Summary: Discover it, define it and defend it according to the scriptures! The gospel of Jesus Christ, the power of God for salvation, does not change.
How do you handle a clash between the truth of the gospel and the unity of Christian fellowship?
What we saw last week in Acts 15 seems to contrast what we see in the first verses of chapter 16. Did you notice? Paul and Barnabus argue very hard against the need for circumcision in Acts 15, but then when Paul picks up Timothy as a mission team member in chapter 16, what’s the first thing he does? He has Timothy circumcised! What’s going on?
About circumcision, listen to what Paul wrote in Galatians 5:2-6. By these verses, would you say that he is for it or against it? I’d say he’s pretty clearly against it. Why then, after all that work in the counsel to clarify that salvation has nothing to do with circumcision, does he have Timothy circumcised?
Well, there’s a couple of reasons: First is about Flexibility and Firmness. Paul is not actually against circumcision and keeping the law of Moses AS A JEWISH TRADITION. But Paul is completely adamant against keeping the law of Moses and circumcision AS A WAY TO BE SAVED. He makes a sharp distinction between doing these as a Jew to be Jewish, and doing them to be a Christian, to be saved. Think of the flexibility on the one hand, and the firmness on the other that this implies. As for flexibility, Paul said to the Corinthians, “To the Jews I became as a Jew to win the Jews…” Look at 1 Cor. 9:19-23 with me. His words which reveal his principles are these: “I have become all things to all men that by all means I might save some.” Saving people is paramount in Paul’s mind. And whether you practice Judaism or Gentileism, neither of these will set you free and save you. On the other hand, there is the firmness of the truth of the gospel. Only faith in Jesus Christ and following Him will save anyone, Jew or Gentile.
Second is about what and why. Once that distinction is established, then Paul sees nothing wrong with practicing the Jewish traditions (or fitting into other cultural expressions) in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts. But those can be affected by your intent. This means that you can do some things for the right reasons and they are ok, or you can do the same things for the wrong reasons and they are wrong. So the question has to be asked, “What was the intent and purpose of doing them?” That can make all the difference. The truth of the gospel was not violated when Paul circumcised Timothy as a Jewish custom, but to do it so that Timothy could be saved would be anathema to Paul. It would be tantamount to obeying a false gospel.
Listen to Paul’s words about this in Galatians 1:6-9. That’s pretty strong language, wouldn’t you agree? There may be many variations among the Lord’s people in different cultures, times and places, but there is only one gospel, only one way to be saved, as Ephesians says, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism. So what do we learn?
It is the unity of the one gospel of Jesus Christ that ultimately determines the unity of his church. While God’s word allows a rich diversity in some expressions among the saved, God does not allow a multiplicity of ways to be saved, just as there is only one Lord by which we are saved.
In the Jerusalem counsel of Acts 15 some of the Christians who were Jewish were saying that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in order to be saved. That’s not what Paul was teaching. There were even some of these Jews in Jerusalem who had heard about Paul’s mission work and went to the Gentiles in those churches to straighten things out and bring those Gentiles in line with the laws of Moses. They were telling these Gentile Christians that they had to be circumcised and obey the law to be saved. And they were having significant success! Paul was mortified! He wrote the letter of Galatians to defend the truth of the gospel to them. It is this truth that must not be changed. The truth of the gospel is this, it is the truth of how to be saved.
So… What is the truth of the gospel? How indeed are we saved? In fact, if you were to ask Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” How would he answer that question? Well, Acts 16 actually gives us the answer. We have a record of Paul’s own answer so you can know what he would say: look at chapter 16:30-34.
What Paul and Silas said here reflects obedience to what Jesus had commissioned the apostles to do. Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16 are Jesus’ own words of gospel truth. Adding to them or taking away from them violates the truth of the gospel and divides the church. Coming together to Jesus Christ in faith and being baptized into Christ… this is where God unites us into one body, one family, one holy nation, one chosen race, one royal priesthood, and yes… one church.