When Push Comes to Shove

Acts 15:1-35

It was one of those lazy, laid back Saturday afternoons. Dad was sitting in the living room reading a book, when outside the window he heard a commotion. He looked out and it was his daughter with several of her friends. It got louder and louder and more heated and argumentative, until finally he couldn’t stand it any longer. He opened the window and said, “Stop it! What are you arguing about?” His daughter quickly replied, “But Daddy, we’re just playing church!”

Everybody knows Christians don’t get into arguments – right? Nobody ever gets upset or offended or has his feelings hurt. Church is the one place everyone gets along and agrees with everyone else – right? We know that isn’t true. In fact, church seems to be the place where we get our feelings hurt quickest, hold our opinions most strongly and are ready to draw lines over almost anything. But we’re certainly not the first.

Acts 15 is another reminder that things didn’t change overnight when the first Gentile, Cornelius was baptized. Even though, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, the apostles gave their unanimous approval to the event, and acknowledged God’s working among the Gentiles – they didn’t start serving ham sandwiches at church potlucks and quit circumcising their children. The church was still deeply Jewish – and they held their traditions and heritage with almost defiant fervor.

But things were changing. Rumors were getting back to Jerusalem that Paul and Barnabas were traveling around Asia Minor, baptizing anybody and everybody, and that they had abandoned the Jewish synagogues and were converting pure heathens. Cornelius is one thing – he may have been a Gentile, but he was a good God-fearing Gentile who believes like we believe. These are people who are idolaters who have never heard of the true God – we can’t let just anybody in – can we?

Some felt so strongly about it, that they traveled to Antioch (the source of the problem) to fix it. They started teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

What are they thinking? What about freedom in Christ? What about grace? Uh, uh – you’re thinking like a Gentile. Slip on a pair of Jewish sandals for a moment. We’re Jews – Jesus was a Jew – he didn’t say anything about not being Jewish – he didn’t tell us to abandon the Law or our traditions – nothing has changed as far as we can see. Except that Paul and Barnabas are going around stirring up trouble by slacking off on God’s commands.

The debate begins; the conflict escalates; division looks inevitable. This is going back to Jerusalem. The Judaizers head home; the church in Antioch appoints Paul and Barnabas along with some others to go to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. As they travel, they spread the news of God’s work among the Gentiles to all the churches in Samaria and Phoenicia and they all rejoice at the good news. And when they finally get to Jerusalem, everybody gathers – the apostles, the elders, the whole church – to hear Paul and Barnabas report what God had been doing through them. But not everybody thinks it’s good news – vs. 5 – “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 obey the law of Moses.’”

A couple of interesting things are about to happen, and we’ll talk about them again later, but I want you to see the dynamics of what’s happening as we talk about it. Luke tells us that at this point “the apostles and elders met to consider the question.”
· Notice, this is the first time the elders are mentioned as a distinct leadership group in the Jerusalem church. Back in ch. 11, when Peter came back to Jerusalem to defend his actions with Cornelius, he reported to the apostles. But by ch. 15, the leadership of the church also includes a group of elders, and they seem to possess an equal authority with the apostles in matters relating to the church.
· But notice also, that while Luke says the apostles and elders met, it appears that it was not in a backroom, closed door kind of meeting, because in vs. 12, Luke says “the whole assembly became quiet,” and in vs. 22, “Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided….”

The picture I have in my mind is one of all the church gathered around listening in on the discussion in which the apostles and elders are the participants. And Luke says it was a lengthy discussion – I think we’re talking days, not hours. These are significant questions – what is the nature of the church, what are the requirements for salvation? But after everybody has had their say, it is Peter who voices the most powerful statement that seems to define the issue for everyone – vss. 7-11 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 made no distinction 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 the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers 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.”

Peter says, “Here’s the bottom line – it’s not what I’ve done, or what Paul’s done – it’s what God has done that matters. And God has made it absolutely clear that Gentiles have been welcomed into the church – not by becoming Jews, but by God’s grace.” And then, as if in illustration, Paul and Barnabas tell again about the miracles and wonders that God had done among the Gentiles through them.

