It seems to be a reality of life and ministry: Things are going very well. Changed lives are showing themselves as being on the right road. Ministry is happening, in that there are open doors and people are coming to understand the Light of the Gospel... Then, stuff hits the fan!
It is called LIFE but still can get you down. You are doing the best you feel you can do yet life seems to unravel around you and you feel all so alone. Does this happen to you?
Pain and discouragement run in your face. Sleep gets interrupted. Relationships are strained. There seems to be “a dark cloud” following you and you can't give it the slip. You become aware of distention around you. Rebellion.
In our passage today, such a thing is happening to the early Church. There was opposition but it was from the pagan world and that is to be expected. People in Derbe and other placed stoned Paul. There is anger expressed toward the Gospel and they are reminded, as we are, that
“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Acts 14:22.
But what we are finding here in Chapter 15 is a pain from another source. From within the Body.
ILL: You have had some pain in the foot for a while. It started sometime last month-can't be sure when-you are now aware of the pain. It seems to be located around the big toe. You decide to look into the situation but you really will put it off until last night. Once you take off your socks, you see that it is much worst than you first thought. The big tow is red-black really. There are signs of deep infection under the big toe nail. The ingrown nail is now black and you can see some white of infection. What do you do? Put your sock back on and hope it goes away by the morning.
Well, that is exactly what you did but now, Sunday Morning, it really hurts and you notice that there is a little red line moving up beyond your ankle and on it's way to your knee. What to do? You had better deal with it but you don't have time. You really don't want to be late to service so you put your loose shoes on and walk out the door. On your way to ICCS, someone on the train accidentally steps on your sick toe and you are in pain!
This is exactly NOT what the early leaders of the Church did when this problem came up. They addressed it right away. They went to the authority and asked them for help and for clarification. It was becoming a disturbance to the Body. People's lives were being shaken.
You can hear some singing Frank Sinatra's Song: “I did it my way.” Here is the problem. Some believing people from Jerusalem came out from the main church and started to speak out without the backing of the leaders of the main church still in Jerusalem and teaching with the 'sound' of authority that people needed to come to Christ their way. They were more than suggesting that the new Gentile believers were not real believers UNTIL they followed the Jewish laws to the last jot and tittle.
(See Matt 5:18 The meaning of the passage is very clear. Not even the smallest letter or even its decorative spur will ever disappear from the "God Breathed" Word until all is fulfilled. In fact when heaven and earth are replaced by a new heaven and earth, the Word of the Lord will have accomplished its purpose and will be fulfilled in every detail even to the very letter. http://www.bible-history.com)
They would insist that the new Believers become Jews first and THEN they could grow in the Faith. It is like, me as a missionary from the US, insisting that all Japanese believers MUST speak English and take on American names and follow the American Church calendar if they are to grow in the Faith. How strange is that? Not to strange as many have tried and done just that. Wrongly, yet did it.
So these people from the main church told people that they needed to become Jewish men by being circumcised--, according to the custom taught by Moses, or they could not be saved - This was thrown right into the face of Peter and Paul and still after what had happened back in Acts 10 with the Gentile Believer Cornelius and the others who followed.
This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with these false teachers. All that Paul and Barnabas had done and with all they had seen and taught, still there were people out there who were not to affected by the Truth of experience or reality or the Word of God! These new teachings were suggesting-not really saying outright-that the Gentiles could not experience real joy now nor could they enjoy the Joy of God in eternity-and no forgiveness because they were not keeping the Jewish laws in the here and now. Had there been a mistake? Had the gentile Believers not understood the REAL message?
The local Churches north of Jerusalem took this one on! They brought some of their own men together and sent them with the appointment of Paul and Barnabas to go up to the leaders of the Church and find out how to deal with this problem. The infected toe was going to be dealt with!
Again, these men came from the main church and taught which sounded like the voice of the main church and 'shared' this teaching that really put the Gentile Believers and Jewish believers into a tailspin. They spoke like they had authority but they did not. In fact, this one issue and one's like it has been the pain of many groups ever since.
- Who is in charge here?
- Who is the one with Authority?
- Who's word can be trusted?
Authority and rebellion has left its mark and it's effect on church groups thorough history.
And it goes way back. Take Moses and one man named Korah. A long story but to keep it short, Korah felt that Moses was not the only one God could speak thru, so he got some men to go along with him and they had a show down. Not like the old west with a shoot out but a show down nonetheless. Here on one side was Moses and his brother Aaron and on the other Korah, Dathan and Abiran. See this in Numbers 16:1~. Look what happened! The earth opened up and took those who were against God's men into an early grave. All of them. The New Testament lesson: You shall know them by their fruit.
Let's look at verse 8: 8
"God, who knows the heart..."
And at Acts 1:24
Then they prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen..."
This is the only place such words appear in the Scriptures. The Knowing-Heart! To know this is to understand the way of a Sovereign Lord. Do you know that He knows your Heart? Do you care? Do you know that even though He does know you, He still loves you as much as He loves the ones who were spreading the faults teaching? Love the sinner; hate the sin. Can we understand that? Can we practice that?!
How about people in the world that make us angry? The terrorist? The one who plots to kill innocent people-men and women-boys or little girls-make no difference to them. Do you have a love for them? Believe God Does!
Are there people in history that had done bad things to your ancestors and now become the focal point of some real personal anger on your part? What place does that have in our lives? I suggest that the Gospel can touch those areas and bring healing. His Word deals with the innermost parts of man. Anger and hostile feelings are at the root of rebellion and rebellion never come to any good. Deal with it. Pray right now. You may need to deal with it but you may not want to. Deal with those areas right now.
