Rev. Erik Veerman
Gospel Unity in the Connected Church
Who is Jesus and how does his humanity and divinity relate?
What is Scripture and which writings and letters has God revealed are part of His word?
How should we understand the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?
Simple questions, right?
Well, these difficult questions were the very issues that the church faced in the first four centuries. It threatened to break apart the unity of the church.
Now, you may be thinking, “well, that was 1900 years ago! Those matters have been resolved.” Well, yes and no. “Yes” in the sense that orthodox Christianity has firmly answered the question on, say, the Trinity and the person of Christ. But “no” in the sense that matters still arise today that either 1) relate to these foundational questions or 2) have not yet been addressed.
So How should these critically important questions be addressed?
Well, we don’t need to look any further than Acts 15. This event in chapter 15 is known as the Jerusalem Council - the gathering together of elders and the apostles to work through a matter that threatened the unity of the church. Through it, we learn 1) how to seek unity in the church, 2) where to ground our unity in the church, and 3) the central tenants of our unity. And that applies to the church today just as much as it did back then.
Well, we’ve reached the half-way point in Acts. Luke, the author of this book, has brought us a long way. Has brought usfrom…
• Jesus’ declaration in chapter 1 that “they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth,”
• to his ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem,
• to the initial growth of Christianity in Jerusalem, Judah, and Samaria.
• We’ve witnessed persecution including Stephen’s martyrdom; that event, in God’s providence brought these new believers all the way to Antioch.
• An Ethiopian came to faith in Christ
• Shortly after, Peter, one of Jesus closest disciples, witness the good news of Jesus to a Roman soldier and his family – they believe and were baptized. The Gospel has begun to go to the ends of the earth.
• The most vicious enemy of Christianity – Saul of Tarsus, is blinded and sees the light of the Gospel and he comes to faith in Jesus. He would be known as the apostle Paul.
• Peter is imprisoned but miraculously freed from jail by an angel as God heard the prayers of his people
• The apostles Paul and Barnabas are sent out on a missionary journey in Cyprus and Asia Minor – sharing the hope of Christ, calling people to faith in him, and establishing new churches
We’ve seen explosive growth. From a couple of hundred believers to thousands. From Jewish people believing in Christ as the Messiah, to a few Gentiles – non-Jews, and then an explosion of Gentiles, Greeks. Over and over, Luke recounts the great number of people.
• “The Lord added to their number day by day”
• “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.”
• “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly”
• “a great many people were added to the Lord.”
• “The word of the God increased and multiplied”
Despite all the persecution – God was building and establishing his church in Acts.
Chapter 15 is not only the very middle of the book, it’s also a big turning point. This is the last time we will here from the apostle Peter. Jerusalem is also fading into the background. One commentator said it this way “Chapter 15 is the turning point, ‘centerpiece’ and ‘watershed’ of the book, the episode which rounds off and justifies past developments, and makes those to come intrinsically possible.”
Something else has begun to fade – and it’s caused some confusion and conflict. With all the new non-Jewish believers coming to faith and being baptized. Jewish identity and culture was fading.
Think about it – a Christian in Jerusalem at that time would be tempted to think, “Jerusalem is where it started. Jesus was born as a Jew. The promises of God came through Israel. All these new believers need to embrace a Jewish identity.”
The apostle Peter, in fact, was one of those. In Paul’s book to the Galatian church, he tells how Peter had retreated to disassociate himself with the Gentiles in meals and fellowship. And Paul called Peter out for it! He said to Peter, “If you, [Peter] though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Many believe that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written just before the Jerusalem council. That makes a lot of sense. Galatians speaks of the “circumcision party.” They were the ones who had come from Jerusalem and stirred up controversy. What was that controversy? It’s right there in Acts 15 verse 1: “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.’”
Right from the get-go, we see that this is a critical matter. Who is saved and who isn’t?
This group was also called “the party of the Pharisees,” verse 5. To be sure, they were believers in Christ. Likely converted out of what we know as Pharisees in the Bible. But don’t think of them as “Pharisees” in the usual way. Yes, their tendency was similar. Adding to Scripture. Focusing on the external. They were witnessing the Jewish identity fade. That deeply concerned them. They essentially believed this: you had to become a Jew first in order to become a Christian. Therefore, if you were a Gentile man, a non-Jewish man (men represented their families), you needed to be circumcised.
This absolutely threatened to break apart the church. And if you remember, this is not the first time this has come up. Remember God gave Peter the vision. A sheet coming down from heaven with the unclean animals. And God said to him that he should not call any person unclean. Because God’s plan, from the beginning was that the nations would come to him. And then Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, and his whole family believed in Christ without becoming Jewish – they weren’t circumcised, they were baptized.
Well, Peter still struggled with what that meant. The Jewish background believers still struggled with what it meant. In order for a Gentile to come to faith, what was still required?
