Gospel Clarity for Gospel Living (Acts 15:1-35)
We have been in the book of Acts for a while and the idea is that as we look at the early church – it gives us one of the clearest pictures of what today’s church could be. The book of Acts is a template, a blueprint of what a church should be like but what we find is that when we read a chapter like this, people are bothered about the state of the church – oh it’s about organized religion, internal fighting, fighting over doctrine, church splits but there are others who will say that – oh gosh, this is an ancient church controversy. What does this mean to me? My situation, my life, what practical difference does it make in my life? EVERYTHING!!!!! It means absolutely everything. Because what is at stake is —the GOSPEL; How do we define the gospel? Is it by faith? Is it by works and faith? Is it social justice? Is it helping the poor? Is it obeying the law? Is it cultural preferences?
And Luke puts this chapter, literary speaking, right in the middle of the book of Acts and many have said that this is a watershed moment, it’s really a turning point, a center piece because it hinges on the past history of the early church and the future of the church…it’s epically important. Why? Because what the AVERY MARKER HIGHLIGHTS- what’s front and center —is the core, doctrinal teaching of Christianity- the bedrock, the foundation of Christianity: The gospel. And the truth of the matter is that we can very easily confuse the gospel without a clear understanding of the gospel. So, it is so important for the life of the Christian church – that we make it a priority to guard the deposit of the gospel for it not to be hijacked, because if it does- the application towards life – would be disastrous. Then it would be self-help therapy, it would –here are 5 steps that can change your life…etc. Acts 15 calls for gospel clarity – not just so that we can know the information but gospel clarity for gospel living. And there are three angles, picture a triangle- three angles that illustrates gospel clarity for gospel living.
1) It is the Gospel of grace that freely rescues you v.1-11
What is so amazing about grace? Everything is amazing about grace. It is the last best word. If we don’t understand grace, then we really don’t understand what it means to be a Christian. There is a true story of a prostitute in Chicago that came to a secular counselor and confessed that she had to sell her two-year old daughter to buy food. Actually, the truth is that renting out her daughter, she was able to make more money for an hour than she could earn for a night. So, the counselor was struggling because he had to report this as child abuse but he asked her if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. The way she responded, a look of pure shock that ran across her face, “Church, why would I ever go to church? I already feel horrible but they would make me feel worse” —-I believe this story is a picture of how much we just don’t get grace. Because what is going in our churches is that we think that we are a bunch of holy people, thinking that we have everything together. We actually think that we are doing very well thank you but it’s the other guys that are really bad – or we think that– I can never possibly step into a church community because I have to clean up my act first, then I’ll start to come, making sure every blemish is covered, cleaned, so that I can be accepted. – but it is interesting to know that the world can do almost anything as well as or better than the church. You don’t need to be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry or heal the sick. But there is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer true grace. I believe we have failed to understand, or to receive and to live out God’s unconditional grace to us- it is the most important word in the bible, it is the heart of the gospel.
We can very easily miss the reality of grace because the gospel stands or falls by grace. In other words, the gospel is not really the gospel unless it is a gospel of grace. Or let me put it this way – if you really, really, really, really believed, deep down in your heart that you are drowning in sin, just a complete mess and just couldn’t possibly, that you just can’t possibly save yourself, your helpless, the fact that you don’t really deserve life at all, and yet at the same time, you’re admitting your need – who will save me from all of this mess of sin that I am in…you know what you are experiencing? You are already experiencing God’s amazing grace- Why? Because you never, ever eliminated your ultimate need for a Savior- that’s amazing grace, “how precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.” The gospel is only good news if it announces what God has done to save you by grace alone. This is the gospel – the gospel begins with grace to us, ends with the glory to God and it’s all because of Jesus alone. It’s grace to you (because you need it), it’s glory to God (think about most helpless/hopeless situation in your life, it’s about Him), because why, because of Jesus (he makes it possible, gives us hope, he restores you- that’s all we got). If you want to define the gospel – it is – grace to you, glory to God all because of Jesus.
