Set Free! – Acts 15:1-35

by Roger McCay
24 May 2020
Scripture Passage: Acts 15:1-35
Link to Audio Version

A lie in defiance of the truth, reality does not make.

I find it rather sad a misunderstanding that many have about Christianity. Often, it is considered being about following a bunch of rules, and being ruled over by a tyrant, slave-driving God who is out to get you.

I remember taking an Anthropology class back when I was at Auburn. For some reason, and I don’t remember what led to the discussion, we ended up talking about Christianity. There were some people there very hostile to Christianity, Christians, and to God. One particular girl stands out in my mind due the vehemence in which she attacked. Well, I couldn’t just sit there, so I stood up and engaged her attack. Providentially, there was another Christian in the classroom, and between the two of us we were able to fill her in on some of the truth from the Scriptures to counter her ignorance (although I’m pretty sure she wasn’t listening). Among her many complaints of Christianity, it seemed that the heart of her disagreement was this idea that due to the rules she would have to follow to be a Christian it would somehow impinge on her personal freedoms. I tried to explain to her what freedom in Christ really is all about. But, obedience to Christ (which should seem to any Christian as being true freedom), to her seemed to be a slavery that she rejected outright with great hostility. So, I ended up asking her some questions:

“What’s wrong with loving your neighbor?”
“What’s wrong about caring for the poor and needy?”
“What’s wrong with not stealing?”
…and a few others like that.

When put that way, her argument fizzled in that area, so she tried another angle. It was clear that her anger was toward God, and she was going to continue to attack no matter what.

But, what is it that led to her anger? Well, in retrospect, it seems evident that someone put in her mind the blatantly false the idea that God was all about making her do things in order to receive the prize of salvation. And, perhaps, she saw the yoke that such a requirement would be and realized she could never live up to it.

She was given a false idea as to what it means to be a Christian – rejected the false idea – and so set up a barrier to hear the truth. In fact, she did not reject Christ as he is and comes to us as Savior. No, she rejected the lie thinking it was the truth and was angry with God as a result.

My hope and prayer is that the Spirit used the argument my friend and I used as a means to speak to her heart, showing her that Christianity is about being set free from bondage. She needed the truth and the blessing of God to be able to hear and believe, of course. As such, someone just needed to tell her the truth counter to the lie. God would take it from there to her heart, if he so willed.

The false teaching that Christianity is about bondage to rules is not a new one. We have a case here in Acts, in our passage today, where false teachers were spreading such a lie almost 2000 years ago. Providentially, for us, we also have the authoritative apostolic response to such a lie.

False teachings can lead to discouragement even for believers. Hence, we must deny the lie and champion the truth, encouraged by our freedom in Christ, living the holy lives we are called to live.

In our passage today what was at stake was the question, “What does it mean to be saved?” We are presented with a situation where Jews had brought into the church a false doctrine that works + faith are needed for salvation.

The Judaizers, as they have been called, these Pharisaic Jews had wormed their way out of Jerusalem into the Christian community of Antioch that consisted of numerous Gentiles. They had also had established a foothold with a representative group in the church in Jerusalem. This group was present when Paul and Barnabas came to Jerusalem concerning the matter, and these Judaizers pushed their agenda openly before the council.

This was no small thing. This was a power play by the Pharisaic Jews in the church, and they brought along influence and were intimidating. We know from Galatians, chapter 2 that Peter himself had been intimidated by this party of Jews from the Pharisees, in the Christian church in Antioch. He was pressured by them to go against the truth he knew. Take a look at Galatians 2:11-16.

11 But when Cephas [that is Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 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.

If these false teachers could intimidate even Peter and Barnabas, then imagine how a fledgling Gentile believer would have felt. Something had to be done. A final authoritative statement needed to be made to clarify the essence of salvation in Jesus Christ.

So, a council was held in Jerusalem (the first “General Assembly”). At the beginning of the council’s meeting there was quite a bit of discussion, probably heated, on this issue at hand. The challenge was made: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

After Paul, in Antioch, had chastised Peter, it is rather certain that the Spirit had worked on Peter to stand up for the truth he knew. Peter’s experience with Cornelius was probably also in his mind helping his understanding. It was time for him to take a stand for the truth of the gospel in this matter. So Peter did just that. He stood up, and he testified to the truth. Look again at what he said in Acts 15:7-11:

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. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 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.”

Several things should jump out at you:

  1. The Gentiles should hear the gospel and believe in it—v. 7.
  2. God bears witness to their salvation by the gift of the Holy Spirit and there is no distinction between the Gentile believers and Jewish believers before God—vv. 8-9.
  3. It is that by faith both Jews and Gentiles “will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus”—v. 11.

Peter gave a pretty good sum of what it means to be saved. He also asks a good question, “[W]hy 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?” The question was really an accusation, and it came across powerfully, as the next verse lets us know—v. 12: “And all the assembly fell silent.”

