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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

God’s Building


"It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God…” Acts 15:19

Last time we introduced Acts 15. The chapter begins with the community of believers in Syrian Antioch. That church was mixed – some Christians, there, came from Jewish backgrounds. Many others came from non-Jewish, or Gentile, backgrounds. ‘Certain people’ had arrived in Antioch with some ‘teaching’. It contained a demand aimed squarely at the Gentile believers. That demand was a call to action - If you didn’t act, in the way that was specified, then ‘you cannot be saved’, they said – you need to (v.1) be ‘circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses’ and (v.5) ‘keep the law of Moses’. This was a significant change from the Good News message about Jesus that Paul and others had taught.

Why was Paul’s message called ‘Good News’? Because it was so simple. In order to be rescued from our life’s shortcoming and failure, which the Bible calls ‘sin’, there was just one single command - ‘believe’ - ‘believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16 31). It put God’s rescue plan in reach of ‘everyone’. Paul preached this in Acts 13 38-39 - ‘I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin…’ And Paul clarified the result - those who believed in Jesus were made right with God in a way which, ‘you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses’. The lengthy, law commands given to Old Testament Israel were out. Jesus Christ was in.

Except, now, this different message had arrived. Those old commands had come back. They apparently needed mixing with Jesus to create a new fuel to power the believer onwards and upwards. This wasn’t a minor revision. Paul calls it, in Galatians 1 6-7, ‘a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all’. This wasn’t good news. It was bad news. It was bad news that blocked out the good news. Jesus said (John 8 12), ‘I am the light of the world’. This ‘different gospel’ was the Devil’s darkness. This was his attempt to block out the ‘light’ that had filled the Church of Jesus Christ, and had lit up believer’s hearts with joy, and illuminated their new lives in Christ. This must be stopped.

In verse 3, Paul and Barnabas are sent by their local Church in Antioch to go to Jerusalem to confront the Church there about this issue. What a wonderful statement we have about their journey in verse 3. In Phoenicia and Samaria, they visited local Churches filled predominantly with people of Israelite (Jewish) heritage. P & B told them ‘how the Gentiles had been converted’. How? By believing in Jesus. In Samaria, people could easily have come up with the same objection to Gentile conversion as those other troublemakers had. But they didn’t. No questions asked. No objections raised. Just gladness over lost sheep found by Christ.

Verse 4 has P & B being warmly received by the church in Jerusalem. It should be easy to warmly receive visitors that we don’t know very well. It’s often when we do get to know people better, and they us, that the problems really kick off! But getting to know people well is fundamental to Church life, and so we have to deal with it. Then, verse 5 has the mixed message objection raised again, followed by what looks like a series of meetings that kind of merge into one in the Acts narrative. Why do I say that? Well, verse 6 has the apostles and elders meeting first. Verse 12 talks about ‘the whole assembly’ listening. Then verse 22, has a ‘whole church’ decision being made. Yet, there’s little apparent break in proceedings.

The Acts 15 account is like a TV highlights programme, like Match of the Day, which we have for football. I like Match of the Day because stuff is missing. All those bits, where the ball just goes backwards and forwards with little really happening, are removed. The boring bits are gone, the good stuff is left. Actually, Acts 15 is more like, Meetings of the Day, than Match of the Day. It’s not a record of every word spoken but we are definitely left with some really good stuff!

Verse 7 condenses a lot into just three words - ‘after much discussion’. ‘Discussion’ – here is a principle for Church living. ‘Discussion’ tells us two things - there was talking, and there was listening. Let’s do that in the meetings we have to decide and shape our Church’s future. Let’s strive for unity of purpose through discussion, not sweeping controversy under the carpet, or by encouraging secrecy. As an individual, talking is optional. Listening – that’s not optional. Discussion is not one person speaking, telling everyone else what they must believe. We have to listen to every voice, and make sure that we invite every voice to be heard. The impact of change can often be hardest on those who are quietest. We mustn’t leave the quietest behind.

Last time, I quoted Jesus from Matthew 11 28-30 where he says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ Jesus, there, encouraged believers to ‘learn from’ him. Jesus said, ‘I am gentle and humble in heart’. If we don’t listen to every voice and consider the impact on those who are ‘gentle and humble in heart’ then, in the name of progress, we may not only be leaving the quietest behind – we may also be leaving Jesus behind.

