As we begin Acts 15, we see the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the expansion of the church. The gospel has spread in the beginning to the Gentile world. Paul and Barnabas have accomplished the first missionary journey. God had established a beachhead in the Gentile world in the church in Antioch of Syria; and Paul and Barnabas evangelized Cyprus, and Galatia in Asia Minor.
Now this has been a difficult journey, in the sense that it established a new avenue for the church. This is a new ministry which is the invitation to Gentiles, to non-Jews, to enter into the fullness of the church of Jesus Christ. And in all of the attendant blessings promised to Israel are theirs equally. Paul and Barnabas, not only evangelized, but they also followed up and organized the church with the appointing of elders.
Then they returned to Antioch to carry on their ministry as they had begun it there. Since Gentiles had been included in the church, that becomes the fuel for the fire in Acts 15. It was always a difficult thing for Jews to allow the inclusion of Gentiles into the church. For the most part, Jews in the early years of the church, saw Christianity only as a sect of Judaism. Christianity was not distinct from Judaism.
And it’s easy to see how they felt like that, because all of the promises to Israel are fulfilled in the coming of Messiah. And so they just believed that Judaism simply resolved itself in Christianity; and that you could not honestly have Christianity in its purity, unless you were plugged into Judaism. And so the Jews saw Christianity only as the logical end to Judaism.
And so the very concept that a pagan could simply jump right into the church, and be equal to a Jew was foreign for most of them, and they could not handle it. As a result of the inability to see Christianity independent of Judaism, a conflict ensued. The conflict then is the theme of Acts 15. It’s inevitable that there will be conflict because of this attitude that Christianity was the last step in Judaism.
And that the presence of Gentiles in the church was going to start a fire. However the Jews had been tolerant in the fact that they had allowed the Samaritans to enter the church. And the Samaritans were half Jewish and half Gentile. In addition to that, they had allowed the Ethiopian eunuch, and Cornelius and his entourage, his household to become Christians.
Paul and Barnabas then were designated as radicals, they were activists, and they were undermining the traditions of the fathers. They were really destroying the sacred separateness of Judaism, And so these conservatives decided to take things into their own hands, and because they decided to do that, they precipitated the first great council of the early church to decide that.
That’s the issue of the Jerusalem conference, how do you get saved? Is it by grace alone, or is it by grace and law? And with all of the sects that we have within the framework of Christianity, the deviated ones are the ones who are adding something to the method of salvation. It seems difficult for people to understand that they are saved by faith plus nothing based on Christ’s perfect work.
But the Bible is so explicit in teaching that you’re saved by God’s grace, through faith, plus nothing. We have a whole world full of legalistic heads, who always want to add on something to the perfect work of Christ done on the cross. It would be like me taking my pencil and touching up the Mona Lisa. I’m not even an artist, and it doesn’t need touching up. It’s already a masterpiece.
The Roman Catholic Church says, “Yes, you are saved by faith, and grace saves you, grace and faith, but grace is mediated through the sacraments, so you must take the sacraments, and you must partake of the Lord’s Supper, for it mediates divine life. And “Yes, you are saved by faith, but the ark of salvation is the church. You must join the church.” And people were adding on to grace.
Now there are four features. First, there was the dissension, then there was the discussion, then there was the decision, and then there was the development. So first dissension. Verse l, “While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the believers, “Unless you are circumcised as required by the Law of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Now the brethren, in verse 1, are the believers at Antioch. They have no commission from the Jerusalem church officially. They’re self-appointed guardians of legalism. And they’ve come to Antioch to straighten out all the Gentiles. Some commentators feel that they followed the path of Paul and Barnabas, and visited every one of the cities they had just come from on their missionary tour.
Now this issue of imposing law, being circumcised, is the position that is known as Judaizing. That means to impose upon Gentiles’ ritual, or legalism. Now the apostle Paul, has got this clear in his head. He’s not confused, even though he was a Hebrew of Hebrews. In Galatians 5:1 he said, “Don’t be entangled again with the yoke of bondage. We’ve been set free, remain free.”
Verse 2, “Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them, arguing vehemently. Finally, the church decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question.” Well, they really had a fight. First they won’t do eat with a Gentile. Because no Jew would eat with a Gentile who is uncircumcised.
They wouldn’t go into their homes. To go into a Gentile home was to defile yourself. They wouldn’t even eat Gentile food, they didn’t believe in the way they cooked it, et cetera. So here they were at a stone wall when they arrived. And they wouldn’t get at the Lord’s Table together. Paul saw the wedge that was driven between Jew and Gentile, and he really was mad.
