We’ve already spent a couple of weeks on this chapter. Some men had come down from Judea to Antioch and began to teach that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ was not enough for salvation. As well as believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, you had to be circumcised. But circumcision was only the start of it, because not only did you need to believe and be circumcised, but you also had to obey the rest of the law of Moses. In other words, in order to be saved, in order to receive the forgiveness of sins, and the hope of everlasting life, you needed to become a believing Jew. You needed to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you needed to do everything a Jew does.
Paul and Barnabas disagreed sharply with what these men were teaching. And in order to resolve the matter, the church in Antioch decided to send a delegation — including Paul and Barnabas — up to Jerusalem in order to seek the advice of the apostles and elders who were there.
Last week we spent our time on verses 5 to 12 and what happened whenever they arrived in Jerusalem. And we saw how the apostles and elders met to consider this matter. And during the course of the debate, Peter got up and spoke about his own experience. He reminded the apostles and elders of how God sent him to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a Gentile. And Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius and his household. And they believed the good news. And in order to make clear that he was prepared to accept Cornelius and his household, God poured out his Spirit upon them. As Peter said in verse 9: God makes no distinction between believing Jews and believing Gentiles; he purifies the hearts of Jews and Gentiles through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, we’re saved by grace, through faith and not by keeping the law.
We finished last week by noting how James got up to give the verdict on the debate. James seems to have been the leader, or the Moderator, of this group of apostles and elders. And in announcing his verdict, he began by stating that what Peter had experienced with Cornelius matched up with what God had announced in the pages of the Bible. And so, we finished last week by noticing that the word of God — the Bible — is always our final authority in matters of faith and practice. As our Confession says:
The Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures is the supreme judge by whom all religious controversies are to be decided.
When trying to decide what we ought to do as a church, we ought to be guided by the Holy Spirit speaking to us in the Scriptures.
Verses 16 and 17
James quoted the Old Testament prophets Amos and Isaiah. Through Amos, God spoke of a time when he would rebuild David’s fallen tent.
What did he mean? Well, through Amos, God had warned his Old Testament people that he was going to bring disaster upon them because of their sins. Listen to the kinds of things he said in the final chapter:
Not one will get away, none will escape. Surely the eyes of the Sovereign Lord are on the sinful kingdom. I will destroy it from the face of the earth.
The Lord had made up his mind. But it’s not all doom and gloom, because the Lord gave a glimmer of hope through Amos. He said:
yet I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob.
Yes, he’s going to bring a disaster upon them. But he’s not going to destroy them completely. How could he? He promised to be their God and to keep them as his people. He bound himself to them by his covenant promise. And so, instead of destroying them completely — which is what they deserved — he promised that one day he would rebuild David’s fallen tent. In other words, he would restore the royal house of David. Another king — descended from David — would sit on the throne and rule over and protect all of God’s people. God was announcing, through Amos, the coming of the Lord Jesus — King David’s greater Son — who would rule over God’s people for ever and ever from his throne in heaven.
So, David’s fallen tent — his royal house — would be rebuilt. And what will be the outcome? Look at verses 16 and 17 again:
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name.
Jesus Christ will be enthroned in heaven, from where he will rule over all things. And a remnant of men, or, a number of people — including all those Gentiles who bear his name and belong to him — will seek the Lord.
Do you see? Back in the days of Amos, God promised that even though he was going to bring disaster on his sinful people, nevertheless, one day, David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, would sit enthroned in heaven. And when that happens, both Jews and Gentiles would seek the Lord. They would worship him and give thanks to him.
And, of course, that’s exactly what we’ve seen in the book of Acts. In chapter 1, the risen Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, where he now rules over all things as our king. And from his throne in heaven, he worked through the preaching of the Apostles to convince and convert sinners to faith in his name. And little churches were established, where the believers would meet together to worship the Lord God and give thanks to him for their salvation through faith in his Son.
And, of course, Amos emphasises that it’s the Lord who does these things. And that’s what we’ve seen in the books of Acts. From his throne in heaven, the Lord Jesus sent out his preachers in the power of the Spirit, and he worked through their preaching to draw sinners to himself for salvation and to be added to the church. He’s the one who has done all these things. He’s the one who is building his church on the earth. He’s the one who deserves all the glory and the praise for delivering us from our sin and misery. He’s the one who did all these things in the past; and he’s still building his church today from his throne in heaven.
And then, James adds a line from the prophet Isaiah (chapter 45:21). He says in verse 18 that all these things that the Lord has done ‘have been known for ages.’ In other words, this wasn’t something new which God thought up just last week. This was always his plan. It was always his plan that the church should comprise believing Jews and believing Gentiles.
Verses 19 to 21
This was always God’s plan. So, what should they do about this religious controversy facing them now? Well, James announced in verse 19 that they shouldn’t make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to the Lord. In other words, he rejects what the believing Pharisees were saying. He was saying that there was no need for believing Gentiles to be circumcised. There was no need for them to become Jews. There was no need for this, because we’re saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus and not by works of the law.
