Acts 15, "Rebellious Grace Relieves Burdens"

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Are you living a life of grace or a life of rules? Is your relationship with God formed by keeping customs handed to you by someone else, or by the Holy Spirit empowering you through the grace of Jesus? Is our church centered in Jesus or unintentionally setting up boundaries to outsiders learning the grace of God in Christ?

Don’t Test God With Your Customs When He’s Saving People by Grace through Jesus

Verses 1-11 ask and answer an important question. Are we saved by the covenant with Abraham and keeping the customs of Moses? No, we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. And the implication of that answer is that we should not lay burdens on people that God does not require of them.
The question the early church struggled with had to do with their identity as both Jews and Christians. How Jewish does someone have to be to be a Christian, and ultimately to be saved by God from eternal destruction? In verse 1, some men think they have the answer.
Acts 15:1 (ESV)
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
The Jews were God’s chosen people. He had promised them an eternal future with Him in His kingdom. It was customary for someone who wanted to join themselves to the Jewish people to be circumcised into the covenant God made with Abraham. This covenant was that God would bless them as His chosen people in this world and give them a land forever. The external sign that God had chosen them was circumcision. This was the sign that you were surrendering yourself to God’s words going back to the first commandment, “be fruitful and multiply.” How can someone be saved apart from God’s covenant to bless those who are obedient to God’s words? Good question.
This sign of circumcision was so important and central to Jewish identity, it had been enshrined in the law of Moses as the entry requirement to keeping the whole law. But the Jews had expanded that law into a whole way of life. And that’s the way these men are looking at it. They don’t use the word for the law of Moses. They use the word, “customs” (ethos). They believe you can’t be saved apart from keeping a Jewish way of life.
Don’t be too hard on them. No one had really dealt with this question before. They didn’t have the letters to the Romans or Galatians yet. They had never known any promise for eternal salvation and inclusion in the chosen people of God apart from circumcision and the keeping of Torah.
But Paul, the former Pharisee has very strong feelings about this. In verse 2, the word for “dissension” is “rebellion” or “insurrection”. Paul and Barnabas are ready to start an insurrection over this issue. That’s how strongly they believe that the customs of the Jews will undermine the gospel of grace in Jesus. And the debate in the Antioch church doesn’t result in a resolution.
How would we handle a disagreement so fundamental and so important as the doctrine of salvation? If the leaders of our church could not agree, where would we go? These leaders go to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders of the first church.
Luke adds a note in verse 3 that will help us understand everything that’s going on. News of the conversion of the Gentiles brought great joy to all the brothers. This is response of anyone with the Holy Spirit when people believe and begin to follow Jesus Christ. But the question remains, how will we live in community with these Gentiles? We have a very different way of life in the customs of Moses.
In verse 5, we find out there are believers who still belong to the party of the Pharisees.
Acts 15:5 ESV
But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
Their party affiliation was keeping them from understanding God’s grace in Messiah. “It is necessary to circumcise them and order them to keep the law of Moses.”
After the apostles listen to both sides debate, for who knows how long, Peter stands up. We could summarize his argument by saying, “We don’t need to make this decision. God has already decided.” Then he draws everyone’s attention to God, and His work of grace.
He reminds them of Cornelius’ family. “God made a choice,” verse 7.
Acts 15:7 (ESV)
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
He keeps pointing to God.
Acts 15:8 (ESV)
And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,
Look from God’s perspective. God looks on the heart.
Acts 15:9 (ESV)
and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.
God has already done His work. He accepted these people as they are. He cleansed their hearts by faith. If you read the Torah that the Pharisees loved so much, this was the point of circumcision all along. Not that people would focus on circumcision of the flesh, but their hearts would be circumcised, surrendered and tender toward God.
Moses himself makes a really key point in Deuteronomy 10. Before God gave Israel the law, He saved them from Egypt. He saved them by His grace. So, Moses says,
Deuteronomy 10:16 ESV
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.
He says, God shows no partiality. He saves people by His grace, not by their obedience. Obedience never saved anyone.
Acts 15:10 (ESV)
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
Peter says this desire to require obedience to the customs of Moses is denying God’s work. It’s putting God to the test. If God has already approved of them, they don’t need to pass your tests.
So, the answer to the question we’ve asked is this,
Acts 15:11 (ESV)
But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Do you believe this? What tests do we require others to pass before we accept them as brothers and sisters in the faith that God has not required of them? They can join the church as long as they_____. Whatever goes in that blank becomes a boundary people have to cross to join the community.
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch use bounded sets and centered sets to illustrate in “The Shaping of Things to Come” the difference between a church that has boundaries to be crossed and a church that is centered in Jesus. Churches sometimes use boundaries to mark off who is in and who is out. These would be the customs that Paul and Barnabas were rebelling against.
The custom could be overt like a church membership roll. Or it could be more subtle like whether or not we have a cigarette butt can out front. In our case, I’ve had people tell me, “I’m going to have to get to know the Bible a lot better if I’m going to come to this church.” Bible knowledge becomes a boundary that marks off the “true Christians” from the outsiders. It could be a non-essential doctrine like pre-millennialism. It could be the kind of music we play or the way we dress for church. Any of these customs can become boundaries keeping people out of the church.
A centered church is “defined by its core values, and people are not seen as in or out, but closer or further away from the center.  In that sense, everyone is in and no one is out.  Though some people are close to the center and others are far from it, everyone is potentially part of the community in its broadest sense (‘The Shaping of Things to Come’, p. 47).”
If our center is Jesus Christ, then we don’t need to define who’s in and who’s out. We need to ask everyone, where is God working in your life to draw you closer to Him through the grace of the Lord Jesus? If you’re moving toward Him, you’re one of us. The gospel is that God draws us all to Himself by faith in His grace for us in Jesus Christ. We should be ready to start insurrections to maintain this as the one standard for measuring who is part of our movement, our community of grace on mission with Jesus.
Some of you are thinking, but the question was, “who is saved and who isn’t”, and this is a boundary. But remember, salvation belongs to God. Eternal life is knowing God through the Lord Jesus. So, we land in the same place. If we use our passage as a guide, the person that demonstrates the marks of the work of the Holy Spirit cleansing their heart and who live in the grace of Jesus by faith is someone we would encourage as a brother or sister no matter how much of the Bible they might now at the moment or play the right music or know the doctrine of the pre-millennial return of Christ.
The sooner we get over our party lines and customary boundaries, the sooner we can see God working to save people through the grace of the Lord Jesus. And we can take joy when we see the evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in someone’s life. When you see humility, love, repentance, faith, peace, and true joy in someone’s life, make it a point to tell them you see the Holy Spirit working in them and remind them of the grace God has for them in Jesus.
Some of you think that’s all too loosey-goosey. Aren’t there boundaries we can’t cross and still be saved? I’m glad you asked. The rest of the passage makes clear that once we are saved, there is a way of life that should be marked by certain attitudes and behaviors.

