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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Some Inter-Church Meeting Held in Jerusalem!


"Now then, 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.” Acts 15:10-11

Paul and Barnabas had been ‘committed to the grace of God’ by their local church in Syrian Antioch, then sent on a mission to preach the Good News about Jesus, to people who had never heard it. Many of those people were what the Bible calls ‘Gentiles’ – that means people who weren’t Jews, so didn’t have Israelite backgrounds and didn’t follow the customs laid down in the Old Testament writings which God had given to Israel.

Many, many, Jews had rejected the message about Jesus when Paul preached it, even though Jesus’ coming had been clearly detailed time and time again in their scriptures. It was very sad and quite remarkable. But, something even more remarkable had also happened. Many Gentiles had received the message about Jesus with joy. People that weren’t expecting to hear about God’s rescue plan in Jesus, his Son, had heard it and straight-up believed it for themselves.

A surprising turn of events but it didn’t surprise God. He had predicted it over 700 years before through the words of the prophet Isaiah - ‘I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, “Here am I, here am I.”’ (Isaiah 65 1 plus also see Romans 10 16-21).

God had predicted this Gentile faith. God made it happen. Paul and Barnabas were merely instruments in God’s hand as they preached the gospel. This is abundantly clear when these men arrived back in Antioch for their debriefing. Acts 14 27 says, ‘On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how hehad opened a door of faith to the Gentiles’. Despite the serious opposition that P & B had faced, including the most recent incident of Paul being stoned and left for dead, God had opened a door of faith.

As we enter Acts 15, we find further opposition. This time though, it doesn’t appear very dangerous. Paul isn’t having to deal with murderous intent and deadly stone throwing – it’s just some words. You may have heard of the saying, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. What nonsense?! Words have an awesome power – both to heal and to hurt. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Words can cause damage that a lifetime of therapy will struggle to undo. Words were the theme of Tim’s message last week on Job. Tim said, ‘words matter’.

In Acts 15 1, those words mattered. Those words were a greater threat to Paul, and the Good News message about Jesus, than stones ever were. But can that really be true? Well, I want to re-use an illustration from way back when. Over a year ago we looked at the case of Ananias and Sapphira, in Acts 5. They were inside the Church family. But the threat that they posed was greater than all the threat from outside. So it is here in Acts 15. So let’s reuse and recycle.

The back garden of my house is relatively unusual. The only access to it is from within the house. You have to be inside my building to reach our back garden. Let’s suppose someone from my household goes into the garden and starts digging. Then some people from outside my household decide to attack my property – they start throwing stones at the front of the house. What am I more likely to do – go and see how the digging out the back is getting on, or rush to the front and focus on that threat?

But let’s think. What is the most damage that could be done out front? Yes, the windows might break, and the door might get dented, but will the house be fundamentally at risk? I suspect not, but that would be my priority. So, if my wife wouldn’t go, I’d face up to that threat and go out the front door and confront the vandals. But then I turn round to return inside and suddenly with an almighty, thunderous noise, my house collapses. Why? Because I’ve ignored what someone from inside my household has done. What they were actually doing is digging out around the foundation stone. Eventually, its stability had been undermined. The whole house shifted and fell down. Now, what would I think had been the greatest threat to my house?

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul says this about the Church of Christ, ‘you are… God’s building’. He says this about God’s building – ‘no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ’. The Church is founded on Jesus. Jesus and what else? Jesus and nothing else. Following Paul’s own conversion to Christ he had preached that message. There was only one way to be safe from God’s wrath against human shortcoming and failure. That was to believe in God’s loving rescue plan centred in Jesus. What else did you need so as to be rescued, apart from belief that Jesus was your Saviour? Nothing. But that isn’t the message in the words of Acts 15 1 – ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’.

Here a new foundation stone for God’s building was being presented. The Church’s true foundation - faith alone in Jesus - was being undermined by those who were apparently inside the Church. This was more dangerous than the violent stoning in Acts 14. If Paul ignored this, it wouldn’t just be him that was left for dead - the Church of Christ would quickly lose its hope and consolation and cease to exist. Let’s not underestimate the awfully precarious position of the Jesus’ people in that moment. Because, it’s so important. And because we see a mighty deliverance that should make us rejoice. Actually, it’s an ‘Almighty’ deliverance.

