What is the singular concept that differentiates Christianity from all other world religions? It’s simple… Grace! As John Newton so eloquently penned, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now, I see. T'was Grace that taught… my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved. How precious did that Grace appear… the hour I first believed. Through many dangers, toils and snares… I have already come. Tis Grace has brought me safe thus far… and Grace will lead us home.”
This very idea that God’s favor was never designed to be earned but instead always to be given and is therefore designed for our enjoyment and never for our maintenance is one of the most radical and in many ways revolutionary concepts ever presented to humanity. As Martin Luther once wrote, “Christ is no Moses, no exactor, no giver of laws, but a giver of grace, a Savior; He is infinite mercy and goodness, freely and bountifully given to us.”
And yet, how tragic it is that many of today’s churches and Christians have been substituting the freeing and transforming Gospel of God’s Amazing Grace with a distorted Anti-Gospel that only serves to bind and stagnate (in actuality a replacement Gospel is no gospel at all).
For context let me begin this morning by explaining the various and in many ways destructive schemes that Christians employ by which they end up distorting the true nature of grace…
First, there are those who hold to the Anti-Gospel of “Grace, And” do these things. (These would say I’m saved and sanctified by grace and the things I do).
Others still herald the Anti-Gospel of “Grace, But” don’t do these things. (These would say I’m saved by grace, but sanctified by the things I refrain from doing).
And yet others sadly practice the Anti-Gospel of “Grace, So” I can do anything. (I’m saved and sanctified by grace, so there’s no restrictions on the things I can do).
While these are each subtle in their development and implementation understand each is nothing more than a perverted distortion of the True-Gospel of “Grace.” (When being saved and sanctified by God’s grace serves to transform who I am and what I want to do).
Frankly, such creeping distortions of grace were the very issues that prompted Paul to write to the Galatians and are inspiring our new verse-by-verse series through his letter to this group of believers titled, “Outlaw Church… A Study of Life in Grace.” This morning in order to establish the context for Galatians we’re going to begin by spending our time in Acts 15.
Acts 15:1-2, “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.”
Backdrop: Paul & Barnabas have just concluded their first missionary journey where they had taken the Gospel into the Gentile cities of Galatia where they had planted churches. Note: Galatia was a region (Southern Turkey) that contained cities like… Perga and Attalia in Pamphylia, Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium - Lystra - Derbe of Lycaonia, and Tarsus in Cilicia.
Following this experience and the report they brought back to the church in Antioch… “Certain men came down from Judea…” Later in Acts 15 we will learn these men were believers “from the sect of the Pharisees.” Note: They were Pharisaical Jews who had accepted Jesus as their Messiah, but had also remained dedicated to the Law of Moses.
Luke also tells us they traveled the 300 miles from Jerusalem to Antioch in order to “teach the brethren that unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Sadly, many present these men as misguided legalists (men adding to the Word of God) when in reality I would argue these men were instead heretics.
Their claim was that the Gentiles members of this church in Antioch and those in Galatia weren’t saved “unless they were circumcised.” They were teaching a gospel of salvation by Jesus through works! To become a Christian you had to also practice the Jewish Law.
With this in mind it’s no wonder “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them…” The language indicates the argument was about to come to blows! Paul and Barnabas were enraged at what they were teaching the people. Fundamentally, they were tampering with the most critical issue of all… The mechanism by which a person is saved!
Obviously, the issue was of great importance for many of these Gentiles had become followers of Jesus by the preaching of Paul under the foundational pretense that it was only “through Jesus that forgiveness of sins and justification” might be attained!
According to Luke, recognizing the need to deal with an issue of this magnitude head on, the church leaders in Antioch “determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them go to Jerusalem” and discuss “this question” with the “apostles and elders.”
Before we continue and in order to explain why we’re beginning our study in Galatians by examining Acts 15 you should understand that what takes place in Jerusalem and the decision the Apostles make concerning this issue would set the framework by which Paul would later write Galatians (and later his letter to the Romans). As a matter of fact the events of Acts 15 were of such critical importance that Paul will provide his own description of these events in Galatians 2:1-10.
Acts 15:3-5, “So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
Once again it’s important to point out the argument of those Paul was so adamantly opposing (the issue this “Jerusalem Council” had gathered to address). The claim of “the sect of the Pharisees” was that “it was necessary” for the Gentiles to be “circumcised” and “keep the Law of Moses” if they were to be saved from their sins.