The problem, in this passage, is that these people from Judea were asking a question; what constitutes a Christian person or what makes up being a Christian? How would we define a Christian person? They are saying in v.1, 5 – you know what – to be a Christian, to be saved, you have to be circumcised? Now, what does that mean?
You have to remember that Christianity emerged from a religion called Judaism, all of the early Christians were Jewish, all of Jesus’ followers/apostles were Jewish. Christianity started out completely Jewish, it is really a Jewish thing. But things started changing – as we have seen throughout the book of Acts, you can see these slow trickle of change. An African man from Ethiopia became a Christian (Acts 8), a Roman centurion; a military person became a Christian (Acts 10). And at that point the church is gathering momentum, you can see this slow trickle of Gentile conversions becoming a torrent. The church is becoming more and more non-Jewish, even having a governor, a proconsul from way outside Judea, from Cyprus believing the gospel and we see that in Antioch – and Paul and Barnabas, giving their report, seeing the evidence of the grace of God and eventually God opening the gospel to the Gentiles (14:27). You can see that the church is becoming more multi-ethnic, multi-racial, full of Gentiles and Jews. But some people were up to no good- they started creating problems – some men coming from Judea and they started teaching, 15:1, 5- “unless you are circumcised, according to the law of Moses, you cannot be saved…it is necessary to circumcise and obey the law of Moses….” What are they saying? They are saying, look, we are not opposing people who are becoming Christians but you Gentiles- you non-Jewish people, you guys are second-class and the gentile Christians are lower than Jewish Christians. There is a distinction between Jews who are Christians and Gentiles who are Christians because Christianity is really a Jewish thing, to get full rights and privileges in the church, you have to become a Jew, you gentile Christians need to live like the Jews, faith in Jesus in not enough- it has to be Jesus PLUS something – in this case, Jesus plus circumcision. The issue is not that they didn’t have the gospel, –they did– but the issue is – to get the fullest sense of salvation; Jesus is NOT enough, it’s not enough to put your faith in Jesus, it’s Jesus PLUS something. That’s the requirement- you need to add something to get the fullest assurance that you have been accepted, loved by God. There is something more than you must do before you have the whole package. John Stott: They were telling the Gentile converts that faith in Jesus was not enough, not sufficient for salvation: they must add to faith circumcision and to circumcision observance of the law or in other words, they must let Moses complete what Jesus had begun…This strikes at the heart of the gospel because adding anything to Jesus is to deny His sufficiency for you. It could be Jesus plus (you can add) your achievements, your strengths, your reputation, your relationships, your family prosperity, your ambitions, your goals, your dreams, your tastes, your style…adding anything to Jesus is to deny his complete sufficiency for you.
See many of us of who are Christians; we recognize that the Gospel is how we begin our Christian life. We recognize that! We understand that! But the problem is that for many of us – that is where it ends. See the gospel is not just how we begin the Christian life, it is how we must live the Christian life. John Stott: All around us we see Christians and churches relaxing their grasp on the gospel, fumbling it and in danger of letting it drop from their hands altogether. Though we begin with the gospel, the temptation to move away from the gospel, and to let it drop from our hands and heart, one of the dangers that tend to draw us away from the gospel is that we can very easily live by performance, we can live by works. Many of us understand that the gospel as the thing that gets us in, but to keep us in, we assume that it is from our own effort or from our own performance. See the gospel not only ignites the Christian life but it is also the fuel to keep us going and growing as Christians. See the Jewish Christians wanted the Gentile Christians to add circumcision – meaning you gotta to obey and keep the law of Moses to be saved. You got to be a rule keeper to ensure God’s acceptance of you. The spiritual problem is that — it’s not that we have failed to obey God but the spiritual problem is that we are RELYING on our obedience to make us fully acceptable to God. That’s the problem! And the danger of diluting the gospel in our churches, in our small groups, in our homes – is legalism. It is absolutely destructive to the gospel of grace. And you know what legalism deals with –you know what it says– it deals with how you view God? How do you picture God? Think about it – as God thinks of your right now, at this very moment, what is the look on his face towards you? Do you think he’s disappointed in you? Do you think he’s angry? Does his face say, “Get your act together”? Does he say, if only you could do a little more for me?”
