As we have been walking through the book of Acts, I have been seeing a growing importance in taking in Biblical text in a larger context. We have seen Acts building. It started with the commissioning:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
And in chapters 1-4 there is a beautiful picture of that happening–unity, self sacrifice, and growing community. But the utopia does not last. There is misunderstanding, selfishness, resistance, persecution, failure.
But this is a building theme. Not of the bad, but of the good still happening outside of a utopia. The calling was to go and make disciples, and that calling is for imperfect people in imperfect situations.
It will not be easy. It may be confusing. It will be challenging. It will have highs and lows. It may be resisted. It may even be hated, and it might result in being hated.
But in the mess–Jesus is!!!
The mystery of God is alive and well in imperfect places. I love this–I need this!!! And this is true in Acts. While in a moment of mess:
But the word of God continued to spread and flourish. (Acts 12:24)
For the past two weeks we have been talking through Paul’s first missionary journey. They saw radically different responses to Jesus. They faced persecution from Jewish insiders. Some of their team went home early (John Mark). They spent long periods of time discipling communities. They faced incredible resistance and persecution. Paul was stoned (and survived). They continued and didn’t quit. They set up the communities for long-term success. They were willing to do the hard work–and get up and do it again and again.
So in spite of all the challenges and hardships, in spite of all of the things that seem like they could have gone so much better, in spite of the resistance and even being stoned, in spite of it taking a lot of energy, effort and time, the word of God continued to spread and flourish.
We are going to start off with a line of questions today that I think will push us. I want us to decide that this is a safe place to just listen, or to think out loud, or to have different perspectives, or even to be wrong.
There are some hot button topics in our world. I am not going to ask you a question about what hot button topics are, but about why hot button topics exist. I think you will find that the answer is not in the topic, but in us as people.
Why do hot button topics exist?
Today as we venture into chapter 15, a hot button topic bursts onto the scene.
Feel this context for a moment: Paul and Barnabas venture west on this missionary journey, living out Jesus’ commissioning. Many Jews and Greeks do accept Jesus as the Messiah, and it is beautiful:
At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. (Acts 14:1)
And many Jews do not accept Jesus as the Messiah, and it is painful:
Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. (Acts 13:46)
They discipled people over time. They were persecuted. They had to run for their lives. Paul was stoned but lived. They persisted. They set up communities for long-term success.
And then they got “home,” and there wasn’t a parade or a cake or a balloon filled with helium. There was a hot button topic:
So, you reached out to Gentiles / Greeks and they accepted Jesus. That is great, but if they want in, they need to become more Jewish first and get circumcised.
Now let me leap forward in this, because the complexity of context should give us focus.
There was leadership resolve that they didn’t need to be circumcised. There was also resolve that they shouldn’t be offensive to the Jewish community–some Jewish rules were still important. There was a fight and breakup between Paul and Barnabas, because Barnabas wanted his cousin John Mark to come along on their next missionary journey even though he left early on the last one (Acts 13:13), but Paul didn’t think he should be allowed to come. This was unresloved and they parted company. And in the next chapter (16), Paul asked Timothy to get circumcised.
And then even further on than that–remember the parting of company because of John Mark, when Paul didn’t want him to come? Well, Paul wasn’t done with John Mark.
Is Paul going to punish John Mark forever? Is the relationship over forever? Is the offense forever? No. It’s the opposite.
My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (Colossians 4:10)
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. (Philemon 23-24)
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)
I bring this all to the surface because it is a flashing arrow to the complexity of following Jesus. But in the midst of it all, in complexity after complexity, there was a foundation.
“He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:9-11)
This foundation was immovable, but this foundation did not remove the complexity.
Remember our first question, “Why do hot button topics exist?” Let's bring this to faith in Jesus. Again this is not a question about what Christian hot button topics are. This is a question about why they are. Do you feel the difference? This question is not pointing at the topic, but at us.
Why do Christian faith hot button topics exist?
