“But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:11 ESV)
The history recorded in the Book of Acts is a continuation of the life of Christ, through the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We see the parallels between the church’s travels in the world and those of Christ, as the church preaches the gospel like Christ, heals people like Christ, and her influence grows like that of Christ. But with these victories also come trials and affiliations. Just as Christ underwent opposition from both without (Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes) and within (Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, Thomas’ doubt), so the church would undergo trials and opposition from both without and within.
In our last section, chapter 14, we saw another example of opposition from without. The apostolic missionary team were reviled, ostracized, and even stoned. In this Sunday’s text, chapter 15, we encounter an example of opposition from within.
Even though this conflict doesn’t take the form of physical violence, it’s actually more dangerous. There’s a reason the Bible says God hates the one who sows discord among the brothers (Prov 6:19) and why a false gospel is accursed (Galatians 1). Inner division and false teaching can destroy a church faster than anything from the outside.
In this instance, the division came from the party of the Pharisees, some of whom came to believe in Jesus. They insisted that in order for the Gentiles to be fully included in the church, they needed to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. Whether intentionally or not, this form of gate-keeping was an assault of the grace of God and undermined the unity that Christ’s blood had purchased.
This teaching was making its way through the church of Antioch, and if it wasn’t stopped soon, it could spread deadly poison to the early churches. So the Apostles and elders meet in Jerusalem to consider this question and make a decision.
At this Jerusalem Council, the Apostles and elders show great unity over against the Pharisaic Judiazers. Peter recounts his experience with the Gentiles, Paul adds to this testimony, and James brings it all together with holy scripture and God’s promises. The question is settled: the only way to enter into God’s true family is by grace; therefore, to lay another burden – especially one that no one can keep – goes against the gospel.
The elders send this letter to the Gentile Christians, and there is much joy.
Now for us, this story can be easily glossed over. After all, we don’t relate to the temptation to go back to the law, having received grace, right? We sing about amazing grace, we champion grace alone, we try to avoid legalism. Yet, within each one of our hearts is a budding legalist that must be put to death daily.
It may not be circumcision or the Law of Moses, but what are the things – the traditions, the doctrines, the perspectives, the lifestyles, the expectations – that you tend to use to “gate keep” against others? And in what ways are you willing to sacrificially concede your own preferences for the sake of unity in the church?
The only way for us to both lay aside our tendencies to judge others as unworthy and to fail to give up stumbling blocks for others is for us to have our minds focused on God’s amazing grace!