Revelation 3 7 says this – ‘These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.’ God had opened a door of faith. No-one would be allowed to shut that door.

In Acts 9 15 we read of Paul being God’s ‘chosen instrument’ to take this faith-in-Jesus-only gospel message to the Gentiles. Now, he is used as God’s chosen instrument in its defence. We read in verse 2 of strong words - ‘sharp dispute’ – hardly surprising. But also we have the softer word, ‘debate’. ‘Words without knowledge’ (Job 38 2) were the problem. Words of truth would provide the solution. ‘So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.’ Who sent them? Verse 3 says, ‘the church sent them’. Again, we see the authority of the local church. Actually, it says, ‘they sent them on their way’. I think that this once more implies a formal committing of this vitally important assignment to the Lord and to his ‘grace’ – that power for Christian living that they would so need in order to be successful.

So, all good so far? Well fasten your seatbelts – now for something really controversial! Don’t believe everything you read in the Bible! Now, that statement needs clarifying – probably very quickly before people stand up and enter into ‘sharp dispute’ with me. After all, our Church Constitution seems to inform me of something very different. It says that the Church members at Riverside believe that ‘God’s Word is infallible and supreme in authority’. That is saying that the Bible is never wrong and we can believe it wholesale. But what does that mean? We use a bible translation here called the NIV. Because the Bible wasn’t originally written in English we need it translating into our common tongue. Like all the translations, the NIV does some additional little things, like adding chapter and verse numbers and page numbers which, most of the time, are really helpful, although occasionally less so. The chapters of Acts are broken up into sections and these sections are given titles, or headings. These are man-made additions. They can be really helpful because they give a brief overview of each section before we read it, and they can be helpful when we are searching for some particular thing. The human-added heading of our section today is ‘The council at Jerusalem’. I don’t have a major quibble with it, but it is a good place to start because I believe that there is a very easy mistake to make when we read this section. We need to identify what really isn’t going on and well as what really is.

The word ‘council’ can possibly make us think incorrectly. Coupled with that it is easy to read this chapter and think that when Paul and Barnabas go ‘to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question’ that they are going there to get a correct judgement about this matter from people who have a supreme authority over all major church decisions everywhere. Also, it is easy for us to continue reading and get to where James makes his ‘judgement’ in verse 19 and believe that this is a judgement with some special Jerusalem Church Apostolic Authority. It isn’t. Another of our English bible translations, the NET bible, uses the word ‘conclude’. James is reaching a personal conclusion on the matter. He is making a judgment. He is giving his opinion. Yes, James does make the correct judgement and that letter which is then sent back to Antioch is sound. Paul believed it to. Otherwise, he’d have disposed of the letter on the journey back home! Paul would not have accepted any other conclusion from any other person, regardless of how they were highly esteemed by the wider Church. How do I know this? Because Acts 15 isn’t the only witness to what happens here. What do I mean?

Well, let’s think of a police investigation. Let’s say there has been an attempted murder. What would the police do? They’d make house to house enquiries. They’d map out an area where people are likely to live who may have seen the event take place and then send various personnel round to ask questions. An officer may knock on a door and the person answering may say, ‘Yes, I saw it happen, I’ll tell you about it.’ What doesn’t then happen is this. That officer doesn’t then get on the radio and start shouting, ‘Stand down, Stand down! I’ve found our witness, we don’t need to ask anyone else’. No, they want as much information as possible. People see the same event from different perspectives and the combined detail can give a clearer picture of what actually happened.

That is the way we can develop our understanding of the Bible’s whole. Each part of the Bible sheds light on other parts and helps to give a fuller picture. We can apply that principle here. An attempted murder has taken place. People were trying to kill off ‘the freedom (believers) have in Christ Jesus’. I’ve taken those words from a witness statement called Galatians, one of Paul’s letters in the Bible. That letter’s theme is this subject in Acts 15 and it mentions a visit to Jerusalem by Paul and Barnabas. Now, many people reckon that the visit to Jerusalem described in Galatians 2, is at an earlier time to this one in Acts 15, and there are various reasons for that way of interpreting. I don’t think that, but it is a side issue anyway. It’s the witness that Galatians gives to Paul’s position on the Jerusalem crew’s authority, or otherwise, that is important for us at this moment, and also the sense that the whole letter gives about Paul’s immovable position on this whole subject. I’ll start with that.

