Acts 15.6-11

Those present in Acts 15the apostles and the elders, took the time to consider this matter (15.5). There was enough humility about the group to consider that they might have misunderstood the crux of what Jesus was saying, teaching, and demonstrating. After much debate, Peter says this:

“Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith. So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.”

(Acts 15.7-11, NET)

Peter makes a firm and final testimony that there is now no distinction between Jew and Gentile where salvation and eternal life are concerned (Galatians 3.28). More humility is evident when he even says that neither our ancestors nor [us] have been able to bear the yoke of keeping the law. Why, then, would those who cannot keep the law force others to try (Acts 15.1, 5)?

The current unity of ‘us’ is so much greater than the former ‘us and them’ and is abundantly clear when Peter says that

“…we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.”

(Acts 15.11, NET)

Their message is consistent: salvation from the consequences of your sin comes only through the grace of the Lord Jesus. This is true for all (in the same way as we are) and is not something that anyone can earn, irrespective of national heritage or ethnicity. 

The wonderful truth for you and for me is that no matter who we are, no matter where we are from, no matter how we may have started life in relation to God, the path to forgiveness, acceptance, and salvation are the same: the grace of the Lord Jesus. There is no need (and no point in trying) to try and earn your way to heaven, it can’t be done. It is the free gift of God (Romans 6.23b) that we receive by grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2.8). 

Acts 15.2-5

Having stated their case against the thrust of Paul and Barnabas’ teaching (15.1) debate follows. I love how the NET translates this:

“…Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them…”

(Acts 15.2a, NET, emphasis added)

Time and time again they have been challenged on their doctrine and interpretation of Scripture and here again they are being challenged (15.1). It seems this time things came to a head with the major argument and debate, and as a result a party is sent to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders to clarify whether the ‘official’ line was: faith saves or faith plus works saves.

The reception in Jerusalem is positive (v.4) yet there are still those who won’t let go of the past to embrace the future:

“…some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said,

“It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses.”

(Acts 15.5, NET)

It seems that nothing was going to convince them that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone.

Signs, wonders, Scriptures, direct confession from the Lord Himself (John 14.6), or historical examples from their own nation (Genesis 15.6).

It seems that nothing could convince the religious party of the Pharisees that justification, that salvation, that eternal life came by grace alone through faith alone.

If we have been raised in a culture where proving ourselves is important, where demonstrating our competency is rewarded, then this kind of thinking will be as alien to us as it was to the Pharisees all those years ago. The fact that God declares you forgiven, accepted, righteous, and fit for life eternal comes through nothing that you say, do, organise, earn, or work for. It comes through accepting that on our own we will never earn it, that on our own we will continually fall short of the standards set for us as His creation, and that our only hope of rescue is to cry out to Him to be saved (Romans 10.13, Joel 2.32, Acts 2.21).

Acts 15.1

Trouble and tension never seemed far from Paul and Barnabas, did it? In Acts 15.1 we read that 

“…some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

(NET)

People had taken so much offence to what was being taught that they had travelled to try and combat the simple teaching that faith in Jesus alone saves.

It was one thing for the Jewish community to accept one or two proselytes (‘God-fearers’ as they were known) who sympathised and got on board with Jewish customs of worship, but a totally different situation to accept a bunch of people with no intention of following Jewish rules and regulations yet who claimed to inherit salvation and eternal life on equal terms.

This really was an attack on the crux of Christianity, the defining salvific point of our faith:

“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

There is no salvation without the [circumcision] according to the custom of Moses, they said.

There is no salvation without first becoming Jewish.

There is no salvation without doing everything you can to keep the whole law, every last iota of it.

The trouble is, the law was never going to be upheld by regular people like you and me, its burden was too heavy (Galatians 3.10-24). It functioned as a signpost, a pointer to a person, a Saviour who would come to fulfil the law and release people trapped under its curse (Matthew 5.17).

Now that Saviour has come there is no longer any need to religiously and meticulously keep ceremonial and sacrificial laws, this is what Jesus fulfilled. Our salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone. Amen!

Tithing ≠ A Free Pass

“Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others.”

(Matthew 23.23, NET)

What is Jesus talking about here?

