who knew nothing of the laws of Moses,
Who had no experience of circumcision,
No idea of the various Old Testament food laws, and what they were intended to demonstrate about God
And so these Gentile Christians, the people in Antioch, they were Christian, but without any Jewish flavour.
And so for some of the Jewish Christians, this just becomes too much to bear.
And you know what it’s like, when something happens that you don’t like, at work, or in your circle of friends, or even at church, you probably ignore it the first time,
You might talk to someone else if it happens a second time,
But if it keeps going, you feel you need to do something about it.
The church has just exploded , among the Gentiles. They’re coming to faith in Jesus, by their hundreds and thousands, and now these Jewish Christians say, “enough is enough,
you’re not a Christian unless you adopt these badges of Jewish identity.”
That is, you cannot be saved, unless you’re circumcised, if you’re a bloke, and you obey the law of Moses”.
And so Luke tells us about this council in Jerusalem, and how these church clearly said, this is an issue we’re not free to disagree over,
Salvation from sin and death, is only through faith in Jesus, and by the grace of God.
A few weeks ago in Acts 12, we had this seemingly arbitrary situation, where James, not this James but another one, was executed by King Herod, and yet Peter was miraculously released from prison.
One of the tricky things when we read that, is we want to know why?
Why does James lose his life, while Peter lives to preach another day?
Well, ultimately we don’t know, and we need to learn to be content with what God chooses to tell us, but it seems quite likely that in God’s sovereignty, he was preserving Peter for this.
This speech before the council in Jerusalem is enormously significant.
Here is Peter, the Apostle to the Jews,
Pillar of the church in Jerusalem,
The one whose speeches in the temple courts and around Jerusalem saw thousands upon thousands of Jews come to faith in Jesus,
He stands up to speak about how God has drawn the Gentiles into the church.
And there’s 3 parts to his argument, 3 reasons why to say The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses, is contrary to what God has revealed.
God’s already demonstrated their salvation
First of all, God has already demonstrated that these Gentiles are saved.
verse 7, 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. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.
Remember how, all through Acts, when people who weren’t Jews heard the good news of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, and came to faith, the church in Jerusalem and, well, everyone really, were amazed, because God poured out the Holy Spirit on them.
Each time the gospel pressed out,
To people who had no concept of God, no history with the God of Israel,
Each time God took the gospel forwards, there was this dramatic evidence, of God’s acceptance of people.
The giving of the Spirit was God’s way of saying that these Gentiles were accepted by him, just as the Jewish Christians had been.
And of course, the Holy Spirit was given, without them being circumcised.
God didn’t say, to Cornelius, or the Samaritans, or to the brand new Christians in Antioch, “once you get circumcised, I’ll pour out my Spirit on you”.
“Once you start obeying the law that I gave to Moses, then I’ll pour my Spirit into your lives, but until that time, you’re not my people”!
God was pretty clear in demonstrating that they were genuine believers!
God purifies people by faith
Peter goes on to say, that God purifies people’s hearts from sin, by faith, not by outward actions.
God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.
Literally, Peter calls God, the “heart-knower”, God knew what was going on in the hearts of the Gentiles and testified in the clearest way possible that their faith was genuine.
Which makes sense of what we know of God, doesn’t it?
God’s assessment of a person, is based on what he sees in their heart,
Not on what external actions they do,
What hoops they jump through.
Just a moment ago we sang Rock of Ages, written by Augustus Toplady in 1763, it’s a great song to sing today, when we’re considering this issue, because it reminds us so clearly, that it’s only by faith in Jesus, by trusting in his life and death and resurrection, that we can be purified from sin.
Have a listen to these words again,
Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s commands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
you must save, and you alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to you for dress;
helpless, look to you for grace;
Stained by sin to you, I cry
wash me, Savior, or I die.
He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.
We talked last week about faith being convinced enough of the evidence, to live in the light of it.
To believe that Jesus took the punishment for sin and rebellion that we deserved, and to live in the light of that.
To believe that Jesus is God made known, and to live in the light of that.
To believe that the only possible way we can be forgiven, is through the death of Jesus in our place, and to live in the light of that.
That’s how God purifies hearts.
That’s how God makes it, so that we who were opposed to him, can be welcomed into his presence for eternity.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
The Law didn’t work for the Jews
And actually, I think Augustus Toplady, couldn’t have written a song more reflective of Acts 15 if he tried, because Peter’s third point, is that the Law of Moses doesn’t work for getting people right with God.
It hadn’t worked for the Jews in the Old Testament,
And so what possible reason could you have for thinking that it’s necessary for the Gentiles to be saved?
