May 11, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, May 14, 2017. From our ongoing series: “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”
Text is Acts 15.1-18.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
Just as they are
The old hymn goes: Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bids’t me come to thee.
I often wonder if we really believe what we sing. That we are saved only because God loves us, calls out to us, welcomes and embraces us, through the open arms of his crucified and resurrected Son. And we didn’t and don’t earn any of that. We are saved by God’s grace.
Our lesson from Acts today began with some folks who obviously didn’t understand that. The church at Antioch had led the way in integrating Gentiles into the church. But then, some folks came from Judea to Antioch and caused a ruckus in the church, preaching: Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.
Basically, they were telling the Gentile believers they had to be something they weren’t—circumcised, Torah-observant Jews with kosher kitchens—in order to be right with God.
Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas—leaders in the church at Antioch—weren’t amused by this. In fact, they took sides against these Judeans and argued strongly against their position.
In short, Paul and Barnabas taught that Gentiles could be accepted by God just as they were, by being baptized in faith. But the group from Judea did not believe Gentiles were acceptable just as they were. After all, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.
You know what? There’s nothing wrong and everything right with conflict like this in the church. I know it’s uncomfortable. But we don’t stretch and grow without it. As we’ll see, the church was better off for having had this dustup. Furthermore, when people are pushing an idea of God; an agenda; a hobby; or an interpretation of scripture that hurts people, minimizes them, makes them feel small, and pushes them away from God—somebody ought to push back. Just like Paul and Barnabas did. Leading people in the church need to line up to oppose harmful theology and interpretation; stand up for those who have been hurt; and tell the ones pushing a hurtful, exclusive agenda: Not here, you don’t!
Our story today not only gives us permission to take such a stand; it shows us how to do it.
Those who preached that Gentile believers had to become circumcised, Torah-observing Jews to get right with God were totally convinced of their position. After all, they would have reasoned that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. That he said salvation is from the Jews (John 4.22). And Jesus had expressly said: Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5.17). And the Torah clearly taught that God’s people had to do certain things—like circumcision—to be right with God. In fact, a few generations before, Gentile invaders had attacked the Jews; they killed women who had circumcised their sons. They hanged the infant boys from their mothers’ necks; and they also killed the families of the women as well as those who had performed the circumcisions (1 Macc. 1.60-61). So these Judeans all had near ancestors who had literally died for circumcision. Not to be too punny, but they had skin in the game.
They would have said they had Jesus, the scriptures, and their experience on their side. They were in the right—they had book, chapter, and verse.
But Paul and Barnabas and those who thought like them would have argued just as strongly: We also have Jesus, the scriptures, and experience on our side! They would have probably argued along the same lines Paul did in Rom. 3.21-22:
But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law, which is confirmed by the Law and the Prophets. God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction between Jew and Gentile.
They would have pointed out that imposing circumcision and strict Torah-observance on the Gentile believers was a burden that could drive them away. It was telling them they had to be something they are not to be accepted by God. And they could have also quoted Jesus’ complaints against the religious leaders of his day for doing just that.
For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them … You shut people out of the kingdom of heaven. You don’t enter yourselves, and you won’t allow those who want to enter to do so (Matt. 23.4, 13).
Paul, Barnabas, and those who took their side would have accused the advocates of Gentile circumcision of placing a heavy burden on the Gentiles and trying to shut them out of the kingdom.
Luke also says Paul and Barnabas appealed to their experience with Gentile converts. They were telling stories about the conversion of the Gentiles to everyone (v3). They described all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity (v12). I’m sure they would have told how these uncircumcised Gentile believers displayed what Paul would later call the fruit of the Spirit in their lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5.22-23). The fruit of the Spirit showed these Gentiles were already saved—they didn’t need to be circumcised to be right with God.
It was a theological traffic jam, and the church couldn’t move forward until something happened to break the gridlock. So all the churches decided to send representatives to Jerusalem, the birthplace of the church, to set this question before the apostles and the elders. Luke also says that much debate took place at this meeting, meaning both sides went back and forth for a long time, neither getting much of anywhere.
Salvation by grace through faith
At least since the time of the Protestant Reformation, Christians have seen the events that took place in Acts 15, at the Jerusalem Council, as the early church formally embracing the idea of salvation by grace through faith. For instance, according to Martin Luther, the outcome was that the leaders of the church recognized: “The conscience must depend only on faith, on the Word and on the grace of God.” 
I don’t deny that salvation by grace through faith was at the heart of the decision the leaders of the church made. During his time at the microphone, Peter said God had purified [the Gentile believers’] deepest thoughts and desires through faith; and that, we believe we [circumcised Jews] and they [uncircumcised Gentiles] are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus (vv9, 11). That’s interesting, because it shows the church actually already believed, taught, and practiced salvation by grace through faith. Peter, who’d been around from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and helped midwife the church as it was born on Pentecost, said all this. It wasn’t something Paul came up with, or something the church only recognized because of this council meeting. The argument wasn’t whether people are saved by grace through faith; or through works of the Law. The argument was about what salvation by grace through faith looks like.
Here’s what I mean. When the believers from among the Pharisees stood up and claimed, “The Gentiles must be circumcised. They must be required to keep the Law from Moses” (v5), I think the force of their argument would have been something like this: The Gentiles ought to show their faithfulness by being circumcised and keeping the Torah. Because a saving faith obeys God.
And that probably wouldn’t have sounded like an unreasonable argument to a lot of the Jewish Christians in the room.
But Paul, Barnabas, and those with them stood their ground. They refused to back down from from their argument that the uncircumcised Gentiles were right with God just as they were; and it was wrong for the Judeans to tell them they had to be something they weren’t to be acceptable to God.