However, James went on to advise that the believing Gentiles ought to take care lest they offend the believing Jews in the churches. And that’s the point of verse 20. James suggests that they should avoid four things: 1. Food polluted by idols; 2. Sexual immorality; 3. Meat of strangled animals; and 4. Blood.
What are we to make of this? He’s probably thinking about what used to happen in the pagan temples at that time. And remember, the believing Gentiles, before they were converted, used to worship in pagan temples and bow down to worship false gods. And in those days, the pagans brought their animal sacrifices to their temples. And part of the sacrifice would be offered to the false gods; and the rest would have been sold in the market. So, if you bought a roast for dinner, chances are that most of the meat sold in the market had once been offered to a god in the temple. The Jews were obviously very sensitive to this; pagan worship offended them; and everything associated with pagan worship — like the meat which came from it — offended them.
And, of course, while the Jews were always careful to kill animals by cutting the throat of the animal and draining away all the blood, things were done differently in the pagan temples. Animals might be killed by strangulation and the blood was not drained away. And this too offended the Jews. They would never eat meat if the blood had not been drained away first of all.
Now, a believing Gentile, even after his conversion, might have no problem eating the meat that had come from a pagan temple. After all, they now realise that the pagan gods are false gods. They’re not real. So, what does it matter where the meat in the market comes from? It’s just meat. And they’d never had any scruples about how the animals were butchered and whether the blood was drained away or not. It never used to worry them; why should it worry them now? What’s that got to do with faith in Christ?
James is saying to them: It might not matter to you, but it matters to the believing Jews in your church. You may have no problem with where the meat comes from, or how the animals were slaughtered, but your brothers and sisters in the Lord who are Jewish have always regarded such meat as unclean. For them, it’s wrong to eat such meat and it’s wrong for them to associate with those who eat such meat.
James is saying to them: For the sake of Christian unity, for the sake of good relations in the church, lay off eating such meat. He was saying: We want believing Jews and believing Gentiles to be able to come together for worship and to have fellowship together. So, you Gentile Christians: It’s best if you don’t eat that kind of meat anymore.
And then James adds in verse 21 that the Mosaic law — the law about what foods are clean and unclean — has been preached in every city from the earliest times. and it’s read in the synagogues every Sabbath Day. In other words: Everyone knows what the Jews believe. Everyone knows the things that offend them. So, out of love for your Christian brothers and sisters, be careful what you do so that you won’t offend them and destroy the peace of the church.
If you’re paying attention, you might have noticed that I haven’t said anything about sexual immorality yet. You see, not only were they were to avoid food polluted by idolatry, and the meat from strangled animals with the blood still in it, but they were to avoid sexual immorality. Now, why does he mention sexual immorality and not any of the other sins forbidden by the Ten Commandments? After all, Christians are meant try to keep all of God’s commandments. So, why does he single out sexual immorality? Well, it’s possible that James was thinking about pagan worship again. You see, sexual immortality was often practiced in connection with pagan worship. So, James was saying to the believing Gentiles: Don’t have anything to do with that anymore. Once, it didn’t offend you. It was just part of your religious life. Well, things are different now. Sexual immorality and impurity has no place in the church.
John Stott, in his commentary on this passage, says that what we have here is a victory for both truth and love. It’s a victory for truth, because the truth of the gospel was upheld. In the face of those men who were saying that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is not enough for salvation, the apostles and the elders upheld the truth of the gospel that we’re justified by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Jesus Christ is the perfect Saviour and his blood covers over every single one of our sins. And through faith in him, we receive from him all the benefits of his life and death and resurrection including the complete forgiveness of all our sins. So, the truth of the gospel was upheld by the decision they reached that day in Jerusalem.
But then, it’s a victory for love, because they were able to work out a way for believing Jews and believing Gentiles to have fellowship together. The Gentiles were told: Through faith, you have peace with God. But remember to love your believing Jews and so be careful not to offend them by the things you do.
John Stott quotes Martin Luther who said that the Apostle Paul was strong in faith and soft in love. Concerning faith, we need to be invincible, and more hard that the hardest stone. We must not budge or move away from the true gospel, not even by a millimetre. But concerning love, we ought to be soft, and more flexible than the reed or leaf that is shaken by the wind. We ought to be ready to yield to everything so that we do not offend our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Even though we live in a world where everyone thinks we can do as we please, and where everyone insists on their right to do this and their right to do that, even though we live in that kind of world, we want to be different in the church. In the church, we want to do everything we can to keep the peace of the church and the unity of our fellowship. And so we will avoid doing those things which offend others. But we must also do everything we can to uphold the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ our Saviour. You see, without the gospel of Jesus Christ, the church will not survive. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles teaching about Jesus Christ. And so, we’ll not budge from preaching the gospel. But we’ll bend over backwards not to offend one another by the things we do.