- Sermon Notes
Hold Firm to Essential Things
May 14, 2023
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 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.
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 like assembling furniture from Ikea. 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 aligned with the word of God.
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. In other words, to be a Christian, you first had to convert to the Jewish faith and submit to those laws before becoming a Christian.
This is not good, this is not God’s heart and though they are in uncharted waters, the Holy Spirit will direct their steps. We will learn from this too to hold on to the essential things of the faith and not be swayed by every wind that blows. Religion, in other words, our efforts to try and be acceptable to God, always tries to pull us back into works, instead of being grounded in saving grace through faith.
I. Take up His easy yoke
- 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. Religion and ‘keeping the law’, which by the way is impossible, bring self-righteousness which leads to pride. “I am a bit higher up in the mud-hole than you!!”
- 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 hole 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. There can be no mingling of grace and acceptance through keeping the law. Peter uses a shocking verse to describe it.
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.”
A. God is the One who cleanses our hearts
- 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 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. To them the starting point was external circumcision. This was a misperception. Paul brings clarity to this matter.
Colossians 2:11-14, and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
- The circumcision is now done by Christ who cuts away the flesh, or sinful nature that dominates us before we belong to Christ, having forgiven all transgressions by nailing it to the cross. Our works cannot cut away anything from the past.
- There are certain sects that teach that Christ has forgiven you, but now it is your responsibility to do good works to stay acceptable. Even if you are not in a sect, the enemy can mislead your perspective so as to keep you in the bondage of fear driven to works.
Illus – when I was a young child and came to Christ I love the Lord wants to please them. But somewhere along the way a wrong perception of God snuck in. I had the perception of a son who was caught by the police doing something wrong. His father would then come and bail him out, but would be angry at him and tell him to never do it again because this would be his last chance. The result was that I was fearful of making a mistake or sinning. I thought God had only forgiven my sins up to the point that I received Him, but now that I was clean, I had to stay clean. I loved God and in my innermost being didn’t want to sin, but found myself sinning and hating myself for it. I would at night pray and try and remember all the sins I did, confessing them one by one. But what if I forgot one, would I go to heaven if I died tonight? I was living under constant condemnation. This continued until I had a revelation of the grace and unconditional love of God.
- This is exactly what Paul speaks of in Galatians 3.
Galatians 3:1-3, You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Illus – This is like saying, ‘Thank you Jesus, but I can take it from here’, stepping back into self-sufficiency.
Romans 6:23, The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
B. We are saved through the grace of Jesus
- 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.
- Do’s and don’ts have anything to do with your salvation, but is God’s warning to remind us of what is good and protect us.
Illus – Reminding your new teenage driver of speed limits…
- 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.
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?
- This is one of the biggest questions that come up these days as well. If people are living by grace, will this not lead to sin?
- First of all, Peter made clear that the law was a heavy yoke that 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 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.
- Trying to bring change with external law can result in behavioral modification, but not heart transformation.
Illus – There once was a boy in class that kept jumping up and interrupting the teacher…
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.”
- 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.
- It is once again about circumcision, but Paul talks of the circumcision of the heart done by the Spirit.
Romans 2:28-29, For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter;
- When we have the revelation of the love God has for us, it draws us to Him. When we surrender to Him and He saves us, we are made alive with Christ by the Spirit that comes to indwell us.
- The Holy Spirit then does surgery and circumcises the heart so that we have a heart that longs after God.
- The fleshly sinful nature is still actively pulling toward death and destruction, but it no longer has dominion over our souls.
- Paul writes in Romans 7 and 8 about the conflict between these two natures. He then concludes with the following.
Romans 8:12-15, So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”
- We do not live under the law to externally try and be acceptable while being perverse and wayward on the inside. We are led by the Spirit in our union and relationship with Christ who changes us from the inside.
- A loving relationship becomes the foundation and the guide.
Illus – When we do premarital counseling, we work through principles that will be guidelines for a fulfilling relationship. We do not give a checklist of things to do in a relationship. You can check off all the right boxes of things to do in a relationship and still not be in it with your heart. “Greet in the morning: check, smile once before brushing teeth: Check, make coffee, Check: ask ‘How did you sleep?’: check, …” This is the problem with the law.
- The heart that is not transformed will always try to break free from the ‘limitations’ God is putting on it, instead of seeing it as protection against hurt.
- The heart guided by the love of God needs no law to tell it what is right and wrong, the good things flow from the heart that is transformed by God.
- This is why the whole law and prophets hang on these two things: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and (flowing from this you will) love your neighbor as yourself. This is an inner working of the Holy Spirit.
B. Walk in the Light
- 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.
- By the time we come to Acts 15, James is the leader of the church. James is also the author of the book of James. So, James speaks with some authority.
- 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 – Can you imagine doing an outreach sharing the gospel and when people respond joyfully you tell them to first go get circumcised, learn and apply the whole Jewish law? This will be discouraging. This is not good news.
- The leaders then gave just four essential things, saying, “If you do these things, you will do well.”
- Three had to do with sensitivity to the Jews, and one was about morality, because sexuality touches the soul.
- John gives us a good principle on how to live practically.
1 John 1:7, but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
- When you are walking in the light, you will see things for what it is. Walk with Jesus. Don’t run to the darkness. There is danger and confusion. With Him is light and life.
- We live following the direction of the inward witness of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 15:1-22 NASB
The Council at Jerusalem
15 Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had [a]great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. 3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and the elders came together to [b]look into this [c]matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that [d]in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why 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? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
12 All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
13 After they had stopped speaking, [e]James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. 15 With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
16 ‘After these things I will return,
And I will rebuild the [f]tabernacle of David which has fallen,
And I will rebuild its ruins,
And I will restore it,
17 So that the rest of [g]mankind may seek the Lord,
And all the Gentiles [h]who are called by My name,’
18 Says the Lord, who [i]makes these things known from long ago.
19 Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from [j]things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since [k]he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
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,