Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of teaching from my assignment in Leviticus 26. In that lesson, we discussed about the Lord’s promises to provide blessings to Israel if they put they followed God’s will, and the Lord’s promises of curses that follow if Israel turned away from the path God had set before them.
And then we discussed how Jesus Christ bore those curses on Himself and fulfilled the Old Testament Law so that we would be free of legalism and free to live a life that honors our savior.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this week’s assignment is Acts 15 and I’m pretty sure it’s the exact same message from a different point of view. Leviticus looked at God’s plan for us from the Old Testament point of view, and Acts 15 will make an argument against legalism but this time from a New Testament point of view.
II. Acts 15 The Jerusalem Council
Let’s put ourselves in history and see who is talking to who and when they’re doing the talking. It’s the year 50 A.D, and Paul has been preaching the gospel for 13 years. Acts 15:1 begins with,
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.
This event is commonly known as The Jerusalem Council, and it’s an important part of the early church. See, the early church wasn’t full of Baptists or Catholics. The early church was full of Jews who had spent their entire faithful lives as pious Jews, observing the law. The Holy Spirit was getting ready to work in the church leadership to establish the identity of the church. Was the new church just a new sect of Judaism? Or was this new church something completely new? Were the converted Jews to abandon their centuries of following hundreds of daily rules in favor of this newfound freedom in Christ, or were new believers to become Jews and adhere to the Old Testament Laws?
III. Jews and Gentiles
So in this struggle between Jews and Gentiles, it’s helpful to understand who Gentiles are and what it means. Let’s start in Genesis – of course – this time in Genesis 12. Abram is living in a world filled with pagan worshippers and idolatry, and God separates Abram in order to establish a covenant, to raise a great nation of those who would follow the Lord. Genesis 12:1-3 says that when Abram was 75 years old, the Lord said to him,
Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
Abram was to live apart for the Lord’s purposes. Remember that God never changes; these promises are forever. And Abraham’s descendants proclaimed the one true God to the world. Those that did not descend from Abraham were allowed to stay if they worshipped the Lord or keep traveling through. Strong’s definitions says the word “gentile” comes from this word:
gôwy, go’-ee; rarely (shortened) גֹּי gôy; apparently from the same root as H1465 (in the sense of massing); a foreign nation; hence, a Gentile; also (figuratively) a troop of animals, or a flight of locusts:—Gentile, heathen, nation, people.
Now, the word refers to any non-Jew that cannot trace his lineage to Abraham. Or a locust.
God’s plan was to separate Abraham into a great nation to demonstrate the Lord’s power and glory. But the gentiles aren’t forgotten; it’s just that God directed His plan through Abraham as His chosen people, and gentiles would see the glory of God through the nation of Israel and be blessed. The verse we just read, Genesis 12:3 ended with this:
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
Not just the Jews would be blessed by Abraham’s obedience, but all the earth. Sometimes God doesn’t want to leave scripture open to interpretation, so He repeats it with a definition just to make sure we get it. So this line is repeated in Galatians 3:8,
The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.”
God’s eternal plan has always had a special role for the Jews, a plan in the past and still a plan for the future. That’s the purpose of Romans chapter 11, to clarify to the Gentiles what God is doing with Israel. The first 6 verses of Romans 11 says that God is still disciplining Israel; if God had rejected Israel, there is no reason for discipline. God is still fulfilling His covenant with Abraham. Then Paul tells us in Romans 11 verses 11-24 that us gentiles shouldn’t become conceited just because the Jews are being discipline; our faith grafts us to the olive tree of Israel. We gentiles owe the Jews a great deal. From the Jews, we received the bible, our savior, and the path to our salvation. In return, Paul tells us that we should show the Jews mercy so that they will receive God’s mercy.
What’s God’s plan for the nation of Israel? Romans 11:25-26,
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
“This is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”
Today, Israel has still rejected their Messiah, and the purpose of the gentiles is to demonstrate that God’s mercy has come to all on the basis of faith.
IV. Old Testament for the Jews
So 13 years after Paul’s conversion to Christianity, Paul is preaching that we are saved by faith alone, not by the Law. Orthodox Jews who believe in Christ are saying that, even with faith, obedience to the Law is still necessary, so if you want salvation, you have to follow the Law. These orthodox Jews run into Paul and Barnabas and a big argument breaks out. Acts 15:1-2 says these Orthodox Jews required Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem so that the church could straighten them out.
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.
You might think that the church is summoning Paul to give him a stern talking to, but in reality, it’s the Holy Spirit living in Paul that sends him to Jerusalem to straighten the church out.
Paul and Barnabas set out on their way to Jerusalem. I like this verse 3 above; Paul and Barnabas are not worried about this meeting with the church; on the contrary, they’re happily spreading the good news to the gentiles along the way that they are free from the Law.
The church had some stern words for Paul when he arrived in verses 4-5,
When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
The orthodox Jews, the Pharisees, required the gentiles to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses. And this became a stumbling block to the gentiles. In other words, the same Law that the Jews were unable to fulfill for centuries before Christ the savior came was now being imposed on the gentiles.