Verse 10, Now 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? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Were the Jews saved from the due penalty of their sins, through obeying the law, through getting circumcised?
No! Not at all!
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says, Galatians 3:23, we , that is the Jews, were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. 24 So the law was put in charge, to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith
The purpose of the law, was to demonstrate, at every turn, the enormous chasm, between where we are, and where God is.
The purpose of the law, was to make it plain to people, that we are sinful, that we deserve God’s judgment, and we need God’s mercy.
The purpose of the law, was to hold out that first command, Deuteronomy 6:5, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and for us to realize, how desperately we need God’s grace, because we do not live like that.
Trying to keep every letter of the law, as a means of making God look well on you, was an unbearable burden, one that not even the Jews had been able to carry.
Not one single Jewish person in all of history had been made right with God through obeying the law.
It was never a means of salvation,
It could never get anyone into a right relationship with God,
Any person, whether Jew or Gentile, can only be saved from sin, by the grace of our Lord Jesus.
This is Peter’s last appearance in the book of Acts
Peter’s final and lasting contribution to the life of the church is in reminding the church that everyone is saved from sin on the same basis, God’s grace shown to us in Jesus.
So having heard from Peter, the meeting then hears from Barnabas and Paul, about the way that God confirmed the message that was preached among the Gentiles, as truly coming from him, we saw that in detail last week, and again, God’s initiative is underlined, it’s God who did these things among the Gentiles.
James, Jesus’ brother, then continues, Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself
It’s not that somehow the Gentiles have kind of snuck in the back door, this was always God’s plan, and he quotes from Amos chapter 9, written around 760 BC, when God had promised that he would draw the Gentiles to himself.
And so knowing that God is saving the Gentiles from their sin on the same terms as he’s saving the Jews, by his grace through faith in Christ,
Knowing that no one can get right with God through obeying the law,
Knowing that God had always intended to bring in the Gentiles,
And knowing that God had testified as to the genuine nature of the Gentile’s faith,
The decision is reached, to do as James suggests, verse 19, we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 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 Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.
And so the church sends a delegation, led by Paul and Barnabas, off to Antioch, to assure them, “no actually, you don’t need to be circumcised, or to obey the law of Moses, in order to be forgiven for your sins and welcomed into God’s family.
Jesus is enough.
Jesus did it all.
But, avoid these things, and it sounds like, having just said, there are no rules you need to follow in order to be acceptable to God, now we’re giving you some rules to follow!
But asking the Gentile Christians to abstain from , what is literally the pollution of idols,
From sexual immorality, probably actually a subset of sexual immorality is on view here. Don’t enter into any of the marriages prohibited in the Old Testament, people you’re related to, those kinds of things.
Abstain also From the meat of strangled animals,
And from blood,
Is not about saying “this is what you need to do to be acceptable to God”, but please observe these 4 things, out of concern for your Jewish brothers and sisters.
Remember James’ words? Abstain from these things, For Moses has been preached in every city, everywhere you go there will be Jews, to whom these things are very important,
Who will be shocked and troubled, if you allow yourselves to take part in these things,
Whose consciences will be disturbed, even though these things have no bearing at all on your salvation.
And so when the church in Antioch received this letter with such a clear statement about the nature of salvation, they were glad for its encouraging message, we’re told.
And the message of Jesus, and free forgiveness in his name spread, and many were taught and heard the word of the Lord.
So what do we do with us?
I don’t hear many people trying to enforce the Law of Moses today.
But Christians today are not immune from saying, “you need faith plus, this other thing, in order to be saved.”
You need Jesus plus something else.
Jesus plus speaking in tongues, if you don’t speak in strange tongues, you’re not a Christian. I’ve heard that plenty of times.
Jesus plus baptism, or confirmation, To be really sure of your salvation you need to do some rite, some process, take some class.
Jesus plus agreeing with me! I’ve heard leaders say, if you don’t agree with my views on church and community and the world, then you can’t be one of God’s people.
Jesus plus going to church. If I turn up to the right events, put my name on enough rosters, God will be pleased with me.
I’m sure you can think of other things. Jesus plus.
But 2000 years of church history has shown us, that anything that is made a co-requirement for salvation, that is, anything alongside faith in Jesus, whatever it is, it soon pushes faith aside, and it becomes the sole means of salvation.
If we think it’s baptism, we’ll just go crazy baptising people and we’ll forget to teach them about living as a disciple.
If we think that doing ministry counts for something before God, we’ll throw ourselves into doing jobs, and we’ll neglect trying to grow our faith, and coming to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and what he’s done.
