One election time, the MP for my area knocked on my door and asked me if there were any particular issues that concerned me. And one such issue was whether the Government would promote marriage or sexual immorality. So, tactically, I simply said, ‘Yes. Sexuality.’ And from the fevered look on his face I could tell he was trying to guess what I wanted to hear, and longing for more clues. But I didn’t give him any. And he guessed wrong: he spent the next few minutes assuring me that he supported all lifestyles and didn’t think marriage should be privileged. Whereas another friend whom he visited received exactly the opposite assurance in favour of marriage. As someone said, ‘Integrity in politics is like oxygen. The higher you go, the scarcer it becomes.’ And that’s often called ‘being all things to all people’ – by which we tend to mean taking one position with one person and then the opposite position with another – ie, having no real principles at all.
But that phrase ‘being all things to all people’ actually comes from the Bible – from the apostle Paul. And it means the exact opposite of having no real principles at all. It means being so clear on your principles that you can be flexible when you know that no principle is at stake. And that’s the main thing our Bible passage tonight is saying, as we continue our series in Acts. It’s saying that: to share the gospel with our contemporaries, and to make church accessible to new Christians, we should be flexible on everything where the gospel is not at stake.
So would you turn in the Bible to Acts 16. And to remind you of the background to tonight’s passage, my first heading is this:
Firstly, WE MUST BE INFLEXIBLE ON THE GOSPEL (15.1-2)
Ie, we must be inflexible when the gospel is at stake. Just look back to chapter 15 and v1:
1Some men [that is, some Jewish Christians] came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers [that is, the Gentile – ie, non-Jewish – Christians]: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (15.1)
Now the gospel says that we’re saved – ie, accepted by God when we deserve to be judged – through Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s like if we go to the cinema together and I step up to the desk and pay for your ticket, then you’re in – and there’s nothing extra for you to do to get in. Well, likewise, Jesus stepped up to the cross in our place and paid for our sins – and if we accept him, we’re in with God and there’s nothing extra for us to do to get in. And that’s what the apostle Paul had been telling the Gentiles. And large numbers of them had put their faith in Jesus (see Acts 14.26-28). But then these Jewish Christians came along and said, ‘Actually, that’s not enough. You need to do the extra of being circumcised and living under the whole law of Moses.’
Now does Paul think, ‘We must have peace and unity in the church at all costs – so let’s be flexible and circumcise these Gentiles?’ Absolutely not: chapter 15, v2 says:
2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. (15.2)
Paul was absolutely inflexible on the gospel – because the truth is very narrow. Just like 2 + 2 is not 3.9 or 4½, so the gospel is that Jesus’ death alone can put us right with God, and only total reliance on him will put us right with God – nothing more and nothing less. And if people were denying the gospel by adding to it or subtracting from it, Paul was inflexibly opposed to them. So there are some arguments we must have, some fights we must fight – namely, when the gospel is at stake. So that’s the background: we must be inflexible on the gospel. But then:
Second, WE MUST BE FLEXIBLE ON WHAT IS NOT THE GOSPEL (vv1-3, 1 Corinthians 9.19-22)
Ie, we must be flexible when the gospel is not at stake. Look on to Acts chapter 16, v1:
1He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. 2The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (vv1-3)
So Timothy’s mother was a Jew, which means that Jews in the area would have regarded Timothy as a Jew.
But he wasn’t circumcised – which was the Old Testament (OT) sign of being a Jew (see Genesis 17.1-14) – which to the Jews in the area would have caused real offence because to them, for a Jew to be uncircumcised was tantamount to rejecting God. So, v3, Paul had him circumcised.
So in v3, is Paul just being like that MP on my doorstep? Is he being ‘all things to all people’ in the worst possible sense – standing against the Jews in chapter 15 when they try to insist on circumcision, and then doing a U-turn in chapter 16 by circumcising Timothy so as not to upset them? No, he is not – because whereas in chapter 15, he’s being inflexible when the gospel is at stake, in chapter 16, he’s being flexible when it isn’t. Because in chapter 16, Timothy is a Jew, not a Gentile. And no-one’s calling for him to be circumcised on the grounds that it’s necessary for his salvation. Paul does it simply to avoid offending the Jews in the area – and to avoid them thinking that he’s out to turn Jewish Christians against their Jewish heritage, which he wasn’t.