And then, as important as Peter’s words were, it is James who settles it – vss. 13-19. When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. 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, says the Lord, who does these things’ that have been known for ages. It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”

Let me tell you why James’ words are so important.
First, James, the brother of Jesus is a highly respected and influential leader in the Jerusalem church.
· Even with the presence of the other apostles, when Peter tells the Christians at Mary’s house to send word of his release from prison in Acts 12, the message is to James.
· In Acts 21, when Paul returns to Jerusalem following his third missionary journey, Luke says he went to see James and the other elders.
· In Gal. 1, when he writes about an earlier visit to Jerusalem he says, “I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.”

Perhaps what makes his words most significant is that he speaks as the leader of this ultra-conservative Jewish party in the church.
· Paul writes in Gal. 2 about Peter’s behavior while he was in Antioch – “Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.”
It is because of what James stands for that his support of this proposed policy is so important. He has resisted the inclusion of the Gentiles, he has supported restrictions on their initiation into the church, he has led the intimidation of those who championed salvation by grace alone.
And now, by these words, he is saying, “I was wrong.” He is convinced that this is God’s work – in fact, that it is the fulfillment of Scripture – and that they should fully support and do nothing to hinder this work among the Gentiles.

They then construct a letter to communicate to the Gentile Christians their conclusions and encouragement to live godly lives. And they send it back to Antioch with Barnabas and Paul and also Judas and Silas who represented the Jewish church in Jerusalem. And when the church in Antioch hears the news they rejoice!

We learn some great lessons here in ch. 15. First of all, we learn of the commitment of the early church to the message of the grace of God in Jesus Christ – that there is a freedom in Christ from the burden of living under law – that salvation is not because of rule keeping or compliance to rituals. We learn that nobody has a priority over anyone else in the eyes of God – we all come in need of his grace.

But an even more practical lesson is to observe how the church handled disagreement and conflict. We’re all too familiar with how conflict is usually handled by the church today – lines drawn, sides polarized, accusations made, individuals demonized and finally division. But that didn’t happen – why? What did they do? What can we learn?

Church conflicts brew when there’s “he said, she said” instead of direct confrontation. I’ve seen disagreements escalate into all out war when two parties polarize a congregation enlisting everybody who would listen to their side and working apart and against each other instead of coming together to address the problem directly. Notice how when the problem arose they assembled to address it in open confrontation.

Notice also that they gathered everybody together. This wasn’t a small group who made the decision, but the whole church participated in seeing this resolved. When a small group holes up in a closed-door meeting and then announces their conclusions, there is always second-guessing and resistance by those who disagree with the outcome. It may be complicated and inconvenient, but I think we see when something of this importance arose, how important it was that everybody got to have their say, or at least had their side represented.

Something else that I think saved the church at that moment was the quality and integrity of the leaders involved. Not just that Peter was a bold, decisive voice of reason, but that James was a confident, reasonable man of truth. And James was humble enough to recognize that the position he held was in error and he was able to say, “I’m wrong.”

Church conflicts that end in division end that way because no one is willing to yield. People who would rather split the church than give up their right to be right. Thank God for men like James who see the higher priority of unity and willingly yield their positions because of their love for the church.

And it wasn’t the status quo that prevailed. Too often our discussions end by resorting to “the way we’ve always done it.” James represented the side which held the comfortable position. It would have been easier to say “let’s just leave things the way they are so we don’t upset anyone” than to boldly launch into a new way of doing and thinking. It was risky – they risked alienating those Jewish Christians who felt their church was being taken from them – they risked being accused of changing the church just to appeal to a different culture. But in the end, they were more concerned with God’s will than with human opinion.

I’m glad that the Bible is so transparent about how the church responded to the dangers and obstacles that arose. If all we were given was the perfect picture of the ideal church, instead of the real church filled with fallible human beings who sometimes make selfish choices – we’d never know how to deal with the bumps in the road and the messes we sometimes find ourselves in. I’m glad Paul lays the Corinthian church out in all its dysfunction so we can see how he dealt with the same kinds of problems we sometimes find ourselves facing. I’m glad Luke shows us here in Acts how the church was challenged by this cultural and theological dilemma, because we still find the church challenged by struggles that threaten the unity of the church. But I’m also glad that Luke lets us see how they dealt with it in such a godly and decisive way that not only perceived God’s will but also preserved the unity of the church.

It was an ancient rabbi who asked his students how they could tell when night had ended and day has dawned. "Could it be when you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?" "No," answered the rabbi. "Could it be when you look at a tree in the distance and can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?" "No." "Well, then, when is it?" the students demanded. "It is when you look on the face of a man and see that he is your brother. Because if you cannot do that then no matter what time it is, it is still night."