V. New Testament for Everyone
Two of the Apostles stood up to speak. The first is Peter, who appealed to the Jews on behalf of logic and a vision Peter received. The vision we briefly touched on last week in Acts 11. In that vision of a great sheet being lowered from heaven, he is told to get up, kill, and eat, even though Leviticus has strict dietary rules. When Peter objects because the animals are unclean, God says in Acts 11:9,
But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’
And at first, Peter understands the Law has been fulfilled through Christ, so the Leviticus dietary restrictions are no longer necessary, but then he realized that Christ sacrifice did a lot more than allowing Peter to eat shrimp and grits. It cleansed the believer, and what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy. Later in Acts 11:16-18,
And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”
So Peter understand that if Christ truly fulfilled the Law, then the Law doesn’t save us. The Law only tells us where we fall short, and our shortcomings are already paid for by Christ Jesus. So what possible reason could the church have for insisting on circumcision for the gentiles? They are already cleansed by God. So now Peter tells the church in Acts 15:7-11,
After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
Why put a heavy yoke of burden on the gentiles, when Christ Jesus tells us that His yoke is easy and his burden is light? Jesus Himself made this statement in Matthew 11:28-30,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The yoke of the Pharisees was heavy and burdensome. The yoke of the Pharisees was legalism and self-righteousness. The yoke of the Pharisees was not intended for the Pharisees, but for the Pharisees to impose upon the people. And Jesus rejected all of that, saying that a saving faith in Christ Jesus was easy.
The burden of legalism was carried by Christ. Christ perfectly fulfilled the Old Testament Law in active obedience. He carries our burden for us and then became the sacrifice for us because He knows our sins are too heavy for us to bear. As believers in Christ, our burden is light. Romans 12:1-2 tells us what our burden is,
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
In other words, love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. And we do not do this alone, for the Holy Spirit indwells all believers and constantly encourages us to be Christ. This yoke of faith is light, it’s easy to bear, and where we stumble, we are constantly encouraged and forgiven.
But the heavy yoke of self-righteousness and legalism says Jesus’ sacrifice was insufficient. A heavy yoke says we must continually strive to make ourselves acceptable to God through works. Don’t get me wrong; God loves our works. But our works do not save us or make us acceptable. It is the sacrifice of Jesus, alone, that makes us acceptable to God.
The other apostle to stand up and speak is James in Acts 15:13-18,
After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
‘After these things I will return,
And I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen,
And I will rebuild its ruins,
And I will restore it,
So that the rest 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 long ago.’
James is pointing out to the Jews that Christ came for all. God’s plan was to work through His people of Israel, but when God sent His son, the sacrifice of God Himself was too big to be limited to a chosen few. The sacrifice of Jesus saved all who would come to Him. Moreover, James is saying that the sacrifice of Jesus for all people is not something Christ changed; it is prophecy that Christ fulfilled. God knew from the fall of Adam that mankind would need a savior, and that savior would be Christ Himself for all mankind.
I find it interesting that Peter and James both reach the same conclusion from opposite points of view. Peter says, why go back to the Law and impose the Law on the gentiles? Close your bible, Christ has fulfilled the Law. James on the other hand says, “Open your bible. See how Christ has fulfilled the Law.”
You and I should do the same. Open our bibles to the Old Testament and understand everything that Christ fulfilled. The Law convicts us of our sin, but Christ frees us from the burden of the law. And then close our bibles when the urge to impose a heavy yoke of legalism says we must still work our way to heaven. Christ already fulfilled the Law, and the yoke of Christ is far lighter than any yoke of obedience.
VI. Balance Obedience and Freedom
So, if Christ frees us from the Law, are we free to do anything we want? Well, yes. And no.
One argument that could be made is that Christ died for our sins, then I should go on sinning. The more I sin, the more it’s apparent how big Christ’s sacrifice was, right?
There’s actually a term for this. Two Greek words, “anti”, meaning “against”, and “nomos”, meaning “law.” Antinomianism takes the biblical teaching of the freedom of Christ to an unbiblical conclusion that there is no low, not even moral law, that Christians should obey. Paul talks about this heresy in Romans 6:1-2,
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?
There is still a purpose to Old Testament Law. Romans 7 tells us it convicts us of our sin. The Law illuminates God’s moral code and how we ought to live our life. It shows us how far we have fallen. But obedience to the Law cannot save us.
But if obedience cannot save us, then disobedience certainly cannot save us. If we know we are saved from our sins and take the attitude that we now have permission to go on sinning, it’s like crucifying Christ all over again. Living in sin enslaves us, defiles us, shames us, and it spreads death and corruption in our lives. It keeps us from the abundant life that Christ promises. To avoid sin, we follow the Law.
Here’s the balance each of us must learn. If we love Christ and are saved from our sins, then we obey the Law. But if we obey the Law, then we must obey the whole Law. If we obey the whole Law, then what was the purpose of Christ sacrifice to fulfill the Law?
Balance legalism and antinomianism. Antinomianism leads to living in sin and never knowing the abundant life. Following the Law, on the other hand, leads to legalism and judgmentalism that so corrupted the Pharisees. So do we obey the Law, or don’t obey the Law?
And that’s how Acts 15 wraps up in verses 19 and 20. After listening to Peter and James, James and the church agreed like this:
Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.
There are things we do as Christians that can demonstrate the love of Christ within us, especially when we are obedient to Christ’s teachings. But there are also things that, even though permitted, can lead people away from Christ. James asks the gentiles to abstain from things that make us a bad witness.
This applies to a great many things that we should or shouldn’t do. We must open our bibles and follow the Law. We must close our bibles and follow our hearts. We must do both if we are to strike a balance between legalism and antinomianism. We are free indeed in Christ, but we are not to so indulge in that freedom that we become a stumbling block to others that are seeking to grow closer to the Lord.
So in your daily walk with Christ, remember your freedom. Christ came to us, born of a virgin, to become a perfect sacrifice, because the sacrifice of God himself covers both Jew and Gentile, all who seek the Lord. Balance our lives between being a between legalistic Jew that must follow all of the Old Testament Law and free-loving gentile who is free from the Law because of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Balance our lives between being a judgmental Pharisee and a wild, uncivilized antimomialist. Follow the law, and remember that you are also free of the law.
And if you don’t get that balance exactly right? It doesn’t matter because God knows your heart. That’s the best Christmas present ever.
To God be the glory. Amen.