Peter provides a beautiful example in Acts 15. We might well ask, ‘who is this Peter - he seems such a changed character?’ He was a changed character. Look at him in the gospel accounts. Peter was rash and impulsive. Peter was always ready to speak first. Thinking – that could come later! But the grace of the Lord Jesus was re-moulding this man. ‘After much discussion, Peter got up’ – He didn’t speak first, he waited until the end. Even though he must have known that what he had to contribute to this debate was oh-so-crucial, Peter, like never before, bided his time.

Peter then recounts the events of Acts 10 and 11. Peter was as Jewish as they came. In this new age of Jesus, his mind-set needed transforming. God had work for Peter in Acts 10. There was a Gentile called Cornelius who, along with his friends, desperately needed to hear the message about Jesus. But Peter’s background meant that he wasn’t even prepared to enter a house belonging to someone who wasn’t Jewish. How could he be the one to bring God’s message to this Gentile? Had God chosen the wrong instrument for this work? No. His ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are too. He chose a blunt instrument called Peter and proceeded to sharpen him up. He gave Peter a vision that contained an important lesson. He arranged for men, sent by Cornelius, to arrive at just the right time, ‘while Peter was still thinking about the vision’. He led Peter by his Spirit to do the right thing, even though it went against everything that his privileged, prejudiced upbringing screamed at him to do. Who did it? God did it! Why? Because, in Acts 10 & 11, people needed to be put right about Jesus. But the awesomeness of our God doesn’t end there. When we looked at Acts 10 and 11, we focused on Acts 10 and 11. God didn’t - he was thinking about Acts 15 as well. Peter was being shaped for this very moment. Here Peter’s words were not so much to lead people to faith in Jesus, but to keep their faith firmly fixed in the one, true - Jesus only - good news message.

Peter tells what happened to those Gentiles he met, in Acts 15 8-9, ‘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 (Jews) and them (Gentiles), for he purified their hearts by faith.’ Peter is saying, I didn’t have to give them some purification ceremony ripped out of Leviticus, so that they could then come to faith’. God had already done the hard work – ‘he purified their hearts’. How? ‘By faith’ – Belief was all that was needed. They didn’t have to become all religious first, and then come to Jesus. They just came straight to Jesus… ‘by faith’. Peter didn’t hand them out a multiple choice question sheet on the life of Moses that they had to answer correctly before they could be baptised. If you want to join Christ’s people – to be baptised and be a member of his Church community – there is a question. But the real Good News is that there is only one question – ‘Do you believe?’ If you believe in Jesus, then you are in!

Then Peter’s words in verse 10 are so striking. The true landscape of the Old Testament is laid bare by God’s light. Those that wanted everyone to convert to Jewish ways first, saw this landscape very differently. They were wearing the rose tinted spectacles of nostalgia when they surveyed Israel’s history. They thought that it was really good when, actually, it was awful. Israel’s story was one of failure to do God’s bidding, and rejection of him as Lord, as a constant theme. Sadly, there was something else that these types did as well. When they surveyed their own lives, they kept these rose tinted spectacles on. They believed that they could keep the Law of Moses to a pretty good standard – why else try to convince others that it was the right way to please God? Because they were deceived. They thought that their focus was on God’s Promised Land. Actually, they were just living in Fantasy Land!

Peter wasn’t deceived anymore. He saw his Jewish obedience for what it was in God’s eyes. His obedience was disobedience. That ‘yoke’ of legalism – of religious law – ‘neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear’ it, he says. What does he mean by a ‘yoke’ though? Well, a ‘yoke’ is a kind of carrying pole which lays across the back of a person’s neck so that items can be loaded and carried on both sides. It enables someone to travel, carrying something which they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to manage. Some will get further than others but, eventually, everyone will stop. Because there are limits to our capacity. That is what Peter is saying. Carrying God’s life standard by yourself is impossible. You cannot do it. God’s standard was a good standard. It’s just too weighty for us to carry on our own over life’s rocky road. Because of sin, we are just too lightweight. If we think we can then it’s because of our shady vision – we just haven’t noticed everything that’s been falling off the sides. The real Good News is this, though. Jesus could carry the weighty burden of God’s life standard, and he did. He did because we could not. When we believe in him, he gives us his life standard as our own. It is perfect in every detail. Who would want to add to that?

Peter’s words continue in verse 11. He turns the false gospel message on its head. It isn’t Gentile believers that need to become like Jewish believers, it’s the other way round! That is what verse 11 says. They were saved by ‘the grace’ – so, the free and unearned favour – ‘of our Lord Jesus’. Us Jews must be also, says ‘Peter’. We don’t have to stop doing Jewish stuff. But we do have to stop doing it in order to gain God’s favour. That would undermine the freeness of God’s gift.

