Removing the Obstacles of Discipleship: Why the Acts 15 Conference Was So Crucial

[This is the manuscript of the sermon preached on February 17, 2019 at Arapahoe Road Baptist Church, Centennial, CO. I do not preach straight from this manuscript–this only served as my research for the prep. Should you wish to hear the audio, click here.]

Anytime we begin to speak of discipleship, we do not simply discuss and implement what Jesus says about the nature of discipleship, but also recognize what the obstacles are, and them work to remove them. Our aim is to be and make hopeful, joyful disciples of Jesus so that all of Denver to the nations believe… and here it is … Jesus is enough. Yet, this concept is hard to grasp sometimes–especially in this transition.

This is why Acts 15 is so earth-shaking in regards to one’s relationship with God and each other. This is, I dare say, why understanding the core doctrines of Scripture are so important. Christianity is more than just doing the right things at the right time in the right way. Mark Twain struggled with churches in his day by saying, “They are good people telling good people how to be good people.” But we aren’t. We are broken sinners–all of us–looking for a way to be put back together again by the one who designed us in the first place.

In Acts 15:1, a question arises: “But 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.’” So the question we have is simply this: how does one become a disciple? How can one become righteous before God? What does one have to do to receive His approval in becoming a Son?

Change is difficult! I joked with our Church Council this past Tuesday that instead of using the word “change,” I would use the word “adjustment” or “realignment.” For centuries, God’s chosen people, the Jews, had a system in place which said, “This is the way you are right before God.” It would involved sacrifices of certain animals for particular outward sins, attending worship at the local synagogue or pilgrimages to Jerusalem at the high feast days, and the keeping of certain ceremonial covenants–and, in this case, circumcision. For these men, no circumcision, no salvation. Salvation was obtained and maintained through surgery. This runs polar opposite of New Testament Christianity which, in the most distinguishing aspect of our belief as opposed to other religions and worldviews, we are saved by what someone else has done on our behalf–we are saved by grace through faith.

Join me in verses 2-12 as we set the table:

2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.[a] 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Beware the Temptation of Christ-Plus Religion

The men who came to Jerusalem believed that the rite of circumcision still applied to those who wished to be considered righteous before God. In Genesis 17:9-14, God established this covenant with Abraham:

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

The last verse is the key verse: “Any circumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (v. 14). These who were raised and trained in the OT religion and customs understood the gravity of these words. But now, the culture changed: no longer did it seem necessary for this particular surgery to take place. Now something else was happening. They were, in a desire to keep the truth, were bringing dangerous and destructive heresies by requiring something that had already been fulfilled.

In Galatians 2:11-21, Paul wrote about an incident that happened among the apostles and a group called the circumcision party (a.k.a., the Judaizers), who believed and taught that one must keep the Mosaic law and customs in order to be right before God.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Galatians 2:11-14, ESV

This event, approximately ten years ago, addressed the issue that was taking place in Acts 15. Paul’s response was quick:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Galatians 2:15-16

One can see now the danger that this question, while well-intended, would bring danger, division, and destruction to the church. This is a false gospel for which one would be accursed, cut off from the Kingdom (Galatians 1:8-9). The apostle Paul addressed this in his epistle to the Romans:

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Romans 2:28-29, ESV

Circumcision was abolished as were the rest of the ceremonial laws when Christ came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, because they were simply a copy and a shadow of the reality–in this case, circumcision of the flesh as ordained through Abraham was now been fulfilled in the circumcision of the “flesh” of the heart and will.

Listen to trusted  testimonies as to how God works

Paul and Barnabas, on their way to Jerusalem to discuss and debate this matter, “passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers” (15:3). In 15:7, the Apostle Peter recalled his encounter with God and, later, the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10-11) how “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.”

They not only preached changed, and not only did their listeners profess they believed, but they saw the change as God took control by the Spirit of Jesus. We can tell, dear believers, when Christ changes the heart of someone. We realize an inconsistency when someone says they believe in Christ, but their lives do not reflect this.

“Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we will believe that we will saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (15:10-11). Rabbis used the word “yoke” to refer to the law as a way to keep the Israelites on the right path. While the law is good (Romans 3:20), the law could not save. Phil Williams said, “The law is the light that reveals how dirty the room is, not the broom that sweeps it clean.”  Instead, the law served to show God’s path, the impossibility of us to fulfill that path, and that we are sinners in need of a Savior who would fulfill those laws on our behalf (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus did not carelessly use this in Matthew 11:29-30 when he said “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light.”

We need to listen to each other. Otherwise, as Craig Groschel noted, two things will happen:

[It] leads you to focus on the external rather than the internal. Religion requires a behavior-oriented path toward pleasing God. Religious people, often well-intentioned, focus on an outward expression rather than an inward transformation. Religion is our effort to close the gap between sinful humans and a holy God. Sadly, it reduces the beauty of the Gospel to a checklist of do’s and don’ts. Rules try to regulate religion.

Craig Groschel, Why Rules Create Toxic Religion .

Not only does religion focus on the externals rather than the internals, but this external emphasis produces an internal pride. Rule-following religious people believe their behavior and beliefs are right and everyone else is wrong. It’s like a piece of food that spoils—not only is it nasty and ruined, but it omits a noxious smell as well.

Religion focuses on the external, the outward which puffs up internal pride. Each of the testimonies given here shows an internal change, evidence of a transformation.

Ground everything in God’s Word

James, the lead apostle of the Jerusalem church decided it was time to preach.

13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,

16 “‘After this I will return,

and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;

I will rebuild its ruins,

    and I will restore it,

17 that the remnant[b] of mankind may seek the Lord,

   and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,

    says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’

19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, stands up to preach from Amos 9:11-12. How interesting this is that the circumcision party cherry-picked one text, while James showed from the prophet Amos that God had all along sought to include the Gentiles into the Kingdom.

Even though they were free, they still needed to take care not to cause new believers to stumble. In that context, eating food from idols, food that has been strangled, and blood all would be too much for weak consciences converted from the Jewish faith to handle. Yet, the sexual immorality is a moral law found throughout the entire NT and shows that these moral laws are still very much in play.

The leadership then wrote a letter to Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia to address the situation (15:23-28), and what was their reaction? Rejoicing! Judas and Silas encouraged and strengthened the brothers, then were sent back.

30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

Conclusion

Friends, Jesus is enough for your salvation! We are saved by grace that He applied to us by His work on our behalf. Are you relying on something else besides Christ and His work on the cross for your hope and joy in being right with God?

When Billy Graham was driving through a small southern town, he was stopped by a policeman and charged with speeding. Graham admitted his quilt, but was told by the officer that he would have to appear in court.

The judge asked, “Guilty, or not guilty?” When Graham pleaded guilty, the judge replied, “That’ll be ten dollars — a dollar for every mile you went over the limit.”

Suddenly the judge recognized the famous minister. “You have violated the law,” he said. “The fine must be paid–but I am going to pay it for you.” He took a ten dollar bill from his own wallet, attached it to the ticket, and then took Graham out and bought him a steak dinner! “That,” said Billy Graham, “is how God treats repentant sinners!”

It’s not Christ-plus, but Christ is enough! Listen to testimonies of how God has changed someone’s life and tell that testimony to others if He has changed you. And ground it all in the Word of God. And there will be a life of hope and joy because every obstacle has been removed.

__________

Matthew Perry serves as the Lead Pastor of Arapahoe Road Baptist Church in Centennial, CO. He received his M.Div. and D.Min. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. at the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s