Summary: We are called to live in freedom, freedom not to live for ourselves, but freedom to follow Christ.
What comes to your mind when I say the word "freedom?" Freedom from slavery, freedom from hunger, freedom from poverty, or freedom from tyranny? Many of us would say freedom from sin. The Bible is clear when we trust in Jesus, and believe he took our sins upon himself on the cross and died so all of our sins can be forgiven we can be free. One of the verses of the great Charles Wesley hymn "And Can it Be" says it this way, "long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night; thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed thee."
If our daughter Elizabeth could talk she would probably say, freedom is getting out of her car seat. She’s not a big fan of being in her car seat because she has to wear this 5 point safety harnesses thing which latches her down like an astronaut getting ready to fly into space. She loves to move and squirm and have her freedom.
The early church dealt with another kind of freedom which Christ gave us which continues to occasionally creep into the church. That is freedom from the Law. Freedom from legalism. Freedom from traditionalism. When I say freedom from traditionalism I don’t mean freedom from tradition, tradition is can be good. We have a tradition of going camping with my family for a week every other year. Traditionalism on the other hand is when the form of our religious traditions becomes holy in and of itself and we forget the purpose behind it, and it takes a form all its own. At the conference I was just at, one of the speakers said, if you want to see if your church has a tradition do this [move the altar table or pulpit 6 inches and see what happens]. Our traditions could be the order of worship, how the church is decorated in a particular season, how many songs or the type of songs we sing, do we sit on chairs or pews.
The early church had allowed traditionalism and pride creep into their . In our passage two weeks ago Barnabas and Saul, had just been called by the Holy Spirit to be missionaries. They immediately headed into the Eastern Mediterranean world, first going to the island of Cyprus and then on to the region called Pisidia, which is modern day Turkey (map). In their missionary work they began doing something which had only been done a couple of times before, they began telling non-Jewish people (Gentiles) about Jesus. Up until that moment it was pretty much a Jewish movement.
Everything was going well for the Christian faith, Jews and Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit. It was difficult but fruitful work for Paul and Barnabas (they were rejected, beaten, once so badly Paul was left for dead), however when they returned home they discovered not everyone was happy the Gentiles coming into the church. Why? Some of the Jewish Christians were getting upset because these new Gentile Christians weren’t following God’s Law (apparently they didn’t get the memo that you weren’t supposed to bring BBQ pork and pepperoni pizza to the potluck dinner). They weren’t following the religious traditions the Jews had established over centuries. In other words these new Christians weren’t doing things the way we’ve always done it before, which was God’s way...right?
That never happens in our churches does it? People getting upset because the new people don’t want to follow our traditions, the way we do church (whether it is in the Bible or not), especially the unspoken ones, like how you take communion or which song is supposed to be sung during the offering or at the close of worship. Perhaps they have their own ideas. Obviously, we still run into this problem today and it can become a barrier and a point of contention among people.
This view on following the Law became a barrier between the Jewish and Gentiles Christians. I can’t really blame the Jewish Christians, God gave them the commands, they’re right there in the Bible. They were trying to be obedient to God, and they wanted others to be faithful to God’s Word too. So some self-appointed Christians made it their responsibility to set these new Christians straight and teach them. They went to these new Christians and essentially said, if you don’t follow God’s Law, if you aren’t circumcised, if you don’t follow our traditions, you aren’t really saved (15:1). At the heart of the matter here was, what does it mean to be a Christian? Do we need to follow the food laws, to eat kosher meals, avoid certain combinations of fabrics, worship at the Temple, celebrate the feast and festivals of the Jewish calendar to be saved, to be Christian? It is clear Paul and Barnabas didn’t think so because when they returned they got into a heated argument with these Christians, in fact it became such a huge issue that they had to convene the church council in Jerusalem to settle the matter. It almost looked like this was heading for the first church split.