Don’t Trouble People who Turn to God, but Show them How to Walk in Grace

James, the brother of Jesus, gives the final verdict for the church leaders. He basis the decision in the scriptures, from the prophet Amos, that God would rebuild His kingdom with a remnant of all mankind from all nations centered in God. God has accepted a “people for His name” from nations that were not named after Abraham. The customs of the old way of life, and even the covenant of Abraham, were pointing forward to a greater fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The New Covenant is not marked by circumcision and ancestry. The New Covenant is ratified by Jesus’ blood and marked by the Holy Spirit indwelling a believer.
Once those people have been centered in God they are saved. And to live as a saved person means to pursue life. James comes up with a list of guardrails for the Gentile Christians to find life in God and not in created things. If God has saved you, you can no longer live as a pagan who lives without reference to God. He lists three laws that derive from Genesis 1 and 2, in which we learn we are created in God’s image to be fruitful and multiply as we obey God’s words and surrender to His kingdom. You can’t have life in God and have allegiances to idols. You can’t have life in God and in sexual immorality, when God’s word provides us one man/one woman marriage. You can’t have life in God and receive your life from the blood of another creature.
These guardrails keep us on the path of salvation by God’s grace, life from God’s words, identity from God’s name upon us. Live according to your identity in Christ and you’re on the right path. Live a Jesus way of life.
We cannot be the community of grace on mission with Jesus if we have put boundaries in the way of people experiencing God’s grace for them in Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. We also cannot be the community of grace on mission with Jesus if our lifestyle does not demonstrate our identity as the people for God’s name. But as we live wholeheartedly thankful and joyful lives because God’s grace is abundant for us in Jesus, we will bring the word of the gospel to the remnant of mankind that God will call to Himself.
It is a gospel of grace through the Lord Jesus…communion.
Questions for Discussion
Where is God’s grace showing up in your life right now so we can thank Him?
What are some groups you have joined that have strict boundaries around membership? How does that help or hinder the mission of those groups?
What are some boundaries our church has put up that make people feel unwelcome? (Maybe you could ask someone outside the church before you answer with your community group.)
Are there any customs our church has that have helped you grow in grace? Are there any that we should let go of for the sake of outsiders being welcomed in?
What do we learn about God in this passage?
How do we discern the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of someone outside the church? How can we bring the word of the gospel to that person (or people)?
What are some guardrails you use to stay on the path of grace through Jesus? How would you explain those to someone who needs to understand the difference between guardrails and rules or customs?
How will you respond to this passage this week?
Who is someone you could share this passage with this week?
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