Working on Our Differences

Series: Fired Up

July 15, 2018 | Taylor Rutland
Passage: Acts 15:1-21

Today’s passage stirs in my heart regularly these days. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago through my own study of the Jerusalem Council that I began to be intrigued by the weightiness and depth of this passage. It’s really just a long narrative. There isn’t anything too theologically complex here. It doesn’t require great explanation or extra study to interpret its meaning. BUT the practical application from this passage I’m convinced we still do not fully understand, appreciate, or practice. Even Peter himself had to have a separate vision from the Lord in order to fully understand what God was doing. God was moving in the hearts of individuals already. In Acts 9 Saul is converted. A Jew by birth who is told he will take the news of Jesus to the Gentiles. Then in Acts 10 Peter receives a vision from the Lord about eating foods that would have been considered unclean for a Jew to eat. Another example of God beginning to break down the barrier between Jew and Gentile. Then Saul and Barnabas go out on what is known as the first missionary journey, and to everyone’s surprise guess who is receptive to the message? It’s Gentiles on many occasions instead of the Jews. So now we enter into Acts 15. Paul and Barnabas arrive back from their first missionary journey and they are forced to figure out how can the teachings of Jesus be for both Jews and Gentiles?

 We Are Not the Gatekeepers:

"But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” — Acts 15:1

The teachers from Judea were entering dangerous territory. They were projecting their own opinions on what it means for someone to be saved.

We do the same thing. Every one of us in this room make judgment calls on people’s salvation. We might not do it publicly, but in our hearts and minds we do it. We’ll say things like “I just don’t see how this person can call themselves a Christian and believe in this, or I don’t believe someone who engages in this type of behavior could be a follower of Christ.

Now I’m not saying that an accurate understanding of who Jesus is and our behavior don’t matter. I am simply cautioning us to remember that Jesus tells us to get the log out of our own eye before we remove the speck from someone else’s. Only God knows someone’s heart and whether or not true repentance and faith in Christ has occurred.

I am convinced the more that I read this passage that the issue wasn’t just about circumcision. It was really about the established group wanting those from “the outside” to conform to their way. I think it was a powerplay. It was a way for the Jewish believers to hold on to the little control that they had left.

  • Friends do not miss the application here. There are traditions and practices that those of us who grew up in church do not want to lose. And sometimes we will stop at nothing to make sure that we preserve the church the way that we want it. But as soon as we do that we are making it about us. I deserve the music my way, I deserve the best parking spots, I give money to the church therefore my opinions and preferences matter more, I want the shades up, I want the shades down, it’s too cold in here, it’s too hot in here. Here is what the early church realized in this passage. In order to reach people that we have never reached before, we will have to do things we have never done before. What about our hearts this morning? Are willing to do that? When we have a mission mindset suddenly the things that were so important to us take a backseat in order to reach people with the message of Jesus.

Remember the Truth about Salvation:

"Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." — Acts 15:10-11

The Bible absolutely us a clear picture and understanding of what salvation is. We can be confident in our salvation in Christ, but these teachers were adding additional elements to the truth of the Gospel. They were saying that these Gentile believers could not be saved unless they were circumcised just like every other Jewish believer.

They were making something essential that was not. A personal preference became a matter of first importance. The Jewish believers still weren't getting it. Peter told them you are putting a yoke on their necks.

  • Now a yoke is a frame of wood or a bar by which two animals are joined together at the head or neck in order to work together more effectively. Now for oxen it is a good thing, but every time the word for yoke is used in the New Testament it is used figuratively and almost always negatively.

Peter was explaining to them that they are placing an unnecessary obligation or burden on these Gentile believers. Just like it adds tremendous pressure and weight on the oxen, the Jewish believers were doing the same thing to these Gentiles.

  • Did you know that the only two occasions where yoke is used in a positive way is when Jesus speaks of it? He says my yoke is easy, and he also says take my yoke upon you. Jesus is the only one who can make a positive spin on a yoke.

Jesus teaches to rid yourself of the yoke, and yet these Jewish teachers were adding the yoke. They completely forgot that they themselves were unable to keep the commandments. The entire Old Testament was full of laws that the Jews were absolutely terrible at keeping.

