Key Verse: 15:11
“No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
In the previous passage Paul urged the Gentiles to turn from worthless things to the living God. He also taught us the right attitude of a missionary by saying, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” So, we should not avoid hardships but take up the cross of mission with resurrection faith. We can do so when the Spirit of Jesus who rose from the dead is in our hearts.
Today’s passage describes the first church Council at Jerusalem to decide a matter of important salvation doctrine. The whole issue was a crucial one for the future of the Church. The issue was whether Gentile Christians need to be circumcised to be saved. This issue could trigger a potential firestorm between Jerusalem church and Antioch church and between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. It was a dangerous time. But Peter and James leaders of the council handled this important matter in a most gracious manner led by the Holy Spirit. The Jerusalem council’s decision was “we are saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus.” They did not require new Gentile believers to be circumcised as a condition of salvation. This decision paved the way for a subsequent fruitful world mission ministry. God opened the door of salvation widely for the Gentiles. From this chapter missionary Paul emerged as the world mission leader. Let’s not impose any yoke and extra burden to our new believers by believing that we are saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus. May God bless us to become gracious servants of God and invite many Gentiles to salvation by God’s grace alone.
PART I. “UNLESS YOU ARE CIRCUMCISED, YOU CANNOT BE SAVED” (1-5).
Look at verse 1. Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” After Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey, Antioch church was filled with the world mission vision. From that time on, Antioch church became a diverse, multi-national, worldwide, and missionary-sending church. They praised God when they heard that the Gentiles turned from the worthless things to the living God. They began to support the churches they pioneered with their whole hearts. They were united together to bring salvation to the ends of the earth. They were becoming the center of world mission work. But some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem without leader’s authorization came to Antioch and preached the message of circumcision as the condition of salvation. They said, “Hey! You Gentiles! Unless you are circumcised according to our tradition taught by Moses, you cannot be saved. You have to become like us. See how we are circumcised. We are better than you. No circumcision. No salvation.” Wow! This was a serious stuff. Their preaching was like they were pouring out water on the rising fire of world mission. Some stricter Jewish Christians found it unthinkable that the Gentiles could be saved without the circumcision because it was the sign of the covenant with God. So they insisted on circumcision as the condition of salvation. Here “circumcision” means more than a surgical procedure. It means to acknowledge the entire Jewish law as binding and necessary for salvation. The Gentile Christians at Antioch had simply accepted Jesus as their Savior by faith. Then the Holy Spirit worked in their hearts to forgive their sins and give them a new birth into the kingdom of God. By the grace of God they became the citizens of the kingdom of God. But these men claimed that in addition, they needed to be circumcised. If someone came to you and said, “You have to speak in tongues to be saved.” This new requirement may confuse us about our salvation saying, “I have difficulty speaking in one tongue and why should I speak in another tongues to be saved? This is too much.”
How did Paul and Barnabas deal with this controversy? First, they did not allow them to mislead their Gentile sheep. Second, they stood up and challenged their false doctrine of salvation. This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute with them. They debated the matter hotly. But there was no immediate solution. There was a danger that this issue might have divided the churches like Jerusalem verses Antioch, and the people like the Jews verses the Gentiles and the law verses grace. But once again Antioch church acted very wisely. Though Antioch Christians were young, they showed their spiritual maturity. They did not react emotionally in spite of the crucial nature of the issue but they determined to consult with the Jerusalem officials to reach some agreement over it. They respected their spiritual authority. They wanted to maintain unity with them. So the Antioch church appointed Paul and Barnabas, along with some other believers, to go to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
The church sent them on their way. Paul and Barnabas took the opportunity to hold the world mission report meetings on the way, both in Phoenicia and Samaria. Paul would meet many who has been scattered to these parts from Jerusalem as a result of his earlier persecution before his conversion in Phoenicia and Samaria. The title of his mission report might have been like this, “Former persecutor turned to missionary by the grace of God, Paul, became a light for the Gentiles-the conversion stories of the Gentile believers.” He was delighted to tell them of the expansion of the Gospel to the Gentiles. There was no criticism among them when they heard the wonderful world mission report, only great rejoicing. They praised God for great missionary work among the Gentiles. They were amazed how Paul was changed dramatically to become a gracious servant of God. It was only by the grace of God.
