A Sharp Dispute

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Some years back I went on a conference about the future of Bible-believing Christians in the Church of England. And afterwards, I asked one senior minister what he thought of it. And he said, ‘My fear is that these discussions are a gigantic distraction from the ministry of the gospel.’ To which some of us will be thinking, ‘Here, here! The church has spent too much time talking to itself and not enough time getting the gospel out.’ But others will be thinking, ‘Hold on! It’s not either/or: if you’re going to get the gospel out, you’ve got to agree on what the gospel is, and on who you can unite with. So you’ve got to have those kinds of discussion.’ And we’ll see tonight that the Bible takes that second point of view, because in our series on the book of Acts, we come to the first church conference in history. So would you turn in the Bible to Acts 14 and v27.

We saw last time how Paul and Barnabas got back to Antioch after their first missionary trip among Gentiles – ie, non-Jews. And, Acts 14, v27:

27On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. 28And they stayed there a long time with the disciples. (14.27-28)

Which is what any healthy Christian or church will want to concentrate on – seeing people come to faith and then grow in faith. So give me leading Christianity Explored or Discipleship Explored any day over going to a church conference. And yet in chapter 15, a church conference is exactly where we find Paul and Barnabas. And it’s not a distraction from the ministry of the gospel. It’s essential to it. Because it deals with three challenges for any church wanting to get the gospel out and grow. And those three challenges are my headings tonight:


Firstly, GETTING THE GOSPEL RIGHT (vv1-5)

Look on to Acts 15, v1:

1Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers [ie, the new Gentile Christians]: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (v1)

So Paul and Barnabas have been telling Gentiles they can be saved – accepted by God – simply by trusting that Jesus’ death paid for all their sins to be forgiven. But now some Jewish Christians are saying, ‘Actually, that’s not enough.’ Read on, v2:

2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question [ie, the leaders of the original, all-Jewish Christian church].
3The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” (vv2-5)

So I take it: the people in v1 and v5 are the same group. They’re Jewish Christians who still feel bound to keep the whole law of Moses – but who are also saying that the new Gentile believers must keep it all, too – especially circumcision and the food laws that marked God’s people out from others. After all, the Old Testament (OT) said that if you weren’t willing to be marked out like that, you were basically saying to God, ‘I don’t want to relate to you.’ Which made you unacceptable.

Now these people in v1 and v5 had failed to understand that the law of Moses was just a temporary structure under which people could relate to God before Jesus. But you can see where they were coming from. And they’re a sobering reminder that people can look apparently Biblical and yet be miles off the gospel – which is true of many a church today.

But stepping back from the detail, this group was basically preaching ‘Jesus plus’. They were saying, ‘Jesus isn’t enough to make you acceptable to God. You need Jesus plus...’ – in this case, Jesus plus circumcision and living under the whole law of Moses. And ‘Jesus plus’ is still being preached all around us in the church today. Eg, official Roman Catholic teaching is ‘Jesus plus’. To be acceptable to God it says you need Jesus plus the sacraments (eg, the ‘sacrifice of the mass’), Jesus plus the intercession of the saints or Mary – and so on. Which is why the doctrinal basis of the Church of England says, ‘The Church of Rome has erred.’ That isn’t to say no Romans Catholics are saved; it is to say that official Roman Catholic teaching doesn’t get the gospel right. A different example is the International Church of Christ – a cult which says, among other things, that you can’t be saved unless you’ve been baptised by them. So, they’re saying you need Jesus plus their particular baptism. I could give more examples. But the bottom line is: don’t be taken in by any form of ‘Jesus plus’ teaching. The gospel is that Jesus’ death on the cross did everything necessary to put you right with God forever, so that all you need is Jesus, full stop.

So there’s the first challenge: getting the gospel right. Because there will always be wrong gospels. And we can’t let wrong gospels go unchallenged. And we can’t unite with wrong gospel people. But the next challenge is:


Second, WELCOMING NEW CHRISTIANS INTO THE CHURCH (vv6-19)

Churches can be amazingly unwelcoming, and Christians can be amazingly unaccepting of fellow-Christians – which is why one cynic recently wrote, ‘Every day, people are leaving the church and going back to Jesus.’ (And maybe that describes some of the people whose doors we’ll be knocking on during Parish Visiting over the next couple of weeks.) And what this Jerusalem conference discusses next is how Jewish Christians should welcome the new Gentile Christians.

