- Sermon Notes
In Acts chapter 15 the church has come to an absolutely critical point. The church could easily fall off the tracks here if something doesn’t happen, but God is about to move by His Spirit to intervene.
Remember that at this point the church doesn’t have the New Testament to guide their steps. In many ways, they are in uncharted waters. But they do have the Holy Spirit.
The story of this chapter begins in the city of Antioch which has become the center of the church, other than at Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas just returned from their first missionary journey with stories of all that God did through them and how He opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.
What stories Paul and Barnabas shared with them, like when one of the Roman officials came to faith in Christ, or when they were in Lystra and there was a man lame from birth, but had faith to be made well. Paul said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man leaped up and began to walk.
They told of how the crowds thought they were Zeus and Hermes and tried to worship them and then later about how Paul was dragged out of the city and stoned and left for dead, but then got up and went right back into the city. What stories they shared.
The church was doing well as Paul and Barnabas and others were teaching the Word of God, strengthening the souls of the disciples and encouraging them in their faith.
But then, out of nowhere, came a crosswind, a storm they were not expecting, and the church was about to be blown off course. If something doesn’t happen, the entire course of history will be changed. Paul uses an expression that captures the point very well, “You are running well; who cut in on you?”
Here’s where we can relate as well. In many ways, our lives are uncharted. Though we have the New Testament, it’s not a step-by-step instruction manual. There are crosswinds that can come in unexpectedly, storms that can blow us off course. We also need to learn to walk by the Spirit.
When we first got married, it was uncharted territory. There were many things I didn’t understand. There were storms that blew in. Looking back now I can see so many things I could have done that would have been so much better. When we had our first child, it was uncharted territory. Children don’t come with a manual, you know. I wanted to do everything so right, but did many things wrong. And then what about becoming empty-nesters and entering the golden years, there’s no manual for that.
I think about people when they first become believers and how for them it’s like entering uncharted waters. Just think about all the Christian phrases they haven’t yet heard. “Are you washed in the blood?” or “born again” or fruit of the Spirit” or “have your debts been paid?” Actually, that’s one phrase I’m sure they would love to understand. “Oh, is there a line somewhere to get your debts paid? I’m in.”
What happened at Antioch is that the church was doing well, being strengthened and built up as the word of God was being taught, then some men came down from Judea and began teaching that in order to be saved, in order to have salvation, they had to be physically circumcised. Later we find out they want the church to observe all the Laws of Moses.
This is not good, this is not God’s heart and though they are in uncharted waters, the Holy Spirit will direct their steps.
I. His Yoke is Easy
- When these men from Judea began teaching the brethren that they had to be circumcised in order to be saved, Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them.
- In other words, Paul was hot. There was no way he was going to ask these Gentile believers to follow the Law of Moses when they couldn’t even follow it themselves.
- Where did this come from? In verse 5 we understand that this came from the Pharisees who had believed.
- This is really an amazing development because we remember that Jesus had many confrontations with the Pharisees. Their problem was religious legalism, that’s why Jesus confronted them. He called them whitewashed tombs. They only looked good on the outside, inside they were full of death and sin.
- But we also know there were several Pharisees who believed in Jesus as the Son of God, the Savior of the world. Paul himself was a Pharisee. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and there were several more.
- Here’s the problem, they were saved out of righteous legalism, but they were falling back into the whole from which they were saved.
- That’s a great lesson. No one is beyond the reach of God, but we all must be made new.
Illus - Matthew once taught a message called, “Avoiding the Vomit.” That was a bold title for a message and made for great conversation. We regurgitated it many times. The point was powerful, don’t go back to what you were before. The text of that message was the words of Peter.
2 Peter 2:22, It happened to them according to the true proverb, “A dog returns to its own vomit,” and, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.”
- They sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.
- The Pharisee believers had their say, insisting that Christians must be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses.
- Peter stood up and reminded them of how God used him to open a door to the Gentiles and that God made no distinction between them, cleansing their hearts by simply by faith. That’s the point we need.
- “Why,” Peter asked, “do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”
- The Pharisee believers still thought they could earn their way before God by keeping the law.