It is clear that Paul would not have compromised on this matter, regardless of what anyone said. This false teaching which had disturbed the peace in Christ of those believers in Antioch and troubled their minds (see Acts 15 24) was something which Paul rejected in the strongest terms. Their teaching claimed, ‘Unless you are circumcised’ (Acts 15 1) and ‘circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses’ (Acts 15 5) then ‘you cannot be saved’ (Acts 15 1). They were saying that faith in Jesus, on its own, was not enough – it needed to be combined with religious rule keeping in order to be saved. It was a mixed message. Belief in Jesus was being mixed with a certain religious life standard. It may look like just a different slant on the gospel message. After all, Jesus was in the mix, so did it really matter? It did. Because it wasn’t just an addition to the gospel message – it completely undid it. Because gospel means good news. And this mixed message was bad news. Very bad news indeed!

I mentioned last time the account in Acts 16 of the Jailor in Philippi who came to faith in Christ. He was desperate. He knew that he was way adrift of relationship with God. Can you imagine if Paul hadn’t been there to answer his question, ‘what must I do to be saved?’ Imagine if it had been one of these mixed-message types who replied – ‘Well believe in Jesus but also here are some Old Testament scrolls. Read this Exodus one and, if you think that’s tough, wait until you read Leviticus – you’ll need to learn that off by heart. Oh, and don’t forget Deuteronomy – that will help reinforce the challenge. Then, do everything that’s written and don’t make a single mistake. Ta Da! – You’ll be saved’. Would that have been good news to that man? No, it would not.

But Paul didn’t hand over several large volumes of law keeping instruction. He gave him ten easy words containing one instruction and one awesome promise – ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’. That was good news. That was the gospel. That is the gospel still. This alternative view was something completely different and in Galatians 1 6-7 Paul says so – it’s ‘a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all’.

Then, in Galatians 2, Paul comments on the limits he placed on the authority of those in Jerusalem. He mentions James and Peter (Cephas) and says that they were ‘esteemed as pillars’. He was recognising their value to that Church body. God had been ‘at work’ in them, using them in church life. They were ‘pillars’ - they had supported God’s truth before. But if they didn’t support it now, then what they were would have been of no consequence. Paul says in Galatians 2 6, about ‘those who were held in high esteem – whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favouritism – they added nothing to my message’.

Acts 15 is not a demonstration of some centralised Papal-type authority. So, what is it? Well, it’s just a meeting between members of two local church bodies to discuss an issue (albeit a very serious one) which connected them both. If you like, people from Seaside Church Antioch are meeting people from Pentecost Church Jerusalem to settle a problem. Jerusalem are already involved in this problem, that’s why they needed speaking to. Acts 15 1 tells us that these people had come from that region of ‘Judea to Antioch’, and verse 24 confirms that they actually came from Jerusalem. In that letter sent back it acknowledges that ‘some went out from us (here in Jerusalem) without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said’.

The reason those representatives were sent to Jerusalem was to find out whether this mixed message was approved by that church, and to challenge them if it was. It wasn’t to get a decree from them as to how all churches must proceed in future. But actually, after much debate, and God’s handiwork traceable throughout that debate, and in events that preceded it, the conclusion reached would be a good one for all churches then and now, to grasp and cleave tightly to. But we’ll look at that in more detail next time.

In that debate, Peter speaks of those old religious rules as an unbearable ‘yoke’. In the letter written, we read, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you… followed by some simple rules designed to promote harmony between Christians from Jewish backgrounds and Christians from Gentile backgrounds. What else were they burdened with? Nothing. Christ was at the heart of that letter. The burden was gone.

Jesus said (Matthew 11 28-30), ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’

That door of faith was kept open. If it had closed then relationship with God would have closed to such as us. His love to such as us won’t allow that. Isaiah’s prophecy can be true for us. Even to those that haven’t been looking for him, or have been looking for God’s love in all the wrong places, such as a religious-rule-keeping way of life, that door stands open still. In Jesus, and in Jesus only, God cries out, ‘Here am I, here am I’. What is the implication? Well it’s ‘easy’. I’ve run out of words, so I’ll borrow, once more, ten of the very best from the Bible’s catalogue of witnesses’.

‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’.


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