So, for example, there is a story that I was reading about Benjamin Franklin- that he had a list of 13 good, virtuous qualities that he had to keep: So, couple of his virtues that he had to keep without fail was…1) silence – don’t speak to much but only to benefit others 2) being frugal – make no expense for yourself, only what may benefit others 3) industry – to seek any opportunity, don’t lose time, use your time and so on…so what he did was that he got a book with a page for each virtue lining a column in which to record “his mistakes”- so he chose a different virtue to work on each week, and he daily noted every mistake, starting over every 13 weeks in order to cycle through the list 4 times a year. So for many, many decades he carried his little book everywhere he went, trying so hard for a clean 13-week cycle. But as he made progress, as he was performing, he found himself struggling with pride- he says that I can disguise it. I can struggle with it. I can mortify it. But it is still alive.
Here is Ben Franklin, who wasn’t a believer, kept a vigorous list of virtues that he had to perform yet at the end of the day, there was a deep longing that betrayed him, I mean, this. Deep. Longing. For. Grace. Why? Because ALL of his shortcomings/his failings were seen as a self-salvation project; with Jesus out of the picture, with enough rules and regulations, you can actually perform to be better. And you know that doesn’t work because performance always leads to pride- it is all about us. Ben Franklin is no different than our first parent – Adam. From the very early one, we decided to do things our way, we could defy GOD, we could do life, we could do relationship, we could do love and intimacy all on our own and live independently of God, it becomes all about us, our performance. We know that the gospel is how we start the Christian life but we have this false view that once we’re saved, we think that Christian living is up to us, it’s about what we do. And performance driven Christianity means that you are always operating, you are always functioning out of what we imagine the gospel to be that rescues us. The question is not – do you have the gospel? But rather- what is your gospel? What kind of gospel do you believe in? The question is – what do you really believe? Are you functioning out of what you imagine the gospel to be? Do we want a religion that is to-be a-do-it yourself kind of thing, if I do this or if I do that, if I pray hard enough, if I read the bible enough, if I just do this kind of service, if I do whatever that feels good- if I followed the Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu – doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant of circumcision, the Muslim code of law – all of these things tells you what you believe in? And what we believe is that we can do something. It’s this whole idea of humanism- believe in yourself, you can do it. If you try hard enough, you can do it. The answer is within us- we just have to try harder. The danger is that we will trust in what we have done-you know what that’s called– self-justifying, self-recommendation, that’s my good works – and that will make me think that I am really a good, good person. That’s when the gospel is fumbled. The gospel says that putting our confidence in what we have done makes Christ worthless to us. Because your identity is about how you live as a Christian rather than based on who you live for? Performance driven Christianity is Christ-less Christianity. That’s why Peter (I love him, he himself has gone through a gospel rescue himself as Paul confronted him to live in line with the truth of the gospel) v. 11- that he says, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus. What grace is saying is that you really don’t get what you truly deserve (we deserve hell, wrath of God due to our belief in ourselves, our pride), yet we actually get what we don’t deserve (what we don’t deserve is God’s unconditional love, grace, the grace that freely rescues us and accepts us, free of charge, no strings attached). Grace will strip you down in such that you will actually feel like you have nothing– but that’s the only way to know and believe that– you will have everything. Why? Because Jesus becomes more to you than you ever could have hoped or imagined. Why? Because He becomes more than just a duty, He becomes more than a theological passion- the gospel of grace rescues you freely because Jesus was somebody, so that I can be free to be a nobody. Because Jesus was strong for me, I am now free to be weak. Because Jesus won for me, I am free to lose. Because Jesus succeeded for me, I am free to fail. The gospel that saves us is the gospel that continues to mature, heal, shape and perfect us. This gospel of grace freely rescues you and me. But not only it rescues you, it constantly changes you.
