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The Turning Point

January 31, 2021 Pastor: Alan McCall

Scripture: Acts 15:1–15:35, Luke 17:5–17:10

Paul and Barnabas have completed their first missionary journey and returned to Antioch. Their report that Gentiles are turning to the Lord and that Churches have been established is several cities is met with joy. So Paul and Barnabas decide to take a short Sabbatical and do some deep-sea fishing in the Mediterranean. Well... not quite. Have you noticed in Acts that as soon as the Church makes progress the old serpent sticks his head out of the grass and strikes? If he doesn’t mount an external attack on the Church, then he mounts an internal attack. The Church is rarely without problems. The snake in the grass continues to hiss and snap at the Church.

The problem this time is an internal attack. It comes from Jewish Christians. I identify them as Jewish Christians because I assume they are a part of the same group mentioned in v5 - a group of Pharisees who had believed. Paul wrote in Galatians that they claimed to have been sent to Antioch by James. But in v24, James states they had not been sent by the Church in Jerusalem. From Paul’s writing, it appears that at least some of these apostatized - left the faith.

These men, claiming to teach with Apostolic authority, inform the Gentile converts in the Church at Antioch: Unless you are circumcised according to Moses, you cannot be saved. This teaching caused great debate and dissension in the Church. Why? What is it about this teaching that is such a problem? It’s not as if circumcision is difficult. Okay, painful, but not difficult to have done. Paul will address this issue several times in his epistles and each time he vehemently denounces it. Why? Well, circumcision is the rite of entrance into the nation of Israel. It is the identifying mark of Jewishness. So, those who demand circumcision of the Gentiles are demanding that they become Jews in order to be Christians. Okay, you say, what is the big deal here? Protestants usually make this a case of faith vs. works. Okay, but it is more than that. It is this: Those who make this claim are teaching that Jesus was merely a reformer within Israel. This teaching strikes at the very heart of why Jesus came, what He intended to do, and what the Church is. Let me put it more simply. Did Jesus come to reform Israel or did He come to form a new people from all nations? Did Jesus come to revitalize Israel or did He come to form a new world-wide kingdom from all nations? Did Jesus come to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem or is He God’s new temple; and, are all those who are joined to Him by faith a part of this new temple? Is the proclamation of the Gospel a call to become a reformed Jew or a member the new people, nation and kingdom of Jesus. Now, do you see what is at stake?

How is the Church in Antioch to solve this problem? Well, they could take the easy way out and divide the Church. We could have the First Christian Church of the Circumcised and the Uncircumcised Christian Church. But this would be a travesty. What Jesus came to establish was one new people, gathered in faith and love around the Word and Table, praying together to God.

Realizing the importance of the controversy, the Church in Antioch send a delegation, which includes Paul and Barnabas, to Jerusalem. They wisely decide that the issue should be settled by the seat of the Apostolic Church; by the Apostles themselves.

Once in Jerusalem, the delegation is warmly received by the Apostles and elders of the Church. But the enemy is in Jerusalem waiting to strike. The Pharisee party claim that to be saved the Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Now, books have been written on what is meant by law of Moses here and in Galatians. In our study of Galatians I dealt with this in some length. This morning I’ll give you a summary of what I think the law of Moses means in this context. Reflect for a minute on the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. What were the big issues for the Pharisees? The issues for them was dietary laws, hand washing, man-made Sabbath rules, abstaining from eating with Gentiles, etc. They were ceremonial laws which became the boundary markers for the Pharisees. What did they emphasize as the practice of a true Jew? Faith and repentance? Love of neighbor? No. Their concern was the boundary markers - those things that made a visible distinction between them and the Gentiles. I think that is the issue here - circumcision and dietary laws.

In Jerusalem, the Apostolic Church holds a meeting to settle the controversy. We don’t know how many of the Apostles are still in Jerusalem. The year is probably around 50AD. From what Paul writes later, it appears that John was still there. Several others may have been present also. James, the half-brother of Jesus, appears to be the leader of the Church. Tradition says that he prayed so often and so long for the conversion of the Jewish people that his knees became calloused and hardened. Evidently he didn’t have our nice cushioned kneelers! He will be martyred in 62AD.

