RPM, Volume 17, Number 34, August 16 to August 22, 2015

To the Ends of the Earth: Cutting Cost

Acts 15:1-21

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now we continue this evening in our studies in The Acts of The Apostles, and we find ourselves at the very center of The Acts of The Apostles. There's a reason why this particular incident that we are going to begin to look at tonight and continue looking at, God willing, next Lord's Day—the so-called "Jerusalem Council"…there's a reason why it falls right at the very center of The Acts of The Apostles, because in many ways it is the fulcrum on which the entire book seems to revolve.

Now we're going to read together verses 1-21 of Acts 15. If you have your Bibles with you, you can turn to that; or, if you don't, there's a pew Bible somewhere ahead of you and you can join in the reading that way. Before we read the passage together, once again let's look to God and ask for His blessing.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures. We thank You that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit, and we ask again this evening, O Lord, for the blessing of Your Spirit. We cannot understand the Scriptures aright apart from Your blessing. Come and shine a light on our darkened minds, and cause us, O Lord, to see something of Christ, something of the beauty of the gospel, something of redeeming grace. Set our hearts ablaze with love for You, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Hear now God's holy and inerrant word:

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses."

The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are."

All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, 'Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,

"After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old."

"Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath."

Amen. And may God bless the reading of His holy word.

You understand that something remarkable is happening. It's hard for us, I think, to enter into the way everything in changing in the world of the New Testament as believers knew it, because up until now the world had its center in Jerusalem. (Some of you think the world revolves around the center of Jackson, Mississippi.) And God has been pouring out His Spirit, and through various persecutions in Jerusalem, Christians have spread to Samaria, through Judea, to northern Galilee, to beyond to the great city of Antioch in Syria, and now to Cyprus and what we would call Turkey. And in these places God has been drawing to Himself hundreds, possibly thousands, of true genuine believers who have put their trust in Jesus Christ, so that the number of believers outside of Jerusalem now outweighs the number of believers in the city of Jerusalem.

But it's more than that. It's not just a thing about numbers. It's the fact that for the very first time — from ever — there are more Gentiles in the kingdom of God now than there has ever been, and as far as Christianity is concerned, as far as the church of the New Testament is concerned, there are more Gentile believers than Jewish believers, so the center of gravity is changing. It's no longer Jerusalem. Jerusalem was largely, of course, Jewish. The church in Jerusalem was largely, of course, Jewish Christian. Jerusalem was by instinct and inclination conservative, steeped in the traditions of Judaism going all the way back—not just through the period between the testaments, but all the way back. They could trace as they walked down the streets the stories of the Old Testament.

Antioch in Syria, the rival church now to Jerusalem, is a diverse cosmopolitan city, and the church reflects that. And they're outward looking, they're missionary minded. They're concerned not just about Judea, they're concerned not just about Palestine, they're concerned about the world. They want to see the world brought to Christ. They sent Paul and Barnabas and John Mark and others to Cyprus, and Paul and Barnabas have gone to Turkey, Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Derbe. They'd come back to Antioch. They'd reported how God has done just great things, astonishing things, wonderful things; that those things that God has done has been largely, if not almost exclusively among Gentiles.

So there's a tension. There's a tension, a rift growing between mother church in Jerusalem and the new church — the new church plant, if you like — in Antioch. And as all church tensions and church rifts do, it's about personalities…people…individuals…because it's about people like James, the Lord's brother (half-brother, if you like… James the just), who's the leading figure in Jerusalem. And it's about Paul, who in Jerusalem is still to some degree…at least, there were some in Jerusalem who are still not quite sure about Paul, and the more they hear about this Gentile work, the less sure they were about Paul. And it's about Barnabas, and it's about Peter.

Luke doesn't give us the whole story, for reasons of his own. He doesn't tell us, for example, a fascinating little detail that Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians. When Paul is writing to the Galatians, he tells us in the second chapter — he begins the chapter by recording the visits that Paul and Barnabas have already made, and it's recorded for us, I think, in the eleventh chapter of Acts; but in the second half of Galatians 2 he's referring to a visit that certain people from Jerusalem made to the church in Antioch, none of which Luke records for us here in Acts 15. But that incident has already taken place.

What's the issue? The issue has been festering for a while. When Paul and Barnabas had made their second visit to Jerusalem (at least, Paul's second visit to Jerusalem), it began to surface then, because Paul tells us in Galatians 2 that certain people came in, "spying." Well, that's a loaded word, for the start! They came in to spy the freedom that Paul had in the gospel, and to endeavor to "bring them once again into slavery". That's how Paul puts it when he writes to the Galatians. What's he talking about? Well, he's talking about this group that Luke mentions here, and Luke calls them in Jerusalem "the sect of the Pharisees." Evidently these men have been following Paul and Barnabas. From Galatians you get the impression that wherever Paul and Barnabas had been in Turkey, these men have been following: watching, taking notes, being very critical. And their criticism is about the fact that Paul and Barnabas and others have been accepting Gentiles into the faith, into the church, into the communion of saints, without asking them to be circumcised and without asking them to obey certain ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. Evidently this group came to Antioch. Paul talks about it in Galatians 2.

And you remember what happened — it was the clash of the Titans! It was one of those no-holds-barred, humdingers of a battle between Paul and Peter. It's—I would love to have seen it!—I mean, can you imagine Peter, who from the time he had seen the vision in the house of ?Simon the tanner in Joppa and been called to go down to Caesarea to Cornelius, the first sign that God was calling Gentiles in big numbers into the kingdom of God - from that time Peter had been eating in the company of Gentiles. You understand that Jews didn't eat in the same company as Gentiles — not in the same building, if they could help it! Certainly not in the same room. So from that point onwards, throughout his missionary journey one assumes, in Cyprus and in Turkey, Peter in Antioch has been eating with Gentiles. But when this group comes from Jerusalem they call themselves…(in Galatians 2, at least, Paul says) they call themselves "men of James." So that's a loaded term, too, because now they're bringing the name of James into this. As soon as they come, Peter withdraws from fellowship with the Gentiles. He doesn't eat bacon sandwiches any more. He doesn't eat at the same table as the Gentiles any more. And Paul calls him down. It's a showdown. It's Paul and Peter, and it's a public thing, because whatever Peter's motivations (and Tertullian has the best attempt to try and say that Peter was doing exactly what Paul was doing: being all things to all men; that if evangelism amongst Jews was being threatened amongst the Gentiles, then Peter is therefore withdrawing from among the Gentiles to aid evangelism amongst the Jews. What's sauce for the goose…whatever that thing is)!

But Paul has none of it. As far as Paul is concerned, Peter's action — whatever his motivations were, his actions said that unless you were circumcised, you cannot be saved, because he was in his actions ostracizing the Gentiles from the community of the faithful. And even Barnabas is swayed. Barnabas! Sweet Barnabas, the son of encouragement! The man you want in every church…even Barnabas is swayed.

So the church in Antioch decides to send Paul and Barnabas and some others down to Jerusalem to discuss with the apostles and with the elders. Note that: with the elders — already there's government by eldership in Jerusalem — already.

You know what's interesting? Luke doesn't mention Peter. Now, he's in Jerusalem. He was in Antioch, and he will be in Jerusalem, because he'll speak in the Jerusalem Council. But Luke says it was Paul and Barnabas and some others that were sent by the church down to Jerusalem. I think Peter left. As soon as that spat took place between Paul and Peter, Peter was gone. He went to Jerusalem — maybe I'm doing a Tertullian — maybe he senses that at least in Jerusalem they'd be sympathetic, and they would be, to what he had done. So they go to Jerusalem. They go down through the center of the land. They call in various places along the way — Phoenicia and Samaria; they describe the great work the Lord has been doing among the Gentiles, and these folk are encouraged, and they're rejoicing. And then they come to Jerusalem, and Luke says they meet with the elders and they give a report to the apostles: a report about Gentile success. And the sect of the Pharisees…now, they're professing believers. They're not Jews, you understand. They are Jewish Christians. At least they're professing now to be part and parcel of the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. They have claimed Jesus as Messiah, but they are still a sect of the Pharisees, and they stand up in verse 5 and they object, and this is what they said: "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses."

Now that is what they had said when they had come up to Antioch. Luke says when they came up to Antioch (verse 1): "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."

Tis isn't just an issue now about pork sandwiches! This is an issue about salvation. This is an issue about the gospel. These men are saying that unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved. There's nothing more important than that. I mean, whatever else is on your agenda tonight, and I'm sure there's a million things on your agenda tonight, there's nothing more important than that: Is the gospel by grace alone through faith alone, or is it by faith alone plus works? Plus circumcision? Plus obedience to Mosaic Law? That's why Paul and Peter had the showdown, because according to Paul, Peter's actions were saying you need something in addition to faith in Jesus Christ. This is about justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. It was all about the gospel.

Calvin has a way with one-liners. Calvin in his commentary says, "Christianity would have come to nothing if Paul would have yielded at that point." Had Paul yielded, had Paul…and you can understand the pressure to yield…I mean, we want unity. Let's agree to unite here. Let's be one. Let's stop this quarreling. Let's stop this negativity. Why are you so particular? Why are you always so disagreeable? Let's agree to disagree, and let's move on.

Well, of course that's not Paul. And that never is Paul, because for Paul — and I trust for you and me tonight — it's about what is the gospel. What is the gospel? Now it's one of those "Here I stand" moments. You know, Luther at the Reformation: "Here I stand. So help me God, I can do no other." He's at an impasse here, and it's one way or the other, and for Paul there is only one way. There is no compromise here. And do you know what happens next? The most unexpected thing happens next. You couldn't have written this. Peter stands up…and you know, when Peter stands up…if you were in Paul's shoes, if you were sitting next to Paul or Barnabas, you would have heard, "Whew!" Peter, that Paul has just had a public showdown with. You know if Peter had come out — and you might have expected, and I wonder what the sect of the Pharisees thought when Peter stood up — "It's going to go our way now!" Peter had every right, you might say. His feelings are hurt. It's not an easy thing to be shown up in public. It's not an easy thing to hear Paul accuse you of in effect denying the gospel, in public. This is Peter. You know the respect people have for Peter. They have a respect for Peter in Jerusalem.

I think this is Peter's greatest moment. I think it's his greatest moment. You know, he could have huffed and puffed; he could have sought the sympathetic card of the folk in Jerusalem. He could have done, you know, what Marc Anthony does in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar when he's standing on the steps and Julius Caesar is being buried, and he talks about Brutus and he says, "You know, Brutus is an honorable man." And you know when he said that the fourth or the fifth time, you realize he doesn't actually mean that at all. And Peter could have said, "Oh, Paul is just a wonderful man." And after he'd said this so many times, you'd begin to suspect that he is in fact saying the very opposite. And he begins to speak, and he says two things. He says first of all, in verse 8, that God accepts Gentiles into the kingdom on the same basis as Jews are accepted into the kingdom. God, he says, knows the heart. It's about regeneration. It's about renewal of the heart, and religion is all about the heart. And he tells us the nature of what the gospel does. Look at what he says in verses 8 and 9: "And God, who knows the heart, testifies to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; …[the same spirit; verse 9]: "…and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith."

You see, the gospel has ethnic implications. There's not a measure of ethnicity in what Peter is saying here. The Jews have for centuries regarded Gentiles as dogs, and Peter, having been brought to Christ, is standing up and he's saying there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. They're accepted in exactly the same way, they're indwelt by exactly the same Holy Spirit, and in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free, male nor female, because we're all one in Jesus Christ.

You see, there isn't a separate church for the Jews and a separate church for the Gentiles. Can you imagine that as a compromise? No, we're all one in Jesus Christ, Peter is saying. It's…I just think it's Peter's greatest moment! Because Peter is saying exactly the same thing that Paul is saying, and there's no animosity. He's not taking the half, as we say. This is more than his feelings. It's more than just personalities. The gospel is at stake. The gospel, the future of the church is at stake here.

And then, James, after lots of discussion that Luke passes over — oh, to read the minutes of that little discussion, and who said what! — and James the just stands up, and he is the moderator of this presbytery in Jerusalem. [It looks like a presbytery, doesn't it? Sounds like a presbytery, so it must be a presbytery.] And James is the moderator, and of course James is conscious of lots of factions now and you sense that in what he's saying and the way he says it. He begins — and it's a beautiful touch — he calls Peter "Simeon." It's the only time in Acts he's called Simeon. He's never called Simeon. Simeon is a Jewish name. He hasn't been called Simeon since he's been converted. Oh, don't you see? He's a good moderator! It's a sop in the direction of the Jewish sympathizers. This is a Jew who has just spoken, a Jew who has found the true Messiah. He's a good moderator!

And then you could have heard a pin drop, because James uses language that's full of code and meaning. He talks about the Gentiles being called by God "a people for His name." Now that maybe rings bells in your ears, but I can tell you the Jews who were sitting there in Jerusalem understood full well that James was using language that's coming straight out of the Old Testament. It's code language! What has God been doing in His monumental dealings with His people? Calling a people for His name; putting His name upon them. Do you see what he is saying? He's taking Jewish language and he's applying it now to the Gentiles - and you could have heard a pin drop - that the Gentiles are now in the same position…Gentile believers, that is; Gentiles who are trusting in Christ, that is…are in exactly the same position as believers in the Old Testament were. I remember listening to a sermon one time, and I had to say to myself, "Breathe!" because I was so caught up in what this man was saying, and it was coming out in such volume and with such speed I wanted to catch every word. And I think if you had been in this council at this point you would have to say to yourself, "Breathe!" because something astounding is being said.

I think at that point the sect of the Pharisees realized the vote was lost. It was curtains, because no one was speaking in their favor. Not Peter, and not James. And that conclusion James quotes from a beautiful passage in Amos 9 that is about an Old Testament picture of God gathering His people, and restoring Israel to possess the land of Edom, he's actually not quoting it from the Hebrew, he's quoting it from the translation, the modern translation of the period, the Greek translation of the period. James is reading the Old Testament, and he's saying this promise that is made to Israel is now being applied to the church. And all of a sudden, if your breath was taken away by what he had said before, now you realize he has equated Israel with the church. [This man is a Presbyterian!] It's an amazing passage. It's full of significance, and he draws it all together: "It is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from…"

…and there are four things to abstain from, and we're not going to look at that tonight. Don't ask me any questions about that, because I haven't studied it yet! We'll address that next week. Hold that thought for next week!

What's missing from the conclusion? There is no demand for circumcision. The battle has been won. Those who had come up to Antioch and said unless you are circumcised you cannot be saved — they had lost the battle because the gospel, my friend, according to Paul and according to Peter, and according to James, and according to the Jerusalem Council, is that we are saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, and that brings us into the same and identical relationship with Christ whether we're Jews or whether we're Gentiles. Whether there was a compromise on certain issues (that needs to be looked at very carefully, to be sure…to begin next week), on circumcision there is no compromise whatsoever. You see what they're saying?

"Nothing in my hand I bring." Nothing. Not circumcision. Not what was…how Jews defined themselves in many ways.

Nothing in my hands I bring;
Simply to Thy cross I cling.
Naked, look to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

It's a staggering moment. It's a breathtaking moment in church history. Actually, in many ways, after the cross, for the church of Christ this is its D-Day, because it has defined once and forever its relationship to the ceremonies of the Old Testament, especially circumcision. And you can add absolutely nothing to Christ for your salvation. It is Christ and Christ alone, and by faith and by faith alone.

Now, as they say, there's more. There are those four other things next week.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your word, and pray that this sweet message of the gospel by faith in Jesus only… We cast ourselves utterly and unreservedly and completely into Your arms, Lord Jesus Christ, and we thank You for the richness of Your mercy and the lavishness of Your forgiveness. Receive our thanks, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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