Look at verse 4. “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.” A delegation of leaders must have thanked God for their safe arrival and put flowers around their necks. Paul and Barnabas began to share with them what God had done among the Gentiles. They must have told about the fruitful ministry in Antioch, where scores of disciples were ready to go as missionaries to the Gentile territory. They must have reported about their first mission journey, telling how Sergius Paulus had been converted by a great sign from God and how the whole island of Cyprus was now a ripe mission field. They must have told about the birth of new believers in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. There seems to have a spirit of beautiful Christian fellowship among them. But the critics were ready. Whenever there is a great work of God, there are always the critics who disturb believers with their narrow view of the Scriptures. SDA church says, “You have to be vegetarians to be saved.” In some respect they look good for health reasons. Then what happens to all hamburger eaters? All MacDonald should close their business. According to M. Sarah Chang’s China mission report, Chinese people love to eat pork. They are excluded from salvation according to SDA tradition. Some churches say, “You have to be baptized immersed not sprinkled to be saved.” Catholic church emphasizes good work to be saved. They miss God’s overall salvation plan through Jesus alone. Look at verse 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.’” They repeated the same demand for circumcision. They were like the old wineskins. They were distractions and hindrances to the Gentile Christians who just found salvation in Jesus. How did the Jerusalem church resolve this issue?
PART II. IT IS THROUGH THE GRACE OF OUR LORD JESUS (6-11).
The apostles and elders agreed to consider the issue at once. Luke does not give any details of the debate. But he takes up the matter toward the close of the debate. Peter’s position is reported because of its great significance. Look at verse 7b. “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” Peter’s address was based on his own experience when he had witnessed the conversion of the Gentile Roman Cornelius in Acts chapter 10. Through that event, God taught Peter to accept the Gentiles. At that time Peter did not circumcise Cornelius to be saved. Shortly thereafter, at a meeting of leaders, the Jerusalem church also accepted the Gentiles. Still, however, some of the circumcision party thought that the Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved. What did Peter say?
Look at verses 8-9. “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.” Peter makes point that God had made no distinction between Jews and Gentiles in giving the Holy Spirit. Both were able to receive cleansing of heart through faith. Here is the main point. In Genesis 17:10-11 God asked Abraham to be circumcised as the sign of the covenant. It was a visible and physical symbol to be God’s people. But old covenant was replaced with the new covenant Jesus gave. Jesus said in Mark 14:24, “’This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,’ he said to them.” God gave us the new covenant through the blood of Jesus. Paul defined the new covenant in this way in Romans 2:28-29, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.” Circumcision is not just visible and physical symbol but it is inward transformation of heart. It is a matter of purification of our heart. There is a saying goes around like this, “We may know what is in the ten-feet deep water but we may not know what is in the one-inch deep heart of a man.” Nobody knows what is going on in other’s heart. Someone may look gorgeous and handsome outwardly but his heart may be filled with filthy and ugly thoughts. Written law reveals our many dirty sins but cannot change our hearts. No one can change our hearts. That’s the reason why God cleansed our dirty hearts when we believed in his Son’s blood. Only the blood of Jesus can cleanse us from our sins. God purified our hearts by faith alone. God justified, sanctified and glorified us when we have faith in Jesus. Let’s pray that God may create us a new heart purified through faith in Jesus. God gave us the Holy Spirit as his approval and acceptance. If one has received the Holy Spirit, he is a child of God. God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles when they believed the gospel message. They were not circumcised first. As soon as they believed the message, the Holy Spirit came on them. Clearly, to God, Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to be saved.
Look at verse 10. “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?” It made no sense to impose another condition after such an experience as Peter had had. Moreover, he defined Moses’ law as an unbearable yoke. Peter a devout Jew would admit the yoke and would testify to its heavy load. He knew that the Jewish forefathers could not keep all of Moses’ law. They were like a yoke to them because they were good but they failed to keep them. Who could obey the law of Moses 100%? Under Moses’ law, all men die due to their sins.
