Troubling Those Who Turn (Acts 15:13-21)
I. Meanwhile, at the 'First Church of Antioch'
What we could call the 'First Church of Antioch' was not an old church, but it was growing (in more ways than one). The church had been established sometime around 42 AD, about ten years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who shared the Good News with both Jews and Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) in what was, at the time, the third largest city of the Roman Empire. In fact, this young church's witness about Christ grew so pervasive, that these disciples were being referred to by their neighbors as “Christ-ones” or even “little Christs”. That title is of course the now common word we pronounce “Christian”.
In addition to their zeal, the 'First Church of Antioch' had good, godly leaders. As we heard last time, these men were listed in the opening verses of Acts 13. Furthermore, two of these leaders had just returned from an incredibly successful missionary trip to Cyprus and Asia Minor. But within just a couple of years, this key church was under attack... not the outside, but from the inside. The opening verse of Acts chapter 15 describes this threat:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers [in Antioch], “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
This mindset is also evident in verse 5 of the same chapter: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” But we're told in verse 2 that this teaching was strongly opposed by the 'First Church of Antioch's' two, resident missionaries, Paul of Tarsus and Barnabas of Cyprus. Eventually, the ensuing verses describe how this dispute was then taken to Jerusalem, so that the apostles and elders there could help resolve the matter.
II. The Passage: “We Should Not Trouble” (15:13-21)
And that, brothers and sisters, friends, is the setting for our study passage this morning. After a powerful statement by the Apostle Peter in verses 7-11, James weighs in. This James was the half brother of Jesus, and most likely the lead elder over the church at Jerusalem. Verse 13...
After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me.  Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.  And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,  “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it,  that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things  known from of old.’  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.  For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
Now I want you to notice there are three parts to the response provided by James. First, in verses 13-18, James wants to absolutely confirm God's grace to the Gentiles. Second, in verse 20, James offers God's guidance for the Gentiles. And third, in verse 21, I believe James wants to explain this call for God's graciousness through the Gentiles. Why don't we look more closely at each of these ideas.
1. God's Grace to the Gentiles (vs. 13-18)
Did you hear in verses 13-18 how James was relying on God's revelation in order to confirm God's redemption? Look at how he references two instances of divine revelation. First, in verse 14, he directs his listeners back to God's revelation to Simon Peter (referred to here as Simeon), a revelation that would eventually lead to the salvation of the Gentile Cornelius and his household. That revelation is described in Acts 10.
But James, in verses 15-18, goes back even further, to the scriptural revelation of Amos 9:11-12. As this eighth-century BC prophet foretold, God would not only restore the Davidic throne through Jesus, the son of David, but in so doing, he would also bring the Gentiles, the nations, under this glorious reign.
By it's also important to understand that James is following up here on what Peter had just stated in verses 7-11. And in light of that, we need to see that James does not disagree with Peter, nor does he add any qualification to the idea that God has taken from the Gentiles (v. 14) “a people for his name”. It's incredibly important we stress this because it was Peter who corrected these men, those who were pushing for Gentile circumcision and law-keeping.
As Peter reminded everyone present, (v. 8) God gave “them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us” and (v. 9) “he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith”. Therefore, Peter could say in verse 11, “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
So not only is James crystal clear about the fact that God himself has, recently and long ago, confirmed his plan to redeem Gentiles, but he also endorses the truth that Peter has just declared: Jews and Gentiles alike are saved though grace, by faith; not by getting circumcised or keeping the Law of Moses.
2. God's Guidance for the Gentiles (v. 20)
But with that idea of law-keeping in mind, let's think carefully about where James goes next. Look back at verse 20. One of the things I believe God wants us to see here is that though James does not believe law-keeping is required for new life, that doesn't mean there are not requirements that go hand-in-hand with new life. In verse 28 of this same chapter, James uses that word “requirements” to described the guidance he provides for them in verse 20. What should these new Gentile Christians do? They should, ...abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.
Now to make sense of this list, the first thing I'd encourage you to do is look at the order as given in verses 28 and 29 (this is simply a restatement of verse 20):
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:  that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality...
It's that same order we find repeated in chapter 21, verse 25 as well. I point that out, because this arrangement is much clearer than the order in verse 20. For example, notice that there are four requirements listed, but the first three are linked together because they have to do with food, specifically what should and should not be eaten. Additionally, those last two food rules also go together, since they connect back to OT commands like Genesis 9:4, “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” The “strangled” category is added because that kind of death often made it difficult to actually drain the blood from the meaty parts of an animal.
To those first three requirements we read that James and the leaders have added “sexual immorality” to this list. The Greek word used here, porneia, is a broad word that includes any sexual activity that takes place outside the bounds of that God-designed, one-man/one-woman marriage covenant.
