“22 Then the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, decided to select men who were among them and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas: Judas, called Barsabbas, and Silas, both leading men among the brothers. 23 They wrote this letter to be delivered by them:
“From the apostles and the elders, your brothers,
To the brothers among the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:
24 Because we have heard that some without our authorization went out from us and troubled you with their words and unsettled your hearts, 25 we have unanimously decided to select men and send them to you along with our dearly loved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who will personally report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it was the Holy Spirits decision — and ours — to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things.
30 Then, being sent off, they went down to Antioch, and after gathering the assembly, they delivered the letter. 31 When they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 Both Judas and Silas, who were also prophets themselves, encouraged the brothers and strengthened them with a long message. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent back in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas, along with many others, remained in Antioch teaching and proclaiming the message of the Lord.”
If you have never had the joy of packing up and moving to a new location, then you have never had the unusual perspective given by physically laying hands on everything that you ‘own’ in a short amount of time, getting to evaluate it, getting to count it, to see how much space your stuff takes up in a moving truck or a storage space. It always makes me want to just get rid of it all and start over because I see just how much baggage I have accumulated, and just how much nonsense gathers around us. Here in the West, we have so much, too much. But we also seem to want to surround ourselves with even more as time goes on. For some it even becomes an obsession, in dealing with loss or grief or change, they gather and hoard and hem themselves in with more and more trying to physically fill in the space that they are emotionally struggling with…it is a cultural disorder.
So, When these new Christians hear about the simple joys faith, and hear about freedom that God offers in Jesus Christ, they are overjoyed and rightfully so. It is like waking up in the middle of your hoard and finding freedom to walk away and not need those extras anymore. It is like having your eyes opened up for the first time, someone taking lead boots off your feet. It is the sweet release of freedom that only can be brought to you by someone else, like a prisoner being unchained and their door being left to swing wide.
But then they meet people who have already been ‘free’ for a while, and they are given a suitcase, and maybe a backpack loaded with all the extras that they ‘must have’ in order to enjoy their freedom. They are loaded with expectations and arguments, with to-do lists and burdens that were never meant to accompany their freedom by the One who gave it to them. And in time, they are expected to fall in line with everyone else. Let the excitement wear off, get in step with reality, and polish the edge off that joy a little and THEN you will see what it really means to be ‘free’ like me.
These new believers were being loaded up with extra burdens, extra ‘joys’ that were not joyful from any angle of observation, and told that the freedom that had been purchased for them came with a few extra…caveats, that they needed to understand and carry along for themselves. (I hope this sounds incredibly familiar for us today.) And when they groaned under that burden, the church stood up, prayed, consulted Scripture, and stated that they were indeed allowed to enjoy their freedom to the fullest extent of the word. There were not going to be any rules that did not point their hearts toward God and God alone, or attempt to replace their new identity in Christ.
And so when they heard the good news, that ‘freedom’ really meant FREEDOM like they had hoped, then they rejoiced, as we all should. So, as you GoLove people like Jesus does, don’t bind heavy burdens on their backs, hearts and minds. Instead, show them that when we are free in Christ, we are free indeed!
“6 Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: “Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.”
12 Then the whole assembly fell silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul describing all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they stopped speaking, James responded: “Brothers, listen to me! 14 Simeon has reported how God first intervened to take from the Gentiles a people for His name. 15 And the words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written:
“16 After these things I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
I will rebuild its ruins
and set it up again,
17 so the rest of humanity
may seek the Lord —
even all the Gentiles
who are called by My name,
declares the Lord who does these things,
18 known from long ago.”
19 Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but instead we should write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For since ancient times, Moses has had those who proclaim him in every city, and every Sabbath day he is read aloud in the synagogues.”
Here we find our example of the first council taken by the church in her early days, and here we find our example for how to handle matters in question. They discussed & debated, listened to the evidence and sought God out in HIs Word. They allowed themselevs to be led by the Holy Spirit rather than by their gut or their own preferences. If it had simply been a matter of appeasing those who were upset, they would have made circumcision a requirement for faith, stepping beyond the bounds that God laid out. If they had been bullied into it by Peter, Paul & Barnabas, forcing their way on everyone, then there would have been a split internally caused by dissention. But instead, they sought council with one another and with God.
