We began to look at this chapter last week. Paul and Barnabas where in Antioch. And the church in Antioch always comprised both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. And they were getting on fine together, until some men came down from Judea and began to teach that believing in the Lord Jesus is not enough. In order to be saved — in order to be saved from the coming wrath of God — believing in the Lord Jesus is not enough. Not only must we believe, but we must all be circumcised as well. And I said last week that being circumcised was really only the start of it. Once a person had been circumcised, then he or she would be expected to obey all of the law of Moses. Not only would they have to be circumcised, but they’d have to abide by all the rules and regulations we read in the Old Testament about what could and couldn’t be eaten. And they’d have to take part in all the religious ceremonies and sacrifices in the Temple. In other words, in order to be saved, you really had to become a Jew. You see, they were saying that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ was not enough for salvation.
Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them sharply. And because of this matter, the church in Antioch sent a delegation, including Paul and Barnabas, up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the elders about this matter. And in verse 4 we read how they arrived there and were welcomed by the church. And that’s as far as we got last week.
In verse 5 we read that in Jerusalem there were believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees. The Pharisees, you might remember, were known as the ‘separated ones’. They wanted to keep themselves separate from anything that would make them ceremonially unclean. And that pretty much meant they wanted to keep themselves separate from all Gentiles, because contact with a Gentile would make them unclean. But these particular Pharisees had also become believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. So, they professed faith in the Lord Jesus. Nevertheless, they still believed you had to stay away from Gentiles. And therefore, in order for them to welcome Gentiles into the church, they believed the Gentiles must become like them. A believing Gentile must become a Jew and abide by all the rules and regulations which we find the law of Moses in the Old Testament.
Perhaps as an aside, I should explain again that we typically divide the Old Testament law of Moses into three parts. This threefold division is found in our church’s Confession of Faith. 1. There’s the moral law, summarised by the Ten Commandments. 2. Then there’s the ceremonial law: all the rules and regulations concerning the festivals and sacrifices which the Israelites performed in Jerusalem. 3. Then there’s the civil law: laws which God gave to govern the people of Israel as a nation. Just as we, in Northern Ireland, must abide by the law of the land, and the laws in this land differ from the laws in another nation, so the Israelites had their own laws which they were required to obey. But those laws applied to them as a nation. So, for instance, there are the laws about what the people of Israel ought to do if someone’s bull gets free and injures a neighbour. What should you do about it to punish the owner of the bull? The civil law lays down what ought to happen.
Now, what these believers from the Pharisee party were insisting on was that the Gentile believers should abide by the whole law — moral, ceremonial, and civil — whereas we believe that the civil laws were for Israel only, and not for us; the ceremonial laws have been fulfilled now that Christ has come, and so they’re not for us; and while we ought to obey the moral law, we don’t obey it as a covenant of works — that is, we don’t obey the moral law in order to earn salvation — instead we believe that we ought to obey the moral law as a rule for life. That is, the moral law shows us how we’re to live as God’s believing people. And we try to keep the moral law in order to demonstrate our gratitude to God for the salvation we have already received from him through faith in his Son. That’s what we believe. That’s what the Apostle Paul taught. But it’s not what these believing Pharisees were teaching. They insisted that Gentiles needed to become like them. They had to become Jews in order to be saved from the coming wrath of God.
Verses 6 to 11
In verse 6 we read how the apostles and elders met to consider this question.
Notice, as we did last week, that the apostles and elders worked together. The apostolic office would one day expire whenever the apostles expired. But the office of the elder is a permanent office in the church. We need the message of the apostles, but not the apostles themselves. But we always need elders to oversee us and to take care of us.
The apostles and elders met together to consider this important question. And, verse 7, after much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them.
Before going on, we should notice, of course, that they did discuss the matter. Presumably some of them had strong views and they wanted to convince the others. And some perhaps didn’t really know what they believed, and they were ready to be persuaded. But they discussed the matter together before reaching a firm decision. And that’s what we do in the courts of the church. Whenever the Session meets together, we discuss things. There are sometimes different views to be heard. Different ideas. Different perspectives. And so we need to discuss things together before agreement is reached. And in the course of the discussion, we’re trying to work out what God’s word says about any matter. And, given what God has said in his word, we’re then trying to work out the best way to put into action what God has said. So, we discuss things together. And we discuss things at Presbytery and at the General Assembly. What we do today in the courts of the church is the same, or it’s very similar, to what the apostles and elders were doing in Jerusalem. You see, in the Presbyterian Church, we try to order our church government and our congregational life according to what the Bible teaches.