Keep in mind… The issue at hand and thus the issue the Apostles will make a decision concerning was not the existence of Christian liberty or even the nature of sanctification… The issue concerned the very nature of salvation itself! (Which is important because some have tried to use Acts 15 to build the case that grace only extends to salvation and should not enter the Christian liberty debate.)
On a side note please understand why this was such a monumental issue? You see if the apostles ruled with the Pharisees Christianity would have been deemed nothing more than a sect of Judaism and would have lost all appeal to the Gentile world.
Think about it… If salvation came by Jesus through the Law (mainly circumcision) then as Paul would even state in Galatians 2 he would have “run in vain” concluding that “not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.”
Acts 15:6-11, “Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. And when there had been much dispute Peter rose up and said to them… “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”
Peter’s approach is brilliant because he’s going to weigh in on the issue not by declaring an edict or even voicing an opinion, but by simply calling God to the witness stand. In essence, Peter begins by giving a history lesson explaining why the Gentiles were even among the brethren to begin with… In the process Peter lays out 5 compelling points:
First, Peter recounts that while he may have been the vessel it was “God who chose that the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.” His point is that this whole Gentile controversy hadn’t started with Paul and Barnabas, or even with himself… The Gospel extending to the Gentiles occurred because God chose for it to happen!
Secondly, Peter says that God “who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us.” His argument is that the authenticity of the Gentiles’ salvation could not be a subject of dispute since they had been given the Holy Spirit in the same manner as the Jews on the Day of Pentecost. The Spirit signified God’s pleasure.
Thirdly, Peter sees this reality as further evidence that God “made no distinction between Jew and Gentile” when He “purified their hearts by faith.” Peter is emphatic that the claim these Gentiles had to be circumcised and obey the Law to be saved or even ceremonially pure was simply inconsistent with the precedent God had initially established. God poured out the Holy Spirit onto these Gentiles, purifying their hearts, because of their faith in Jesus alone! “How can you claim God is now requiring something for salvation and purification today when He didn’t do it back then?” If anything it’s illogical.
Fourthly, Peter highlights the overarching flaw in their argument. What right did these Jews have to require the Gentiles be saved through their obedience to the Law when “neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” that particular “yoke?” It’s as though Peter is reminding them that no man but Jesus has ever been able to fully obey the Law of Moses.
Finally, Peter closes his disputation… “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” The ultimate flaw in their argument was based in a fundamental oversight concerning the very nature of their own salvation. The only reason they wanted the Gentiles to obey the Law and be circumcised was because they had a misunderstanding concerning their own salvation!
There is no doubt Peter’s statement that as Jews “we shall be saved in the same manner as they” sent shock waves throughout the room. In making this statement Peter was elevating the Gentiles in the discussion by pointing out that they had a better understanding as to the true nature of salvation because they hadn’t come with all the religious baggage.
Peter closes by declaring without equivocation that the very mechanism of the Gentiles salvation was the very mechanism of their own. Not one of them had been saved because they were Jewish or because they had been obedient to the Law… Salvation only comes to both the Jew and the Gentile “through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Acts 15:12-29, “Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of 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 will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who are called by My Name, says the Lord who does all these things.’ Known to God from eternity are all His works. Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. They wrote this letter by them… “The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia…
“Greetings. Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” - to whom we gave no such commandment - it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
There are three things we should note concerning the Apostles ruling:
1. By distancing themselves from the men who had come teaching this heresy, the Apostles were rejecting their message… “Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” - to whom we gave no such commandment…”
2. By aligning themselves with Paul and Barnabas, the Apostles were confirming their message… “It seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives (literally, laid down their lives) for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Knowing these men had been under attack and publicly questioned, the apostles go above and beyond in expressing their public respect and admiration for Paul and Barnabas. Their underlying point in doing so… We agree with what these men have been teaching you (Salvation comes by faith in Jesus through the grace of God alone)!
3. The Apostles close the letter by requesting that the “brethren of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia… abstain” from four specific things: (1) “From things offered to idols…” (2) “From blood…” (3) “From things strangled…” (4) “And from sexual immorality.”
Now before I attempt to explain why the Apostles make this particular request, I need to first highlight a few details that set the stage for what I believe is being communicated and more specifically why in his expose to the Galatians about the liberty we have in grace the Apostle Paul does not reference these particular things:
Note: These instructions were clearly given to specific churches, in specific areas, during a specific time. It is an error to apply this passage universally or even to the Galatians.