He had just stated with all his apostolic authority (this is Peter, now, the head apostle) … he had just stated that Gentiles do not have to become Jews under the Law of Moses in order to be saved. The Law had been proven impotent to save anybody. Salvation is a gift of grace, and it is received through believing in Jesus Christ. Therefore, God saves the Gentiles “just as they are.”

The truth had been spoken, and Peter spoke it with force. The truth of his words must have cut through the fog the false teachers had thrown up like a knife.

Following Peter, Paul and Barnabas then testified to the truth of his words. They testified to the evidence that God was working among the Gentiles, performing signs and wonders, which would include that they were believing in Jesus and being saved.

Here we have three witnesses to the truth—Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. You would think that would be sufficient, but there was one more nail to pound into the coffin of the false teachers.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, the honored and venerable one known for his piety and righteous life rose up to speak. He acknowledges the witness of Simon Peter, and then he went to the scriptures…

He quotes from the prophet Amos (Amos 9:11-12). Look at vv. 16-17 there in Acts 15:

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.’

The Kingdom of God and salvation in Jesus Christ was not just for Jews, but also for Gentiles. James emphasized, with this scripture, that there is no need for the Gentiles to become Jews, enslaving themselves to the Law of Moses, in order to be saved and enter the Kingdom of God.

The testimony of three authoritative witnesses; the pronouncement of Scripture on the matter—end of discussion.

With the matter of how one is saved settled definitively, James turned to the concept of discipleship. He asked four things. For the Gentiles, who were fellowshipping with Jews whose conscience was bound to upholding the law, they were asked to“abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”

Why these restrictions? Some want to say these were either all moral or all ceremonial restrictions. I see in them as encompassing both.

The statement concerning sexual immorality likely had to do with the fact that the Gentile culture was sexually immoral. The Christians needed to recognize that as disciples of Christ they were to adhere to the moral law—which is summed up in the Ten Commandments.

This was perhaps a reminder.

As for the ceremonial dietary laws, it seems that this pronouncement was along the lines of the principle of the weaker brother, as Paul discusses in Romans 14:13-20. Please turn there with me:

13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.

Freedom in Christ from the yoke of the law does not give us the right to do whatever we want. Discipleship by its very nature requires discipline. In this case, the discipline asked for was respect for the very Jews who would require the Gentiles to have to take upon themselves the yoke of the law—and, perhaps, even other Jews in their fellowship. They are told to respect the weaker brother out of love, and not deliberately offend their sensibilities towards what is right or wrong, tempting them to violate their conscience—therefore stumbling and sinning before the Lord.

Restraint is the work of a true disciple of Christ. It is not for the purpose of salvation, but it is the characteristic of the saved. People who are in Christ seek to live a holy life. In this particular situation these Gentiles were in, James counsels how the Gentiles could do just that. And it was wise counsel.

Thus, the Jerusalem Council sent out a letter clarifying the truth. Verses 23-29:

23b “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.”

This pretty much settled the issue of the Gentiles in the church.

Other things would crop up over the centuries, with people trying to add something to the true gospel in order to be saved. There are a number of things you hear about even today that in essence are lies like those of the Judaizers. There are people that say you have to be baptized first to be saved – a lie; or that you have to have some sort of ecstatic spiritual experience first to be saved – a lie; or that you have to have membership in a particular church first – a lie. All those teachings, and any teaching that requires you to do something in addition to receiving the gift of the gospel of Jesus Christ (by the grace of God) through faith in order to be saved is a lie.

It seems that there is a natural tendency for people to want to do something—and not rely completely on the Lord Jesus to get it done. But the gospel is that Jesus did it all. We can do nothing.

This is a cause of rejoicing! There is nothing we can do to merit salvation. We don’t have to prepare ourselves in some way first. We only need to believe in Jesus trusting him to be our Savior. Through Jesus we are made righteous. Through Jesus our relationship with God is renewed. Part and parcel with our faith is repentance for our sins, knowing we are forgiven. Also, in our trust in Christ, we then turn from our own way to following after him along his way, as our Lord.

Verse 31 tells us, “And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.”

Are you encouraged?

This is what I would have you take with you: You are free in Christ if you believe in him.

Live a life rejoicing in this! Let the joy of this permeate into all aspects of your life. There are a lot of people whose lives are devoid of joy. Life is just a burden. I am telling you that if you are a Christian you have cause to rejoice! Regardless of your life condition, let the joy that only Christians can have, only because of Jesus, show to the world and be seen in your actions, as you are faithful to him as his follower.

Let your joy in your freedom in Christ be a beacon in this dark world. People will see it and be drawn to it like moths to a flame. Because the gospel encourages us, we must live holy lives as ones who are truly free.