Once Peter and his group got to the first all-Church council-ever, he speaks out of his heart and out of his own experiences. Read with me starting with verse 7 with this quote of Peter. What does he mean? He was the one who was going to bring the Message of Salvation to the Gentiles. God made the choice. Peter was the ONE!
Verse 8: God knows the heart-we already looked at that verse. God knows and has accepted them by giving them the same Holy Spirit. Not a Spirit for the Jews who need laws and needs to be kept in bondage to the law and another Spirit to those outside the Faith. One Spirit and one Body. God had made no distinction between them and anyone else, for he purified their hearts by faith.
Same Blood from the same Cross from the Same Savior. He died for those who were from a Jewish background and He died for them who were from a Gentile heritage. That is the package called the Gospel. Good News for all people!
After this exchange by Peter, see what affect it had on the group. Verse 12
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.
When God tells us His Story, we are to be still! What can we add to His perfect ways? How can we turn people's heads with anything less than His Wondrous works in our lives? When we tell of His changes in our lives, we are not bragging. We are reporting what He has done. He has done ALL things well! ALL THE TIME! Him working IN ME!
Now, action was needed. James, who is the head of the Church, spoke up. "Brothers, listen to me." This shows that he had power in the group. It looks like his word stands out over the rest by his statement. And what does he say: He calls Peter his old name of Simon and relates how God first worked in the hearts of non-Jews. He calls to mind an Old Testament passage from Amos and Isaiah of the rebuilding of His family. His way. His timing. Via His People/Church. The Church is His Avenue of Grace to the world.
James also says that they should not make things hard on 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.
Just hold to four things. To abstain from food that had been polluted by idols would mean meats offered to idols, as it would be known that the foods were used in some form of worship.
While in Osaka a number of summers ago, I visited one of my teachers in her home stay house. Her caregivers were not believers in the Lord. It was a very hot day and the Lady of the house offered half of a cold melon and offered the other half to the photo of her departed husband. She left the room and I ate the wonderful melon. Looking at the other half, I wondered what to do: should I replace my empty melon with the cold half at the family alter? No, this verse came to mind.
Secondly, keep from fornication (sexual immorality). This would mean ALL sorts of unclean behavior, such as adultery, incestuous relations, any form of prostitution-which was common among the Gentile idol worship. This would also cover porno and any immorality of any kind.
Thirdly, things that are strangled. This was also a practice of the pagan temples, to strangle the animal in a cruel method in order to keep the blood inside the animal as it was thought to taste better that way. Cruel method.
Lastly, the dealing of blood. Genesis 9:4
"But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it."
Some basic things. This was not really dealing with the dangerous issues these zealous Judaizers had been spreading. This letter caused each person to see that the main thing God was interested in was how we walk. What we do in the society. What we do with our relationships. How we conduct ourselves in our worship. Were we really acting like Children of God under Grace? Transformational.
Looking at this another way, we need to ask ourselves, what cultural dos and don'ts have we added to the Gospel as condition for fellowship or for belonging? Are we asking the other person to conform to our image of God? Or are we conforming to the Biblical image of God? The Biblical image of worship? (We are made in His likeness.)
A good litmus test for the presence of the saving grace of God in our hearts is whether there is an overflow of JOY at the news that another has found the Savior. Not, “oh, you need to get cut.” That is the appropriate response to people of any cultural group that come into Salvation. JOY!
These, so-called spokespersons for the main church, were insisting on circumcision and living under the Jewish law that was so very hard even for them. Misery loves company, I guess. That was putting God to the test. Their views were that the true test of spirituality was external. Paul sure understood that as he was one of their more verbal supporters until God showed him the better way. By using the experiences and the realities of what happened to the Gentiles, the early church better understood that it is through the Grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they were. Salvation is a Gift. Pure and simple.
The 61st chaplain of the US Senate, and the one time Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, California, Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie once said:
“The struggle for faith alone never ends. It's a part of our own inability to accept a gift. And deeper than that: we want to be loved because of what we do for God.”
So we live with guilt that we aren't good enough/do enough/or feel accepted by His Perfect standard. But the Truth be known, we are loved! We have become good enough IN JESUS. He has done all that was necessary for us to be called Children of God-under His Grace. And indeed, His Love accepts us. We are prized and highly esteemed in His sight.
Colossians 1:21-23 says:
“21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now He has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation- 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the Gospel. This is the Gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant."
Like the hearers of this letter, we need to be glad with the Good News that we do not need to be burdened with anything beyond following His Teaching. How we live our life comes down to this! What we do as we walk around in this world-or attitudes-our talk-our practices-all are connected to the Gift our Lord gave to us when He went to the Cross on our behalf.
He died for us. Took our punishment. We were the ones who were guilt of sin and filled with corruption. We deserved death but He, in His Splendid Mercy gave us Grace.
The closer we get to Him the more of His Grace we can experience and know. We do not need to be like the ones who spoke out of cultural bondage-nothing can be added to the Gospel. We need only follow the Teachings of our Lord and watch how we walk. Not as the world walks.
1 John 1:5-7 says:
“This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the Light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the Blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all (every) sin.”
The ongoing role of the Church is to do just what Judas and Silas were doing; encouraging and strengthening its members. Let US do that with all of you. Let us pray for you. Talk with you. Listen to you. Teaching and instructing ourselves under the Authority of God's Word. Check out the Bible yourself and see if we are doing the job aright as we teach and preach the Word of God as we look to the next 17 years and beyond.
And may the God of ALL Mercy fill your hearts with His Joy as you seek ways to serve Him without condemnation!