The Jerusalem Counsel Pt 2
THE JERUSALEM COUNSEL PART 2 (Acts 15:1-21)
How does one become a member of God’s people?
Not by circumcision
Not by physical ancestry
By faith in Christ (evidenced in water baptism)
What identifies church members ?(distinguishes God’s people from the world?)
Not physical ancestry/ ethnicity
God’s indwelling Spirit
Open Bibles and read Acts 15:1-21 as we continue our study of Acts. This message is called “the Jerusalem counsel – pt 2.” We started looking at this passage last week, which I said records one of the most important meetings in church history.
At this counsel the leaders of the Jerusalem church together with the Apostles and leaders from the first Gentile church met together to reach a resolution about
1: The nature of salvation
2: The nature of the church.
Read Acts 15:1-21
Review – salvation by grace
The first issue we looked into last week, and concerns the nature of salvation. As vs 1 puts it, “Do you need to be circumcised according to the customs of Moses in order to be saved.”
· This wasn’t merely an issue of circumcision, but whether it was necessary to obey the Mosaic law in order to be saved. As vs 5 says, “It is necessary (for salvation) that you be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.”
· The men who were teaching this, had a Jewish background, so it was part of their cultural background to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. They professed faith in Christ and as Paul tells us in Gal 2, claimed to be coming from James , and so to be representing the Jerusalem church at some level.
· So Antioch sends a delegation to Jerusalem to clarify and get a ruling – not only from the Apostles who were Christ’s delegates for the founding of the church, but from the leadership of the Jerusalem church which these men claimed to be representing.
The question here is not whether you should believe in Christ, but whether believing in Christ alone is sufficient for salvation.
· Peter stands up in vs 6, representing the Apostles and reminds everyone of his testimony, how God had appeared to him in a vision and used him to preach the gospel to the first Gentiles, the account of which is recorded in Acts 10. He points out – this is something which God is clearly doing, who are we to stand in God’s way.
· Vs 8 – simply put, He says that God has clearly already saved them – so how can we now say that they are not saved, or must first be circumcised before they can be saved. God has already cleansed their heart through faith in Christ and testified to His acceptance by giving them the Holy Spirit.
· In vs 13 James stands up representing the Jerusalem church and affirms that Peter and Paul’s conclusions are supported by the Scriptures and he quotes from Amos.
Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. Good works cannot save. Justification is based on what Christ has done for us in paying the penalty for our sin, living the perfect righteous life that we could never have lived and satisfying God’s wrath against sin. Through faith in Christ God gives us a right standing with him which is based on the merits of Christ and not on any merits of our own.
What a gift! It means that the life and sacrifice of Christ is all-sufficent to accomplish our salvation – we cannot add to it, contribute to it, or improve on it in any way. Everything necessary for our salvation has been done for us by Christ and given to us as a free gift. That’s the nature of salvation.
The second issue addressed in this text is closely related to the first and equally controversial – the nature of the church.
Again, we need a little background here to understand what the issue really was.
Circumcision (Gen 17:9-14)
Circumcision is obviously one of the key rituals or practices which is under consideration here. Why were the Jews making such a big issue of circumcision?
Read Gen 17:9-14
· So circumcision was a sign of God’s special covenant relationship with Abraham and his offspring, it was a sign of the Abrahamic covenant.
· Circumcision distinguished God’s people from the other nations. It identified who had been brought into a right relationship with God and who was excluded from the commonwealth of Israel.
· You can see in vs12 that is was a law that applied to both Jew and foreigner living among the Jews.
· Vs 13 calls it an everlasting covenant.
· Circumcision preceded the Mosaic covenant and the Mosaic law- it was the sign and seal that you belonged to God, that you were part of God’s people.
So if a Gentile turned from his idolatry and wanted to worship the God of Israel, he had to commit to obey the Law of Moses and be circumcised as a sign of joining himself to the covenant community.
· In the first century they would baptize converts as a symbol of their need of cleansing and then they had to be circumcised before they were fully accepted into the covenant community.
· In Acts 10 God begins to change Peter’s paradigm. The Gentiles were also to hear the gospel and receive the Spirit, just as the Jewish believers had on the day of Pentecost.
· Acts 10:44-48 Peter sees they have believed and he has evidence that God has cleansed their hearts and given them His Spirit. The Spirit was the sign and seal of their acceptance before God. So Peter has certainty that these first Gentiles are truly saved. So He baptizes them in water, as a sign of their salvation and acceptance into the covenant community….
· In Acts 11 the Jews are initially shocked, but when Peter relates the events they accept it 11:17-18 – who were they to stand in God’s way.
But surely now, the process of conversion should be completed by requiring them to be circumcised so that they could be brought into the covenant community? Without circumcision no-one could be regarded as belonging to God.
· Yet Peter doesn’t require circumcision along with baptism. As the gospel continues to spread through Paul’s first missionary journey and whole Gentile congregations are established – none of them are required to be circumcised.