Next: The four things listed by the Apostles all related to a specific set of ceremonial laws recorded in Leviticus 17-18 which would have been foreign to the Gentiles particularly.
The first three instructions deal with specific Jewish dietary restrictions. The Jews were prohibited from eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols, and they were required to only eat meat that was considered clean (without blood or strangled).
In regards to “sexual immorality” it is likely this was not a reference to relations outside of marriage, but was more specifically a prohibition against marriage occurring between family members (which was a common practice in the 1st century).
Finally: The language used in this letter indicates these four instructions were presented as merely recommendations. They were suggestions, not a mandate! The Apostles had already made it clear no one (Jew or Gentile) was bound by the Mosaic Law; however, they do express that “if you keep yourself from these things, you will do well.”
Now the question… Why did the Apostles deem it necessary these Gentile Christians abstain from these things? While some believe the exhortation was aimed at maintaining unity within a group of churches comprised of both Jewish and Gentile believers (laying aside liberty so you don’t cause a brother to stumble), I’m not convinced this was the case.
First of all, the commonly held belief that the Apostles were telling these Gentile believers to forgo the freedom to eat what they wanted and adhere to the Jewish dietary restrictions so as not to cause their Jewish brethren to stumble doesn’t seem to be shared by the believers in Antioch nor does it seem to be supported by the Apostle Paul (seems unBiblical).
Example: Just a few weeks following the delivery of this letter Paul will recount in Galatians 2:11-13 that “when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.”
Did you catch that? The issue wasn’t that Gentile believers were eating as they always had while the Jewish believers remained kosher. It would seem each group within the church remained free to obey their own conscience concerning such things.
Specifically, Peter had no problem enjoying his new found liberty and those who came from James took no offense with Gentile believers enjoying theirs. Instead, it would seem that Paul’s contention was that Peter, who had been comfortable enjoying his liberty with his Gentiles brethren, changed his behavior the moment fellow Jews arrived from Jerusalem. The bur in Paul’s saddle was not disunity caused by the enjoyment of liberty, but rather hypocritical behavior caused by legalism!
It would seem the concern of the Apostles (the one which prompted these instructions) was not to limit liberty for the preference of the weaker brethren, but was aimed at helping Gentile believers reach unbelieving Jews. The idea was that if these Gentiles were sensitive to these four ceremonial laws whenever they were around unbelieving Jews (not Jewish Christians) they would stand a better chance at effective evangelism.
Simply put… I believe the entire debate concerning “Christian Liberty” gains incredible clarity when we understand the only Biblical limitation occurs for the benefit of the lost and not for the maintaining of Church unity. Example: In the next chapter Paul will take a Gentile named Timothy and have him circumcised so he could reach the Jewish people with the Gospel.
As with the Apostle Paul if your liberty restricts your ability to reach a group of unsaved people God has called you to reach “you would do well” to lay aside that liberty.
Following this ruling and with the nature of grace made clear Paul would return to Antioch before launching out on a second missionary journey that would bring him back through the region of Galatia before ultimately taking him across the Aegean Sea into Macedonia where he would minister in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and Corinth.
It would seem (and I won’t bore you with the explanation) while either in Athens or soon upon arriving in Corinth Paul would receive a disturbing report that the very group of heretics he’d dealt with in Antioch and Jerusalem had come to the churches of Galatia and were not only questioning his apostolic authority, but were challenging the very nature of God’s grace…
Because it was impossible for Paul to drop what he was doing to go address these issues in person he decides to write a letter to the Galatians not only to defend his apostolic authority, but to mainly reaffirm the true nature of God’s grace as being both the mode of our justification (how we become right with God) and that of our sanctification (how we become more like Christ) from those seeking to distort it. (Galatians is likely Paul’s first letter.)
With this in mind there are two reasons a clear understanding of Acts 15 is of such importance to our understanding of Galatians: First, because of this ruling the issue had been settled that salvation comes to all men by faith in Jesus alone and the extension of His grace brought forth through a continued relationship with Him.
Secondly, any restriction of the Christian liberty and freedom provided by God’s bestowed favor (other than for the purposes of evangelism) is an affront to and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of grace!
As we’ll see over the coming weeks the Gospel message is not “Grace, And” do these things, “Grace, But” don’t do these things, or even “Grace, So” I can do anything… Instead, because Jesus’ atoning work on the cross satisfied the righteous demands of the law, we have been set free from the burden of unneeded expectations so that we may live in, by, and through nothing but His amazing grace. The True-Gospel of the outlaw is “Grace.”
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