Now, from one perspective, these requirements are not unusual. For example, Paul wrote about food sacrificed to idols in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, and in that same letter and many other letters, he wrote about fleeing sexual immorality. In fact, Jesus himself put these two things together when he addressed the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira in Revelation 2. But from another perspective, this list is kind of odd. Why just these commands? Shouldn't there be more here? Isn't the NT filled with moral, with spiritual guidance for every follower of Jesus?
3. God's Graciousness through the Gentiles (v. 21)
To answer those questions, we need to remember the context. You'll recall that the trouble erupted here when some Jewish Christians began to argue that the Gentile converts, with whom they were now associating as brothers and sisters in Christ, that these non-Jews should act more Jewish. We can't forget how radically new this was for the Jews. They had always lived as a very set apart people. To now worship together, and eat together, and serve together with Gentiles must have been very challenging in some ways.
But if we look back at verse 21, this is exactly why the list in verse 20 says what it says. Why have James and the elders and the apostles given these requirements about food and sexual immorality? Verse 21... “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” Why is James pointing this out? Because he doesn't want these new Gentile believers to give any unnecessary offense to either believing and unbelieving Jews. As Paul powerfully prescribed in I Corinthians 10:31–33...
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God,  just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
Both food and sex were everywhere connected to idolatrous worship in the Greco-Roman world. And while sexual purity was first a matter of obedience to God, abstaining from certain foods was also about setting aside one's rights in order to keep a brother or sister from stumbling. These leaders simply wanted the Gentiles to show the same concern and grace to their new Jewish brothers that God had shown and was showing to them.
III. Legalism and Libertinism
Now look back with me at verse 19. James declares, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God...” How were these Gentiles being troubled? How might they be further troubled? Well, first, they were being unsettled about the basis of their salvation, and second, some were imposing upon them cultural expectations, rather than divine expectations.
Expanding on that last point, it's important that we are clear about how God moved his people from the old covenant to the new covenant. That means not everything that once was a divine expectation was still a divine expectation. What some of the Jewish teachers did not understand is that their expectations for the Gentiles had become simply cultural expectations. But God's new covenant people is a diverse people, and though there can be cultural friction in the church at times, we should never give in to the temptation to elevate our cultural expectations and press them as divine expectations. Sadly, this has been a common pitfall over the centuries.
Of course, the even more foundational issue highlighted by this passage how some of the Gentiles believers were being misled about the basis of their salvation. Think with me about the two correctives God has provided for us this morning through these verses. On one hand, this passage describes an extreme we know as legalism. The confession of legalism is, “If I obey God, I will be accepted by God.” But the works and work of Christ are the basis of our salvation, not our works.
But on the other hand, this passage also speaks to an extreme called antinomianism or libertinism. The confession of libertinism is, “I don't need to obey God, since I am already accepted by God.” There is evidence from the NT that some Gentile converts actually did believe this. But it's also clear that many Jewish critics believed this was the logical conclusion of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone; that grace would be viewed a license to sin. That's why they argued for law-keeping.
Brothers and sisters, friends, have you been troubled by either of these extremes? Are you being troubled by either of these perspectives? Do you find yourself slipping into that mindset that says, “If I obey God, I will be accepted by God”? Do you regularly feel like a spiritual failure, and/or that God is regularly disappointed with you, or angry at you? If that's you, be encouraged by God's word through Peter this morning: “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus”. In light of verse 10, don't place on yourself a yoke that none of God's people have every been able to bear. Christ bore that yoke for you. Please rest in His finished work.
Or maybe you find yourself slipping into that mindset that says, “I don't need to obey God, since I am already accepted by God.” No, you may not say that explicitly, but you may be living that way. You may be downplaying your sinful compromise by telling yourself that 'Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven'. Maybe faith is just a box in your life, disconnected from every other box in your life. Maybe for you, faith is more about 'going to heaven'; therefore, your life now is not that important. If that's you, I pray you are challenged by God's word through James this morning: there may not be requirements to earn new life, but there are requirements that go with new life.
You see a biblical confession in light of the gospel of grace is this: “I am accepted by God, therefore I obey God... with joy, with gratitude, with a new heart.” And that new heart beats with a love for God and others. Legalism. Libertinism. Are you troubled by either of these extremes? Or are you troubling others? If so, talk to God this morning. Let's come to him, holding firmly to the truth of the gospel. And may all of us, in light of this morning's passage, be like the church in Antioch in Acts 15:31, “And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.”
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
October 2, 2022Visions of Jesus (Revelation 19:9-10)
September 25, 2022Why Justice is Worth Singing About (Revelation 15)
September 18, 2022How to Conquer the Dragon (Revelation 12:11)