So Paul is flexible when the gospel is not at stake – to avoid causing unnecessary offence, to remove unnecessary barriers to people hearing the gospel, and to make church as accessible as possible to new Christians. And so should we be. And Paul spells out that principled flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9, vv19-22. So let’s look at those verses as a commentary on what’s going on in Acts 16:
19Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. (1 Corinthians 9.19-20)
And then he says the same thing a different way:
To those under the law [ie, living under the whole OT law of Moses] I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. (1 Corinthians 9.20)
So where the gospel wasn’t at stake, Paul would happily flex in the direction of the Jews, being sensitive to their culture and expectations and scruples. And by implication he’s calling us to flex wherever we can towards people with religious backgrounds. So for example, I remember when I was first advised never to put my Bible on the ground – in fact never to use a tatty or written-in copy of the Bible – when talking with Muslims. And that’s because they would never do that with the Qu’ran – and if we do it with the Bible they see it as having a low view of it. And I was initially resentful of that advice – partly because how you treat the Bible physically doesn’t reflect your attitude to God; and partly because I’m free to put my Bible on the ground and scribble in the margin – the Lord doesn’t mind that. But in 1 Corinthians 9, v21, Paul says:
19Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. (1 Corinthians 9.19)
Ie, ‘Ian, flex towards those Muslims. Don’t use your freedom selfishly – just to strut your freedom (in this case, my freedom to put the Bible on the floor, or to write in it). Instead, use your freedom for the sake of others – think what is best for others; try to avoid causing any unnecessary offence.’ So if you’re wanting to share the gospel with someone and you’re aware of religious or cultural sensitivities – like food or dress-code or whatever it is – then flex wherever you can.
But having said that, there’s a limit to how far you can flex – because there comes a point where the gospel is at stake. Eg, those of you from Asian backgrounds can’t flex so far as to join in with your family’s worship of ancestors (if that’s what they do) – because that would be saying that Jesus is not Lord of all – that there are other spirits in control of things besides him. Whereas the gospel says that Jesus is Lord of all.
But then look on in 1 Corinthians 9 to v21:
21To those not having the law [ie, the Gentiles] I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. (1 Corinthians 9.21)
So if Paul had been taking Timothy to an all-Gentile area, he wouldn’t have circumcised him. And when Paul went to Gentile homes he didn’t eat kosher or ask questions about where the meat came from – to those not having the law he became like one not having the law.
Let me give an example of that in our context – alcohol. For most of our contemporaries, having a drink is a normal – even expected – part of social events. And God’s Word tells us that Christians are free to drink alcohol appropriately – ie, in a way that avoids drunkenness or any lack of self-control (see Ephesians 5.18). Now our policy for events here on church premises is that we don’t allow any alcohol – for various reasons, not least out of respect for those among us who have conscientious scruples about drinking any alcohol at all. But then think of some of the events we have for inviting people to find out about our faith – like sports quizzes at St James Park; or dinners with after-dinner talks. We don’t provide alcoholic drinks at those, but people can get one if they want. And if you have events like that, offsite, where there’s no opportunity to get a drink, that can just seem odd to our contemporaries, it can be a bit of a barrier in the atmosphere, which is unnecessary. So we flex.
But look at 1 Corinthians 9, v21 again. As soon as Paul has said:
21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law [he immediately says:] (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law [ie, ‘I am under the Lordship of Christ’], so as to win those not having the law. (1 Corinthians 9.21)
Ie, once again, there’s a limit to how far you can flex – because there comes a point where the gospel is at stake. And the gospel says, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and should therefore be in full control of my life. So if I am to some extent under the control of something else – like alcohol – that’s a contradiction of his Lordship, ie, of the gospel. So, I can’t say, ‘To those getting drunk, I became like one getting drunk in order to win them.’ I can’t say, ‘To those telling smutty jokes, I became like one telling smutty jokes in order to win them.’
Now take a different example. We live in a visual culture; we’re constantly told that people are viewers not listeners or readers, and that when they’re viewing they can only concentrate for 90 seconds at a time (or whatever it is) before needing a new idea thrown at them or a commercial break. So, compared to twenty years ago, TV news is full of graphics, newsreaders have become actors, and the content is not what it used to be. So should we flex in the direction of the culture when it comes to presenting the gospel? Well, 1 Corinthians 9 would say, ‘Yes – but there’s a limit.’ So, eg, we do use power point and pictures alongside the spoken word in ministry here. We use video material like the Christianity Explored course – and we’re producing our own through Clayton TV. But some churches have gone way beyond that and said, ‘We’re going to move away from outdated communication modes like preaching and Bible studies – we’re going to have interviews and music items and video clips and discussion groups which are just a sharing of experiences.’ But the bottom line is that the gospel is a Word to the world from God and it’s found in the Bible, and the Bible has to be unashamedly taught and central to our life as a church.
So, we must be inflexible on the gospel; flexible on what is not the gospel. But then,
Third, WE MUST BE WILLING TO OFFEND WITH THE GOSPEL (v3, 1 Corinthians 9.22, Galatians 5.11)
Look back to Acts 16, v3:
3Paul wanted to take [Timothy] along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek (v3)
Ie, because he wanted to avoid causing unnecessary offence – he wanted to build bridges for the gospel, not put up barriers. But there’s a ‘But’: but: the ultimate aim is not simply that we cause no offence and build bridges and make contacts. Look at the ultimate aim according to 1 Corinthians 9.22:
I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9.22)
So the ultimate aim is to communicate the gospel, so that those whom God is working in right now can put their faith in Jesus and be saved. And some will do that – and will be eternally grateful that you took the risk of sharing the gospel with them. Whereas others will take offence at the gospel – and religious people, especially, will do so – because what the gospel is saying to religious people is: ‘All your religiosity and ritual and rule-keeping can’t save you. It does nothing to make you acceptable to God.’ And that’s offensive. So, for example, I ran a Christianity Explored group which had a very intelligent woman from a very strong church-going background. But she’d clearly never understood the gospel that only Jesus’ death on the cross can put us right with God. And she very quickly twigged what the gospel really was. And I remember her rounding on me in front of the group and saying, ‘So I was baptised as a child, I’ve taken mass regularly, I’ve tried to live by the teaching of the church... and now you’re telling me I’m going to hell. Is that right?’ And everyone was looking at the floor, hoping that the floor would swallow someone up… And that’s what Paul, in Galatians 5.11, calls, ‘the offence of the cross.’
