A Church United Under the Gospel
May 1, 2022
Pastor Peder Kling
Sermon Passage: Acts 15:1–35
The sermon begins at minute 47:20. Unmute to listen.
Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
Processing Divisions and Schisms
This morning, we are reminded that the church has always struggled with divisions and disunity—and, it’s always been painful. Today, churches divide over worship styles and opinions on theology or how to handle cultural pressures of our day. What music should we sing? Do we obey mask mandates? What about the woke discussion? These are some contemporary, hot button issues many churches struggle with.
However, if you look through church history books, we might say things haven’t changed much. Conflicting opinions on how we conduct our worship, what we believe in our theology, and how we interact with culture have always brought division to the church. Consider the struggle these young churches in Acts faced. One group is saying that worship must be done in accordance to the law of Moses, and another group is saying that Jesus transformed our worship. There’s theology, worship, and cultural pressures bottled up just in that one discussion, as we’ll see today.
How should we think about all this division? How should we think about divisions, denominations, disagreements in the greater church of Christ—or at the local church level? Many people see it, and just give up on the church. They say, “I’ve been there, done that. The back-biting and division was too much. I’m sick of denominations and organized religion.” So, many make “church” their home, or their circle of friends, or they stick to online worship services.
We could get more helpful and ask two other question. Given the disunity, the many denominations and disagreements—we’d do well to ask ourselves, “are all divisions bad?”, and given how many of them there are, “how does God intend the unity of his church to be preserved, before glory?”. Those are two important questions to understand, as we weigh these matters.
When we turn to our passage for this morning, I think we’ll find answers to those questions—and, we’ll find them in our passage as it tells us the story of this first ecumenical council in the early church in Jerusalem. I want to emphasize that this is a story. Perhaps if you’re like me, you’re tempted to not see this passage as a story, but as a description of an old church council. Many perceive church counsels as boring, litigated, ecclesiastical affairs. I rarely hear people finish up a book on old church councils and synods and say, “Pastor Peder, you gotta read this book about the Council of Nicaea! I had massive story-grip through every page. The plot is entirely riveting!”
A Story of a Divided, Deliberated, and Devoted Church
The truth is, however, the Jerusalem council is part of a truly intriguing story in the early church. Many even have called the Jerusalem council, here in Acts 15, the watershed moment for the entire storyline in Acts. This is the last time we see Peter in Acts. After this Jerusalem council formally releases the gentiles from the burdens of Moses and circumcision, the floodgates for the gentile mission are opened without hinderance. The focus in Acts shifts from Peter’s ministry in Jerusalem to Paul’s ministry to the nations, as a missionary from Antioch. The reason for this dramatic shift, quite simply, is because Christ removed every possible hindrance to the gentiles receiving him through this council.
So there’s a story to be seen, here, at the Jerusalem council—and it’s one small part of the greater story in Acts. I want us to really understand this story, this morning, so we might be able to really glean a Biblical perspective on division in this church, and on our hope for the church’s unity. You might say that in the story, we move from a divided church, to a deliberating church—and finally, to a devoted church (devoted to gentile missions). If you wanted an outline for this morning, there it is. We’ll see a divided church, a deliberating church, and a devoted church in this story—and through all this, I trust we’ll have a better understanding on division in the church, and how God resolves it.
A Divided Church
So, let’s look at the divided church, as we first see her in this passage. Every good story sets itself up with rich, tricky trouble, doesn’t it? Conflict is the seed of every good story—it’s storytelling 101.
Look at how verse 1 sets us up, here. “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’”. Now, before we even get into that theological issue mentioned there, I want us to understand the frustration that this passage is expressing, here. The arrival of these men from Judea is a real Debbie-downer, if you will—and, the passage wants us to feel that way about this. Look at the first word, there, “but”. In grammar school, we call that an adversative. It’s signaling an unexpected, or unfortunate change of events. So, that leads us to think back to the greater context of what’s happening here, in Acts.
It’s been several weeks since our last message in Acts due to Easter Sunday and my absence last week, but you may remember that in the previous chapter, Paul and Barnabas just returned to Antioch after being out on their first missionary journey for over a year. Antioch was their sending church, their home church. After being beaten nearly to death, being robbed, and traveling by foot and sea for so long, they had to have been looking forward to a years’ hiatus with the saints in Antioch. Verse 27 of chapter 14 says (in leading directly into our story) that when they arrived home, “they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the gentiles, and they remained no little time with the disciples”. I imagine it was a time of exciting story-telling, encouragement in the faith, and refreshment with the saints. The next verse—chapter 15, verse 1, “but”. There’s the stubborn adversative, always getting in the way of some good R&R. “But some men came down [to Antioch] from Judea”, and they brought false teaching with them into Paul’s healthy, happy, thriving church in Antioch.
