August 11, 2019
Pastor Ricky Smith
You know this either because you have kids in your family, or you’ve noticed that congestion on the roads swelled this past week: School has started back. And as school starts back, it’s a great reminder of some of the things we love about school, like being with our friends, and the things we hate about school (or at least that I hated about school), and it’s math class. It just never was my strength.
There’s this ongoing debate in educational philosophy now of “new math” versus “old math”, and if you’ve not had a chance to experience this yet, here’s a video . We can see one math problem being solved one way and then that same math problem being solved a different way, and we get to the same answer.
Now, keep in mind, you may be a math teacher; math may be your favorite subject, or you may not care anything about it. I’m not interested in getting to the debate over which is right and which is wrong, because you could argue that one is efficient and the other explains the process more. So, both have value.
Here is the point: I have one math problem and two different ways to get to the same answer. This is why this is problematic, however: We can maybe debate this idea in math, but when we come to the Gospel, it becomes a problem because there are some around us who say, “Hey look, you can get to the same answer in different ways. As long as you get to the right place, it doesn’t matter how you get there.”
Now, in math, there could be a philosophical argument we could defend. In the Gospel, there is no way we can defend that. There is one way to have a relationship with God. There is one way that matters, and it must be defended. It is not a selection of figuring out your path of how to get into a right relationship with God. There is one way, and that’s what we must see.
If you’ve been walking through this journey through the book of Acts with us, we’ve walked through many encounters and many stories as people have taken seriously the mandate of God that Jesus delivered in Acts chapter one, verse eight that, “You will be witnesses of me in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, even to the ends of the Earth.” And we’ve seen all these stories and encounters of amazing, miraculous signs and wonders that have been done.
Here we find ourselves in Acts chapter 15, which is the dead center of the book. I would think this is significant because when we dig into this chapter, Acts 15, what we will discover is, this illustrates a hinge moment in the history of the Church. In fact, if we looked throughout all of the course of church history, there are seven, maybe eight, defining hinge moments in the history of the Church that we can see, and every one of these hinge moments, these pivot points, have some common denominators, and I would love to tell you what they are.
Each hinge moment in church history has been marked by:
a. Intense attacks by new enemies within and from outside the church
b. Demand for new spiritual determination and drive
Consistently, in the history of each of these hinge moments, there are intense attacks against the Church, both inside and outside the Church. Simultaneously, coming up in those spirits of attack, there is a drive and a determination for new spiritual direction. I think this is important because we’re going to look at a hinge moment in history, but we also can look back at some other examples.
To illustrate, here’s a picture of a guy; maybe you’ve heard the story of Martin Luther. In 1517, this is a hinge moment in the history of the Church where a lot of attacks are going on inside and outside the Church. A pivot moment in the history of the Church, Martin Luther begins to investigate Scripture for himself, and out of that, this drive, or determination for spiritual renewal comes up. He decides, “I’ve had enough. Something has to be done.” And he drives a nail on the church door in Wittenberg through the 95 Theses, and that ushers in the Protestant Reformation, which we all are glad that he had the courage to do.
He looked at the fighting going on in the Church and decided enough was enough, and something had to be done. I would suggest that right now in the history of our church, I believe we’re on the doorstep of what could be another great hinge moment in the history of the Church. I believe that revival is at our doorstep, because these common denominators of what we’ve seen in these hinge moments of the past seemed to be relevant and apparent today. And I’m praying. I’m praying that God will send revival in this church, throughout this city, and throughout the world, and revival would come forth.
So, here we have this hinge moment in church history when a really big encounter happens. In the spirit of math, I’m going to give us a few math formulas that I see in this text today to help us understand what God is teaching and why it is truly important. -a hinge moment in the history of the Church. Here’s the first math equation:
I. Belief + Conformity = Confusion
Let’s read together the first five verses in Acts chapter 15, and I would love to make some observations and see what we can learn, beginning in verse one:
Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved!” 2 But after Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, the church arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this controversy. 3 When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, explaining in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they created great joy among all the brothers. 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses!”
Let me illustrate this point to you this way: I have a refreshing, necessary bottle of water. If you don’t have this, dehydration sets in quickly, and you die. We’ve all experienced thirst. We understand what it feels like and how desperate it can be, and I love nothing more than a glass of tea or Coca-Cola, but sometimes, the dehydration is to the point that I crave water. It’s life-giving. You must have it.
But what if I took this water and I took a drop of poison and I added it to this bottle of water? What once was necessary for you to live now become certain death. Let’s take this visual, and for the moment, this life-giving water is the hope of Christ. It is the Gospel. And what we see here is, it is coming to a head in the story of Acts. We can look back over several weeks, and time and time again, there are these Judaizers who are constantly following them around, trying to say, “No, something’s got to be added to the Gospel.”
