The Work of God in the Mess of the People of God
The Work of God in the Mess of the People of God
There is a saying in ministry that when you get down to pull someone out of the mud, sometimes you get splattered.
Another saying is that we are all sheep, and sheep bite. When you first come to a church everyone seems wonderful, but the longer you stay you also begin to see flaws, and if you stay long enough you will have disappointment, hurts, and even strife. Church is messy.
But before you pack your bags to head out the door, let me also say this. God works in the mess of the church and his people.
So far in Acts it has been an us against the world. The world is coming at the church, but they are committed to telling others about Jesus, seeing God do powerful things. There is chaos outside but peace inside the church. But now the problem comes inside the church. There is a dispute that threatens the peace of all.
Jesus told many parables about the nature of his kingdom in this world. A man sowed good seed in his field, but at night an enemy came and sowed weeds in the field. When the seed sprouted the problem was discovered. The master says to let the seeds grow together, and at the harvest the two will be separated (Matt 13:24). You will see this in church. Sometimes the weeds distinguish themselves from the wheat through turmoil and misunderstanding.
There is no perfect church. There are healthy churches. Healthy churches are like a healthy immune system. Your immune system is to protect you from viruses. A healthy body doesn’t mean viruses and stuff don’t get in it, but it does mean that when they get in your system can fight them. We need healthy immune systems; we need healthy churches and patterns of dealing with relational breakdowns.
This passage helps us see the place of internal differences but it also shows us how to deal with such things.
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. 5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the Gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” 12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16 ” ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’ 18 that have been known for ages. 19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” 22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. 23 With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. 24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul– 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. 30 The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the brothers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord. (Acts 15:1-35 NIV)
- The Problem
Some people have come and brought a teaching that contradicts how one is saved in Jesus.
An argument and debate arise. There is conflict and strife, the kind that threaten the security and stability. Controversy/debate.
V24 they are causing trouble.
This teaching contradicts a Core teaching of Christianity: We cannot save ourselves. That is why Jesus came. He accomplished it. That is why on the cross he said, “It is finished.” We trust in him. We are saved by faith. Faith means we follow him but we are not saved by anything we do. Isaiah says even our best deeds are like filthy rags before God. As soon as you say it is faith plus one thing you end up adding all kinds of things.
V1. “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses you cannot be saved.“
V5. The gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.
These people were Jewish by birth and had been brought up in the Old Testament. They knew the important place circumcision had as a way to identify with the people of God. But Jesus changed that we are saved not by what we do but through the work of Jesus. We are saved through faith alone. Not salvation by faith plus… anything!
- Primary Issue of Salvation
The book of Galatians was written just before this incident in Acts 15. They were dealing with this issue then. This is not a different gospel. This is no gospel at all. Paul says these false brothers were trying to make them slaves again.
What they are saying contradicts what Paul has seen God do among the Gentiles.
V9 God purified their hearts by faith.
V11 we believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved.
They take time to consider the teaching and conclude salvation is through faith alone. You have to keep the main thing the main thing. This is the main thing for churches, for believers.
V19 should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
When you see debates know that God is about to reveal himself to someone. People are going to grow in their understanding of who God is and what he has done. Some are not and are going to be seen for what they are. It’s part of the process.
There is a constant tendency of people to emphasize something too much and make it of primary importance. These Jews had been brought up in a Jewish home, circumcised on the 8th day, taught the Torah, Barmitzvah at 13. They valued their heritage and wanted everyone to do, and to also require everyone to have done it.
I see this today. People will enjoy something, maybe the Lord genuinely uses it in their life, and they want to require everyone else to do it too. “You are not a real Christian unless you have done a mission trip to Asia, prayed for the filling of the Holy Spirit, inductive Bible study, etc, etc.”
Howard Hendricks: Grew up in legalistic home where use of finger nail polish was enough to condemn one to Hell. “I repudiated legalism intellectually and theologically in 1946, but in 1982 I am still wrestling with it emotionally.” Kent Hughes, Acts 197.
In the church we are about salvation in Jesus Christ alone.
