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Acts 15:1-35: What Must They Do to Be Saved? Print E-mail

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There have been many Church Councils in the long history of the Body of Christ.  Some of the more important ones include: The Council of Nicaea (325), The Council of Constantinople (381), The Council of Ephesus (431), and the Council of Chalcedon (451).  Each of these Councils dealt with a particular heresy that was threatening the Church.  Thus, the leaders at the time came together to decide what to do about these particular false teachings.  Normally, the Church could better understand and better articulate the faith as a result of the Council.  They wrestled with issues like the character of Christ and the nature of the Trinity and sought biblical solutions for the questions that were being raised.

The history of calling a Council to wrestle with theological issues began in Acts 15.  Granted, there are some important differences between the Jerusalem Council and the other Church Councils (like the fact that the canon was complete at the other Councils), but the general idea was similar: a theological question/debate had arisen and the leaders came together to search for and provide a biblical answer.  There is much we can learn from this first Council.  After we have looked at what happened together, we will come back at the end and identify some of those lessons.  Letís begin by considering the Council itself.

The Issue (v. 1-5)

What was the issue that made this Council necessary?  What questions were being raised?  Luke tells us in verse 1.  Look at that with me.  Paul and Barnabas are still in Antioch after finishing their first missionary journey, where God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles (14:27).  But the Jewish Christians struggled in knowing how to deal with this influx of Gentiles.  As we read this morning, Paul relates the problem that happened in Antioch between him and Peter and Barnabas.  Now, Luke tells us that men have come down from Judea causing more problems and saying that these Gentiles needed to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses if they were going to be saved. 

At first glance, we might think that this is a small issue, but we need to realize that it strikes at the heart of the gospel, just as Paul wrote in Galatians.  These men were basically saying that faith in Christ was not enough for salvation.  For Gentiles to truly become a part of the people of God, they had to be circumcised and follow the Law.  For the Jews this was important because how could they share a meal with Gentiles if they were not following the food laws?  If they did that, then they would be ceremonially unclean.  So then, the basic question being asked was this: ĎWhat must the Gentiles do to be saved?í

Just like Paul opposed Peter in Antioch, we see that he opposed these men from Judea as well.  Look at verse 2.  The Church at Antioch realizes that these questions need to be answered, so they send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem.  Along the way, they visit some other Churches.  Look at verses 3-4.  Everything seems good, right?  Look at verse 5.  Notice that Luke describes these folks as believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.  These people were believers, but as Pharisees they were struggling with letting go of certain aspects of keeping the Law.

The Arguments (v. 6-17)

In order to deal with this divisive issue, the Council was called.  Look at verse 6.  The apostles gathered along with the elders of the Church in Jerusalem to discuss this issue.  Although Luke does not tell us everything that was said, he does record three main arguments against requiring the Gentiles to be circumcised in order to be saved.  What are these?

The first argument is Godís ministry through Peter.  After much debate, Peter stands and addresses the gathering.  He first reminds them of Godís calling for him to take the gospel to the Gentiles.  Look at verse 7.  God had miraculously brought Peter and Cornelius together.  They knew that story and agreed with Peter on what happened.  Not only that, but God poured out the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles in the same way that He poured Him out on the Jews.  Look at verse 8.  When Peter preached the gospel in the home of Cornelius, God poured out the Spirit on theses Gentiles.  Notice that Peter keeps emphasizing the fact that God did the same thing with the Gentiles that He did with the Jews.  Thus, to try and make a distinction between them would put God to the test, which is what Peter says next.  Look at verse 9.  If the Jews could not keep the Law, then why put that burden on the Gentiles? 

Finally, Peter gets to the heart of the matter: God does not save by works of the law, but by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  Look at verse 10.  This is Peterís last statement in the book of Acts and it is a good one.  Peter knows that to require circumcision from the Gentiles would be to add works to salvation.  But that is not in line with the gospel of grace.  Peter believes that God sent Jesus to save us.  He lived a perfect life, died on the cross for our sins, and was raised from the dead so that we could repent and believe and be saved.  We are not saved by doing works of the Law, but by believing in Jesusí work for us at the cross.  We are saved by His grace and not by our works.