And here we see it in Acts chapter 15. The argument comes to a head again. “No, they’ve got to do some things in order to be saved. They’ve got to keep some commandments. They’ve got to check some things off of the list.”And by adding that poison to the Gospel, it becomes deadly. Keeping that illustration in mind, let’s see what’s going on here.
See, for the Jew in that time, based upon their traditional religious lens, for them, their external actions like circumcision and following laws were essential. Following the laws of Moses in their mind and in their worldview were critical for a right relationship with God. However, Paul and Barnabas had been preaching this message of the Gospel that, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that is a gift of God. Is it not by works, so that no one can boast…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.”
And it is this simple message of faith, grace, belief in Christ. See, the problem is, they believed in Christ + conformity, and they believed that was the hope. Their righteousness was based upon their performance, and it was not a free gift. They begin to describe that one’s relationship with God is built upon what they do.
How did they ever get there? I would submit that maybe they got there a couple of ways. Maybe it was because they prioritized tradition over a transaction. In modern church theology, we’ve used this phrase to describe this salvation experience as this “great exchange” like, “I am willfully exchanging my way for God’s way. I’m submitting my life to him. I’m making this exchange, and I’m recognizing that God sent Jesus into the world to die. He was buried. He was risen again, and that was done so that I can be made right with Him, and I can have a relationship with Him. That exchange is what gives me hope.”
But for these debaters, these Judaizers, it was, “No, no, no; our tradition says this.” I think it’s probably even further exposed because their practice was more rooted in the oral tradition of the Pharisees, rather than in the words of Christ.
See, if you want just a short history lesson, from the period of the end of Malachi to the beginning of Matthew is a 400-year period where it seems as though God is silent, and the Pharisees, who were the leaders of faith in that day, maybe they took it upon themselves to say, “Well, you know, since God is silent, surely he needs our help, and we’re going to start adding to it.” And this list of rules begins to grow and grow and grow, of things that you had to do and ways that you had to live and conduct that was required for you to be made right with God.
The heart of the Gospel is worth fighting for
And the Gospel cuts through the heart of that. So, this debate that comes to our attention in Acts chapter 15 is critical because it really comes down to the heart of the Gospel in answering the question, How is someone brought into right standing with God? What we have to understand is, the heart of the Gospel is worth fighting for. The heart of the Gospel is worth dying for. The purity of the Gospel is worth going to war over, and we must recognize that the heart of the Gospel will always be under attack both from outside and inside.
We see it outside. All around the world there are pagan religions and worldviews that adopt this idea that, “It’s what I do. I have to give enough. I have to earn enough. I have to go on missionary journeys. I have to do all these things to, hopefully, earn right standing with God.” And that religion leads to death.
Even inside the church, if we listen carefully, sometimes there is this warped perception of the Gospel that says, “Oh yeah, if you follow God enough, then wealth is certainly yours.” And that promise of prosperity is not part of the Gospel story. So, we have to constantly be aware and defend the heart and purity and integrity of the Gospel.
Paul even warns us in Colossians two, verse eight. He says:
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.
Christ is the bedrock of the Gospel and the way that we should live. The second math equation for you to consider this morning is:
II. Hearing + Heart Change = Confirmation
Let’s read verses six through nine:
6 Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: “Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.
What do we see here? Peter begins to speak up. And if you remember, go back and read earlier in Acts. We see encounter after encounter of Peter engaging the Gentiles with the Gospel and God showing him with the Samaritan woman and Acts chapter 8 with the Ethiopian eunuch, in chapter 10 with this encounter with Cornelius, the Roman, and more and more he sees the Gospel being spread to the ends of the earth, and he’s affirmed through this story. He sees hope in the Gospel, and now he stands to defend it.
God affirmed that:
1. He looks at the heart
2. He died for all
3. He confirms through the presence of the Spirit
Most people think from Acts chapter 10 to Acts chapter 15 it is approximately a decade in time that Peter has seen and witnessed, and the church has grown. What I see here, in Peter’s defense, is an argument of the experiences that he had. He’s trying to affirm a few things about God. For one, He’s trying to affirm that God looks at the heart. God doesn’t look at the external; God is concerned with the internal.
I think he’s trying to affirm that Christ died for all men. He saw that in this experience with the Ethiopian. He saw it with the Samaritan. He saw it with the Roman. He sees that Christ died for all, and God used Peter to witness his love and acceptance of the nations. It’s a beautiful picture, and he goes on to give this account that the Holy Spirit comes and confirms all of this through His presence. God confirms through the presence of the Spirit.