Now we can’t get our heads fully around what a huge issue this was. But just imagine you were one of those first Jewish Christians. So as a Jew, you’ve come to see Gentiles as sunk in idolatry and all the immorality (especially sexual) that goes with it. And you’ve done your best to avoid them and mark yourself out from them by eating only kosher food and so on. And now you’ve come to faith in Jesus. And so have some of them. And you’re being asked to accept them as they are, without them becoming Jewish – without them being circumcised and living under the whole law of Moses. And you’re finding that very hard indeed. And what you need is to be persuaded that God has accepted them just as they are – and that therefore you must, too. So look on to v6:

6The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. (vv6-7)

So he’s talking there about the conversion of Cornelius and his household in Acts 10. Read on:

8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. (vv8-9)

So by his Spirit, God had worked in these Gentiles to bring them to faith in Jesus and to profess their faith publicly. And Peter saw that as clear evidence that God had accepted them. And the punch line is: if God has accepted someone, so must you; if God has placed no other entry requirement on people other than faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, nor must you. Isn’t that what v10 says:

10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus [the free forgiveness he paid for at the cross] that we are saved, just as they are.” (vv10-11)

So that’s saying: God is tested – ie, offended, angered – when human leaders presume to require more of people for membership of God’s church than God does. Which is why our doctrinal basis says this:

Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. (Church of England Article 6)

So, eg, we don’t require that people take a particular view of baptism in order to belong to this church – what age you do it at, and how you do it – whereas some other churches do. And one of the strengths of an Anglican church is that it enables believers with different views on secondary issues to accept one another and agree to disagree under the same roof.

So in vv6-11, Peter is persuading the Jewish Christians that God has accepted Gentiles into his family as they are – and therefore they must do so, too. And Barnabas and Paul share similar evidence, v12:

12The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13When they finished, James spoke up... (vv12-13)

And that’s James the brother of the Lord Jesus, who became one of the leading three in the Jerusalem church. And he takes the argument one step further. Because Peter and Barnabas and Paul have argued from experience. But James argues from the Bible. Because the Bible – the written word of God – is our supreme authority for settling issues. Our supreme authority is not experience. So, eg, if I have some spiritual experience (like praying in tongues), that doesn’t give me authority to say you should have it, too. And nor is our supreme authority in church leaders. So James doesn’t say, ‘I’m the Pope and therefore what I say is authoritative.’ No, he quotes the Bible. And if you’re trying to think through an issue as a Christian, question 1 is: what does the Bible say? Where does the Bible address this issue, or give principles relevant to this issue? So read on, end of v13:

“13…Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon [ie, Peter] has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15The words of the prophets [ie, the OT part of the Bible] are in agreement with this, as it is written:
[And then he quotes the OT book of Amos]
16“‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’
18that have been known for ages.
(vv13-18)

So eight centuries BC, Amos predicted a ‘before’ period and an ‘after’ period. The ‘before’ lasted to the exile when God was working through one nation, Israel. And so part of the law of Moses was law that marked Israel out as a nation from other nations – eg, circumcision and the food laws. But then, v16, Amos predicted an ‘after’ – after the exile, when David’s fallen kingdom would be restored. And that promise was ultimately fulfilled by Jesus being raised from the dead to be King forever. And v17 says that in that period – where we live – Gentiles will bear the Lord’s name. Ie, they’ll become God’s people without having to become Jewish, without having to live under the whole law of Moses. Because God is not, now working through one nation, but through an international family. So those laws designed to mark out Israel nationally are not God’s will for us today – whereas the laws reflecting God’s unchanging moral character are.

So James goes to the supreme authority of the Bible and concludes, v19:

19“It is my judgment, therefore, that we [Jews] should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. (v19)

Ie, ‘We must accept those whom God has accepted and we mustn’t require more of people for membership of God’s church than God does.’

So how does that apply to us for whom Jew-Gentile relations are not exactly the burning issue? Well, it applies to written church membership requirements (which we don’t actually use). Eg, some churches require their members to abstain from alcohol. And there’s no problem with an individual choosing to do so as a matter of wisdom. But there is a problem with a church requiring it for membership – because it’s requiring more than God requires for membership of his church. But this applies just as much to the unwritten ways in which we make it (to quote v19) difficult for people who are turning to God. And it’s an important question to keep asking as a church: how are we making it difficult for new people who’ve turned to Jesus to settle in to our church? Eg, more than once I’ve heard the comment, ‘You need a degree to belong to JPC’ – ie, the level of sermons and Home Groups and so on makes it difficult. (and maybe I’ve done that tonight by failing to be simple enough in explaining this). I’ve also heard people say, ‘I feel like you have to be a totally sorted-out person to belong to JPC.’ And I’ve heard people say, ‘I feel like you have to be married with 2.2 kids to belong to JPC.’ Well if that’s our church culture, if those are the vibes we’re sending out, what use are we going to be, eg, to the majority of people who aren’t bookish, or people for whom English is their second language, or people who’ve been hurt by life, or single people or divorced people or single parents – in fact, to most people out there?