What was Peter’s conclusion? Look at verse 11. “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Peter recognized the freedom of the gospel. Salvation had come through the grace for both Jew and Gentile. Peter declares that people are saved by God’s grace alone. This is as much a personal testimony as a theological statement. Peter himself was saved by God’s grace alone. He did not choose Jesus; Jesus chose him by his grace. Out of his grace and mercy Jesus called Simon Peter from his ordinary life as a fisherman. He could have spent his whole life as smelly fisherman in the Sea of Galilee. One day he met Jesus and Jesus called him, “Follow me.” Peter followed Jesus and became one of his top disciples. But he could not give up his human dream to become the prime ministry in Jesus’ earthly Messianic kingdom. He made many mistakes with his big mouth. Peter denied Jesus three times in a crucial moment. It was a total and complete failure. Yet Jesus did not condemn Peter. Jesus died for Peter’s sins. Jesus visited him again while he caught nothing in the Sea of Galilee and reinstated him as his top disciple. Jesus loved him to the end unconditionally. Jesus should have fired him due to his denial. It was by the grace of Jesus that he was restored as his disciple. It was unthinkable of his present blessing without the grace of Jesus. Later he wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1Pe 2:24). Peter knew that he was a sinner, nothing more. But Jesus forgave his sins and gave him eternal life and the kingdom of God by his one-sided grace. Peter was saved by God’s grace alone. Once I was a selfish, proud, narrow-minded, smelly, fatalistic, legalistic, judgmental, critical, and ambitious sinner heading to eternal destruction. But Jesus called me out of darkness into his marvelous light by his irresistible one-sided grace. I was saved by God’s grace alone.
Likewise, the Jews were saved by God’s grace alone. The Gentiles were saved by God’s grace alone. Peter’s speech silenced all the critics. He had struck fundamental chords which could not be challenged. When God reveals his salvation plan clearly, our old traditions may have to be modified. When Apostle Paul heard Peter’s clear statement, he must have said, “Amen! Peter! Thank God for your clear position.” Later, apostle Paul based the grace of God as the basis of his doctrine of salvation in Romans and other gospels. Paul wrote in Romans 1:5, “Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” When Paul tried to earn his own salvation by keeping the law, he felt wretched because he could not keep it. He found peace when he met Jesus and received forgiveness of his sins. So, Paul was known as the apostle of grace. Without grace it was unthinkable for him to become the apostle for the Gentiles. It was pure grace of God for him to be saved. The grace of God was the central theme of his soteriology, meaning “the doctrine of salvation.” By his total obedience to the Father and by his suffering, death, and resurrection, our Lord Jesus Christ earned for us salvation from sin and its result. God knew that we could not earn salvation by obeying the law of Moses. So he provided us salvation through his Son Jesus Christ. He sacrificed his Son on the tree to save us from our dirty sins. Paul said in Romans 1:17b, “The righteous will live by faith.” Salvation is God’s sovereign work and we all accept it by faith alone. Martin Luther tried to earn his salvation through good works like begging for the poor and climbing the stairs on his knees. But he was troubled more in his heart. He was born again when he believed in Jesus alone.
Ephesians 2:8,9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith---and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God---not by works, so that no one can boast.” If we contributed even 1% to our salvation, we would boast about it as though we did 80%. But we did not do even 1 %. God, in his wisdom, saves us by his grace alone. The glory for salvation work belongs to God alone. When we realize this we can be happy and fruitful. The secret of happiness as a human being is to realize the grace of God and live by it. We must depend on God’s grace alone for our salvation. Salvation does not come from our good character or good job or family background. It is given by God’s grace alone. We should not add anything to the grace of God. UBF has certain traditions like you should wear ties when presiding or you should sing only old hymns etc. YDJ loves new contemporary songs with drums but older people are uncomfortable. But we must be flexible and gracious enough to accommodate others’ need as along as they remain in Jesus. I was uncomfortable when I attended the African conference because they danced all the time during the meeting. But I could not impose my own standard to them. Later, I liked it and it prepared my heart to be joyful and to listen to the word of God. Once we taste the grace of Jesus, we can be generous and gracious towards our young sheep until they grow in Jesus.
PART III THE JERUSALEM COUNCIL’S CRITICAL DECISION (12-21).
Peter paved the way for this important issue for the Jerusalem Council as a guide. It gave the clear principle that salvation comes by God’s grace alone, not by human merit of any kind. On this basis, Barnabas and Paul began to share what God had done among the Gentiles through them. They told of miraculous signs and wonders God did. When they finished, James spoke up. This James was the brother of Jesus and the moderator of the Jerusalem Council. Since Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, James emerged as the leader of the Jerusalem church. In the gospel John, he was very worldly pushing Jesus to seek public fame. But he was changed after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He became an influential leader in the Jerusalem church.