And Luke is not bashful about telling us who won that argument.
Who won the argument, and why
So I don’t read Acts 15 as the story of the church finally being drug along, with some of them kicking and screaming, into believing the concept of salvation by grace through faith. Anyone who ever read the Old Testament will know it is taught there, too. God saved Israel by rescuing them from Egypt before he gave them the Torah. In other words, as far back as the Exodus, God’s people recognized that salvation by grace comes before Law. And that all salvation is an act of God’s grace, to be received in faith. The Jewish Christians in the early church would have understood this.
The true importance of this story is that it shows us how the early church engaged in practices of discernment when they encountered something new. We see how they adapted when things changed “on the ground.” We see how they read and applied the scriptures in light of Jesus, and their new experiences.
And we have so much to learn from them.
It’s so important that we see how the leaders of the church allowed their new experiences among the Gentiles to change their perspective. I think that’s especially true for those of us in Churches of Christ, because we have typically been mistrustful of allowing our experiences to change how we read, interpret, and apply the scriptures. We will often cling tenaciously to how we’ve been taught to understand the Bible, even if it means we’re hurting people and slamming doors in their faces. Sometimes we are more like the ones at this council who kept insisting: The Gentiles must be circumcised. They must be required to keep the Law from Moses.
But that’s not who won the argument in the early church. Luke wasn’t shy about telling us who did win, and why. It was Peter’s testimony that God doesn’t discriminate, and neither should we. He said: God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them (vv8-9).
The argument was won as the assembly listened to Barnabas and Paul describe all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity (v 12). How they displayed the fruit of the Spirit. How God had acted powerfully among them. Like Peter, they could testify that the same Holy Spirit that fell on Jewish believers at Pentecost was also active among the uncircumcised Gentile believers.
The argument was won when Peter asked the assembly: Why … are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? (v10) You have to remember that Peter was speaking as a working-class Galilean Jew. Someone the Judean Pharisees would have looked down on as second-class and not very holy. I’m sure the Torah—especially as the Pharisees interpreted it—probably sometimes had felt like a heavy burden to him. This gave him a certain degree of empathy for the Gentiles, who were also being looked down on by Judean Pharisees in the church.
The argument was won when James, who was apparently the moderator of the council, agreed with Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, and concluded that in his kindness, God came to the Gentiles in the first place, to raise up from them a people of God (v14). In other words, God accepted the Gentiles just as they are; who are we to argue? And to top it all off, James could back up his conclusion from scripture.
How James read the scriptures
I imagine James listening to the testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, and being persuaded they were right. God had accepted the Gentiles just as they were. But I also imagine him having a few reservations—Jesus had, after all, said he didn’t come to do away with the scriptures, but to fulfill them. They couldn’t just ignore the Bible. They needed scripture to back this up. So James turned through the pages of the scriptures written on his heart, and came up with Amos 9.11-12. And he quoted the Greek version from memory.
Before we get to the passage itself, it’s important to hear it in context. A few verses earlier, in Amos 9.7, God had asked through the prophet:
Aren’t you like the Cushites to me,
people of Israel?
says the Lord.
Haven’t I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?
In other words, God was saying that Israel isn’t the only people in the world he’s saved by grace. He also rescued Ethiopians, and even Israel’s enemies, the Philistines. That’s in the Old Testament. God saved uncircumcised Gentiles in the past apart from the Law.
And then James quotes Amos 9.11-12:
After this I will return,
and I will rebuild David’s fallen tent;
I will rebuild what has been torn down.
I will restore it
so that the rest of humanity will seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who belong to me.
The Lord says this, the one who does these things
known from earliest times.
James interpreted God rebuilding David’s fallen tent as the resurrection and glorification of David’s descendant, Jesus. And because of what God has done through Jesus, people from other nations will turn to the God of Israel. Even all the Gentiles who belong to me, says God. So according to Amos 9, the uncircumcised Gentiles already belong to God. They don’t have to become something they’re not—circumcised, Torah-observing Jews with kosher kitchens—to be acceptable to God. God has already accepted them as his people. 
That’s how James interpreted the scriptures. And that teaches us, the church now, something about how to read the Bible. I’m going to put something out here. The way we interpret the Bible says more about us than it does the Bible.
Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James were all following the lead of Jesus in Acts 15. Jesus had reamed out the Pharisees because the way they interpreted the Bible hurt others, demeaned them, put them down, and shut them out. Yes, Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. But he did show us how to read the scriptures. In Matt. 9.13, when the Pharisees asked why he hung out with tax collectors and sinners—people they looked down on, and quoted scripture to do so—he quoted Hosea 6.6 to them: I want mercy and not sacrifice. Jesus teaches his followers to look beyond the regulations of the purity codes, to see the grace and mercy and steadfast love Father God has for all people. That’s all over every page of the Bible—even the Old Testament. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear will find it.
Like I said, the way we interpret the Bible says more about us than it does about the Bible. If we are mean, prejudiced, neurotic, fearful of outsiders, or easily angered—we will find plenty in the Bible to justify all that. But if we follow Jesus, and we read like him we will be merciful, open, flexible, welcoming, and forgiving. We will be more like him, and we will learn that this is how Father God really is.
Acts 15 is a story of the leaders of the early church reading the Bible like Jesus. It’s a good example to follow. That’s why it’s there.
 Martin Luther, “Sermon on Acts 15,” in Acts: Reformation Commentary on Scripture: New Testament IV, ed. Esther Chung-Kim and Todd R. Hains (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 204.
 For more on how James used Amos 9, see Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Vol. 2: Acts 15:1 – 23:35 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 2248-58; Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 458-60.