Now, can I ask a personal question? Can I press in to your heart for a minute? I hope that when you evaluate internally your relationship with Jesus, you see evidence of the Holy Spirit working in your life. And I hope you could go all the way back and notice the difference in that moment when you gave your heart to Jesus and you begin to immediately see and sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life as he confirms and affirms the work of Christ in you. Maybe it is sometimes a moment of encouragement. Maybe sometimes it’s prodding. Maybe sometimes it’s his conviction leading you to repentance. But the Holy Spirit is a very affirming presence in our life that God is at work. But Peter continues; the third equation is:
III. Relationship + Rules = Captivity
Let’s read verses ten through twelve, and let me make some comments, if I may:
Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.” 12 Then the whole assembly fell silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul describing all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
In school, generally, challenging the person who wrote the test about the test doesn’t bode well for you. -like, “Are you sure that’s the right answer?” “Yeah, I wrote the test; I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m looking for.” I mean, that generally doesn’t work well. And so what Peter’s calling these guys to task on is, “Why are you testing God?”
In fact, the word here used for testing God is the Greek word perirazo, which literally means “to examine for the purpose of finding fault, or rejection”. There was so much skepticism. “Surely this Gospel that you’re preaching sounds too good to be true. There’s got to be more to it. This is so counterintuitive to all the things I’ve understood for my Jewish faith of having to obey all these rules. This sounds just too good to be true. I’ve got a test and find fault in this.” -rather than just accepting the truth.
If we’re honest, we sometimes fall into this trap ourselves. See, this began as a debate of what will be required to be made right with God, and it turns into a discussion over what the required rules are to stay right with God. It’s almost like, as they debate, they can see themselves losing ground. They started to pivot the conversation to try to win, and where you and I have to be careful, very leary, is that we may feel like God needs our help.
And as we know Him and we believe Him and we love Him, then we begin to fall into this trap of, now what must I do to stay right with God? I’ve got to go to church. I got to give. I got to study the Bible, and I have to not just study the Bible, but I have to do it in a certain method for a certain period of time and with a certain frequency. I have to check, check, check this box off of the list. This is a legalistic idea, that Paul, when we read the Book of Galatians, was trying to cut through over and over and over again. It is a dangerous trap that we get into, and God has called us to freedom. God has called us into relationship. He has not called us into this performance trap of keeping a certain number of rules in order to stay right with Him.
The trap of faith performance will lead to doubt and fear
Does my conduct matter? Yes. Read James. Faith without works is dead, but the trap of faith performance will lead you to doubt and fear, and here’s the bottom line of why this impacts the purity of the Gospel: What you have to understand and what we have to remember is, I did nothing to earn my 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, God.
So, I did nothing to earn it. I don’t have to do anything to keep it. I can’t do anything to lose it. Why? Because it’s not about me. It’s not because of me. It’s not through me. It is for Him, by Him, and through Him that I can do all things. Do you see that? We have to beware of this trap.
I’ll just tell you what this looked like in my life. I grew up in a very loving, God-honoring church and family. But it also kind of leaned way to the right of strict rules and legalism. So there was a lot more emphasis on guilt than grace, and the byproduct of that in my own life was, I remember well having these feelings after I’d given my life to Jesus and there was so much emphasis placed on the guilt of not doing things the right way and comparing to others that I began to second guess everything in my life. These were the thoughts I had as I questioned the validity of my salvation. I’m not making this up.
I questioned, Okay, was I kneeling on the right knee, or was I supposed to kneel on the other one? Or I’d heard the preacher invite people to salvation. He would always quote the same prayer, so I’d begin to say, Well, I didn’t say it the way that he said it. So, did I use the right words? Do you see how that performance trap can lead to doubt? Because those thought processes are pushing back on, Did I do it the right way? Did I bring enough to the table? Am I good enough? Did I follow the rules so that I can be made right with God?
And 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 (Ephesians 2:8-9) so that I can’t claim any credit, so that I can’t boast to brag about it. And we have to be careful of this trap of faith performance because it always ends in doubt and fear. Here’s the fourth equation for the day. We’ll see it in verses 13 through 21:
IV. Report + Reinforcement = Truth
Let’s read together:
After they stopped speaking, James responded: “Brothers, listen to me!14 Simeon has reported how God first intervened to take from the Gentiles a people for His name. 15 And the words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written: 16 After these things I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. I will rebuild its ruins and set it up again, 17 so the rest of humanity may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, declares the Lord who does these things, 18 known from long ago. 19 Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but instead we should write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For since ancient times, Moses has had those who proclaim him in every city, and every Sabbath day he is read aloud in the synagogues.”
