We’ve already spent three weeks on this chapter. You’ll remember that there was a dispute in Antioch over whether or not believing Gentiles needed to become Jewish in order to be saved. Did they have to be circumcised like the Jews and obey all the law of Moses in order to receive the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life. Some were saying they did. Others, like Paul and Barnabas, said no.
A delegation from Antioch went to see the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to seek their advice. And after much debate, James stood up and announced their decision. And that’s what we were thinking about last week. And do you remember? I quoted John Stott who said their decision was a triumph for truth and for love. It was a triumph for truth because they were able to preserve the truth of the gospel that sinners are justified before God through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Instead of relying on ourselves and the things we do, we’re to rely entirely on Jesus Christ and on what he has done for us by his life and death and resurrection.
It was a triumph for truth. But it was also a triumph for love. And it was a triumph for love because James was saying that the believing Gentiles in Antioch ought to bear in mind the sensitivities of their fellow believers who are Jewish. Some of the things they used to do might offend the believing Jews so that the peace of the church would be destroyed.
And James mentioned three things relating to food. He said: – Abstain from food scarified to idols; – Abstain from the meat of strangled animals — because the blood had not be drained from them and under the Old Testament they were forbidden from eating blood; and – Abstain from eating blood.
James was 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, he also said they should abstain from sexual immorality. And I suggested last week that sexual immorality was often practiced in connection with pagan worship. So, the Gentiles were once used to it; it didn’t offend them; it was part of normal life for them. But now, they needed to understand that sexual immorality and impurity have no place in the worship of the true God. So, don’t do it.
I was talking to someone after last week’s meeting about whether or not these food requirements are still in force. Can Christians eat black pudding, for instance, which is made with blood and oats? It’s an interesting question and I thought I’d spend a bit of time on it in case anyone else is wondering about it.
The command forbidding the eating of blood appears in several places in the Old Testament. Mostly, like Leviticus 17, it’s part of the law of Moses. But there’s also Genesis 9 where God told Noah:
But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.
In other words, the Jews were brought up, believing that it was wrong to eat meat with the blood still in it. And so, here’s James telling the believing Gentiles in his day that they too should avoid blood as well. So, should we also abstain from eating blood?
First of all, we need to bear in mind Mark 7 where the Pharisees complained to the Lord Jesus because his disciples didn’t give their hands a ceremonial wash before eating. And in his answer, the Lord spoke about what we eat and what effect it may have on our standing with God. And note carefully what he said. First of all, he said:
Listen to me, everyone, and understand this.
He’s drawing special attention to what he’s about to say. He wants everyone, everyone, to listen to him and to understand clearly what he’s about to say. If he were speaking today, he might have said to them:
Read my lips.
And so, what did he want them to understand? Listen to what he said next:
Nothing outside a man can make him unclean by going into him.
Nothing we consume can make us unclean before God.
Rather [he said], it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.
The problem isn’t with what we eat, but what’s already inside us, in our hearts. And our hearts are a house of horrors, full of sinful thoughts and desires and inclinations and attitudes. That’s the problem. Black pudding isn’t the problem. Our sinful hearts are the problem.
That’s the first thing. Then we also have 1 Corinthians 8 where Paul writes about food sacrificed to idols. And listen to what he said about this. First of all, in verse 4:
We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and there is no God but one.
Then he says in verse 8:
food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
It doesn’t matter if we do eat food sacrificed to idols and it doesn’t matter if we don’t eat it. Eating food doesn’t affect our relationship to God in the slightest. And anyway, he’s saying, so what if this meat was once sacrificed to an idol? So what? — we all know that idols are not real gods. Offering food to idols is all nonsense. It shouldn’t bother you.
Once again, food is not the problem. And what we eat isn’t the problem. However, Paul also explains to the Corinthians that if eating meat sacrificed to an idol becomes a stumbling block to one of your fellow believers, then it’s better not to eat it. He says in verse 13:
if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.
There’s nothing wrong with food sacrificed to idols. And there’s nothing wrong with eating meat with the blood still in it. Idols aren’t real so we shouldn’t worry about them; and nothing outside us can make us unclean before God. However, we should be careful how we exercise our freedom to eat what we like so that we don’t cause our weaker brother — that is, our brother with a weaker, sensitive conscience — to fall away from following the Lord Jesus. Or as Paul puts it in Romans 15:
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves…. For even Christ did not please himself.