And the only way to avoid the risk of people being offended by the gospel is not to tell them the gospel. And that’s the temptation – to build bridges and never cross them. So, for example, a few years ago I was asked to speak on a conference for people running international ministries – like the Globe Café, here. And I said, ‘I realise you want to gather a crowd and you don’t want to put people off by too much up-front Christian content too soon. But there’s no ultimate value in gathering a crowd if you’ll never risk telling them the gospel.’ And I said, ‘The mark of a genuine gospel ministry is that it’s willing to lose people as well as gain them.’ And someone came up afterwards and said, ‘That’s just what I needed to hear. We’ve been so concerned for the size and reputation of our work that I think we’ve been making an evangelistic opportunity but never taking it.’
And taking it always means risk, doesn’t it? Risk that people won’t like the fact we invited them along to an event; risk that they won’t like the straight answer we gave them to a question; risk that they won’t like the talk they came with us to hear, or the book we leant them to read. But Paul knew all about risk. Just look down to Acts 16, v1 again:
1He came to Derbe and then to Lystra... (v1)
And if you were here for Acts chapter 14 of this series, you’ll remember that Lystra was where a group of Jews stoned Paul and left him for dead (Acts 14.19-20) – because the man who was prepared to circumcise Timothy so as to avoid offending them was also prepared to tell them the gospel, knowing full well that it would offend them. And we, too, must be willing to offend with the gospel. How many bridges have we built and never crossed?
So, we must be inflexible on the gospel; flexible on what is not the gospel; willing to offend with the gospel. Then,
Fourth, WE MUST UNITE AROUND THE GOSPEL AND PLAN FOR GOSPEL GROWTH (vv4-5)
Look on to Acts chapter 16, v4:
4As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. (v4)
Now that’s talking about the letter sent out from the Jerusalem church conference in chapter 15 (and if you weren’t here for that sermon you can get it on our website). The aim of that conference was to get Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to unite around the gospel, rather than fall out with one another over secondary things. So Jewish Christians were told, ‘Don’t try to insist that your Gentile brothers should keep the whole law of Moses – they don’t have to: God accepts them just as they are, through faith in Jesus and therefore so should you.’ And Gentile Christians were told, ‘Avoid doing anything that will offend the conscientious scruples of your Jewish brothers.’ Read on, v5:
5So [ie, therefore, as a result] the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers. (v5)
Now ‘the faith’ is just a way of saying ‘the gospel.’ So v5 is saying the gospel is what strengthens churches – as in unites them and keeps them together. Because there are many differences among us that could divide us if we let them – differences in personality, preference, style, background, nationality; and differences on a host of secondary things like who you baptise and when; the timescale of creation; whether Sunday is a Sabbath; what place certain spiritual gifts should have in the Christian life and so on. But we must unite around the gospel, because where there’s unity – where energy isn’t going on internal disagreements – there’s energy for getting the gospel out as we should – as in v5:
5So the churches were strengthened in the faith [unity inside the church] and grew daily in numbers [energy for outreach].
And we should thank God for the degree of unity this church has enjoyed under David, and we must make every effort to keep it.
One last thought. You sometimes hear it said, ‘We’re just called to be faithful to the gospel. We can’t make results happen – whether or not people respond is in the Lord’s hands – we’re just called to be faithful.’ To which I think Luke would say, ‘Yes, but...’ Yes, results are in the Lord’s hands. Only if he works in people as we share the gospel will they turn to Jesus. But we should expect that he will do that for some – we should expect gospel-growth (even if we just ‘sow’ the seed but don’t actually see the ‘fruit’ of it ourselves). And in fact v5 is one of five verses in Acts where Luke sums up the story so far (Acts 6.7, 9.31, 12.24, 16.5, 19.20), and significantly, every one of them mentions or implies growth in numbers. And as a church, we take it from that and the rest of the NT, that we’re to expect and pray for and plan for growth. That’s why we have a numerical vision for this next generation – that, under God, JPC might grow to be a church of 5,000 with another 5,000 in church plants here and around the world. Now that’s not a prediction – only God knows the future. Nor is it trying to force God’s hand in any way. It’s just saying, what does our faith tell us is possible as we work and God works through us? And then we can start planning what part we need to play if God does indeed want to make that vision – or anything like it – happen.
So, we must be inflexible on the gospel; flexible on what is not the gospel; willing to offend with the gospel; united around the gospel; and planning for gospel growth. And if, as he was convalescing from the operation, Timothy could have known just how much future generations of believers would learn from his circumcision, I guess he would have said to himself, ‘Well, it wasn’t the nicest experience of my life… but it was worth it.’