That’s a lot of background. But hopefully that helps… helps with the importance of this chapter in Acts and how high the stakes were, meaning the risks of disunity.
So what did they do? Well, Paul and Barnabas were appointed to travel to Jerusalem… and they met together with the other apostles and various elders from the churches to work through the matter - verse 4. The issue was presented, verse 5. And they gathered together to discuss the matter - verse 6
What a beautiful picture of these spiritual leaders thoughtfully, carefully, prayerfully working through this disagreement.
Have you ever seen a video of the British parliament “discussing” matters? I’m talking about the House of Commons. Do they serve British tea and quietly pontificate on what they think? No, it’s like a shouting match. In fact, over the years, even fist fights have broken out.
Well, they could learn a lesson from Acts 15. Yes, they disagreed… but their desire was to seek the Lord’s will and purpose.
They considered the situation. They heard testimonies on what happened. The Scriptures were presented, and James, who presided over the council, presented a unified judgment.
Now, maybe the party of the Pharisees were sitting there before the council. Maybe they were looking around the room and thinking, “Ok, Peter’s on our side. And of course, James – our church leader here in Jerusalem. This is looking good.” We don’t know, but they were the ones who pushed Peter to disassociate himself with the uncircumcised Gentile believers. They came from Jerusalem. This was their territory. Well fittingly, it’s the apostle Peter who makes the first comments. Maybe, they thought – “ok, he’ll for sure side with us.” But quite the opposite happened.
Now we don’t know how the Party of the Pharisees responded – we’re not told. However, this council was unified. So the indications are that as Peter, and Barnabas and Paul and even James spoke, the Holy Spirit was opening their eyes.
Here’s how it went:
• Peter spoke of the Gentiles hearing the Gospel and believing. He was speaking about Cornelius. Look at verse 8. God had confirmed through the Holy Spirit that what happened to them was from him. Remember that? Cornelius and his household experienced a very similar outpouring of the Holy Spirit… similar to what first happened in Jerusalem. Peter explains it all. And verses 9 and 10 are key here in the whole chapter. “why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples…?” A “yoke” is a burden. It’s that thing that goes over an Ox’s neck to attach the plow. In other words, this requirement of circumcision is adding works to the free Gospel of grace. And verse 11 is powerful. Peter did not say “they will be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus just as we were.” No, he puts it in the opposite way, “we will be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they were” Powerful and compelling.
• And then, all the assembly fell silent. Verse 12, as Barnabas and Paul shared testimony after testimony of the Lord’s work among the Gentiles. Notice Barnabas is named first – He was the one from Jerusalem. That likely meant he was the one sharing God’s work.
I’ll never forget a testimony I heard 10 years ago from someone serving in the middle east. I can’t share his name or the location specifics. We weren’t even allowed to record it. We were all on the edge of our seats… This man described an invitation he received from the top terrorist leader in the region. All he was told was to come to him at such and such location at night. After much prayer, he strapped a Bible to his leg under his clothes. He said goodbye to his wife not knowing if she would ever see him again. He took a cab to this secured compound. He passed through several security checks. Men with AK 47s. No one found the Bible. He was brought to this big room. This terrorist leader welcomed him. They sat and talked all the while surrounded by all these armed body guards. Then this leader said “tell me about your God.” He reached down, pulled out the Bible from under his robes. And he walked this man through the Gospel in the Scriptures. That God has come down to us. That Jesus has restored our honor in God’s presence. We’re freed and forgiven through what Jesus has accomplished on the cross. And this man believed. The one sharing the Gospel didn’t say, “now let me circumcise you so that you can be saved.” I’m not quite sure how that would have gone over! No, he believed by faith in Christ alone.
• Can you imagine all that Barnabas shared about God’s work? His Holy Spirit opening hearts and minds… calling many to him… sharing about all the cities where there were now churches with both Jew and Gentile believers – worshipping together. These were stories that many who were part of the council would have hear for the first time.
• And then, James. Leader of the church in Jerusalem – Jesus’ younger brother. The moderator of this council. He spoke up. He affirmed all that was said. By the way, he referred to Peter by his Jewish name – Simeon. Peter had several names. Peter, Simon, Simeon, Cephas. James was reminding them of Peter’s Jewish roots. And besides affirming what was said – James included the words of the prophets! You can see those in verses 16 and 17. It comes from Amos 9… we read a longer part of the chapter earlier in the service. It speaks of the “tent of [King] David” being restored…. How? “…that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord [including] all the Gentiles who are called by my name” In other words, this has been God’s plan from the beginning. “Known from of old” verse 18. The Scriptures validate what these testimonies have shown.
James then confirmed the Jerusalem council’s decision – “that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to the Lord.”
What a tremendous testimony of God’s leading, of his will being confirmed through those he called to lead his church.
Next week, I’ll come back and consider verses 20, 21, and 29 – the additional requests.
