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Fighting for the gospel and for unity

Back to all sermons Living the mission of God: the book of Acts

Date: September 16, 2018

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: Living the mission of God: the book of Acts

Scripture: Acts 15:1–16:5


We are continuing in Acts this morning, and we are up to a chapter that is one of the most important events in church history, although from our perspective it may not be as exciting as the resurrection, the ascension or Pentecost.


Acts 15:1 - 16:5 - Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved."  2 This 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.  3 The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad.  4 When 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.  5 Then 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."  6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question.  7 After 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.  8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.  9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.  10 Now 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?  11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."  12 The 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.  13 When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me.  14 Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself.  15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:  16 "'After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,  17 that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things'  18 that have been known for ages.  19 "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.  20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.  21 For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath."  22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers.  23 With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.  24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said.  25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul--  26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing.  28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:  29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.  30 The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter.  31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.  32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers.  33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the brothers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them.  34   35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.  36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing."  37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them,  38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.  39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus,  40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.  41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.  NIV Acts 16:1 He 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.  2 The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him.  3 Paul 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.  4 As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.  5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers. 


What is going on in this passage? Gentiles (non-Jewish people) have been coming to faith in Jesus: Cornelius, Samaritans, etc. But now there is a party of people claiming that the Gentiles cannot be saved unless they also become Jewish by becoming circumcised and obeying the law of Moses. This group is alluded to in Galatians 2:11-16 and called “the circumcision group”. In case you’re unfamiliar, circumcision is a sign of the covenant God made with Abraham and subsequently with the people of Israel:


Genesis 17:9-11 - Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.  10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.  11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.


Remember that they did not sign contracts back then. When they made a covenant, they would ratify by it through some sort of visual sign. Circumcision was a graphic way of saying, “If you do not follow through on your terms of the covenant, may you be cut off.” We no longer need to be circumcised for religious reasons, for now we are under the new covenant with Jesus, and baptism is the sign of the new covenant.


In response to the circumcision party, Paul and Barnabas go up to Jerusalem so they can meet with Peter, James, and the other church leaders and discuss this question. There are two major issues at stake:


  • The gospel – how are we to be saved?


  • Church unity – According to Galatians 2, the circumcision group claims to be from James. And also according to Galatians 2, they were influencing Peter. Therefore, there was a real opportunity for division in the church


Galatians 2:11-16 - When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.  12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.  13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.  14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?  15 "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners'  16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.


These two things are essential: Clarity in the gospel, and unity in the church. We see here in Acts 15 Satan’s two main strategies for destroying the church – false teaching and disunity:


2 Peter 2:1 - But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them-- bringing swift destruction on themselves.


Matthew 7:15 - "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.


John 10:10 - The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.


False teaching includes introducing all kinds of things that are contrary to Scripture to lead people astray. And disunity includes trying to play upon people’s natural weaknesses to bring suspicion and division. In response, Peter, James, and Paul come together and speak face to face. Peter speaks. Paul speaks. James speaks. They all say that from both personal experience and from Scripture, God has accepted the Gentiles as His people. And in the end, they preserve both unity and the gospel. What is their argument?


  • God showed he accepted the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit – echoes Deut 14:2




Deuteronomy 14:1-2 - You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead,  2 for you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be his treasured possession.


  • No one can be saved by following God’s law


  1. 10-11


Romans 3:19-24  Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.  21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.


  • God’s plan has always been to save both Jew and Gentile


  1. 15-16


James quotes Amos 9:11-12. God promises first to restore David’s fallen tent and then to add a Gentile remnant in his new community.


Amos 9:11-12 - "In that day I will restore David's fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be,  12 so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name," declares the LORD, who will do these things.


By the time they are done speaking, the gospel is preserved. Salvation is by grace through faith. It is Jesus plus nothing. Not circumcision, not baptism, not speaking in tongues, not obeying the law.


Having said that, there are two curious things that happen in the rest of the chapter that make you question the place of good works in relationship to the gospel. First, the apostles tell the Gentiles to follow these laws – food laws, sexual immorality. The reason is not to save them but so that the Gentile believers might show respect to their Jewish brothers in how you eat and live. All of this is from Leviticus 17-18.


Secondly, this section ends with a curious passage. They have just adamantly stated that you do not need to be circumcised in order to be saved. How does this section end? With Paul taking a disciple named Timothy, and circumcising him before taking him along. Huh?


This tells us a great deal about the relationship between faith and works.


  • We are saved by grace alone through faith alone


Ephesians 2:8-9 - For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--  9 not by works, so that no one can boast.


  • But we are saved to do good works


Ephesians 2:10 - For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.


God does not need our good works; our neighbor does.


  • Be willing to limit your freedom in order to serve your neighbor


Don’t violate the conscience of the weak. Limit your liberty out of love for the weak


1 Corinthians 9:19-23 - Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  21 To those not having the law 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.  22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.  23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings


Stand strong in the gospel but be willing to bend in the non-essentials out of love for your neighbor. Believe that salvation is by grace alone, not by works, yet work for the Lord with all your might so that you might honor Him and love your neighbor.