The claimed righteousness and behaviour of the experts in the law and…Pharisees was impeccable. Their claim was that they lived truer, taller, and tighter than any around them (Matthew 23.25). They were all about what people saw of them, heard of them, and thought of them. They were all about the outside. They gave religiously (a tenth of…) yet [neglected] what is more important. Was their character and conduct that of a believer? In their minds, sure, and part of the evidence is “Look, I tithe/give”.

Yes, giving is important (1 Corinthians 16.2 and 2 Corinthians 9.7, for example). However, it’s not ok to give a tithe or an offering and think that this frees you up to behave poorly and miss the mark elsewhere.

Yes, giving is important, but your broader behaviour is equally (if not more) important. We can’t give to church and then behave like an unbeliever when we’re there.

Yes, we need to give (You should have done these things…) but that doesn’t take away our responsibility to actually live out the faith we profess.

Dropping cash into the bag or transferring it with your phone isn’t a free pass to then be rude to others, selfish or one-sided in our expectations of others, or hypocritical in how we handle the perceived sin of others (Matthew 7.5).

Very simply, saying “Well I tithe/give here” isn’t a free pass to poor behaviour and doesn’t give you the right to exhibit a critical spirit (Luke 6.45, Galatians 5.14-15). No church needs your tithe that badly as to accept your wilful words and actions of criticism.

Yes, giving is important, but it is the overflow of a life filled with gratitude and not a crutch for a critical spirit to lean on.

If this has been your mentality towards giving, if you have justified your shortcomings in your church community with “Well I tithe/give here”, consider this today:

He has told you, O man, what is good,
and what the Lordreally wants from you:
He wants you to carry out justice, to love faithfulness,
and to live obediently before your God.

(Micah 6.8, NET, emphasis added)


Tomorrow Acts: Day by Day resumes!

Acts

The Early Tree

Last year around this time we noticed that many people had put their Christmas trees up at home. Not the shops that want you to buy their stuff, but regular people like you and me.

People were watching Christmas movies, listening to Christmas music, and eating Christmas foods way earlier than they usually would have.

Why was that?

When we decorate for Christmas, when we put up the tree and switch on the lights, what are we really doing?

For some, it begins and ends with that: decorating and making the house look nice. Twinkling lights look nice. Mince pies taste nice. Michael Bublé sounds nice. For some, it’s very surface-level. It’s just nice. 

But, on a deeper level, what does all this do for us? When we put up the tree and switch on the lights what are we really doing? 

What we’re doing is something that, in a regular year, is important. What people did last year, 2020, was extra important. See, what we’re doing when we decorate and prepare to commemorate, is to turn our eyes and hearts and minds toward hope.

How important was that last year?

When we put up the tree and switch on the lights we are putting a (very) visual reminder in our homes and lives that something better is coming. We are telling ourselves that the lives we live in the here and now are not all that there is and all that there will ever be. We are turning eyes and hearts and minds to hope:

The hope of a coming child, a son, through whom we can live a peace-filled life (Isaiah 9.6).
The hope of restoration to right relationship with God and the close and intimate fellowship this brings (Revelation 21.3).
The hope that there is something, someone, bigger, greater, and above it all who loves you, cares for you, and stepped down into fallen creation to rescue you from it all (Philippians 2.5-11).

2020 was a strange year, wasn’t it? It didn’t go according to any of our plans. In fact, for most of us, we’ve never lived through a year like it. It put us in situations of separation, of uncertainty, of anguish, and of heartache. At times like this, we need hope. 

So what about this year, 2021? Are you decorating early?

See, if we look to the world around us for hope, for encouragement, and for the reassurance that tomorrow will be better, then each and every year we may just end up putting the tree up a little bit earlier.

If you have a bad year, maybe your tree will go up in the summer…

But, if we look only to Jesus for hope, for encouragement, and for the reassurance that tomorrow will be better then we will be free to throw that tree in the corner and switch on those lights whenever we want to (and not crazy early) because our hope is firmly rooted in the truth of the Word of God and the Word become flesh, Jesus.

If 2020 left you feeling a little hopeless, putting your tree up early was a good idea. This year, thinking deeper and leaning harder on the truth of Jesus for your hope, encouragement, and reassurance, put that tree up whenever you like (although not yet!).