Look at verses 14-18. James begins by recognizing Peter’s testimony of what God had done among them. In fact, Peter is an apostle, and he represents the New Testament. Then James quotes the words of the prophets. Look at verses 16-18. “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.” The prophets represent the Old Testament. According to the prophet Amos, God had salvation plan for the Gentiles. God knew that all the Gentiles would bear his name someday. Thus, we can say that James refers to the New Testament and the Old Testament as the basis for his decision. The Council recognized the word of God alone as the final authority. They based their decision on the word of God.
Look at verse 19. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” In essence, James was saying that since God had accepted the Gentiles simply by faith and by grace, the church should not make it harder for them. Instead, they should accept the Gentiles into Christian fellowship. Although James makes this decision, it seems to have been the consensus of the entire Council (22). In this way, the issue of circumcision---that evoked passion in the hearts of many---was settled in a meaningful way. At the same time, all believers, both Jew and Gentile, could be united in the church.
James went on to give a few instructions to the Gentiles. Look at verse 20. “Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” Most likely, this promoted fellowship between Jews and Gentiles, especially eating fellowship.
PART IV. THE COUNCIL’S LETTER TO GENTILE BELIEVERS (22-35).
James’ speech was balanced well pointing to all the issues on the table. Not only the apostles and elders but also the whole church were impressed by it. They decided as a practical measure to send two delegates from their number with an official letter showing their decision. James resolved potentially divisive and sensitive problem peacefully. Conflicts between the law verses grace was solved graciously. His decision based on the Scripture restored unity and peace between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Judas and Silas were selected as their delegates. They treated the Gentile believers with genuine respect and love. They really reached out to the Gentile believers to embrace them, explaining that the circumcision party had gone out without authorization. The main point of the letter was not stated explicitly, but it was implied: “We recognize the work of God in Antioch and welcome you into Christian fellowship.” Look at verse 26. “Men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They complimented the first world mission journey of Paul Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas were introduced as men who had risked their lives for the sake of Jesus. They were willing to sacrifice their lives for the world mission. The Council’s decision backed up Paul’s Gentile ministry. This decision paved the way for the future successive world mission work. It was the historical moment for the world mission history. Like the early church we must learn hope for all people.
Four Washington senior missionaries launched their first mission journey to China last week. M. Sarah Chang saw the evidence of God’s work in China. She encourages us by saying, “China is calling you.” M. Grace Park was moved by the work of God in YUST and was blessed to meet the president of YUST. God renewed her faith to raise up many young disciples of Jesus. M. Rebekah Lim risked her life for the mission trip. She fell down while climbing the mountain Backdusan and thought that she was injured and could not get up. But she got up with her resurrection faith and no harm happened to her because Jesus was with her. Finally, she saw Tuman river and North Korea. She prayed to pioneer North Korea by 2005. Moses Chang delivered a powerful message and three senior women missionaries shared tearful mission life testimonies. All Chinese missionaries were greatly encouraged. What was the response of the Gentile Christians in Antioch when this letter was delivered to them? Look at 31. “The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.” They were overjoyed because they were burdened by the Jewish tradition. They were glad to study the Bible with Judas and Silas. Then they sent them off with the blessing of peace to return to Jerusalem. After that, it was “back to the Bible” for Paul and Barnabas. They taught the word of God diligently in Antioch. In this passage we learn that we are saved by God’s grace alone.
It is not by anything we have done, but by what God has done for us. The Council’s decision was significant because it opened the door of salvation for the Gentiles without any condition. When we believe Jesus as our Lord and Savior, God forgives our sins, purifies our hearts, and gives us the Holy Spirit. It is totally God’s grace. This grace makes us thankful to God. This grace enables us to work hard for the world mission purpose. This grace enables us to go out as a missionary to the unknown world. From this point on, the world mission activity moved from Jerusalem to Antioch, Macedonia, and Corinth and Rome. Apostle Paul, a man of God’s grace launched several world mission journeys that enlightened the dark Gentile world with the gospel light of Jesus’ grace and love. May God bless us to throw away our human tradition and to hold on the grace of Jesus and to live for his world mission purpose. Let’s read the key verse 11.