That is the really absurd thing about this mixed-message - good-news, bad-news – other gospel. It was like they were saying that you were saved by God’s free gift of his Son, but now you have to earn it. Imagine next birthday, I buy you a really expensive present – maybe a Ferrari. You go, ‘Wow! I love it! That is so generous! How much did it cost you?’ And I reply, ‘No, it’ll cost you - I’m not paying for it. But I have conveniently arranged finance, so you can pay it off in chunky instalments… for the rest of your life!’ We are saved by God’s free gift. We don’t have to earn it because it’s free.

Peter’s words allow Barnabas and Paul, in verse 12, to then speak freely about God’s powerful working among those Gentiles brought to faith in Jesus alone. This whole debate is moved forward to its awesome conclusion by more than one person. One person could not have achieved what was achieved that day in Jerusalem. But one God could. And he did.

Let’s consider the awesome conclusion reached. It is found in the words of James, who speaks last, and in the letter which the church at Jerusalem then writes to the church at Antioch. In the letter there is acknowledgement of the distress that had been caused, and that those who had created this issue had come from the Jerusalem church – there is ownership. But also there is recognition that these had come without that church’s authorisation. They rightly show distance between themselves and this error. And then they show how far distant they are from the error of laying heavy burdens upon Christians. Verse 28 says, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…’ and then we have less than one verse of instructions, before those loving, gentle words, ‘You will do well to avoid these things’.

It’s the same spirit that James shows in verse 19. His opinion was ‘that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God’. How much disturbance within Churches has been caused – how much unnecessary troubling of minds – because this spirit was lost sight of? Oh Church of Christ are you listening!?

The instructions are so brief! But, what is their purpose? Their purpose is to promote community. These prohibitions are designed, not to prohibit, but to allow – to allow fellowship to be fuller and freer. There is recognition here that some believers with Jewish backgrounds may struggle to have full social interation with other believers from Gentile backgrounds. That is why three of these four directives are about meals.

How often are food and drink involved when we meet with up with other people? Very often! The way that Gentile believers ate, and the things that they ate, may have been such a problem for Jewish believers to cope with, given their own background, that it may have resulted in the two groups not eating together. And, if it true that so often when we meet together, we eat together, then the danger of a barrier to eating together is obvious. If the two groups stopped eating together then they may stop meeting together. That could not be, and so these helpful things were simply given in order to promote full fellowship and unity in Christ’s Church.

In Galatians 3 27-28 we read something about the ‘all’ – that is ‘all’ those who have been ‘baptised into Christ’ - ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. That is a burden that should be laid on Christ’s people. We should be joined. We should be one. We should do everything in our power to make sure that we are. It won’t always be easy but we ‘will do well’ if we can achieve this by God’s grace.

But, before this awesome conclusion is reached, we have James’ speech. He stands up and says, in effect, ‘this is Bible! - God has already predicted this Gentile faith in the Old Testament – If we stand in the way of this, we aren’t just stalling the mission of Paul and Barnabas. We are standing in the way of God himself. Peter, in Acts 10 43, said that ‘all the prophets testify about him (Jesus)’ and they testify that not just Jews, but ‘everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ James, here, chooses just one of those prophets to quote. It’s Amos 9 11-12 quoted from the Greek version of the Hebrew bible.

It’s a great choice. In the words of Amos, we have the clear, God-perspective on Israel’s history. In verse 16 it’s called ‘David’s fallen tent’. It’s in ‘ruins’. It isn’t something worth preserving at all costs. It’s just some rubbish from the camping shop’s bargain bin!

Last time, I referred to the Church of Jesus Christ as being ‘God’s building’. That is what it is called in 1 Corinthians 3 9. With Acts 15, Christians have a choice. To depend, even in part, on your own actions to be made right with God, is to be like Old Testament Israel, through so much of its sordid history. When the storm comes, all you will have is a ‘fallen tent’. A storm is coming. Hebrews 9 27 says, ‘people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment’.

Imagine that you were found one midwinter, stormy night in the Scottish wilds. Your only protection from the elements is a fallen tent. You are completely exposed and in real peril. Someone appears through the fog and darkness and says, ‘I have a building where you will be safe’ - I am the way - Follow me’. Would you?

Hebrews 9 27, is God’s weather forecast of upcoming judgement of sin. Verse 28 is God’s plan of shelter for those would otherwise be left exposed. It says this, ‘so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him’.

Let us be waiting for Jesus, while trusting in Jesus… alone.


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