Peter got up and addressed them. It’s perhaps noting that Peter wasn’t the leader of this group. He was only one of the contributors to the debate, although his argument seems to have convinced the others. He got up and described what happened to him with Cornelius. Remember what we read back in chapter 10? There’s was Peter’s vision. Then there was the invitation to go to Cornelius’s house. And Cornelius was a Gentile. But Peter preached the gospel to him and his household. And they believed. And in order to demonstrate that he was willing to accept these Gentiles by faith, God poured out his Spirt upon them as he had done on the apostles on the Day of Pentecost.
What did this experience teach Peter? Look what he says in verse 8 of chapter 15:
God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.
Notice, of course, that it’s God who knows the heart. We can’t see into anyone’s heart to know whether a person is a true believer or not. We’re tempted to make judgements about one another, deciding who is and who isn’t a true believer based on what they do. But only God knows the heart.
In the case of Cornelius, Peter might have thought there’s no way that Cornelius can believe, because he’s a Gentile; and Gentiles can’t be saved. That’s what Peter used to believe before the events of Acts 10 happened. But, despite what Peter once thought, God peered into Cornelius’s heart, and saw the faith that God himself had planted there. And because Cornelius believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, God accepted him and gave him the Holy Spirit just as he once accepted us and gave us his Holy Spirit.
And look what else Peter said. Verse 9:
God made no distinction between us and them.
In other words, he made no distinction between believing Jews and believing Gentiles. Before God, we’re all sinners. We’re all sinners. But whenever a Jewish sinner or a Gentile sinner believes in the Lord Jesus, God purifies their sinful heart. He pardons them and he washes away their sin and guilt by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. He does it for believing Jews; and he does it for believing Gentiles.
If God was prepared to accept believing Gentiles, just as he accepted believing Jews, then why should we make things difficult for them? That’s Peter’s conclusion in verse 10. He said:
Why do you put God to the test…?
In other words, why should we provoke his patience by standing in his way?
Why do you put God to the test by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?
In other words, we Jews couldn’t keep all of those rules and regulations and laws. They were a burden to us. So, why should we tell the Gentiles they ought to do something we couldn’t even do ourselves?
And any way, and any way, we believe, Peter says in verse 11, we believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are. Salvation is not by works. Salvation is not by what we do ourselves. It’s the free gift of God to all who believe.
In verse 12 the whole assembly became silent. Probably there should be a full stop there in verse 12 because they became silent, not in order to listen to Barnabas and Paul, but because they had been convinced by what Peter said, and there was nothing more to say. And that can happen in a debate, can’t it? There are lots of voices, lots of views. But then one person speaks, and everyone is persuaded, and there’s nothing more to say. So, they all fell silent.
And then Barnabas and Paul began to tell them about all the miraculous signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. In other words, their experience backed up and confirmed what Peter had said.
Finally, in verse 13, James spoke up. And this James is not John’s brother, but the James who was the half-brother of the Lord and who wrote the New Testament letter of James. And James seems to be the leader — or perhaps the Moderator in Presbyterian parlance — of this meeting. And so, he spoke up to announce the verdict. And we’ll get to his verdict the next time. But notice very briefly this one thing. Yes, he says, Peter has spoken very convincingly about what he himself had experienced. But then he went on to say the thing that I want to draw to your attention before we close. He said that what Peter experienced matches up with the teaching of the Bible. Do you see that in verse 15?
The words of the prophets are in agreement with this.
And then he quotes from the book of Amos. And you see, this is really the final word on any matter, isn’t it? What do the Scriptures say? What has God said about this matter in his word? That’s the final word on any matter concerning what we’re to believe and how we’re to live as God’s people.
Often people will appeal to their own experience: Listen to what happened to me! Or they’ll appeal to what makes sense to them: Listen to what I think about this! Or they’ll appeal to what other churches have done: This is what the church down the road has done! I think we should do it too. Or they’ll appeal to tradition: This is the way we’ve always done it. But we ought not to make our own experience our guide, because often we’re mistaken about the things that happen to us. And, of course, the Devil is not above deceiving the Lord’s people with false signs and wonders.
And we ought not to make what makes sense to us our guide, because God’s ways are not our ways. Just think about the disciples before the Lord’s resurrection: the cross made no sense to them. And yet we like to think we know best what we ought to do!
And if we’re easily deceived or mistaken, then the church down the road might be deceived or mistaken as well. And so we can’t let what they do be our guide.
And tradition can’t be our guide, because perhaps what we’ve always done is not right.
No, we ought always to make the Scriptures our guide. And so, when we’re discussing what we’re to believe, and how we’re to live as God’s people, when we’re discussing the life and witness of the church we aren’t to follow our own experience, or what makes sense to us, or what other churches have done, or what we’ve always done. We ought to turn to the Bible to see what God has said about it. And once we know what God has said about it, we let that be our guide as we try to decide what we ought to do.