Now, I’ll tell you what Paul didn’t do. He didn’t say “I’m tired, I need rest after a long trip.” Neither did he say “well, Christians are called to love and agree, so let’s just agree to disagree. Let’s just accept one another’s opinion.” That’s not what he did—and, I say that because that’s what our culture wants us to do. Our culture wants us to put “co-exist” stickers on our bumpers, and just accept everyone no matter what they believe. That’s our world’s hope for unity. Only, Paul won’t have it. He leaned in—and in many ways, he aggravated the controversy. He pressed into it, he was the guy drawing dividing lines, and he wouldn’t let anyone erase them.
This was a controversy worth dividing over. Look at verse 1 again, and you’ll see what’s at stake. These men from Judea were saying that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”. So, this is a matter of salvation. It’s a matter of eternity—life or death, eternal blessing or eternal damnation before God. When that’s what is at stake, it’s fitting for the church to put up a fight and draw dividing lines.
Truly, it was totally understandable for this discussion to take place, and this controversy to commence in the early church. Through a number of revelations to Peter and Paul in the previous 4 chapters in Acts, the Lord had only recently revealed that the Jews and Gentiles are on the same playing field in God’s kingdom. The gentiles aren’t second-class citizens. There’s no longer such a thing as a “proselyte gentile” into the “Jewish nation” or the “Jewish faith”. The Judaizers, as we often call Paul’s opposing Jewish counterparts, just couldn’t stomach this. John Stott put it this way—
It was one thing for the Jerusalem leaders to give their approval to the conversion of Gentiles [since God promised the gentiles would be included into God’s people]: but could they approve of conversion-without-circumcision, of faith in Jesus without the works of the law, and of commitment to the Messiah without inclusion in Judaism? Was their vision big enough to see the gospel of Christ not as a reform movement within Judaism but as good news for the whole world, and the church of Christ not as a Jewish sect but as the international family of God? These were the revolutionary questions which some were daring to ask.
So to say it in a simply—this is a huge change in the administration of God’s people, in doing away with circumcision and the law of Moses. In the last few weeks and months, we’ve seen this to be so through Peter’s visions and the conversions of various gentiles in Acts 10–14.
So, this all sets the scene for a divided church. The Jews have strong cultural and historical pressures that tie them to the sacred rite of circumcision and the customs of Moses, while Peter and Paul have revelation from Christ to the contrary. This is like that moment in a household when mom and dad reverse a long-standing household rule, and everyone is a bit stunned to hear it. For me growing up, it was ordering soda-pop at a restaurant. Dad got a raise after my older brothers went off to college, and suddenly it was ok to order soda-pop. I felt super naughty doing it for the first time—and my brothers jeered at me when I did it. Changing long-standing customs and traditions and laws isn’t easy.
So, that’s some background to the divided church. These Judaizers confronted Paul in Antioch, and then they confronted him in Jerusalem when he went to Jerusalem to straighten this out.
Getting Personal in Paul’s Letters
Now, before we consider the deliberating church and the actual Jerusalem council where these matters were discussed and resolved, I want to take you through some of Paul’s letters where this divided church is described with a bit more of a personal touch. I think this is where we really see the story of this division come alive, and more clarity on the matter of division come to light.
As I mentioned, one question we’re seeking to get greater clarity on this morning is, “are all divisions and schisms in the church bad?”. Should we avoid them? How do we process them? In one sense, they are all bad. They’re all a result of sin—unbelief, stubbornness, pride (the list goes on). When Jesus finally does away with sin, there won’t be divisions or denominations in heaven. However, we’re not there yet. There’s still error confronting the church. The church still must divide itself—or separate itself—from those who reject the Bible’s fundamental teachings on salvation.
Turn to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, real quick, and we’ll see all this with an immensely personal touch. There you’ll find a letter that is entirely devoted to this controversy we’ve seen in Acts 15, as Judaizers were influencing the churches in Galatia where Paul had just ministered during his first missionary journey. Those are the churches where he was beaten and almost killed. You can imagine the outrage he felt when he heard these Judaizers were profaning the gospel of God’s free grace with the law of Moses in these churches.
