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Jun 3 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

May 29, 2016 – Acts 15:1-35

Culture Conversion or Christian Conversion?

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. Acts 15:1-2

Intro: The events reported here are extremely serious

So big, it may be the primary reason Luke wrote the Book of Acts
– a crucial decision was reached and a radical breakthrough occurred
– the central problem addressed here recurs in Paul’s letter
• this is a cause he never stopped fighting to resolve
• the crisis at the heart of this chapter appears immediately (v. 1)

Vv. 1-5, The epicenter of the dispute was Antioch

The agitators who set it off were from Jerusalem
– they are not identified other than “some men”
• they came to Antioch without authorization
◦ they had taken this mission to “fix” the church there upon themselves
◦ in their minds, Gentiles were converts to Judaism
• the issue is no less important than salvation, upon which they placed a condition on Gentiles
◦ their thinking was, “If you believe in the God of Abraham, then the rules of Moses also apply to you”
◦ no other Christian leader in Antioch had seen the need for issuing this sort of requirement
– salvation is not only escaping punishment and getting into heaven
• it means to rescue, but also to protect protect (to be kept safe and sound), heal and restore
◦ salvation begins in this life, when we surrender ourselves to Jesus
• God puts our broken lives back together — he makes us whole
◦ for now, our salvation is ongoing, and completed in heaven
◦ but the agitator’s message was, one must become a Jew to become a Christian

Paul and Barnabas adamantly opposed this teaching
– they had spent a couple years among Gentiles, leading them to God
• the people who responded to them had met God through Jesus–apart from Judaism
• it was not only a theological mistake to require something else, it was wrong
– the conflict was so intense that it had to be taken to Jerusalem
• and this is fortunate for us, because of what they resolved
• we don’t have climb over ethnic or religious walls to get to Jesus

It can be shocking to learn of Pharisees who had become believers in Jesus (v. 5)
– their influence in Jerusalem was keenly felt
• now that the issue had come to the apostles, the Pharisees took it a step further
• Gentiles not only had to be circumcised, but also to observe the Law of Moses
– is it possible for us to see the problem through their eyes?
• they’d never known any other way of living in God
◦ they had a covenant withGod
◦ and their obligation to the covenant was to obey Mosaic Law
• even for most of us, it is difficult to accept practices and doctrines different from our own
◦ the position the Pharisees and their crowd took known as Judaizers or “The Circumcision”
◦ convert to Judaism first, then Christianity

Vv. 6-12, A inquiry was held in which evidence was presented

A reason Gentile conversion was perceived as problem:
– church leaders’ in Jerusalem were concerned to legitimize Christianity (cf. 21:20-24)
• they wanted Israel to see it as they saw it; namely, the fulfillment of God’s promises
• resolving this issue had to be in a public forum, then published and distributed
– in v. 5, the Pharisees stood up for Law
• in the council, Peter stood up for grace

Peter made three remarkable statements (drawn from his experience)

  1. God knows the heart (v. 8)
    • this is where salvation is determined: between God and the individual’s heart
    • God made no distinction between us and them (v. 9) – we have made these distinctions
  2. Why test God by placing a yoke on the neck of Gentile believers? (v. 10)
    • “yoke” is, of course, a metaphor for menial labor, a burden (v. 28)
  3. We believe we’re saved through grace of Jesus (v. 11)
    • circumcision was exclusive to Abraham’s descendants
    • Jews and Gentiles did not share Moses in common, but they did share Jesus

The final testimony was brought by Barnabas and Paul
– but it is covered briefly by Luke and was apparently appreciated but not given much weight

Vv. 13-35, James ruled on the evidence

This is James the brother of Jesus and author of the New Testament letter named for him
– he brought up four points:

  1. Peter’s argument was supported by the biblical Prophets
  2. Their policy regarding Gentiles should be to not interfere with their faith or make trouble for them
  3. They should, however, provide a few specific requirements for Gentiles
    • those requirements were not conditions for salvation
    • rather, they allowed Jews and Gentiles to worship together without causing offense or insult
  4. Those Gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism could do so
    • Moses was still read in the synagogues every Sabbath

– all of this seemed good to everyone assembled (v. 22) 25, 28
• further developments also seemed good to them and apparently to the Holy Spirit (vv. 25, 28)
• perhaps the best we can hope for, the closest we can get to certainty
◦ we come up with our best guess at what God is communicating to us
◦ it is at least a position of humility in the face of controversy

The formal document they composed
– 23, was from brothers (in Jerusalem) to brothers (in Antioch)–i.e., “We’re family”
– 24, those who disturbed and unsettled them did not represent the apostles
– 25-27, they were receiving word by a delegation
• two of the men in the delegation were known to them
• the other two were “officials” from Jerusalem to verify the document
– 28-29, other than these few obligations, no greater burden would be placed on Gentile believers
• the apostles recognized that circumcision and the Law were burdens
• and even Israel had not carried the burdens well (v. 10)

When reported in Antioch, the believers there rejoiced
– both they and their faith was accepted as genuinely Christian

Conc: So far, we have been in history

Let’s return to today
– the theological substance of all Christian faith is basically the same
• but the cultural forms of different churches and denominations vary
• in social contexts, doctrinal positions and religious subcultures naturally evolve
◦ we often assume that ours is the one true Christian doctrine and lifestyle
◦ our implicit or explicit message is, “To become a Christian, you must become an evangelical”
(or Fundamentalist, Pentecostal, Dispensationalist, or whatever)
– circumcision wasn’t only a physical identification with the religion of Judaism,
• it was cultural suicide for Gentiles — it effectively cut them off from their own people
◦ it required all that God asked – and more!
◦ it was a cultural circumcision (cults are famous for this)
• they added a condition to salvation
◦ in the subculture of my youth it included prohibitions regarding movies, card games, dancing, alcohol, use of cosmetics, and so on and on
◦ you were immediately suspect if did not know and use the right religious vocabulary

People who encounter religious subcultures may:

  1. Reject the gospel message without really hearing (or understanding) it
  2. Experience Christian conversion and also accept culture conversion
  3. Be converted to the religious subculture without experiencing a Christian conversion
  4. Experience a Christian conversion and refuse to convert to the religious subculture
    • those who take this road are likely to find themselves in conflict with the subcultures

Acts 15 tells us that we should not burden new believers with unnecessary obligations
– those would be the traditions, taboos and practices of our particular religious subculture
• instead, allow them the freedom to discover the lordship of Jesus in their own culture and context
• accept the possibility that their faith and practice may look different from our own

The message for us today is that living with God is not unnatural
– what is unnatural is living in nature apart from nature’s Creator
• when you sit with God in prayer, he doesn’t demand that you are cheery
◦ if you’re worn out, you don’t have to pretend that you’re refreshed
◦ no special mood required to come into the presence of God – he only asks only that you come

Regardless of our mood or emotions, there is always straight line to Jesus
– so be true to yourself and honest to God
– he will take you in any condition — and we go forward with him from there


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