What did the council do? Well, they had a long prayer meeting to determine how the Spirit would lead them to respond to this question. Well, no. They didn’t do this. Now I am all for prayer. I think most of us, myself included, would do well to pray more. But prayer is not a substitute for what God has said and done. And we sometimes use it that way. If God has told us to do or not do something, we don’t need to pray about it. Our subjective feelings can never be a substitute for the Word of the Lord.

Note what does happen when Peter stands to speak. He reminds them of what God has done in the conversion of Cornelius and his household. When Cornelius believed the Word of the Lord, the Spirit was poured out on them just as He had been poured out on the Apostles at Pentecost. Peter says God made no distinction between them and us. He is reminding them that, in doing this, God has already answered this question.

On this basis, Peter concludes that the Council not test God. That is, if the Council acts differently than what God taught them through His words and deeds, then the Council would be acting in unbelief in God. Further, he refers to these boundary markers  as a yoke that Israel did not keep.  

Then he makes an astonishing statement: we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they. Note how he says this: The Jews, the apostles, will be saved just as the Gentiles were - by grace through faith. He turns the statement of the Pharisee party around! Our hope is to be saved like they were!

After Peter’s speech Paul and Barnabas confirm that this is what happened on their missionary journey too. Then James rises to speak. He asserts that this salvation of the Gentiles is what the Spirit foretold the Messiah would do. In Amos, God promised to restore the Davidic throne. This he has done in Christ. He also promised that the Gentiles would come to His king. God has brought them as he promised without requiring circumcision. The solution to the problem is to pay attention to what God has said and what God has done. Then, James says, let's not trouble the Gentiles. The word trouble can be translated annoy. Requiring circumcision would only be an annoyance! It wouldn’t contribute anything to salvation.

James concludes for the sake of not offending the Jews in their mist, that Christians keep certain practices. He is appealing for sympathy and understanding on the part of the Gentiles for the Jews. The rules he suggests are intended to be temporary admonitions for those who were then living among the Jews.

Three things are asked. The first is to abstain from eating meat offered to idols. Paul will write about this in detail in I Corinthians. The second is to abstain from things strangled and from blood. They go together. Animals would be strangled in order to eat the meat with blood or to make food from blood. The third is more problematic. The word used is fornication, often referred to as prostitution in classical Greek. In the New Testament is almost always refers to all kinds of sexual immorality. We should always abstain from this! Of course, some believe that this word has special reference to activities that often occurred at pagan temple feasts. This is possible. It’s also possible that this admonition refers to contracting marriages that were opposed to the Levitical law. This was commonly called fornication by Jews in the first century. These laws prohibited marriages that were common among Gentiles. These included a prohibition of a man marrying his sister, or his aunt, or his mother-in-law. Over the centuries, Christians gradually recognized the abiding validity of these rules. The important point is that these rules were not adopted as a way of salvation but as a way for Christians to abstain from offending the Jewish Christians in their congregations.

The council agrees and a letter is composed to be sent to the Churches that have been troubled by this issue. The letter carries the authority of the Apostles and the Holy Spirit. Note: It carries the authority of the Holy Spirit because it is in conformity with the word and deed of the Spirit. It is, in other words, the right way to both resolve this conflict and to maintain harmony in the church. It is sent by Paul and Barnabas along with Silas and Judas who can testify to its authenticity to the churches. And the churches rejoiced at its reception.

I titled today’s sermon The Turning Point. This decision is a great turning point in the Church. Here the Church understands and teaches that all the nations of the world are called into the Church, which is the new nation and kingdom of God. All nations, united by faith in Jesus, become one family who can sit together in peace and love around one Table. We still need to learn this; and to live this. There are no distinctions between Gentiles and Jews, or between Irish and Viet Namese in the Church of Christ. Everyone enters the same way: By grace through faith in Jesus. And this family tie is eternal. This is the Church and kingdom of God. This is what Jesus came to establish. And through this Gospel, and this Gospel alone, made visible to the world through the life of the Church, will the world be transformed. So, let us continue to teach and live this way.