In Acts 13, Paul on the missionary journey made a declaration to the people of Pisidian:
“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38-39)
This was said, taught, embraced, processed, struggled with, rejected by some, transformational to others. When they get home:
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:1-5)
This ‘get circumcised’ thing had foundation in their history, in the law from God through Moses:
“A foreigner residing among you who wants to celebrate the Lord’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you.” (Exodus 12:48-49)
So this was a real question that needed to be dealt with. Do the non-Jews following Jesus need to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus? And with deliberation, they formulated an answer.
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:6-11)
Peter put pause in this question: God didn’t discriminate. He purified their hearts and our hearts by faith. Why do we put expectations out there that we couldn't even live up to? We believe that salvation is through grace!
Paul later verbalized this to the church at Galatia this way:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Galatians 3:1-6)
The assembly of apostle leaders listened to Paul and Barnabas tell about how God worked in the Gentiles, and the resolve was made.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21)
I like the way the Message paraphrases this:
“So here is my decision: We’re not going to unnecessarily burden non-Jewish people who turn to the Master. We’ll write them a letter and tell them, ‘Be careful to not get involved in activities connected with idols, to guard the morality of sex and marriage, to not serve food offensive to Jewish Christians—blood, for instance.’ This is basic wisdom from Moses, preached and honored for centuries now in city after city as we have met and kept the Sabbath.”
There was resolve to not make it difficult for the Gentiles. Yet an in-context instruction–a Greek culture to Jewish culture specific instruction–was given to live in a way that was not offensive to the Jewish community.
These three commands had to do with the eating habits of Gentile Christians. Though they were not bound under the Law of Moses, they were bound under the Law of Love. The Law of Love told them, “Don’t unnecessarily antagonize your Jewish neighbors, both in and out of the church.”
These things were not about salvation, but about laying down their rights in these matters as a display of love to their Jewish brethren.
We are terrible at this. I can feel like I’m following Jesus but at the same moment be doing things that are unloving towards my fellow believers.
A complex reality was brought to the surface in this conflict. There was perspective that Jesus was the way to salvation (or connection to God) –and– there was perspective that Jesus is a good help in making you good enough to have salvation (or connection to God). Is it about grace through faith in Jesus, or is it about having faith and being good enough?
Why is the tension between God’s grace and God’s expectations a hot button topic today?
Here’s another thing to process out of the story. Remembering that with grace, there was also instruction to not be offensive:
Why is it hard to set aside personal perspective or opinion in order to love others well?
The story continued after this moment. Paul and Barnabas had a falling out because of their divided perspective on how to engage John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin who had abandoned them on their last missionary journey. On the next page, Paul is having Timothy circumcised (but in order to not offend).
We have talked a lot about hot button topics today. But we end with this one: What is foundational as followers of Jesus, and what is not that big of a deal?
In the text, agreement was not guaranteed. In fact, disagreement was guaranteed. But that disagreement was not an endpoint, but part of the process.
We can build a culture where we fake it, avoid it, pretend it doesn’t exist. We can fake that we are all the same in every way. And if we aren’t, it’s over. No! Remember Paul’s continued relationship with John Mark.
In our Corner Church Ethos, we say this: The pathway to being a valued part of community is not filled with a list of prerequisites. Perfection is not an obstacle in the pathway of involvement.
Imperfection is not the obstacle. Imperfection is the process. So I am going to invite you to walk with grace and peace into this conversation as we close:
What is foundational as followers of Jesus and what is not?
How does one determine what is and isn’t a big deal as a follower of Christ?
Take It Deeper Questions
- Read Acts 15.
- When have you been an innocent bystander to an uncomfortable conflict?
- Why was circumcision important to the Jewish people?
- Why was living under the law a yoke people could not bear? (vs. 10)
- How did Jesus change everything?
- If your relationship with Jesus was to just help you be a better person, how would that change your current perspective of Him and your relationship with Him?
- If connection to God is through grace and not through action, what is it important to do and/or not do? Why?
Bible Reading Plan
- Deuteronomy 34
- Joshua 1
- Joshua 2
- Acts 12
- Acts 13
- Acts 14