(ACTS 15)

In the past few weeks, I have shared four lessons on Sunday mornings:

A New Me in a New World

A New People

New People Leadership

Decisions: New People Ownership

In these four lessons, we have noted that Christ died to produce a new people, a people who are unlike any people who existed. Each person who chooses to let Jesus Christ possess his or her life becomes a new person. All persons belonging to Christ make God's new people. We saw that these new people were given a new type of leadership. In Acts chapter one, the first of these new people participated in the leadership process in a way that had never occurred before. In Acts 6 these new people were given the responsibility of making a very difficult decision for the entire congregation. They were given the responsibility to resolve a very serious problem that threatened the whole congregation. The apostles themselves gave the congregation that responsibility.

This morning we will look at the most difficult, controversial decision made concerning the church in the first century. We learn about this decision in Acts 15. I ask you to follow me by looking at Acts 15 as I discuss what happened.

  1. Jews in Palestine basically refused to associate with people who were not Jews.
    1. That refusal had its roots in God's commandments and their religious laws.
      1. To preserve their identity as God's people, they had almost no association with non-Jewish people.
      2. This self-imposed isolation was used to help protect them from idolatry.
      3. It also was used to help them protect and preserve what they believed was God's destiny for them.
    2. When many first century Jews in Jerusalem became Christians, these converted Jews soon were introduced to some understandings that were very difficult for them to accept.
      1. It was difficult for them to understand God's destiny for them.
        1. God's destiny for them in Jesus was extremely different from the destiny they had believed in for centuries.
        2. Their ultimate destiny was not to isolate themselves as God's people.
        3. Their ultimate destiny was to share the good news of the resurrected Jesus with all non-Jews as well as all Jews.
      2. It was difficult for them to understand that God loved non-Jews as much as He loved Jews.
      3. It was difficult for them to understand that God would accept and save anyone who accepted the resurrected Jesus.
      4. Several converted Jews were convinced that non-Jews could be converted to Christ only if they first were converted to God; they were converted to God by converting to Judaism.
    3. In Acts 10 the Jewish apostle Peter went into the home of the non-Jewish Cornelius to teach him and his friends about Jesus.
      1. There was only one reason for Peter going to Cornelius: Jesus Christ directly, forcefully told him to go.
      2. Only after he arrived did he understand why Jesus told him to go: "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him" (Acts 10:34,35).
    4. Peter's visiting in Cornelius' home, teaching Cornelius and his friends, and baptizing them deeply troubled the church in Jerusalem; in Acts 11 they made it very plain to Peter that he had deeply disappointed them.
    5. In Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas are instructed by the Holy Spirit to begin a missions outreach to non-Jewish people, which Paul and Barnabas did.