2) It is the Gospel of grace that constantly changes you v. 7-19
When I was converted, back in the 90s, I was only in the teens. The thing about Christianity that really was so appealing among other things was that— I didn’t want to be the same person, I want to be different; but one of the values in Christianity that I really held on was: I CAN CHANGE. That is the most sensational thing about Christianity- change is possible, now I know that many other religions does convey – change is possible but it is ONLY Christianity that says – change is possible, because change is found in a person and not in a thing, or an ideal or a rule book and it’s shockingly personal. Yet a lot of you who have been either Christians or at least hanging around Christianity for a long time, the question we all ask is- have I really, really changed. Have you really? There are so many things you want to change.
If I ask my wife, which I have, “Soum, do you see me changing?” And she would say, “oh for the most part” – that’s right and that’s true but change is quite a process – because it addressing addictive behaviors – like, we can be addicted to food, we can be addicted to sex, we can be addicted to substances but also there is an uncontrolled emotions – like our anger, our bitterness, our fears, our speech, our harshness, hardness of heart…see Christian change is as gradual as a flower growing in the garden. I mean, when you look at a young girl or young boy, you say, “I think you’ve grown.” Why would you say that? Because you can’t SEE them grow- but what you do notice is that you see them changing gradually;
Let me give you an example that gives the best picture of a gradual change- a British pastor was in a graveyard in Italy and he saw there was a huge marble slab over some man’s grave. An acorn had gotten into the grave about 600 years ago. Out of the acorn came a shoot. Out of the shoot came a tree. Out of the acorn had come a tree that had grown up so big and so tall that it split the marble slab in half. That is the one of the best illustration that I can think of that shows grace doesn’t give up on you – because it is constantly changing you- you will never be the same. If the Spirit of God is in your life, you will change and real Christian change is internal, it’s gradual- it could be a long time under that slab – that acorn may be there for a long time but that’s why transformation is also the work of God in your life. If God absolutely rescued us, saved us by sheer grace alone – then He absolutely, constantly will bring greater realities of change in your life. If justification is about how God looks upon me; sanctification is about what God does in me. If justification is about Christy dying for my sins on the cross; sanctification is about Christ at work in me by the power of the Holy Spirit changing my life.
And if you look Peter, James, Paul and Barnabas are saying in the Jerusalem council in verses 7-29– “hey look, you need to include the Gentiles in your church because this whole initiative is from God- this gospel is divine. We are not here because we had to work hard to get accepted by relying on our good works, NO, but because we were radically transformed/changed by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Look at our lives. You know our story. The only explanation for our change, our inclusion to the Gentile Christians, those non-Jewish people is that God made NO distinction between us and them, because it is our faith, it is the purity of our faith that we can fellowship with one another not some external purity of diet and ritual. This gospel has authority. If you are saying, this gospel is another human idea, you need have Jesus PLUS Something to ensure your salvation then the danger is that you can add it, subtract it to suit to your liking. You can do whatever you want. But if this gospel is from God, then this gospel is divine; it’s bigger than you. You cannot live life as a Christian with a truncated view of the gospel. We just can’t see the gospel as the “door”, the way in, the entrance point into God’s Kingdom. It is not just the door but it is also the path we are to walk every day of our Christian life. It is not just the means of our salvation but it is also the means of our transformation. So, please do not provoke God by resisting what He has clearly revealed- do not put God to the test by saying that we could earn our salvation by self-reliance- that just becomes a burden, it becomes like a yoke-by keeping the law for God to accept me- that’s religion- that’s saying – what I must do for God to accept me. But the gospel is saying – What Jesus did for God to accept me.” That makes a big difference.
