Summary: This message continues in my expository series through the book of Acts.
We have now reached the very center of the book of Acts, not only in the obvious sense that with 28 chapters, we are halfway through, but also in the sense that this is the turning-point chapter of the book. The Jerusalem council, which we read about today, took place in approximately 49 AD, and was a critical turning point experience in the life of the early church. A little background:
• There is a recurring theme in the OT that Gentiles will share in the promises of God to Israel (much as Jews sometimes didn’t want to acknowledge it).
• Peter announced this in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2).
• But the conviction that went along with this, on the part of the Jewish people, was that the Jews would remain God’s appointed agent for administering God’s blessings. In other words, Gentiles who came to God would have to come through Judaism first, was the belief.
• Jewish Christians at Jerusalem saw Christ as being the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises of God, but didn’t see any need to alter their understanding of themselves as being the “gateway to God”.
• Then, Paul and Barnabas come on the scene, and during their first missionary journey, which we’ve just finished studying, they take the gospel message directly to Gentiles, people who’ve had no prior connection to Judaism—and these people respond in faith!
Ernst Haenchen writes, this “episode…rounds off and justifies the past developments, and makes those to come intrinsically possible.” Before we get there, let’s take time to pray.
Saw it on a church sign this week: you’ve got to be baptized in water to be right with God. Now, I believe in baptism! I think it’s important, quite important. But do I have to get wet to get right? Got my dander up enough to title my sermon as I did: “The Salvation Equation”, or “Grace Plus Faith Plus Nothing!”
Grace is a difficult concept to really wrap our minds around, in part because so much of our society does not, indeed cannot, operate by grace. When I go to Kroger or Publix, I get what I pay for. When I work a job, I receive a wage for the work I do. These things aren’t “grace”; their rewards given in exchange for something that I do, or pay. Sometimes our lives are invaded by grace: we receive something which we did not in any way earn; sometimes we give things to others that they’ve not earned. But for the most part, we live in a world of “law”. God, however, doesn’t work that way, and He so doesn’t work that way that we are startled by it if we take the time to really consider grace.
The question being addressed in today’s text is, how did God intend for Gentiles to be incorporated into the body of Christ? Was “grace by faith alone” enough, or did some elements of Jewish law-keeping have to be added to the equation?
I. Two Incompatible Paths to Salvation:
:1-5 - Law or Grace
Verse 1 speaks of “some men”. “Judaizers” is the name that these folks came to be known by, for obvious reasons: their desire was to make people Jews first, prior to salvation. We said a couple of chapters back that John Mark had gone with Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey, but turned back partway through to head back to Jerusalem. Had his reasons for leaving been, in part, because he disagreed with Paul’s direct approach to Gentiles? It’s If that’s the case, we can imagine him reporting his deep reservations to the Jerusalem church. Perhaps this was what incited these Judaizers to begin their legalistic work. In I Thessalonians 2, though, Paul demonstrates his understanding that behind the work of these Judaizers were unbelieving Jews. These Judaizers were professing Christians who wanted to be able to say to their unbelieving Jewish friends that Gentiles who came to Christ were being transferred over to the cause of Jews, because there was a widening cultural rift between the two. “Hey, these Gentiles who’ve become Christians are on our side now as Jews”, was the basic idea. In Galatians 6, Paul says that these Judaizers were trying to make a good show in the flesh, in order to avoid being persecuted by their non-believing Jewish friends.
Some in the Jerusalem church were certain that the need for the ritual of circumcision applied not only to Jews, but to Gentile converts to Christian faith, and if Paul and Barnabas weren’t going to insist upon this, some men from the Jerusalem church saw it as their duty to do so, and took it upon themselves, without the sanction of the church, to go to Antioch to set the situation right.
We read in Galatians that Peter was in residence at Antioch when these men came, and he made the terrible error of withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentile brothers, in an attempt to appease these Judaizers. Pious Jews understood the act of eating together with other people as signifying far more than just chowing down and satisfying physical appetites; when a Jew shared a meal with another person, it meant a close, unbroken fellowship with that person. The Gentile believers would eat together—soup and salad was the menu, I’m pretty sure—but when these Jews came, they not only taught that the Gentiles weren’t in the Kingdom, because they hadn’t been circumcised, but they also refused to eat with them as brothers in Christ. What devastating effects it would have on the fledgling church if there were to exist a massive cleavage between Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile ones! This is why Paul says, in Galatians 2:11, that he got right in Peter’s face about his sin (and Peter, acknowledging his sin, backed down).