But the overall result was a clear affirmation: the gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be save. The wrote a joint letter. It affirmed the decision and it affirmed their unity. Because of its importance, the apostles and elders sent 2 men, Judas and Silas to validate the decision. They accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Antioch and delivered the letter, verse 30. And the believers in Antioch “rejoiced at it’s encouragement” – verse 31. Judas and Silas even stayed for a time and blessed the people with their teaching.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice if this had been it. Meaning if the Jerusalem Council had resolved the need for clarity in all matters of belief. But as you know, that’s not the case. In our limited and sinful condition, even with God’s Word, we need direction on how to faithfully seek unity around God’s truth. And Acts 15 gives us direction.
Let me highlight three lessons from this chapter.
First, there is accountability for believers and for churches that goes beyond the local congregations. There’s a connectedness that we should be seeking. And the model we’re given here is not a top-down model. No, rather it’s a collaborative model where the elders of the different churches seek God’s wisdom together. Now, back in Acts, the apostles were involved. As we’ve talked about in the past, this is the apostolic era. The New Testament was not yet available. So the teaching of the apostles was of central importance. But the ongoing leadership of the church, beyond the New Testament times, is elders. That’s what we saw last week. And it’s the elders of churches who are to collectively seek God’s truth on important matters of faith.
This is why we are a Presbyterian church. Presbyterian comes from the Greek Word for elder. We believe that local congregations are called to have elders. But we also believe that the role of elder goes beyond the local congregation. This coming Tuesday, I’ll be meeting with other elders from around Atlanta, some of them pastors, to consider matters and pray together. Then next month, later next month, elders will gather from around the country. A couple of thousand elders… to consider and decide matters about faith and the church. Acts 15 is the model for such accountability through the connected church.
The Second lesson here answer’s the question: Where should God’s truth on these broader church matters be found? Not in philosophy, not in the cultural ideologies of the time… no they should be grounded in God’s Holy Word. The creeds and confessions are subservient to the Scriptures. Council’s err, creeds are not God’s inspired word. They are not establishing truth, but rather seeking to affirm God’s truth for the sake of unity.
Beyond this first council in Acts 15 there were several councils in the first four centuries. They dealt with the very questions that I opened with. And they continue to be very helpful. In fact, we’ll be jointly reading the Nicene Creed before the Lord’s Supper. It came from the council of Nicaea in 325. One of the main purposes of that council was to affirm what the Scriptures teach about Jesus’ divinity, because several different views existed.
And there have been matters throughout the centuries and matters today that that need clarity and unity in what the Scriptures teach. Unfortunately, there have been many councils that have not sought God’s Word. Instead, they’ve relied on tradition or worldly wisdom apart from God’s Word. Just as James appealed to Scripture, so faithful councils and assembly’s need to seek God’s Word and will.
This is why we are a confessional church. Doctrinal issues continue to come up – and many have been faithfully addressed. And there will continue to be a need for guidance and direction from the Church.
Third, the Gospel is central. Everything related to faith and practice flows from it. I’m speaking of verse 11 here. That we are saved by grace…. through the free gift that Christ purchased for us on the cross. He paid the ransom price. He died in our place. All the consequences of our sin and shame, he took on the cross – and he gave us his holiness and honor. That’s what this council in Acts 15 focused on. We can’t and don’t bring anything to the table. Our responsibility is to believe by faith and turn from our sin.
Some have said it this way in the past:
• The Gospel plus anything equals nothing
• The Gospel plus nothing equals everything
• I’m speaking about your justification before God. In other words, you can’t bring anything to the table to be saved. Not right thinking, not right doing. You are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. That’s freedom. That’s amazing grace. To be sure, that grace you receive is the same grace that motivates you to do good works, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Our good works don’t lead to being saved – they are a result of being saved.
And let me say, this Acts 15 matter about the Gospel… it continues to come up, over and over and over. It is so counter intuitive, isn’t it? That’s why it’s amazing grace. Think about it. We want to say things like… “faith plus taking the Lord’s supper saves you” No. faith alone. Taking the Lord’s Supper nourishes you in your faith, reminds you of the Gospel, but it doesn’t save. Or “faith plus baptism” No. Being baptized is a matter of obedience – it marks you on the outside as part of God’s family, but it’s not part of the salvation equation.
Or we even leave the faith part out. Why should God save me? “I’m a good person.” Or “I haven’t done anything bad” No. we can’t save ourselves. Our sin leaves us spiritually dead. That’s the wonder and grace of the Gospel. We are all unworthy, in and of ourselves, but God has made us worthy in Christ.
This is why we are a Gospel church. This Gospel is what brings us together, it’s the means through which we worship, it’s the hope that we believe, the message that we proclaim.
We’re a Gospel-centered, confessional, Bible-believing, elder-led, connected church. … in the model of Acts 15.
So as we seek to be faithful as individual and as God’s church together, may we connect with and support churches throughout the world, seek God’s truth from his word, and trusting in Christ alone for salvation.