And James in v. 13-19- we read that God visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. With THIS the words of the prophets agree. And what is James telling the church? He is saying- “look at the Bible, take a good look at it, because in the Bible what you will see is God’s main focus – and that HIS focus is to rescue, to rebuild and to give hope.” WHY? Why in the world is James quoting something from the prophets? See in v. 16- it is God who will return and rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen, David was fallen man, (Jews are fallen people) he (they) failed but who didn’t!!!! I will rebuild its ruins and I will set it up– he’s talking how God will restore the Jews. And we see that in the life of Jesus- rebuilding the tent of David and repairing the ruins of his people. Jesus lived the life that we should have lived. But in v. 17- the purpose of these rebuilt ruins was never to horde the gospel to themselves but rather the purpose is that the rebuilt ruins (broken people) reaching the world – that’s the purpose – to make a way for the rest of mankind to seek the Lord, specifically, who are the rest of the mankind, not the Jews but the Gentiles, the non-Jews.
So, the question is, what does this have to do with us? What does this have to say about who we are and why we are here? And the answer is: We are ruins- us, we are the ruins in the process of being repaired and rebuilt by grace alone. We are constantly changing and being rebuilt. And we are here so that the rest of mankind will come to know and believe Jesus is the one true Savior and Lord. Let this encourage you, LH, that the times of tearing down are over and we live in the day of divine rebuilding. Let it sink in your mind that we live in a day when God’s purpose is to rebuild the ruins of his people. Let this encourage your own life when you feel that you are very much ruined, fallen, just broken- just know that God is already rebuilding the ruins of your life. But the beautiful picture of change- how that looks like– how change looks like is for you, specifically, how gospel-centered change looks like for you is when we help others see Jesus as the one who was truly broken, ruined for them so that they can see Jesus rebuilding their ruins as well– you are truly changed by the gospel because it came to you when you were ruined so that other broken ruined lives can see the gospel of grace and when you help others see the only grace that can give hope and restoration to broken people around us, you’re changing. That’s the picture of gospel-center transformation, so that He can rebuild us, for the purpose of having others experience the gospel of amazing grace. We stop changing when we “work” to repair our own brokenness or to repair others. Change doesn’t happen that way. We are ruins being rebuilt by the grace of God for the purpose, for the aim of having others see Christ rebuilding, restoring and giving them hope to broken and ruined lives. The sheer breadth of gospel reach are for the ones who are utterly ruined by His grace in the most positive manner. That’s the gospel! It is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that saves us and changes us, constantly.
And finally, there is a community where all of this happens – it is the gospel of grace that creates a whole new community where freedom, change and love are experienced daily.
3) It is the Gospel of grace that creates a whole new community where freedom, change and love are experienced daily v. 22-35
One of the books that I have ever read when it comes to my own process of understanding what community looks like is a classic book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer Life Together. This short little book contains one of the most passionate calls to Christian community of any book that I have ever seen or read. And what he talks about, in his book essentially, is that we can only grow and mature as a Christian when we are able to freely express who we really are, where change is expressed in what Christ has done specifically for a believer and to love your neighbor even when they fail you. Remember his context – he was writing in a Nazi prison during WWII and was executed just weeks before the end of the war and his challenge to the Christians is this—- can we do life together as a community where freedom, change and love are experienced day to day. But what our culture thinks about church and why a whole generation is leaving the church– is because the church has become too political, too exclusive, old fashioned, unconcerned, hostile to people who are different and all the church really cares about is just updating their worship music and preaching style – and I believe that people are hungry for community, where Christ is not something on the periphery but is absolutely in the center of their lives – where it allows freedom because He freely saved you, where it allows change because he constantly is changing you and where it allows love to create a whole new community. And that is what you see in Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council.
Look at how the Jerusalem Council resolved this situation.