So do you see that Jesus plus , actually becomes Jesus minus.
If I say that this other thing needs to go alongside what Jesus has achieved for me,
Then I’m saying, Jesus wasn’t enough,
Jesus can’t win my salvation,
Jesus, well what’s the point, ?
What a great reminder. it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved.
If that was where chapter 15 ended, we could all go away happy, there’s been a clear statement about the nature of salvation.
And even more than that, there’s a recognition that Christian people will, from time to time, need to curb their freedom in Christ, willingly give up things, for the sake of other Christians, for not wanting to put a stumbling block in anyone else’s way.
That would be a great place to leave the church and the story of mission. But Luke has chosen to include an account of another disagreement, albeit much more briefly.
Paul and Barnabas are about to head off preaching again, but Barnabas wanted to take Mark, and, verse 38, Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and , and He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Back in chapter 13, we weren’t told why Mark had left them, just that he had, and now Paul feels that he can’t be depended upon.
One of the roles I have in the Church Missionary Society, CMS , is interviewing candidates, people who are putting themselves forward for missionary service. And let me say, that whole discerning and interviewing process is something’s that’s taken very seriously.
Partly because just about the most common cause of missionaries, leaving the missionfield earlier than planned, is conflict with other missionaries.
This kind of disagreement is incredibly painful.
Luke makes no attempt, to hide the pain, the sadness, the difficulty of this disagreement.
But what do we learn from it?
Well, a few things. Let me just race through, mention some observations.
We see in Acts, and in the rest of the New Testament, that even out of this sad this disagreement, God was able to bring good.
Instead of one missionary team, there were now two missionary teams.
Also, we see that a disagreement between 2 Christians doesn’t mean they can’t do anything together ever again.
Later on, Paul writes to Timothy, and he says Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. Out of all the people that he could have, he wants Mark at his side.
It’s worth noting also, that even though we know that Paul and Barnabas were set aside for ministry together by the Holy Spirit, chapter 13, it’s not forever. There’s no suggestion here that the Holy Spirit is grieved by Paul and Barnabas going in different directions. Actually Luke presents the opposite. The outcome for the kingdom of God is good, churches are strengthened.
Also, the first disagreement, that was pretty clear, that was black and white, but not every issue that Christians will disagree over, will be that clear,
Not every issue will have a clear word from God in Scripture about which way to proceed.
So on some matters, it’s OK for godly men and women to disagree.
Should every church be committed to planting churches and establishing new congregations, like we are?
No! There’s nothing in the Bible that says if a church isn’t planning on starting a new church or a new congregation, it should get shut down, because it’s not the true church.
We’re committed to doing those things because we’re convinced it’s a great way for us to fulfil the Great Commission and see people come to Christ and be built to maturity in Christ.
But if there’s some other church that says, “we don’t think church planting is the way to do it, we’re going to go about fulfilling the great commission some other way, great!
Now there’s 2 strategies.
Should churches have traditional music or contemporary music?
Should Christians drink alcohol or abstain?
Should you send your kids to a Christian school or a state school?
Lastly, and so kind of in summary of these observations, it’s important we realise that Christian unity doesn’t mean we do everything together. Christian unity has nothing to do with us all being in the same building, or all going to the same events, or partnering with every church in the region in everything we do.
Actually, when people say we should do everything together, what they generally mean is, let’s do it together, my way!
Barnabas, Mark, Paul, Silas, we know from the New Testament that they were absolutely united in their faith, 3 of them have just had key roles in this discussion about the nature of salvation, they’re as united as you can get, they’re just involved in different ministry.
But the danger with this kind of disagreement, is that we make equal to that earlier kind of disagreement.
You’re not into church planting? Well then your church has a second-rate gospel?
You drink alcohol? Are you sure you’re really a Christian?
There were drums in church this morning? Well I’m not going to get involved in this church!
Can you see the danger? We make second, third, fourth order disagreements primary, and can you imagine how much ministry gets done while we’re fighting?
How many new people get welcomed while we’re in a huddle after church complaining about someone or something?
I think the answer’s not much, isn’t it?!
I read last year about a church in the US city of Dallas, that disintegrated,
All kinds of disagreements,
Relationships broke down,
It went though court case after court case, all manner of disputes over the property,
And in the end there was nothing left of the church.
It turned out that the destruction of that church, started at a church dinner, when one of the elders was served a smaller slice of ham than the child sitting next to him.
Make no mistake, petty disputes and disagreements, can be just as deadly as the real kind.
But thanks to Acts 15, we’ve got some tools in our kit, to deal with either kind.