· So the first issue is that they are saved by grace. God has clearly forgiven, them accepted them, given them His Spirit as a sign and seal of His acceptance. But are they made a part of God’s covenant community by virtue of their salvation?
· Peter’s experience in Acts 10 affirmed their salvation, their status before God – but what was their status as a covenant community? How were these Gentiles to be related to Israel as God’s special people?
· That’s the issue that circumcision is raising. So who are the true people of God and how are they to be recognized? Who are the members of God’s covenant community and how are they identified if not through circumcision?
The mystery of the church (Eph 2:11-22)
This is exactly what Paul is addressing in Eph 2. The first 10 chapters deal with salvation by grace alone through faith alone (review vs 8-10 as covered last week). But then he goes on to address this second aspect of salvation – the corporate implications…. Read vs 11-22
· Here he’s talking about the Gentiles status before God as a people, they were outside of the covenant, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. Only the circumcised were regarded as God’s covenant people.
· Vs 13-14 In Christ God has brought us near. What he is speaking about here is not reconciliation to God, but reconciliation to one another in one body.
· 15-16: Adherance to the laws and rituals of Moses is no longer the identifying mark of the covenant people of God.
· 18-20: The New Covenant people of God is the church – built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone.
· 21: The dwelling of God is no longer in a specific temple, in a specific land – but among a specific people – a people who have been reconciled to Christ and indwelt by His Spirit.
I hope you are beginning to understand what a radical paradigm shift the church was undergoing. Acts 15 is the headwaters, the counsel where this reality was crystalized in their minds.
the church a mystery (Eph 3:1-6)
· He goes on to explain this mystery in Eph 3:1-6 – Jew and Gentile together in one body is a mystery. Something hidden in the O.T but now revelaed.
· You could never see that God was going to do something so radical as you read your O.T. Uniting all nations under the one messiah Jesus Christ. Creating one universal body, one covenant people not from one nation but from every nation.
· This is the nature of the church – it’s a universal, cross cultural, international, global community consisting of people from every tribe language, people and nation. Saved by grace and called out to belong to God and show forth His glory.
The issue of circumcision was threatening to divine the church into 2 major factions – Jew and Gentile, which is exactly not what God intended. Note Paul’s emphasis in vs 14 “made us both one”, “15 “create one new man,” 16 “reconcile us both in one body”, 18 “both have access in one Spirit.”
One, united body consisting of every nation under Christ -that was God’s purpose and plan.
· Belonging to God’s covenant community was no longer a matter of nationality but of faith in Christ. For Paul, to divide the church into factions based on external criteria such as nationality or circumcision was to undermine what the gospel was given to produce – spirit-filled, united, new covenant community.
· How is this new covenant people identified? Baptism in the Spirit and baptism in water – not by circumcision which was distinctly Jewish sign associated with God’s covenant with the Jewish nation.
Pentecostal doctrine: That is why Pentecostal doctrine with its baptism in the Spirit as a second blessing after salvation– is so dangerous. It’s taking something which is meant to be the distinguishing mark of all of God’s people and making it the possession of some. It is diving the body of Christ into groups again – those who have the fullness of the Spirit and those who don’t. By one Spirit we all have access and are being build together.
That’s exactly the opposite conclusion of this counsel. Go back to Acts 15 again.
A People for His name
Go back to Acts 15: That’s why Peter could highlight in vs 8 God bore witness by giving them the Spirit just as he did to us. This was the undeniable sign that these converts were part of God’s covenant people – the possessed the true sign of the new covenant.
· Look at vs 14, how James summarizes Peter’s message, “Simeon has related how God has visited the Gentiles, the non-Jews, to take from them a people for his name.”
· What they are having to come to grips with is not just that God has been saving individual Gentiles, but that God was creating a people for his name. A people consisting of both Jews and Gentiles.
· James highlights this in his quotation of Amos. God is restoring the dynasty of David, not just for the sake of Israel, but for the remnant of mankind, for Gentiles who are called by His name.
Spirit-filled community (Ezek 36:22-28)
How are these new covenant people identified? (Ats 15:8) -by the Spirit.
Not by circumcision, or by location, or by ethnicity or be genealogical records. We are identified by possession of the Spirit.
When God began to point people forward to the salvation He would accomplish in the messiah, He also began to point them forward to a new age, a new covenant, a new dispensation. In passages like Jer 31 and Ezek 36 He began talking of an age when his Spirit would be poured out on His people and their sins would be forgiven and their hearts changed.
Turn Ezek 36:22-28
· 25-27 is making a very similar point to Acts 15:8-11. God cleansed their hearts and gave them His Spirit. Peter’s point is “Them” the Gentiles just as he did to “us” the Jews when we first believed in Christ.
· So God is fulfilling the New Covenant promises through faith in Christ. But it includes Gentiles as well as Jews.
· Ezek 36:24 and 28 – this was supposed to be done in and for and with Israel, gathering them to the land and making them a covenant people again – you will be my people and I will be your God. Dwell in the land I gave to your forefathers.