We’re to exercise our freedom with care and consideration for others. Now, having said that, we should also note that this doesn’t mean that I must become the slave of another person’s conscience. John Calvin says that while we ought to restrain the exercise of our freedom for the sake of weak believers, nevertheless, we ought not to restrain the exercise of our freedom when we’re faced with Pharisees. We’re not to give in to Pharisees who demand that we conform to their own man-made rules about what Christians should and shouldn’t do. Pharisees who make up their own laws should always be resisted.
And that’s the point of Acts 15. The believing Pharisees who insisted that the believing Gentiles needed to become Jewish were undermining the truth of the gospel that we’re justified by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. They therefore needed to be resisted.
But for the sake of those believing Jews with a sensitive conscience, who would been offended if they saw believing Gentiles eat such meat, and who would have felt they couldn’t worship with such Gentiles, for their sake, James was saying, abstain from that kind of food. For the sake of Christian unity, don’t eat it.
In other words, don’t listen to those Pharisees. However, take care how you exercise your Christian freedom to eat whatever you like.
And those were good and wise words for the church in Antioch at that time. But the lesson we draw from this isn’t that we too should avoid food sacrificed to idols or meat with the blood still in it. The lesson is that we should be careful not to offend our fellow believers and we shouldn’t do anything to cause them to fall from the Lord. And so, while we will do everything we can to defend the truth of the gospel against Pharisees and their man-made laws, we will also do everything we can to avoid becoming a stumbling block to our fellow believer.
Verses 22 to 35
Having said all that, let’s move on, otherwise we’ll never get to the end of Acts 15. In verse 22 we read that the apostles and elders — note once again the place given to the elders — together with the whole church in Jerusalem, decided to appoint a delegation to go with Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch with their decision. They chose men called Judas and Silas. And this delegation was to bring a letter, announcing the decision. And since they were bringing the letter in person, then they would have been able to answer any questions and provide any clarification that might have been needed.
The letter really only repeats what James had said already. But notice once again that the letter was sent from the apostles and elders. Last night I was at Presbytery, that meeting of ministers and elders from all the churches in the area. And when we met, we were debating various matters to do with the work of the church just as the apostles and elders did in Jerusalem. And then, from time to time, at Presbytery, we agree to send a letter or to appoint a delegation to undertake something on our behalf. We’re doing what the apostles and elders were doing in Acts 15.
We read in verse 30 that they arrived in Antioch. They gathered the church together. And they delivered the letter. And what was the response? Verse 31: ‘the people were glad for its encouraging message.’ And Judas and Silas, who were also prophets, or preachers, said much to encourage and strengthen the faith of the believers.
After some time, they were sent off by the church in Antioch with a blessing of peace. In other words, Luke is making clear that the church in Antioch was entirely happy with the decision of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem and the church was entirely happy with Judas and Silas.
Meanwhile Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch where they did what? Verse 35:
where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
Throughout the book of Acts, Luke emphasises the priority of preaching and teaching. Those appointed by God taught the people the word of God. That’s how the gospel spread. That’s how churches were planted. That’s how believers were encouraged and strengthened.
Verses 36 to 41
But then we come to verses 36 to 41. Paul and Barnabas decide to revisit all the churches they had planted to see how they’re getting on. But Barnabas wanted to take Mark. Remember John Mark? Back in 12:25 we read how they took him with them on their first missionary journey. However, in 13:13 we read that Mark deserted them and went back to Jerusalem. Well, according to Colossians 4:10, Mark was Barnabas’s cousin. And Barnabas was known as the encourager. So, he’s prepared to give Mark a second chance. Paul, however, was not. And they had such a sharp disagreement over it, that they decided to part company: Barnabas took John Mark and headed for Cyprus, while Paul took Silas and headed off in another direction.
However, notice that both teams were sent off by the church in Antioch, and commended to the grace of the Lord Jesus. The church didn’t take sides, but sent them both off with their blessing. And, of course, we should note carefully that while it’s unfortunate that Paul and Barnabas disagreed sharply with one another, the result was that instead of one team of preachers going out, there are now two teams. Two teams to do twice the amount of work. And that was good. Rather than hindering the work of the gospel, their disagreement actually served to help the work of the gospel. God is able to triumph over our foolishness and sin.
Paul, we’re told in verse 41, went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. And how did he strengthen them? Well, we know from the rest of Acts that he strengthened their faith through the preaching of God’s word. And, of course, that’s why we have our Midweek and our Sunday services — to strengthen the faith of this church through the reading and preaching of God’s word.