What in the world? Let’s look at this story. We have a debate over the heart of the Gospel. It’s worth fighting for, so they begin to discuss it. They come into this big meeting, this constitutional convention of sorts. Peter gives a report of what he had seen and experienced. Paul and Barnabas give a report of what they had seen and experienced, and now we see James step up to the plate.
Interestingly (I’ll just throw this in for the minute), what appears to have happened in this long tenure as the church has been established and formed in Acts chapter one verse fifteen, even his leadership is shaping. So now, James presents himself as the lead guy in Jerusalem. I mean, he’s the leader, and so much so, he says. “Okay, I’ve heard all this. Now let me tell you what we’re going to do.”
And so James comes in (this is what’s important). He acknowledges the reports of those experiences that have been shared on the missionary journeys of watching God move miraculously with signs and wonders. And now he comes alongside, and what he does, he reinforces that report with the Truth of God’s Word. In fact, he quotes Amos chapter nine verses 11 and 12, and I think there are a couple of observations to make.
The truth that he affirms, he uses a key word; the Greek word would be laos, this nation, this group of people that historically has been attributed to the nation of Israel, now he uses that same word for both Jews and Gentiles. They are all one family, and he affirms that that we are together, the people of God. We are together, His chosen people. That’s an important thing for us to understand.
It even impacts how we do church today. We are the people of God collectively coming from different experiences, coming from different parts of the country, coming from different backgrounds, different races, different socioeconomic experiences. We come together as one in Christ. We are God’s chosen people.
But what’s important is, I think the thing that we need to understand is, he doesn’t just allow the experiential report from Peter, Paul and Barnabas (although true and testifiable); he doesn’t allow that to stand sufficiently on its own. He teaches us this idea that, “I must connect what I experience to what the Word of God says. How does God’s Word validate that experience?”
Filter what you hear with what Scripture says
This is the principle of a biblical worldview and the way that you and I should live our lives. I should filter what I hear through what Scripture says. The Word of God matters. It is true. It is reliable. It is perfect. It is without error. It can be trusted. My emotions and my experiences can’t always be trusted. So I must filter what I see and hear through what He says. This is why it’s important for me to practice that routine discipline.
See, I practice that routine discipline of studying God’s Word so that I can know it better and apply it to my life and I filter what I see and hear. I don’t do it to be made right or stay right with God; I do it out of a desire and a hunger to know Him more. I do it out of a quickening and sharpening that sword so that I can stand ready to defend the Gospel and so I can filter what I see in hear with what His Word says. Do you see that?
Here’s the point: As we move past then in verses 19 through 21, when James hears it all, he says, “Okay now, here’s what God’s Word says. Therefore, this is what we’re going to do.” The action plan that he presents, then, is “Let’s write a letter, and let’s send it to all of them with some expectations of how they should live their life.” But they weren’t just arbitrary rules. The aim and the objective was Christ-like fellowship in unity. That was the goal.
And so he gave them what is commonly referred to today as the Apostolic Decree. He gave them some things that they should do or refrain from doing so that they could be in fellowship with a Jew who was following Jesus. Does that make sense? For example, foods that Jews eat was a really big deal. We see this coming up over and over again, so he even says, “Hey, why don’t you even refrain from eating certain things so that you can have fellowship with a Jew and not just put something boldly offensive right in front of their face?”
The aim was unity. The aim was fellowship. The aim was taking two groups of people and making sure they live in harmony as One and live out the Gospel. Gentiles living out this faith would be in a position to fellowship with converted Jews and also to avoid putting a stumbling block in front of them.
As we look at Acts chapter 15 today, this is really not a matter of new math versus old math. This is actually, like I said at the beginning, this is not to illustrate that there is more than one way to get to Christ. This is actually the opposite, to remind us there is only one way. It is the heart and purity of the Gospel, and it must be defended at all costs.
Therefore, I must know it. I must pursue Him to understand it so that I can defend it. Acts 15 is a call of unity between believers who may not see eye to eye on every detail. Acts 15 is a call to keep the Gospel clear and to defend it at all costs. Acts 15 is a call to view the world through the lens of Scripture and to know and keep the Truth.
- I choose to make Jesus the King of my life and confess that I cannot save myself.
- I choose to rest in Christ’s power to save and keep me. I seek assurance of my relationship with God.
- I commit to filter the world I see through the lens of God’s Word.
- Does our faith require an outward physical expression to be real? (Compare Acts 15:1-6 with Ephesians 2:8-9)
- In Acts 15:4 and 15:12, we read of Paul and Barnabas reporting what God has done. What value is there in sharing privately and publicly the evidence of God at work, and what does this look like in your life? How does this strengthen community?
- Acts 15:13-21 describes some specific decrees for righteous living directed toward Gentile converts. How do our actions and abstinence from cultural norms positively or negatively impact our ability to share Jesus?