The second argument is Godís miracles through Paul and Barnabas.  Look at verse 12.  God uses miracles to confirm and authenticate the gospel.  We see this again and again in the book of Acts.  As Paul and Barnabas went on their first missionary journey and shared the gospel with Gentiles, God confirmed that work through the giving of miracles.  When the man in Lystra who had never walked began jumping around, God was authenticating the work of Paul and Barnabas.  Luke says it this way in Acts 14: So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands (v. 4).  How did the Lord bear witness to the word of His grace?  He granted signs and wonders.  He affirmed the work among the Gentiles through these miracles done by Paul and Barnabas.

The third argument against having the Gentiles circumcised for salvation is Godís message through Amos.  After Peter and Paul have spoken, Luke tells us that James spoke.  This James would later write one of our New Testament books.  So, what does he have to say about this issue?  He begins by agreeing with Peter.  Look at verses 13-14.  We must be careful and not skip over too fast what James is saying here.  No longer is it only Jews who will be a people for Godís name, now that people will include the Gentiles.  To affirm this conclusion, James points to the words of Amos.  Look at verses 15-17.  Amos spoke of a day when God would restore the fortunes of Israel.  Part of that restoration would be the inclusion of the nations.  Godís people would be from every tongue, tribe, and nation.  In this way, His glory, His redemption of sinners, His glorious plan of salvation, would fill the earth.  He is no territorial god.  He is not the god of only one nation.  His mercy is not limited to one people.  No, He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  And His salvation will cover the earth and include all nations.

The Resolution (v. 19-35)

For James, Godís ministry through Peter, His miracles through Paul, and His message through Amos, was enough to convince him that they should not require the Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved.  So, he offers a resolution in verses 19-21.  Look at those with me.  James concludes that they should not demand circumcision.  Yet, in the spirit of Christian brotherhood, he does suggest that they require the Gentiles to abstain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, from sexual immorality, and from food that contains blood.  These restrictions seem to be following what is written in Leviticus 17-18.  Of course, sexual immorality is never allowable for the Christian, as the rest of the New Testament teaches.  Paul will relax some of these restrictions at a later time, but he too recognizes the wisdom in sacrificing our freedoms for the sake of our brothers (see Romans 14).  Giving up certain freedoms at certain times will not bring into question salvation by grace through faith, so we should be willing to make such sacrifices when necessary. 

The rest of the Council agrees with James.  Luke records what they did in verses 22-29.  They decided to send two leaders, Judas and Silas, back with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch.  They sent with them a letter to be given to the churches.  The letter made it plain that they did not agree with the brothers who had come from Judea who were teaching that the Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved.  Rather, they only required that the Gentiles make some sacrifices for their Jewish brothers so that fellowship could continue without conflict.  Even though there may have been those who struggled with this decision, the letter notes that they had come to one accord, which highlights their commitment to each other and to Christ.  How does the Church at Antioch respond to the decision?  Look at verses 30-35.  These words were joyfully received by the believers in Antioch.  They were glad to follow these requirements and the ministry in that city continued through Paul and Barnabas.

So then, what lessons can we learn from this Council?  Let me close with three. 

Theologically, we learn that salvation is by grace through faith.  Men are not saved by keeping the Law because they are not saved by works.  We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus and what He did for us at the cross.  If you are here this morning and have never turned from your sins and believed in Jesus, then this is good news for you.  You donít have to clean yourself up and start doing good works to come to Christ.  You can come just as you are.  Believe in Him and He will save you and give you a life of good works in obedience to Him through the power of the Spirit. 

Practically, we see again the wisdom of plurality in leadership.  This issue was not to be resolved by one man.  Paul, the man who wrote the majority of our New Testament, recognized the need to meet with others and come to a conclusion.  We may no longer have Church Councils that meet to decide certain issues, but we still have a need for a plurality in resolving Church issues. 

Missionally, we learn the importance of solving problems and getting back to the mission.  In my service here, I have at times allowed us to become too distracted by secondary issues.  I repent for that.  We have had issues and will continue to have issues that we must address as a Church.  This passage teaches us to address them head on, follow the Scriptures, fight for unity, and get back to the mission.  May we be a Church that labors hard to stay focused on our mission of taking the good news of Jesus to everybody that we can.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Friday, 22 August 2014 )

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