Consider some of the language Paul uses to condemn the Judaizers, in this letter. Galatians 1:6, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” To turn to the Judaizers, to circumcision, Paul says, is to “desert him”. To desert Christ! Christ says “receive me by faith, not by works”—to turn to works of the law and circumcision is to desert him!
Then, jump ahead, to what Paul says in chapter 5 verse 3—“I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are cut off from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace”. That’s strong language, there. You’re “cut off from Christ”, “fallen away from grace”, if you would seek salvation through any sort of works of the law. In a word, Paul reminds us that Christ became the curse for us. He died under the law on our behalf, bearing the penalty of the law, that we might receive his grace and righteousness by faith, for a full forgiveness before the Father in heaven.
What do we see Paul doing, here? He’s drawing a firm line—the line of salvation, for the unity and the purity of the church in Christ. He’s not at all afraid to use strong, even provocative, language to do it. When Paul says that by turning to circumcision, you are “cut off” from Christ—he’s using a play on words, there. It’s graphic, as circumcision is meant to be. In Israel, it was understood that circumcision represented God’s people being cut off from the rest of the world, to be a people for God through the shedding of blood for sins. That’s what circumcision graphically conveyed. Yet Paul, here, is saying that to trust circumcision means you’re not cut off from the world for Christ, but that your cut off from Christ! It’s a crude way to condemn a sacred piece of Israel’s religion!
In our Wednesday night Bible study, we’ve been looking at Philippians 3, specifically verse 2. There, he gets even more provocative in his language. Referring to these Judaizers, he says “look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh”. Do you hear the warning, and the strong language, here? “Look out… look out… look out”, three times. Then, he describes the Judaizers as (1) dogs—a derogatory term Jews often used to describe gentiles, (2) evildoers, and (3) those who mutilate the flesh, referring to circumcision. Isn’t that a crass way to describe the sacred Jewish rite of circumcision? I’d hardly call that a sensitive way to preserve the unity of God’s people here. Paul, you know, might offend someone with that language. He might cause division—only, the good kind of division. The sort of division that divides the sheep from the goats, the shepherds from the wolves.
Division for God’s Glory, Not Ours
Why was Paul so graphic, in all this? Why did he lean into this matter with such provocative, divisive tactics? For one thing, he knew that our most natural desire is to be in control, and to save ourselves rather than completely surrender ourselves to another for salvation. That’s really what’s at the root of this whole discussion. Paul understood that the Judaizers’ circumcision and works of the law represented a works-based, save-yourself sort of religion. It means your in control through your own righteousness and works of the law, and your ultimately your own savior rather than God. Among many other things, Paul knew that was a terrible assault on the glory of Christ’s salvation. The hardest thing for us to understand is that we are by nature, in Adam, objects of God’s wrath and curse. We are “dead” in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:1)—and so, salvation must entirely be a work of God to work faith, repentance, righteousness and forgiveness into us through Christ and his Spirit. Thanks be to God that he does. So we say soli deo glory—to God alone be glory, not to us (Psalm 115:1).
As the Judaizers were pandering to our natural, sinful instinct that says we can save ourselves—Paul aggressively sought to correct the error.
When Devision Keeps Us From Stumbling
But even more so, Paul leaned into this controversy is because he knew from experience that the pressure to pander to the Judaizers was real. I don’t think there’s a clearer example to this pressure than the situation Paul found himself in with Peter and Barnabas. He describes it in Galatians 2:11, if you still have your Bible opened to Galatians.
Let me read this to you at length—and, without going into the nuanced details, I think it’s fair to say that this whole thing happened in the weeks or months prior to the Jerusalem council. The Judaizers we see in this brief story are the same Judaizers who came to Antioch in our passage, in Acts 15. Here’s an actual story of how powerful their influence was, and why the Jerusalem council was so necessary—
Gal 2:11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 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. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 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?”
This is really, quite astonishing if you think about it. The apostle Peter, of all people, buckled under the pressure of his Jewish kinsmen. Keep in mind that Peter was the first man Jesus gave a bold revelation to over this very matter in Acts 11, and then he saw uncircumcised gentiles receive the Spirit in Acts 12.