Colossians 2:9-14 He nailed our debt to the cross
- There are still those today who are trying to win God’s favor by doing a few things that they think will look good to God. That’s why Peter said in verse 8, “God knows the heart.”
App- What do we do about the things we’ve done in the past and of which we are now ashamed?
Romans 6:23, The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Peter said, “We haven’t been able to bear this yoke why place it upon the neck of the disciples?” This is the opposite of God’s heart.
Matthew 11:28, “Come unto Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
- Then in verse 11, “We believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way as they also are.”
- In other words, God makes no distinction and if He saved the Gentiles by grace, without the keeping of the law, then He would save Jews in the same way.
Ephesians 2:8-9, For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
- Some people define their relationship to God by rules that they must keep. The church is sometimes accused of being about what to do and don’t do, but God wants us to realize that we are saved simply by believing through faith. It is the gift of God.
- In other words, if anyone lives by rule keeping and not because he has a desire in his heart for the Lord, he will find he is most miserable.
- If you’re proud of all the good things you’ve done, then you’re self-righteous, but if you realize you don’t deserve the grace you’ve received, then you humbly thank God for all you have.
II. Live by Your Relationship to God
- If they are not required to live by the Law of Moses, then how will they live? How will they know what to do? Don’t they need a list of do’s and don’ts?
- You can imagine the concern of the Pharisee believers; isn’t this dangerous? Couldn’t they just go hog wild into sin if they don’t have the law to guide every step of their way?
- First of all, Peter made clear that the law was a heavy yoke which no one has been able to bear. What a great point; why put a yoke on others that you yourself have never been able to bear?
- How then shall we live? The Law always leads a person to rebellion, but love leads as to a much higher way.
A. It’s always been about the heart
- This is such an important secret when it comes to our relationship to God. It’s always been about love.
- The law is burdensome; love is a blessing, love is freeing.
Isaiah 29:13, “This people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote.”
- But our relationship to God is to be much better, much deeper, because we are called to respond to God’s love by loving Him in return.
Illus - When our kids got to be someone older so that we could leave them home alone, we realized we needed to teach this same point. One day we came home to find spaghetti noodles on the ceiling. “What is this?” I asked. “You never said we couldn’t,” they said.
- We could never make enough rules to cover every possibility, so we asked that they would make decisions based on our relationship, based on love, based on what they knew about our heart.
- After Peter and Paul and Barnabas stopped speaking, James gave the final answer. Who is James? Not the brother of John, he was killed just a few chapters ago. This is the half-brother of Jesus.
- When Jesus was walking with His disciples, James, His brother, didn’t grasp that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. They grew up together. Jesus said that a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown. That was true with His brothers as well.
Illus - Remember that James was Jesus’ little brother. Jesus as your big brother? How much pressure was that?
- Paul spoke with James many times and from Paul we know that Jesus appeared to James after the resurrection. By the time we come to Acts 15, James is the leader of the church. It was said of him that his knees looked like the knees of a camel because of the hours he spent praying.
- James is also the author of the book of James.
- James said that God had first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name, but after the time of the Gentiles is completed, after these things, God will once again rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen.
- God has not finished with Israel, yes, they rejected their Messiah, and they rejected the gospel when it was first given to them, which opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. But after this, Israel will be restored, but only under the blood of Jesus, their Savior and their Messiah.
Romans 11:25, A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written…
Romans 11:11, [Israel] did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous.
- In other words, this is now our time that we might seek the Lord, James is saying.
- Therefore, James said, don’t trouble them so that they might truly seek God. In other words, put no stumbling block in front of sinners coming to faith.
Illus - Whenever I hear that I’m reminded of the time when Chuck Smith came to church early one Sunday and found a sign one of the elders had placed on the door which read, “No shoes, no service.” Pastor Chuck said to the elders, “We’ll put no obstacle in the way of sinners coming to Jesus.”
- The leaders then gave just four essential things, saying, “If you do these things, you will do well.”
- Three had to do with sensitivity, and one was about morality; because sexuality touches the soul.
Acts 15:1-35 NASB
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas-Judas
called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 and they sent this letter by them, "The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to
the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. 24 "Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave
no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, 25 it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send
to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 "Therefore we have sent Judas
and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no
greater burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication;
if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell."