The fifteenth chapter of Acts is not only one of the most important chapters in the book, it is one of the most important episodes in the HISTORY OF THE CHURCH. It is often considered to be the first council of the Christian Church, one that had to be convened to decide a matter of greatest urgency- to determine just who qualifies to be a Christian. At that time, there were two main parties in the Church. There was the Greek or Gentile party, represented by the church of Antioch and headed by the Apostle Paul and his co-worker Barnabas; then there was the Hebraic party which had a strong presence in Jerusalem, in the church led by James, the brother of Jesus. The point of contention was this: There were Judaizers in the church of Jerusalem who insisted that before one could become a Christian, that person had to first become a Hebrew, that before a Gentile could be baptized and admitted to the church, he initially had to be circumcised. If this group was not checked, there was the fear that over time, they just might find themselves back in complete bondage to the Law, from that which Christ had already delivered them FROM. Christianity would revert to legalism with the salvation of Christians becoming more WORKS-BASED than FAITH-BASED.
On the OTHER hand, there were Gentiles in the church who vigorously protested this legalistic requirement saying that Christ now SUPERCEDED the Law of Moses and so they were now under grace and no longer obligated to follow the precepts of the Law. The distinction between Jew and Gentile was now done away with for God no longer judged a person on the basis of external differences of birth and race, or whether one was ceremonially clean or unclean but on the purity of the heart alone. Furthermore, God had cleansed them and placed his Holy Spirit within them. However, for all their understanding of the truth, there were deep concerns about THIS group as WELL for in time, their new-found freedom in Christ could turn into moral license, that is, that with the end of the Law, Christians could adopt the philosophy of “anything goes” and now live however they wanted since all their actions were covered by God’s grace ANY WAY. Thus the council had to weigh two of the most basic principles of Christian living- the principle of Christian obedience and the principle of Christian liberty.
Well how did the council handle this important controversy. Like most general assemblies, it had leaders representing a whole spectrum of positions- from the right to the left and everything in between. There were leaders of the CONSERVATIVE group who argued that the OLD way was still the BEST way, that the Law of Moses had been the spiritual and moral pattern of persons for generations. It was the supreme ethical and ceremonial law, one which bound the people together, uniting them as one while also binding them to their God. Circumcision combined BOTH elements and was, in a sense, the cornerstone of the whole system. If circumcision were to go, the Law would then have to go TOO. Furthermore, to trust that obedience to God ultimately resided within one’s heart and conscience would only invite moral anarchy. People would be insisting they were doing God’s will simply because it seemed right to them and it would lead to pure CHAOS! What they need is some kind of objective standard to measure their actions against and that's what the Law was for. Finally, Christ was to be their example in all things and as Christians were baptized just as Christ was baptized, then Christians should be circumcised even as JESUS was circumcised. You have to admit, it was a compelling case that was made by the religious conservatives within the Church.
On the OTHER hand, there were the LIBERALS who argued to the CONTRARY. This group was represented by Peter who recounted his OWN conversion over this issue when he was staying at the home of Cornelius in Joppa. If you remember, he was given a vision of what appeared to be a sheet with all kinds of animals considered unclean under Jewish law coming down from heaven. Then he was instructed by God to kill and eat them. Due to his extreme reticence, he had to be told to do it not once but THREE TIMES. Because he still considered himself a faithful Jew, Peter’s response is a stubborn refusal, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten ANYTHING that is common or unclean.” God’s response was, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common!” This was God showing him that the Law of Moses, which had united the Jews since their earliest days and served for them as the one infallible guide to righteous living, was now being transcended by an even GREATER law, the law of love and that his care was no longer reserved just for his people—the Jews--but for ALL the peoples of the earth. Where Judaism had been the exclusive faith of a limited group of people- the Jews, Christianity was UNIVERSAL in scope and its message of love and forgiveness would be carried throughout the four corners of the world to all people EVERYWHERE. Peter concludes his speech to the council by saying: “Why do you now want to put God to the test by laying a load on the backs of the believers which neither our ancestors nor we ourselves were able to carry? No! We believe and are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as the Gentiles are.”
At this point, Paul and Barnabas rose to their feet, not to give a theological defense but to report all the miracles and wonders that God had performed through them among the Gentiles. This was their way of making the case that people who had NOT been circumcised were being saved and healed in large numbers all the same. Would this not testify to the legitimacy of Peter’s argument?
After this, it was then JAME’S turn to speak- James, the brother of Jesus and the acknowledged leader of the church in Jerusalem. He was a pragmatist and the one who offers the council a practical compromise. Though conservative by nature, he seemed to possess a fair and open mind. For Peter and Paul and the rest of the liberals, he suggested that the Gentiles not be required to be circumcised, that nothing more would be asked of them than their faith. However, to the Jewish conservatives whom he knew would still remain true to the Law, he recommended that once these Gentiles were IN the kingdom and made members of the church, they would then be asked not to eat any food that is ritually unclean because it had been offered to idols, that they were to remain morally righteous, and that they were not to eat animals that still had blood in them as prescribed under the Law for fear of alienating their more conservative brothers. Furthermore, wherever there were Jews, the Law would continue to be read and proclaimed every Sabbath day as was the custom. To the leaders and those in attendance, this seemed like a reasonable compromise which everyone could live with and so it was agreed upon. Now unified once again, they chose a delegation to convey the council’s decision to the church in Antioch.
The battle between this issue of Christian obedience versus Christian freedom will always be ongoing. Years ago, after I had transferred from a large liberal university where I was a rebel and student protester to a small Pentecostal Bible college where I had to learn to be a conformist, I found myself having to obey lots of rules and regulations, none of which had ANYTHING to do with my salvation or helping me grow in grace. For instance, everyone had to be in their dorms by 10:00 p.m. regardless of how old you were. You couldn’t wear any beards or mustaches nor have hair below your collar line. There was no hand-holding with members of the opposite sex and certainly no smoking or drinking. Even such “worldly pursuits” as going to movies or playing cards or listening to hard rock music was frowned upon. We had to be in chapel five times a week and if you missed more than three during the course of a semester, you could consider yourself gone. I thought I had mistakenly wound up at a MONASTERY rather than a school to develop persons for the ministry!
But as I grew and matured in my Christian life, I was able to break away from a lot of the “legalism” that was then a significant part of my faith back then. I saw God LESS as a great policeman waiting to beat me over the head with his stick at the slightest infraction, and MORE as a loving parent who knew and wanted what was best for me, one who desired nothing more than to enjoy an intimate relationship with me. When my father died back in 1975, I inherited his pipe collection and I continued to smoke them until I gave the habit up fifteen years ago, and I still enjoy a glass of beer with friends. When I pastored in Syracuse, I was part of a poker group made up of fellow church members whom I STILL remain close to, and my wife and I love nothing more than going out on a dinner date and capping it off with a good movie. Where such activities would have given my teachers fits back then, I don’t think my spiritual life has suffered any the worse for it. In fact, most of it now looks rather harmless and even quite silly.
You see, as time went on, I was able to separate that which was TRULY essential about my faith from that which was NOT, that instead of a lot of rules and regulations to guide me, I was developing an inner compass which was helping me to make right and responsible decisions. In retrospect, those rules which once figured so prominently in my life were a form of training wheels for me. By providing me with some structure, they kept me from falling down while I was learning to walk with one hand in Christ’s. However, as I CONTINUED to mature in my sojourn with him, I learned to put aside those training wheels and trust more and more the little voice inside of me which would instruct me in the ways I should go. I found by intensively studying the Word of God and allowing it to mold both my mind and my conscience, by trusting that God through his Holy Spirit was now applying those principles to my heart, that Christ was gradually taking root inside of me, shaping my inner life to his own.
Of course, nobody helps us to understand this relationship between the obedience to the Law and our Christian freedom better than Christ himself. He said he had not come to abolish the Law but just the OPPOSITE- to FULFILL it. What he DID was show how the Law was meant to be an instructor in the ways we should go and never the instrument or means of our salvation. The Law could condemn but it was powerless to save ANYBODY. Unfortunately, where God had given his people the Law in order to guide them in their faith, the Jewish leaders turned it into the means by which people would earn their salvation. In fact, where Moses had been given just TEN commandments, over the years, the scribes and Pharisees multiplied them again and again to where there were now well over SEVEN HUNDRED, most of which had NOTHING to do with God. Where the psalmist had once said that his delight was in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditated both day and night, it had now become a burdensome system of petty rules and regulations designed to make the people obedient to the whims of their religious leaders. The entire system was now all about control and self-enrichment at the expense of everyone else with nothing to do with the heart or spirit any longer. Mindless obedience to their man-made rules and regulations became MORE IMPORTANT than their relationship to God and to one another. Judaism had gone from a vibrant and dynamic faith to a dead one filled with a lot of empty formalism and unnecessary rules.
JESUS, on the other hand, narrowed them all down to just TWO which for him summed up the essentials of the Law and the teachings of the prophets: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. Like the Jewish prophets before him, he understood that God--his Heavenly Father--was not interested in the blood of bulls and goats but in JUSTICE and FAITHFULNESS and, above all, LOVE. Rather, God was primarily concerned about PEOPLE, about restoring their relationships with him and with others, about making them whole in mind and body and in spirit. As such, PEOPLE took precedence for him over any of Israel’s rites and rules and regulations which didn’t have the power to save or heal anybody of ANYTHING.
If you look at Exodus chapter 20, the same chapter in which God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai, you naturally would think that the most IMPORTANT part of that account are the commandments themselves- only it’s NOT. It is easy to skip over the verse which immediately precedes the first commandment but by doing so, we then miss what I believe is actually the most SIGNIFICANT verse in the entire chapter- the verse where God says to Moses, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” What follows then are the centerpiece of the Law- the Ten Commandments beginning with “You shall have no other gods before me,” “You shall not make for yourself any graven image,” “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” etc…. What makes that preamble so important is that by it, God is reminding Moses that he is first and foremost a God concerned with “liberation,” and the good news for his people is that they are ALREADY free, that they have ALREADY been delivered and not just from the bondage of the Egyptians to whom they had been slaves but from every OTHER bondage as well- from fear and from loneliness, from rejection and hatred and guilt and despair. They are liberated by his constant love and care for a people he made for himself and to whom he promised he would never leave or forget, even when they were slaves in Egypt. Their Exodus or deliverance from Pharaoh's armies proved THAT! Hence, now that they were free, they are to go out and live as free people are expected to live, that is, free people will not worship other gods or make graven images of the one TRUE God. People who are truly free will honor their parents and not lie or steal or murder or commit adultery, etc.
Thus, God did not give Moses the Law with the intention that if they rigorously adhered to those laws, he would love them and they would be saved. He didn't deliver them from slavery in Egypt in order to impose upon them a whole new MORAL slavery- NO! He was alerting them to the fact that they are ALREADY saved, ALREADY his children, and therefore if they want to know how free people are expected to live, then here are some commandments for them to follow, some basic guidelines which will ALSO enable them to gauge whether they truly ARE free or not. They could never do ANYTHING to warrant God’s love or earn their salvation- it was completely a free gift from God straight from God’s heart. That is what TRUE freedom is all about- knowing you are loved unconditionally with an everlasting love and how nothing will ever separate you from either God’s presence or his love. As a child of God, the ONLY one you will ever find yourself in bondage to is CHRIST HIMSELF- yet a bondage that leads to REAL FREEDOM!
Friends, Luther’s great discovery was that when traditions take precedence over the needs and concerns of people, when servile obedience to dead laws and empty precepts becomes more important than demonstrating how love and grace and forgiveness operate through them, then religion is diseased and does more harm than good. THIS was the religion Christ came to deliver his people from. As important as tradition may be at times, it can only remain healthy if it serves the GREATEST commandment laid down by Christ himself, the one he said which summed up the Law and the prophets: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. THAT becomes the test by which we must evaluate all our rules and traditions- whether they help us to love our God and neighbor better, or whether they continue to build walls and foster divisions between us. Amen and amen.