This apostle Peter, a year or so later, would buckle under the pressure of the Judaizers. Not only is the pressure to save ourselves strong, but so is peer pressure—the desire to be acknowledged and praised by man, and to avoid conflict. I almost wonder if this was the last straw that broke the camel’s back for Paul. I almost wonder if he thought, “if the apostle Peter and my trusted companion Barnabas can’t handle the pressures of this controversy, it’s probably time to go down to Jerusalem and get this matter decisively handled”.
This wasn’t just a divided church. It was a distressed church—even Peter and Barnabas buckled under the weight of this division. Something had to be done.
This leads us to the deliberating church, as the church in Jerusalem convened in order to deliberate this matter.
A Deliberating Church
It’s really something to notice that, when there was disagreement in the church, Paul and Barnabas didn’t just throw up their hands and say, “whelp, I guess it’s time to start a new church”. Or, “whelp, the church is seeing division, it’s time to leave it and give up”. That’s the all-too-common story of our day, today. I truly believe that of what else could be said, this is a misunderstanding of the how the governance of a church relates to the unity of a church. When Paul and Barnabas and the church in Antioch desired unity and purity in the church, they appealed to the governance of the church. Today, a church’s government is often pegged as the problem to church unity, not the solution. I often hear something to the effect, “If the egg-headed clergy and organized religion would get out of it, we’d see much more unity in the church!”. Here, in Acts 15, we see the exact opposite. I think this highlights not only the value for healthy and Biblical church government, but also the importance of getting church government right.
Church Government That Brings Unity
What are some descriptions of church government that we see, here in this passage, as the church convenes to deliberate? That’s what I want to see, here, as this organized church deliberates.
Consider what happens when Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem. Look at verse 4. “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders (the church’s leaders, and it’s government), and they [Paul and Barnabas] declared all that God had done with them. 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”. So, there’s the problem again, just as we’ve described. Then verse 6, describing how the church government responded—“The apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter”.
It’s important to see that this early church—even with the apostles still in their midst—took time to consider the matter. It took time, energy, thought, humility. This isn’t a group speaking with immediate revelation and insight from the Spirit into a matter—it’s a group of fallible men who needed to make sure they carefully handled difficult matters. That’s a ministry—a service.
But really notice that it’s a humble service. The council first took time to hear the report of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas as they told about how the Lord clearly gave signs and visions, revealing that the gentiles didn’t need circumcision to be saved. Peter and Paul got it—it was already clear to them, but it wasn’t clear to the deciding church yet. This church needed to sit and listen to their report, and their arguments. As Peter says in verse 8,
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 [without ever needing to be circumcised]. 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 believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.
That’s beautiful. It’s Peter’s testimony, and his argument, on the matter. Verse 12 says that the assembly fell silent, as they continued to listen to Paul and Barnabas speak about their experiences with the gentiles. These were humble men, willing to consider what their Lord and Savior was doing in their midst.
But this government wasn’t just a humble ministry of the church, willing to listen. It was a submissive ministry of the church. Look what happens next, in verse 13. “After they finished speaking, James replied”. James, for all we know, was isolated from everything that had been happening with the gentiles. It seems that at this point, he was a prominent leader of the Jewish church in Jerusalem. So the question is—if he hadn’t been seeing any of this first-hand, then why is he speaking up in this discussion? What does he have to add to the discussion?
He connected the signs and visions that Peter and Paul were reporting to the Word of God, which he knew very well. Truth be told—if Peter and Paul’s experiences held no weight to what God had promised in Scripture, the Jerusalem counsel had no business believing what Peter and Paul were reporting. So, James speaks up and quotes Amos 9:11—12, where God promises that “the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, [together with] all the gentiles who are called by my name”. God’s word confirms Peter’s report—and here, we see the government of the church not simply as a servant of the church generically, but a servant of the Word. The church’s government is a ministry of the Word, and it cannot go outside of what the Word says. Ever. I can say by experience—Presbyterians take that incredibly seriously.
There’s a saying that goes centuries back to the reformation, and it says something along these lines—the church’s government isn’t necessary for the being (or existence) of the church, it is necessary for the well-being of the church. I’ve always found that helpful. The church’s existence doesn’t find itself in it’s government or organization. The church’s existence is breathed out by God, founded upon Christ’s sacrifice, and established by the Spirit and Word. The church is fundamentally of the Spirit, not the flesh. It is fundamentally a heavenly institution, not an earthly institution. So long as God is preserving a remnant of his people by his grace in Christ, so there’s a church. However, God has revealed that while the church’s being is not effected by church government, the church’s well-being is.
