It wasn’t long before some Jews showed up from Judea insisting that everyone be circumcised :”If you’re not circumcised in the Mosaic fashion, you can’t be saved.” Paul and Barnabus were on their feet at once in fierce protest. The church decided to resolve the matter by sending Paul, Barnabas, and a few others to put it before the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem…
The arguments went on and on, back and forth, getting more and more heated. Then Peter took the floor: “Friends, you well know that from early on God made it quite plain that he wanted the pagans to hear the Message of this good news and embrace it – and not in any secondhand or roundabout way, but firsthand, straight from my mouth. And God….. gave them the Holy Spirit exactly as he gave him to us… So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and us too? Don’t we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those from beyond our nation. So what are we arguing about?”
(Acts 15.1-2,6-11; Message translation)
Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you… The moment any of you submits to circumcision or any other rule-keeping system, at that same moment Christ’s hard-won gift of freedom is squandered… When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace.
(Gal 5.1-4; Message translation)
Recent bible studies with our church in the book of Acts have brought us to this remarkable chapter at the heart of the story… The story of a massive, stand-up fight! We often associate the early church with generosity, lives being transformed and a general air of rejoicing and good will. So where does this battle fit in?
I want to consider today how some fights are not only inevitable, but necessary, and that as believers we need to be aware of this – ready to fight as Jesus’ disciples fought, for truth, for the good news about salvation by faith.
The church in Antioch, where the story begins, is the first non- Jewish or Gentile congregation to be established – ever. It was hugely significant in the onward spread of the good news across the known world, and must have been an exciting and sometimes chaotic place to be, with so many cultures coming together in faith. Into this heady environment of new life, hope and possibility, came a group of devout Jewish-believers who had come to faith in Jesus from their Jewish roots and out of a lifetime observing the laws of Moses.
This group asserted that the Gentiles couldn’t really be saved until they adopted Jewish practices – in other words, they argued that salvation came via the observance of circumcision and Mosaic law, in addition to faith in Jesus. Perhaps you can see why this argument was so very dangerous, and why Paul(himself an incredibly devout Jew) and Barnabus reacted with such vigour and concern. Such an argument implied that salvation was not by God’s grace alone, but that human actions – in this case law/ritual observance – were also necessary.
It was crucial to the ongoing spread of the gospel to Gentile populations that this false teaching be dealt with immediately and forever. If salvation is not God’s free gift, then grace is not grace, and we are still bound to sin and hopelessness!
I am profoundly thankful that Paul and Barnabus saw the danger, and with the support of the Antioch church, headed for Jerusalem to get it sorted out at once. Their willingness to confront wrong teaching – and the respect and gentleness with which the church leaders eventually responded – is an example to us of how we should behave when confronted with plausible but dangerously false teaching. Anything that detracts from God’s grace in Jesus, anything that suggests it is by my own effort/observance/tradition, that I earn the right to salvation is to be rejected with steady determination.
After this great debate – with all the discomfort and tension that such occasions produce – the message of the gospel could go forth with greater clarity, and the whole body of believers now knew that the observance of Mosaic law and ritual was unnecessary for Gentile believers. It was this event which ensured that the message which spread continued to carry the full power of God’s offer of forgiveness, salvation and transformation in Jesus.
Almighty God, we praise you today for those who were willing to be unpopular, to upset established systems and to challenge the influential parties. Thank you that through this great confrontation, you brought new clarity and commitment to the gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus. Thank you that this same grace, undeserved goodness to us, continues to be made available to all and any who will today receive it and confess Jesus as their Lord. Give us courage to proclaim that message, and also to defend it against wrong and dangerous teaching. Be glorified through your church we pray O Lord, Amen.