  2. In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas returned from the lengthy trip they took to preach Jesus to non-Jews.
    1. The trip began from the non-Jewish congregation in Antioch of Syria, and it ended in the same non-Jewish congregation in Antioch of Syria.
      1. Paul and Barnabas arrived to find some Jewish Christians from the Jerusalem area in Antioch.
        1. They were informing these non-Jewish Christians that it was not possible for them to be saved unless they agreed to the rite of Jewish circumcision.
        2. In other words, unless they were converted to God by the rite of Jewish circumcision, belonging to Jesus Christ would not save them.
        3. Can you see the spiritual disaster of that position?
      2. When Paul and Barnabas arrived, they had a serious confrontation and debate with these Jewish Christians (15:2).
        1. But nothing was resolved.
        2. It was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and the Jewish Christians would go to Jerusalem and place this issue before the apostles and elders.
      3. When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the Jerusalem church and its leadership.
      4. Paul and Barnabas gave this Jewish congregation a complete report on all that God had done when they taught non-Jews (15:4).
      5. Immediately, a group of Jewish Christians who were also Pharisees took the floor and declared that it was essential to instruct all non-Jewish converts to be circumcised and observe the law of Moses (15:5).
      6. The leadership (the apostles and elders) had a meeting to discuss and debate this suggested requirement, but their discussion and debate resolved nothing (15:6,7).
      7. After a lot of debating, Peter took the floor and reminded them that in the early days God sent him to teach the non-Jews, and that God, who knows the heart, gave those non-Jews the Holy Spirit just as God did them (15:7-11).
        1. God had cleansed their hearts by faith and saved them by grace.
        2. They had no right to expect something of these non-Jews that God had said nothing about.
      8. Then the multitude listened quietly as Paul and Barnabas reported on all the miracles that God performed as they taught the non-Jews (15:12).
      9. Then James took the floor and reminded everyone of what God told Peter, used the prophets to verify the correctness of Peter's actions, and stated that it was his judgment that they should not make this requirement of non-Jews (15:13-21).
    2. I want to especially call your attention to 15:22.
      1. It was decided to send a letter to all the non-Jewish congregations to inform them of the decision: circumcision and obedience to the law of Moses was not necessary for a non-Jew to be saved.
      2. Who made this decision? The apostles, the elders, and the whole church.
      3. This could be the most serious doctrinal decision made in the first century.
        1. If they had made the opposite decision, it would have altered the course of Christianity forever.
        2. A decision to require circumcision and obedience to the law of Moses for salvation would have made Christianity a Jewish movement instead of a world movement.
        3. It was a controversial, emotional decision.
      4. For the whole church to participate in the controversial decision to send a letter to non-Jewish congregations, the whole church had to witness the discussion, the disagreement, and the reasons for reaching that conclusion.
        1. Verse 12 specifically states that all the multitude kept silent as they listened to Paul and Barnabas.
        2. The whole church heard this highly controversial doctrinal discussion among the apostles and the elders.
        3. The whole church endorsed sending the letter.
        4. The whole church helped select the Jewish Christians who were to take the letter to non-Jewish churches.
        5. The whole church had both opportunity and responsibility in this matter.
        6. The whole church helped make the decision, but the Christians who were Pharisees actively opposed that decision for many years.

  3. The number one requirement in Christianity is faith.
    1. Christianity stands on the foundation of faith in the crucified, resurrected Jesus.
      1. The person who does not place his or her faith in the crucified, resurrected Jesus cannot be a Christian.
        1. Without that faith, baptism will not make him or her a Christian.
        2. Without that faith, church membership will not make him or her a Christian.
        3. Without that faith, taking communion will not make him or her a Christian.
        4. Without that faith, being present in worship assemblies will not make him or her a Christian.
        5. Without that faith, practicing Christian morals will not make him or her a Christian.
      2. The congregation that does not place its faith in the crucified, resurrected Jesus is not Christian.
        1. It can be biblically organized, but it is still not Christian.
        2. It can wear a biblical name, but it is still not Christian.
        3. It can have the biblical form of leadership, but it is still not Christian.
        4. It can study the Bible and only the Bible, but it is still not Christian.
      3. Without faith in the crucified, resurrected Jesus, Christianity cannot exist.
    2. Too often congregations are more concerned about the members doing the "right things" than they are concerned about the members acting in faith.
      1. "We are not really concerned about your worshipping in faith; we just demand that you do the right things in worship."
      2. "We are not really concerned about your living in faith; we just want you to do the right things in the approved way."
    3. Today in many Churches of Christ there is greater concern in leadership for controlling the actions of the members than concern for developing the faith of the members.
      1. In too many congregations, leaders feel confident as long as the members are doing things they want to be done in the way they want them done.
      2. Their concern focuses much more on controlling congregational behavior than on developing congregational faith.
      3. In this concern, leaders often try to "protect" and "control" the congregation by making decisions in isolation for undisclosed reasons.
      4. That obviously did not happen in Acts 15.
      5. Your elders continue to make it clear that this is not how they choose to provide you leadership.

Allow me to close with some personal observations.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 16 November 1997
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