This is crucial to understand—and, we need to keep it straight. If we assume that a church’s being, or existence, is determined by church government—by whether you have a pastor, or a place to meet, or any other tangible part of the church, then we are going to be tempted to say that we create the church. We’ll think that if we appoint a pastor, or designate a certain group to be a church, then there’s a church. If we don’t do that, then there’s no church. And in the end, we’ll refer to the church as “our” church, with “our” teaching rather than “God’s” church with “God’s” teaching that he provided in Scriptures.
The church exists because God created her, died for her, and is upholding her and saving her—all from his throne in heaven. That’s a fact, whether we like it or not. So, any church government must acknowledge that, and seek the church’s well-being with a solid ministry of God’s Word. This means correcting error, teaching truth, providing wisdom and counsel, and wisely handling administrative details that may come up. That’s the Jerusalem Council, as James gets the final word with a reference to God’s Word. In church councils, God’s word is always the last and decisive word.
So we saw a divided church, and then that divided church came together as a deliberating church, as the apostles and elders deliberated matters in the service of Christ and his word. They were humble men, they were submissive men, they were men of the Word and of grace. What was the result? A devoted church.
A Devoted Church
We see that in what follows after James cites Amos 9. For one thing, the council devoted the whole church to the grace and freedom of Christ. James says in verse 19, “therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the gentiles who turn to God”—and by that, he means “we shouldn’t trouble them with circumcision and the Mosaic law”. So, the church was fully devoted to the grace of Christ—salvation by grace alone, through Christ alone, by faith alone. This is an awesome thing to be devoted to. Consider the gentiles’ reaction when they receive word of the council’s decision, verse 31—when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.” The encouragement, quite simply, was this—“Christ accepts you as you are, for who you are, you’re forgiven in his death and free to serve him in his righteousness. Period.”. What a blessing to hear word that you don’t need to do anything to be in God’s protection and provision and love, save faith and repentance.
Although, James recommended one other matter that the gentiles should be devoted to. Verse 20 tells us that the council recommended that they “abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” Now, obviously, sexual immorality is morally forbidden in all of Scripture. I suspect it was singled out because the gentiles had a reputation with that sort of thing—it was a real struggle. However, all the other requirements that pertained to things polluted by idols and blood were matters of Jewish ceremonial law, not moral law. They pertained to ceremonial law that Jesus fulfilled on the cross, where his blood was spilled. Literally, Paul later says in 1 Corinthians that meat polluted by idols is ok for us to eat. So, why were these items listed here, if Jesus fulfilled them and Paul later speaks differently?
The answer becomes really clear in verse 21, where James gives his rational for these strange requirements. “For from ancient generations”—we’re talking about deep-seated customs, here—Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, or he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues”. In other words—the Jewish conscience is deeply trained to despise gentiles, and to stay away from anything that even smells like blood and idolatry. Those things are sinful, they’re unclean. It’s going to take some time for these Jews to overcome the stigma. So, James is suggesting a way for the gentiles to make it easier on them. He’s asking these early gentile converts to devote themselves to the church’s mission and unity. He’s saying—“in order to keep Jews from stumbling over these things as they come to Christ, let’s make it easier on them, and on their conscience”. There’s a lesson, there, for us. We’d do well to meet people where they’re at, as best as we can, to either win them to Christ, or to prevent weaker Christians from stumbling in the faith. It’s devotion to the church’s mission, and unity.
So, brothers and sisters—we’ve seen the story of a divided church, a deliberating church, and a devoted church—devoted to the church’s freedom, unity, and mission in Christ.
So, as we look back on all this—is all division bad? Mostly, yes—except when the church is dividing itself from the world, from those who deny Christ’s free grace of salvation. The church is, indeed, called the “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). That means it must divide truth from falsehood.
But then, that second question—how does God preserve unity, given the disunity and denominationalism in the church today? God gave us all sorts of means to preserve the unity and well-being of the church. We have Jesus—there’s always unity in his forgiveness and Spirit. We have the Word of truth. We even have church governments that God intends to promoe the well-being of the church, as a ministry of his Word. Then of course, there’s the hope of eternity, where we will be perfectly united in Christ forever. Let’s pray.