Devotional # 55. 10/7/13. Keeping the Law or Accepting Jesus’ Grace .
This week’s Reading: Acts 15:1-41.
Introduction. Last week Paul and Barnabas’ tribulations got pretty bad. This week we don’t hear a lot about hardships but there are false teachings and how it is handled is very interesting.
vv. 1-2. People travel from Jerusalem and tell Christians that they have to be circumcised in order to be considered a Christian. Paul and Barnabas have an issue with this because it wasn’t true. The problem was that these guys may have had good intentions but they were adding to the gospel. A person who adds to the gospel or twists it to their meanings is cursed (2 Peter 3:16; specifically about the book of Revelation, see Revelation 22:18-19). This may not have been as big of a deal to the Jews who were already circumcised but it definitely was to the Gentiles who were not. So Paul and Barnabas decided to go to Jerusalem and talk to the other Christian leaders (“apostles and elders”). It’s important to see that if God hadn’t directly told Paul and the others how to handle it that they didn’t try and come up with something on their own. Remember much of the New Testament hadn’t been written so the early church was still trying to figure things out. It is always a good idea to meet together and entertain wise counsel (Proverbs 11:14, 12:15).
vv. 3. Now Paul and Barnabas are traveling to Jerusalem and they stop to encourage the Christians on their way. We should handle things in the same way. Maybe there is something really bugging us or we know that something is going to happen and no else knows about it. It is important to encourage others and set the tone for fellowship. It doesn’t say Paul and Barnabas were really bummed out and complained about the circumcision issue. It doesn’t say that they gossiped about which guys were starting the problems. What it says is that they communicated God’s vision of saving the Gentiles. Did they do it begrudgingly or angrily? No, they set the tone and caused the churches “great joy”!! We don’t always have to hide our feelings and put on a poker face but we do need to be thinking about who we’re talking to and how our news may impact them. Should be bring the cheer of the Lord or the sadness of “solemness”?
vv. 4-11. They get to Jerusalem and tell the church what they have been hearing about the need for circumcision. Some of those who had been religious leaders in the Israeli church (“Pharisees”) but had converted and became Christians stood up and acknowledged what they thought. They substantiated that they felt everyone in the Christian church should be circumcised. They may have done this because God had told them to do it centuries before and it seemed like an unmovable tradition. They may have feared losing their culture. They may have wanted to exercise power over others. Either way Peter stands up and explains how God views things.
Peter tells them about his vision from Acts 10:1-48 (Devotional 51) where God said that gentiles were OK just as they were as long as they repented from their sins and accepted Jesus dying for their sins. In fact in Acts 10:45 the Christian Israelis (who were circumcised) were astonished that the Holy Spirit would come on the uncircumcised Gentiles. Nothing has changed since then. This issue was probably a large reason that Paul talks about how Abraham was justified in Romans chapter 4. Peter reminds them that as Israeli’s they couldn’t keep the Law so why would they try and force that on others when Jesus had paid the price? The bigger picture Peter was getting at was that the religious leaders had expanded the Law into 613 laws which further proved God’s point of giving the Law. He never expected anyone to keep the Law, it was a tool to show how perfect someone had to be but point towards only Jesus doing this.
vv. 12-21. No one could protest against what Peter said. Then Paul and Barnabas back up what he said with real testimonies of what God was doing among the uncircumcised. Finally James stands up and explains that the people who God picked to be His chosen people hadn’t done anything on their own. He then quotes from Amos 9:11-12. Amos is the third book in what is referred to as the minor prophets (not because they are less important but because they are shorter than the “major prophets”). Interestingly the historical context for what Amos was facing was Israel keeping religious traditions but the people weren’t obeying God with their heart so there was sin (Source 1). One of James’ points is that keeping religious traditions is trash if a man’s heart is not given to God. But the opposite is true: if people don’t keep religious traditions but seek how God wants them to live and share love and Jesus’ offer of salvation – that is all that matters. Also a major point is that God never changes His mind: accepting the Gentiles wasn’t plan B. God had always had plans for Gentiles.
James concludes that the Gentiles be allowed to live and worship God however they want except when it comes to things that would be unhealthy for them. Teaching them the things that are incorrect for the person who wants to truly worship would be doing them a favor.
vv. 22-30. Everyone agrees with this and they send Barsabas and Silas with Paul and Barnabas. Remember that Barsabas was one of the two elected to take Judas the Betrayer’s spot among the twelve (Acts 1:23, Devotional 43). These men bring the letter (vv. 23-29) stating exactly what we just read about. This was beneficial for four reasons. God had given these men authority so to have a letter differentiating between true and false teaching was good. Second, this was the format for many of the books of the New Testament. Thirdly, sending these respected men to verify the validity of the words of the letter was crucial. Fourth, a letter (and later, creeds) were important documents to show that all present agreed and would uphold what was decided.
vv. 31-36. Obviously the extra weight of keeping traditions had burdened (which interestingly is what the name Amos means!) this Gentile church. Thank God that He freed them from thinking they had to keep a bunch of rules! Sadly, it seems like so much of Christian preaching these days is a long “don’t do these things” list. Jesus taught how to live holy lives rather than spend so much time telling people how bad they were and what not to do. It is the perfect, positive message of the gospel. We see that Silas stays with Paul and Barnabas after others had left. I think this may have been when Silas and Paul got so close.
vv. 37-41. I told you this section was coming in Devotional 53. When Paul and Barnabas were in Pamphylia John Mark had abandoned them. It had left a question in Paul’s mind since they were doing dangerous work and had no room for deserters. But Barnabas was determined to show John Mark grace, patience and a second-chance. So it divides the travel partnership of Paul and Barnabas. It is sad but it’s not like there was a big irreconcilable rift where they never talked again. They head out yet again to share the gospel and continue to disciple believers, just separately.
Conclusion. We got to hear from or about Peter, Paul, Barnabas, James, Barsabas, Silas and John Mark. These are very famous names in the early church and they are all interacting and helping each other in this chapter. But lest we get pulled into paparazzi mode there is One more important than these guys. There is One that all of them point to. It is Jesus Christ. We see His plan woven through this chapter. Isn’t it cool that Paul didn’t freak out when the circumcision issue came up? He’s a pretty hardcore guy, I can see him doing that. What about Peter, standing up for the Gentiles? Or James who is able to quote from the Scriptures showing the unnecessary requirements of the Law once the Messiah had come. And Barnabas standing up for John Mark? Jesus is always working in all of our personal lives. He guides us as we grow in Him. He doesn’t stop at paying the debt for our sins but is invested as a Brother in our welfare, proper understanding of His word and sharing His resurrection with others.
Source 1: John MacArthur, the John MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1275.