Acts 15:1-11 (click to display NIV text)
April 29, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
Peter: “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.”
Paul goes out from Antioch and travels in Asia Minor and then into Greece. He brings the Gospel first to the synagogues in the cities he visits and then to God- fearing Gentiles and then out to the Gentile population, people who worship idols. He and his companions kept moving in all these travels, largely because of persecution. Generally it was mobs of people stirred up by a group of Jewish officials who would chase them out of town. Sometimes it was silversmiths and fortune tellers that opposed them because they lost money when numbers of people turned to the Gospel. Paul was able to spend a year and a half in Corinth and two years in Ephesus.
The center of this section in Acts is Chapter 15, the Jerusalem Council. Here a decision about the Mission to the Gentiles is made through the speeches of Peter and James the brother of Jesus. The decision is that we are all saved by grace through faith in Christ, who was crucified and is risen from the dead.
I would like to share something that happened to me last week, as a picture to help us understand this issue in Acts. On Monday morning I was not at the church, because Kathy and I were working at the food pantry, doing a bread run from the Northern Illinois Food Bank. When I got to the office in the afternoon, there were six messages on my phone, all from a mother and daughter we have helped quite a bit in the last four or five years. The first was 7:40 in the morning “Pastor, please call me.” Then through the morning “Please call me, this is an emergency.” The emergency turned out to be their hoping to get some gas. By midmorning the calls were “we are close to the church and this is an emergency and why are you ignoring our calls?” Then the last one, which forms the picture. “We are in the parking lot. No one will answer our calls. Why won’t you answer? We are knocking on the doors. They are locked. No one will come out and let us in. Why won’t you talk to us? Why won’t you open the door?” Of course, no one was in the church at that time, but they thought we must all be here hiding.
So, this is the picture I have from that incident. The picture is of people who are on the outside and they want to be inside, because there is something valuable on the inside. But the door is locked, and it is locked both ways. The people outside cannot get in, and the people inside cannot get out. And the people on the outside cannot get around the locked door. It does not help to call on the phone.
This is the image in Acts. The Gentiles are on the outside. They worship idols, but find that to be a meaningless and immoral life. They want to know Christ. They want to hear the Gospel. But they cannot get into the structure that holds the Gospel, in this case, not a building, but a fellowship, a church. The people who know Christ, those on the inside, are Jewish in background and they keep the Law of Moses.
Circumcision was especially important to them because it gave them an identity. During the time that Palestine was ruled by the Syrians, in the time between the Old and New Testament, one of the rulers, Antiochus Epiphanes, was especially cruel towards the Jews and tried to destroy them. One thing he did was to make circumcision illegal. He wanted to destroy the Jewish identity. So circumcision became very important, and became for the early Jewish Christians the lock on the outside of the door. Gentiles who were on the outside were welcome to come in and receive the Gospel, but they must go through the door of circumcision and also the whole Law of Moses. The Gentiles did not want to do that. It seemed to them that the door was locked.
The door was also locked from the inside. The Jews who were also believers in Christ could not go out the door and bring the Gospel to the Gentiles because of strict dietary rules of table fellowship. To keep their holiness and purity before God they believed they must not eat with idol-worshipping people.
Then Paul and Barnabas broke through the door. They go out into the Gentile world and they shared the Gospel of Christ. In Christ there is a new identity. Putting on Christ is our identity. Baptism is the sign that tells us who we are. But those who are on the inside, like Paul and Barnabas, now can come through the door and bring the Gospel to the world. In Christ table fellowship is found at the Lord’s Table. So it is not a matter of dietary restrictions. Acts 2:21, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Peter is the one to make clear that the Gentiles are welcome to come in to the fellowship of Christ, to receive the Gospel in repentance, and to be fully incorporated into the body, into the family of Christ. He admits that “we could not bear the yoke of the law, and neither could our ancestors.” Why should we place such a yoke on the Gentiles? Peter has seen that God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles believers, just as he did to the Jewish believers. Peter says, there is no door, no lock, and no dividing wall. Rather through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are all saved by faith. What Peter is saying is that nothing over-rules the Gospel.
Then James the brother of Jesus, the leader of the Jerusalem church, gets up. He finds the scripture, from the prophet Amos, which speaks of Gentiles being included in the rebuilt tent of David. So he gives the decision. We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles. In Christ there should be very few rules. Long lists of rules do not help us to live fully in the grace and power of Christ. Long list of rules do not help us in our evangelistic call among the peoples of the world. James says, “Keep the focus on Christ.” “Keep the focus on the Gospel.”
But there are some rules. He gives three. These rules are signs of respect. When the Gentiles come into the fellowship of Jewish believers, when there is true table fellowship in Christ, there should be respect for one another. They should abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality and from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. In the Old Testament when resident aliens lived in the Holy Land they lived there with respect for the ways of the Jews. Rob Wall writes, “Fellowship in a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles must nurture faith rather than corrupt it.”
But why these three rules? It is because they are linked to the religious practices of pagan temples. Wall writes, “Idolatry challenges the sovereignty of God.” The temples with idols were known then as places of sexual immorality, of food offered to the idols and of the eating of blood. They were the entry points into a whole lifestyle of idolatry. So James is saying, “Don’t bring the lifestyle of idol worship into the table fellowship of Christ.”
What does this passage say to us? Be careful not to lock the door that Christ has opened. Be careful of cultural traditions that leave people out. Be careful of too many rules. Keep the focus always on Christ and the Gospel. Our task is both to welcome people into our fellowship and also to move out ourselves into the community with the Gospel.
When our Council met with the Redeemer Life leader team last Sunday night, they said they would like to meet again and talk to us about some ideas on how we might do just that among people in our communities who have recently immigrated to America. Maybe we have put some locks on the door we are not even aware of. Maybe we wait too much for others to come to us instead of going to them.
I notice in reading Acts that after this decision in Chapter 15, Paul then goes to Athens, to Corinth and to Ephesus, and he seems to minister in those places with a greater freedom, there is a willingness in him to reach out farther, to be bold, to be more understanding of others, for example the way he preaches on Mars Hill in Athens. He truly has a heart for the world, and I think the decision by the Council is encouraging for him. We too would like to unlock some doors from the outside, and also from the inside, so the Gospel can move with greater freedom into our communities.