—-v. 22 and 28-
-it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to choose men among them—why? To talk, discuss, to work through this particular area of doctrine because there were people who were greatly troubled/unsettled by the fact that my life as a Christian is depended on Jesus PLUS something. V. 28- it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (who- the Jews) that they can’t lay on to the Gentiles a greater burden –
It’s saying that God accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them and to us. He made no distinction between us and them and what they saw was the Spirit had worked in the hearts of Jews and Gentiles – the insiders and the outsiders – and GOD saved BOTH of them. In spite of their vast differences, God saved both of them – One group, the Jews- they were the ultimate insider people, religious, moral kind of people, well-ordered life, they were the most clean people- they received the law of God, history, the temple, sacrifices, law and prophets and it is from their seed, their line a Savior would be born. The other group- the Gentiles was the ultimate outsider, irreligious, they were the most unclean people, foreigners of the promises of God. And what you see in Acts 15 – is that God worked in both of them, He saved both of them, in spite of their religion or irreligion- God made no distinction between the two. From God’s perspective –following the Mosaic Law doesn’t matter. Circumcision doesn’t matter. Being a Jew doesn’t matter- God doesn’t make a distinction. And what became clear to them was the gospel because this clarity happened through the Council – through the community. Why? Because they understood what authentic Christianity looks like instead of insisting their own version of Christianity. They understood that it is more than just practices, things we do but they understood the gospel – the joy of pure grace. That, even the requirements set forth in v. 29 to include both Jews and Gentiles in a community – those are not the duties that bears burden on people but rather delights that bears sheer joy because you know what would lift up these requirements, these walls we put up, these regulations, our preferences, how big/small or strong/weak someone is, our ethnicity, our socio-economic level– you know what lifts all of that: true love- a very deep affection towards each other.
Because all these laws- circumcision, cultural markers, practices, dietary laws, abstain from things, all of the OT testament laws that we read in the Bible…what they mean is that there is such a thing called clean and unclean. If you are circumcised, you are clean and if you are not, you’re unclean. But there needs to be a deep cleansing that is required to access God. But when we read v. 8-9- God knowing our hearts, giving Holy Spirit, making no distinction, CLEANSED their hearts by faith. You see, cleanness- and uncleanness was never about one group of people versus other group of people. It’s about a HOLY GOD cleansing the wicked, unholy unclean sinners like you and I. It’s about our sinful uncleanness and God’s infinite holiness, purity. And circumcision was a symbolic trajectory that pointed forward- it was literally a cutting off, those who were impure were cut off and Jesus experienced on the cross, the ultimate cutting off- being treated as the one who was totally unclean so that we could be treated as totally clean. God proved a cleansing, a purity of heart that all of the ceremony, the laws, the practices, the rituals never, ever could. And when you understand that- that he bore our uncleanness for ALL of us, not just for good people, the Jews but also for the Gentiles – it allows us to enter into a very deep, powerful community with one another. Why? Because you will never say to another person…o my gosh- you are so unclean and I’m not that bad. We can see someone who reads the Bible, prays, serves the poor, go on mission- we see all of these things that this person does and we place a distinction, value – man, that person is good. Or we have someone who rarely goes to church, who doesn’t pray, serve in fact, this person is manipulative, greedy, and selfish – man, that person is bad – There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28)- When we believe that Jesus provided a true cleansing, a purity of heart- we actually enter into a powerful – picture of a gospel-centered community.
It is indeed, Jesus, who took God’s judgment for people like us as being cut off, taking the curse of our sin, being completely cut off from the land of living and was treated as unholy and impure- though he was completely pure and holy and as a result – when we come by faith, not works, we realize just how amazing His grace is to us, just how amazing HIS grace plunges deep into our ruins of our lives so that we can be restored, so that we have a living hope, so that we are in the process of constant transformation, for the purpose of allowing ALL of us, Jew/Gentile, insider/outside to experience a whole new community where we are free to be just as we are and to experience gospel love. The only thing is that you believe, by faith alone, what matters is faith- that’s what God sees- The gospel is about those who believe and put their trust in Christ that you have been saved by His amazing grace to you. When you truly believe that for life as a Christian that it is always Jesus PLUS nothing, then only will you know that you have everything for life that you ever would have wanted or needed.