In this part of his Word, God is calling those of us who are ‘old hands’ to be sensitive to new believers and to do all we can to flex for their sake. So, eg, it encourages me no end that older saints here have told me they don’t really like half the music, but that they accept it because they know it’s necessary for a new generation coming in. That’s the spirit of welcoming new Christians into the church.

The final challenge for a church wanting to get the gospel out and grow is:


Third, CAUSING NO UNNECESSARY OFFENCE (vv20-35)

Look again at v19. James says:

19“It is my judgment, therefore, that we [Jews] should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. (v19)

Ie, the ‘old hands’ need to be sensitive and flexible for the sake of new believers. But it’s not all one way. Because James then calls on the Gentile Christians to be sensitive to the Jewish Christians – so as to cause them no unnecessary offence. Read on to v20:

20Instead we should write to them [ie, the Gentile Christians], telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.
[Why those particular things? Well, v21:]
21For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
(vv20-21)

So, those particular things are where Gentile Christians could easily cause offence to Jewish Christians – or, come to that, to the fellow-Jews whom they’re trying to be a witness to.

Now there are two different interpretations of the requirements in v20. Interpretation 1 is that they’re all to do with ceremonies at idol temples. For every Gentile Christian, part of their non-Christian past would have been going to temples where meat would be sacrificed to an idol, using non-kosher butchery, and where sex with temple prostitutes might be part of the ritual. And on this interpretation, James is saying to the new Gentile believers, ‘Look, you know that any Jewish background person assumes you Gentiles are into all that idolatry and immorality. So for the sake of your Jewish Christian brothers and sisters, and for the sake of the fellow-Jews they’re trying to witness to, you must be seen to have made an absolutely clear break with your non-Christian past and environment. You can’t go to those idol temples even as a non-participant because of how it will be perceived and the offence it could cause. An example today might be mixed sex house-sharing – which I know is culturally the norm and I’m not saying it’s wrong; but older saints have raised their eyebrows about it to me; and there’s the danger that the non-Christian world assumes that where guys and girls are house-sharing (especially when it’s one guy and one girl), they’re probably bed-sharing as well.

Interpretation 2 is that the requirements in v20 are all to do with Jewish conscientious scruples which Gentile Christians need to be sensitive to. So on this interpretation, one issue, eg, is Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians having a shared meal. If the Gentile is cooking, or if it’s a bring-and-share, the Gentile must avoid any dodgy meat – ie, meat sacrificed to an idol or meat butchered in a non-kosher way: better to do vegetarian quiche than cause offence. And on this interpretation, the word translated ‘sexual immorality’ – literally, ‘porneia’ – might well refer to marriage within the forbidden degrees of family closeness found within the OT in Leviticus 18. Jewish background people were deeply offended by the Roman culture, which allowed marriage of very close relatives. And James might well be saying, ‘Don’t let your church culture be like that. Base your marriage policy on Leviticus 18 for the sake of the Jewish Christians.’

What about applications of interpretation 2 today? Well, eg, your conscience might allow you to shop on Sunday; but to avoid giving any offence to fellow-Christians who have conscientious scruples against that, you might hold back. Or, eg, when I worked in Kenya with Africa Inland Mission, we had to give a written commitment to be teetotal and not to use playing cards. Now my conscience allows me to drink alcohol in moderation and to play bridge. But those are such areas of scruple for Kenyan Christians that it’s better to stick to pineapple juice and Pictionary than cause offence.

Well, we don’t have time to look at vv22-35. But they simply tell how James’ proposal was accepted and then communicated to the Gentile churches – so we’re not missing out on the vital message, which is: that spreading the gospel involves a whole lot more than just spreading the gospel. It involves:

• Working at getting the gospel right – after all it only does damage to spread the wrong message
• Working at welcoming new Christians into the church – after all, it’s no good if they hear the gospel from us but then feel they can’t belong with us
• Causing no unnecessary offence – after all, there’s no worse witness than a bunch of Christians falling out with one another over secondary issues – or failing to live up to the non-Christian world’s expectations of our behaviour

Those are the challenges for a church wanting to spread the gospel and grow. And as a church which is numerically standing still, we need to rise to them better.

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