This all made sense in Acts 2 when the Spirit came upon the first Jewish believers in Jerusalem. Everything lined up – which is why they thinking – God is at this time restoring the kingdom to Israel – He is fulfilling these O.T promises.
· But when the gospel began to move out of Jerusalem into other lands and to move beyond the Jews to other people – then how could they make sense of this – who was the people of God and how were they identified if not by circumicion, and ethnicity and circumcision?
· The church is a mystery, something which could not be clearly seen in the O.T. This is the nature of the church – it’s a universal, cross cultural, international, global community consisting of people from every tribe language, people and nation. Saved by grace and called out to belong to God and show forth His glory.
This is mind-blowing, earth shattering stuff – which required the first church counsel so they could all get their heads around what God was doing.
This gathering here this morning- of all nations under Christ – is no less a miracle, no less a supernatural acts of God than your personal salvation.
Every time we celebrate communion, we are celebrating the body and blood of Christ. The body broken and the blood of the New Covenant. The blood which was a sign and seal that God was creating a new covenant people not from one nation but every nation – and uniting us in one body through faith in Christ.
· Both ordinances that Christ has left His church – baptism and communion.
· Both are a symbol and celebration of individual salvation, personal reconciliation to God. But they are also a sign of our reconciliation into one body, the body of Christ.
THE NEW COVENANT community
We live in such an individualistic society, that we tend to think only of the personal benefits of individual salvation. Of my personal relationship with God. We don’t think enough about the corporate realities, about the benefits of belonging, of being part of a society, a community, a family. A restored, saved community of people who belong to God and live together in unity under his rule.
Next to salvation – the greatest blessing God has for us is the gift of the church community – and you have the privilege and responsibility of living in that community.
South AFriCa – leaving for community
So let me put it in tangible terms this morning. Why are so many people leaving South Africa for other countries? Because we cannot divorce our personal well-being from that of our community.
Many people who are leaving, will go and live in smaller houses, with less possessions, endure poorer weather and longer working hours – just so that they can be surrounded by a better community of people. They are leaving in order to put themselves in what they perceive is a better community of people. The physical environment and climate and personal comforts are not the major issue.
· What gets us down in this country – is not the land or the weather – but the people and how their morals and ethics and lifestyles impact ours.
· As the African proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It takes a community to rebuild a country.
· God has created us with and for that sense of community. That’s why he puts us in families and why, when He saves us, He doesn’t only reconcile us to himself, but reconciles us to one another in the church.
The church is a new covenant community, a called out community, a people who together bear God’s name and live for His glory.
In God’s mind, He sent Christ to accomplish 2 great realities –
1) To rescue His elect from sin and reconcile them to himself personally
2) To reconcile all nations into a New Covenant people, a community of faith, founded on Christ, filled with His Spirit. Together, we become the visible, tangible manifestation of God’s presence on earth.
Application – live in community
· When we gather as a church – God is in our midst, making himself more tangibly present than when we are on our own. The gathered people of God become the temple of God where His Shekinah glory can be seen.
· When we agree together in prayer, God does stuff that He doesn’t do when we pray on our own.
· When we live together in a loving, serving community – God’s power and glory are manifest to the watching world in a way that is more evident than our personal witness.
· That is why wherever the gospel is preached in Acts, believers are gathered into local churches – we are saved for community – reconciled to God and to one another.
People sometimes say to me – where is church membership in the N.T? Well here it is – one of the most important counsels in church history is convened to discuss the issues of salvation by grace alone – and church membership – who is part of God’s covenant people and how is their membership to be recognized.
Application – need one another
We need one another….
· We need one another, not just on Sundays, but throughout the week
· We need one another, not just to solve spiritual problems but practical ones too.
· God has called us to live together in community, to belong to him and to one another.
· To love Him by loving one another
· By this – will the world know that we belong to Christ – by belonging to one another, by loving one another
This is the significance of the local church. We are a people who are called out from every tribe and language to become God’s tribe and live under God’s chief and speak God’s language of love.
Church membership is more than just filling in an application form and having your names written into a roster. It’s a choice to live in community under Christ and to pursue that unity.
Is that your identity? Have you made that your commitment?
Next to salvation – the greatest blessing God has for us is the gift of the church community – and you have the privilege and responsibility of living in that community.
CONCLUSION – ACTS 20:28
Look at what Paul will say to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28 as he sees them for the last time.
Pay careful attention to yourself and to the flock.
· Consider your own walk with God – but also consider the flock. The covenant community and their well being.
· The Holy Spirit has appointed them overseers in order to tend God’s flock – look how its described – the church of God, the people of God, which he purchased with His own blood.
· How precious is the church to Christ? He bought her at the highest price.
· Christ died for a people, for His bride.
In this age he is building His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against her. And even if this country and every country should come crashing down and come to ruin – yet the temple of God will stand as a testimony to His glory.