Verse 3, “The church sent the delegates to Jerusalem, and they stopped along the way in Phoenicia and Samaria to visit the believers. They told them, much to everyone’s joy, that the Gentiles, too, were being converted.” They came along through this territory that was populated by Hellenistic Jews and Samaritans, who weren’t so hung up on being so legalistic. And so they were building support as they went.
Verse 4, “When they arrived in Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders. They reported everything God had done through them.” They always gave the glory to God. In their testimony there was sufficient evidence to verify salvation by grace through faith plus nothing. Well the circumcision party got real upset.
Verse 5, “But then some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and insisted, “The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the Law of Moses.” In other words, they couldn’t just be saved by faith, they had to be circumcised, and go through an actual physical medical operation, and then keep the Law of Moses before they could be saved.
Now the church had a problem: great dissension, just building and mounting. And really, friends, it’s the same today. Fundamentally evangelical Christianity knows what it believes. But we still consistently fight the cults and all of the sects that float around on the basis of the fact that you must add to grace works. Verse 6, “So the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue.”
Verse 7, “At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them as follows: “Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe.” Now here you have three speeches given at the Council. And all three speeches are in support of grace plus nothing.
Verse 8-11 gives us Peter’s view, God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. 10 So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?
11 We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.” He’s not speaking for himself only. The elders and the apostles have had a private conference, and out of that conference here is their statement. God saves apart from anything you ever did. It is purely by grace. They cannot keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved.
Peter says, “Look backwards. This issue was settled at least ten years ago. You know that God by choice chose me to go to the Gentiles to preach the gospel, and they believed, and that’s all God asked. God did not impose circumcision then.” So Peter says verifying salvation by grace is past information. The point is, “Have you come up with something new that God doesn’t even require?”
The second proof is the gift of the Holy Spirit in verse 8. God give His Holy Spirit only to believers because He knows their hearts. The minute they put their faith in the Messiah, the Christ, they received the Holy Spirit. That’s God’s way of validating salvation. That’s why the Bible can say if you’re a true Christian, you’ll be led by the Spirit. Even as He did to us; and put no difference between us and them.”
Remember in Acts 19, Paul ran into some guys who didn’t know what was going on. Paul was checking on everybody, because he was around when the Spirit was sent to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles on some occasions. “And so he says to this group, ‘Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed? And they said, ‘We haven’t even heard of the Holy Spirit.’
They say, ‘Oh, we’re converts to John the Baptist.’ Then he introduces them to Christ, and immediately they were baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body. The Spirit came immediately when they believed on Jesus Christ. There was no imposition of legalism on them at all. The minute they put their faith in the Messiah, they received the Holy Spirit. That’s God’s way of validating salvation.
Cleansing from sin in verse 9, “purifying their hearts by faith.” Here again Peter says, “Look, if it’s not enough that you’ve seen past revelation, God didn’t require legalism or circumcision, if it’s not enough that they got the gift of the Holy Spirit, how about this for truth: they were cleansed from sin.” And God does not cleanse people who are not truly converted, right?
The fact that they were purified in their hearts by faith means faith is enough. What else could there be done except purification? When God takes away sin, that’s it. In Ephesians 1:7 he says, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.” See you can’t earn forgiveness. God does not cleanse people from sin whose salvation is not legitimate.
Then Peter points out that salvation is by free grace alone. He says in verse 10, this is the fourth evidence: the law can’t save. He says, “So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me.
For I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest. For My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Verse 11, “We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.” The great evidence for salvation by grace is the fact of miracles by God. “Don’t challenge God, and don’t question God. His decision in salvation is final. “Don’t test God.”
Verse 12, “Everyone listened quietly as Barnabas and Paul told about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” God does not get involved in confirming false doctrine by miracles. Everywhere Paul and Barnabas went they preached grace through faith. And you know God was attesting to their message by miracle after miracle.
God was confirming what they were saying. Listen to Mark l6:19, “So then, after the Lord had spoken unto them, He was received into heaven, sat on the right hand of God. And they went forth, and preached everywhere, and the Lord working with them, confirming the word with signs following.” These Judaizers did not have any confirming miracles to their witness.
Hebrews 2:3 - 4 says exactly the same thing: God confirmed the message with signs, wonders, and gifts of the Holy Spirit. God does not support false teachers. And if God was supporting the doctrine of grace, then the doctrine of grace was correct, right? Here’s Paul: “For by grace are you saved through faith, that not of yourself. Even faith is a gift of God, lest any man should boast.
You say, “Oh man, that’s terrific. I love the doctrine of grace. Wow, I’m going to go out and really live it up: grace, grace,” But watch now the next verse, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.” You say, “Oh, you mean works are a part of it? Yeah, works don’t save you, but works are the result of your salvation, a gift of God to bless others. Let us pray.