I offended someone last Sunday. Last night we sat down and talked about it. I shared Scripture with them, we discussed what God requires and what seems to be preference, and we parted happy and reconciled.
If we are honest with ourselves, it’s not a matter of if we have confilct with another believer, it’s simply a matter of when. And people who claim Christ who get into conflict with one another have caused some of the nastiest fights and divisions that I’ve ever seen. They aren’t interested in listening to Matthew 18, in taking the proper stpes to be reconciled. They’re just set on being ‘right’ in their mind when the dust settles, and that is not a God-honoring attitude. That is selfish and sinful, full of pride and self-righteousness. The church is never served well by people who refuse to actually dialogue, to consult the Scriptures and spend time in prayer. When someone just wants to ‘win’ the church and the kingdom loses, and I for one don’t want to have to explain to God why my preference for myself and my own opinion outweighed the grace He had for me and for the person I am having difficulty with…
The church in Jerusalem did things perfectly. The people who were upset had their moment to be heard. They weren’t stifled or shut down. Their feeling weren’t invalidated and their opinions weren’t laughed off or scoffed at publicly. After hearing them, the Apostles & leadership considered testimony, consulted the Scriptures and arrived at their decision in a calm manner.
As we GoLove others in the Name of Christ, we need to make sure we aren’t just self-justifying decisions because that’s our preference. Instead, seeking out God’s wisdom, we should listen to those who oppose us, respecting their opinion, we should listen to examples and seek out testimony and then consult the Scriptures. We should be willing to do anything and everything that still honors God in order to maintain the unity of the church and do do it all in love with a humble heart.
“1 Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved!” 2 But after Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, the church arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this controversy. 3 When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, explaining in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they created great joy among all the brothers.
4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses!”
It’s human nature, I suppose. We are free in Christ, but we want to see what those boundaries are, how far they stretch. Others, when they find what God has done through Christ want to lay out boundaries immediately, so they can grasp what’s been given to them. “This is good, this is bad.” That sort of thing. Here in Acts 15, we find a group of well meaning, but misguided believers. They weren’t trying to divide, but they weren’t letting grace be grace either. It seemed reasonable to them, because they had to be circumcised in order to begin their covenant relationship with God, and so these newcomers should take this step, too. We still do this today.
Maybe you grew up in church. Your parents wore suits and nice dresses, hats and gloves. Church was something you dressed up for, and if someone didn’t, they were frowned upon. So, when you go to church now as an adult, and you see someone ‘not giving it their best’ they get downgraded in your mind and their faith doesn’t measure up. It’s not always something we think about directly, but it still surfaces as an opinion or a bias within us. But jutst like Jesus Christ made no requirement for circumcision, He also made no requirement for dress code. What God desires, and has from the beginning, is our heart.
So, we must let grace be enough and not put secondary standards out as a litmus test for faith. If it isn’t laid out in Scripture, then there’s room to breathe and move around a little. Have grace with others as it has been shown to you, and don’t get hung up on the surface rituals we all have, but be concerned for their heart and your own. Do whatever you can to maintain the unity of the body of Christ. Stand on Him as our common ground. Just because you had to wear a sport coat and slacks growing up doesn’t mean that is the gold standard for what it means to follow Jesus Christ. The position of our heart comes first and foremost. Our primary concern is walking as Jesus walked.
Circumcision was a marker for faith in a parent, and the sign of the continued covenant relationship with God for their people. So, it did run more deeply than a suit and tie, but the basic message is the same. Let grace be grace as you GoLove others in the Name of Christ. Evaluate what your experience tells you is essential in the light of Scripture, and see if they really do mesh. Baptism? Yes. Obedience? Yes. Being active with and supporting the local church and global missions? Yes. These are all markers of a Christian, and there are others. We live repentant, humble lives. We seek to serve those who cannot pay us back. We love unconditionally. These markers in us are far more important than a ceremonial marker that could exist on the body, but not be reflected in the inner person. The heart matters most. An ichthus tattoo does not a Christian make.