Sermon for Sunday Evening, March 19th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 15:1-35 ESV] 1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 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? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “‘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, 17 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 18 known from of old.’ 19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 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. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” 30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 34 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
Acts 15, this great chapter on the Jerusalem Council, has much material to consider.
Sermons have been written on the fact that the church, in its difficult questions at that time came together in a council. This is important. The concluding decisions were not made by each church individually, not by a pope over all of them. They came together, discussed and debated, and together with the Holy Spirit and considering the word of God, decided what to do.
Others have preached on this text focusing on “Keeping Unity in the Church Among Diversity.” Yet others on the “Role of the Elder.”
Perhaps even a study could be written on the Pharisaical party and whether these are the Judaizers in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
But what I want to focus on today is a message consider the context of this passage.
Throughout the Book of Acts so far, we’ve seen the Gentiles being grafted in to the faith.
At Saul’s conversion Christ said of Saul: “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and children of Israel.”
In chapter 10 Peter said “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” And the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.
When Peter explained these works of God to the disciples they responded, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
And in each place in Paul’s first missionary journey, Gentiles came to faith in Jesus Christ.
And so we concluded last week at the end of chapter 14 with the church in Antioch hearing Paul’s report of “all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.”
Luke, the author of the book of Acts — and let us not forget that it is Luke writing here and not Paul — Luke then keeps this theme alive. As we go to the Jerusalem council, we can say the theme is
“DON’T CLOSE THE DOOR!”
The Lord — the Lord himself — has opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. Don’t close the door. Don’t you dare close the door. Who can stand in the way of the Lord?!
So as we look at Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council, under two headings – The Opposition and The Solution, let us keep in mind what the Apostles there were keeping in mind – “Don’t Close the Door.”
I. The Opposition
The opposition are spoken of in verse 1: But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
This is quite the burden indeed.
And “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them.”
This somewhat parallels the idea in Matthew 18. You discuss the issue first with your brother, then only later on take it to a larger group if necessary.
Here it was necessary.
These “some people” are referred to in verse 5 as those “who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.”
Perhaps these were actual former Pharisees who came to the faith.
Back in Acts 6:7 it tells us [Act 6:7 ESV] 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
I think this is most likely the case, that they were former pharisees. But it possible some of them might have just sided with the “party of the Pharisees” without being former Pharisees.
Interestingly, Paul was a former Pharisee, but he is arguing against the Party of the Pharisees.
What did the Party of the Pharisees want?
They wanted to REQUIRE that Gentiles follow the Old Testament law, especially the law of circumcision.
They said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
These are probably the same “Judaizers” that plagued the early church, as mentioned in Galatians. Those who advocated “living according to Jewish custom.”
So Paul clearly explained against them in Galatians 2:16 [Gal 2:16 ESV] 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
II. The Solution
But how is the disagreement going to be solved? It is not always so easy. The laws are not without value and importance. If you through out the law entirely, do you have anarchy? Are you an antinomian?
So Paul and Barnabas and some others are appointed to go up to Jerusalem. The church at Antioch sends them as representatives to discuss the question with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
And look at that them continuing – as they travel they “describe in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to the brothers” through Phoenicia and Samaria and in Jerusalem.
The Lord has done a great work. Don’t shut the door!
If the Jerusalem council sides with the Party of the Pharisees, what will that mean for the Gentiles? They’ll be forced out of the church or forced to submit to law of circumcision among other laws.
Again, the issue is fairly difficult. So Luke tells us “there was much debate.”
But the issue wasn’t that difficult. The main part of the conclusion must be fairly clear.
And so Peter stands up — and it is important that is Peter and not Paul — and says:
“Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 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? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
James agrees. He quotes from the Old Testament saying that the Gentiles will be called to the Lord.
James then gives his judgment. But he’s not the pope. His judgment “seemed good to the apostles, the elders, and with the whole church.” They were of one accord.
It is more like James put forth the motion, and Peter seconded it, and it was carried and approved.
19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 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. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
In short “We are not going to close the door on the Gentiles.”
As Peter argued “why place a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” And he said, “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Praise the Lord that there was unity on this decision and that the early church knew the Gospel. Surely this was the work of the Lord.
A letter is then sent with Paul and Barnabas and Judas Barsabbas to Antioch giving the results of the council.
And the church in Antioch rejoiced because the council did not shut the door on the Gentiles.
III. Don’t Close the Door
So we are to learn of the Gospel of God’s grace
and we learn not to put a burden on people that might keep them from Christ.
It is hard to speak on this subject without remembering recent history. The political battle fought even in the many churches in this country. When in many places the requirement of wearing a mask was added to those attending church.
I have good friends in the ministry who came to the opposite conclusion of myself, but I must say that I am persuaded from many arguments and texts (including ours this evening) to not put any unnecessary burden upon people, so as not to the close the door to them.
This church is open.
It is open to all without any barrier to entry.
There is no pew rent or poll tax. There is no IQ test or blood test.
Our red door symbolize the blood of Christ. His blood alone made atonement for your sins and mine. And he calls ALL to come to him.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.”
Don’t close the door … on anyone.