  • Paul settles this issue for us when he tells us in Romans 10:4 “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The period of the Mosaic law is done. For you and I the religious or societal obligations that we think make us right before God actually move us farther away from him. You cannot make yourself right before God, ever. But a person can. The work of Jesus on the cross is what makes you right before God. But it’s only available to those who believe it.

Respect and Honor Differences:

"Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood." — Acts 15:19-20

So James hears from Peter, and the he gives the following recommendations. He asked the Gentiles to do only 4 things.

  1. To not eat food sacrificed to idols. What would happen is that often times after food was sacrificed to idols the remains of that food could be sold in the market or eaten. But James says idolatry is a big enough deal for both Jews and Gentiles that they do not need to do this.
  2. Sexual immorality-many of the Gentiles coming from a pagan background would not have had the same view of a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman, nor would they have had the same view of marriage. James says they need to fall in line on this issue.
  3. Strangling meant that there was a way to kill the animal in a way where the blood remained in the animal and then
  4. Abstain from blood and there were all sorts of laws and rules pertaining to blood.

There were a lot of cultural differences between the Jews and the Gentiles. This marriage between the two was going to require some give and take. James and the Jewish leadership were willing to say you know what, circumcision is important for us, but Jesus doesn’t demand this so let’s not force them to do it.

We need to stop for a moment and realize just how big of a moment this is for the Jewish side of the church. Circumcision was the identity marker for being a Jew. Everything related back to circumcision. Genesis 17 clearly spells this out. What made the people of Israel set apart was the fact that they were circumcised. As one commentator put it, no circumcision meant no covenant which meant no promise which meant no nation. For these Jewish believers to say circumcision is no longer the identity was huge. This is a shift. They were beginning to understand for the first time that their identity was in Christ.

At the same time, there were certain standards that James and the leadership believed the Gentiles should accommodate them with. Now most of these accommodations revolved around table fellowship. How were the Jews and the Gentiles going to be able sit down at a meal with each other? If Gentiles didn’t mind eating food that had been originally intended for idol worship or eating food from a strangled animal, then why should they be prohibited from doing so? The witness of Gentile Christians mattered to James. He didn’t want them engaging in practices that would cause confusion to Jewish believers throughout the world at that time.

James recommendation was a way for the Jewish and Gentile believers to remain unified despite their differences. The future of the church of Jesus Christ was at stake in this council. If they could not come to an agreement, or an understanding the mission of the church would have been compromised.

  • We had the memorial service for C.J. Davis yesterday. A 17 year old boy who was shot and killed last week. C.J. began coming to church here in 2011 after we began a sports ministry at Bunny Friend playground in the Upper 9th ward. I simply got involved because I love sports. I didn’t have any idea of how God could be at work in me through these opportunities. I just loved baseball and figured I would help out. We weren’t very good. In fact, we were flat out awful. But over time it became less and less about the competition, and more and more about the kids. We started bringing C.J. and 2-3 other kids with us to church. We even took a few kids to camp one summer. C.J. was one of those boys. He went to VBS. He did not listen to anyone. He had major authority issues. He had tons of anger. I can remember Andrew sitting on top of him one afternoon at VBS for like an hour because he kept running away from us. You know, for those of you who remember C.J. you can identify with what I am telling you. It would have been so much easier to just say I don’t have time for this, I don’t have the energy. But this church stepped up. They loved C.J. and over time God chipped away at that heart of stone, and eventually C.J. became a follower of Christ.
  • I guess the reason this passage hits home for me is because we could have given up. C.J. could have given up. We could have said that the differences between one another were too great. The obstacles were too much to overcome, but we didn’t. Now it was hard work. It required time, patience, repeated moments where I felt like a failure. Like all the time and energy we put in with him was all for nothing. But now I look back on it with C.J. gone, and I realize that it was worth it.

It was worth it for the Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ to settle their differences. Because from Acts 16 through the rest of the book. We see a massive movement of God throughout the known world. Take away the Jerusalem council and no Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus. Paul’s second and third missionary journeys do not happen.

Is there anything we are holding on to that is preventing a massive movement of God from happening? In our city? In our nation? In the world?

Series Information

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