Be careful when you start saying someone “cannot be saved unless…” and “you must…” It can show your legalism. It can show your over emphasis. “Must protest abortion. Must say black lives matter. Must be for free market, etc.” Church, let’s be clear. Those are important, but they are not the gospel, and if we give in to that, we have lost the Gospel.
- Secondary Issues
It’s not that secondary issues are not important. They are. They are not tertiary, but they are not primary. Insert your social cause right here. Racism. Sexism. Health care. Human trafficking. We need to apply our faith to these important areas. But we can’t let them become most important.
We also see some of the problems going on here. Social implications of the Gospel. The Gentiles were doing things that were hard for others in the church to be around. They had not abandoned their previous sexual ethics. A problem: They were eating food polluted by idols. They probably saw this as nothing, but their Jewish brothers could not be around it. They were eating their steaks medium rare which contradicted Mosaic law that forbid eating the blood of animals.
They could not do their Antioch Roundups/church lunches after service because of the differences in dietary conduct. That’s a problem when your behavior prevents other believers from being around you. In Galatians we find that even Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles because of this issue. “Do something about it!” For some the solution was simply to make them obey the entire law. That would solve the problem.
I could never be around a Christian who eats medium rare steaks, votes for that candidate, etc.
They clarify salvation, that is the first step. If God accepts them, how can you reject them???
But secondly they identify things that can be done in mutual submission and deference. You make sacrifices for the sake of peace. You make sacrifices for the sake of unity.
The Jewish Christians made sacrifices. “Ok, we are not going to require them to do everything in the Old Testament.”
The Gentiles made sacrifice. “Ok, we see the importance of sexual purity. We also are willing to deny ourselves food sacrificed to idols and we will cook our steaks well done.”
They did not lord it over the conscience of the people. They understood each position and made *mutual concessions*.
Notice the letter they wrote. “The apostles and elders, your brothers” – Leadership that is on equal footing. It’s very easy in organization to mandate, but that doesn’t allow people to serve from the heart.
With other issues in church: alcohol, tobacco. There are different convictions on these. Are you willing to tolerate others? Are you willing to deny yourself for others? It cuts both ways.
Masks!!! Dare we go here? Barna said it is the divisive issue in church. A friend shared that he required masks and had members tell him he was going to Hell for that. That is a misappropriation. I also heard of pastors who were fired for not wearing a mask in public.
I’m grateful we have not had that here. We have definitely had different preferences, concerns, people wanting to do what they think is best, and it’s been hard on everyone, but we have also had a lot of tolerating and self-denying. Masks are not the Gospel. We are about Jesus. We can have people in different places on it, and I think it speaks a powerful word to the community that we can still love each other in the midst of differences. We have to keep primary what is primary!
God used the messy situation to instruct his people in salvation and community. It’s not pretty. It is not easy. It is glorious.
- Embrace God’s Work in the Mess
They didn’t deny the problem. They didn’t ignore it. They didn’t run.
- Address the issue.
Don’t run when it gets hard or when people disagree with you. It will happen. And listen to this: I believe the mess is part of God’s plan to mature you. What is God showing me? Where do I need to change?
I know there are times you have enough going on in your life and don’t need to be troubled by the mess of the church. But also see a healthy church should show you how to deal with the mess when it happens in your life.
I have been through very difficult situations in churches. Sometimes it has seemed unbearable. But I have learned that when you stick through it, and you get on the other side, there is a lot of healing that takes place.
There is not a perfect church. If there were it would be ruined as soon as you walked in. Church was never meant to be perfect, but it does need to be healthy. There are healthy ways of dealing with differences. Don’t get mad and storm off. Don’t deny there is a problem. Don’t blast people who differ with you. Engage it with humility, seek to understand. And seek to apply God’s word. Take time.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. (James 3:17)
- Discuss with Others
They engaged the false teachers head on. They engaged in long discussions with them, not what others said about them.
It is easy to assume you know why people are doing things. You need to hear from them. Our country is so divided because we cut people off rather than seek to understand them. Our country could learn a lot from the mess of the church. They heard from each side. They listened.
Don’t assume you know their motives. Is scripture clear on this issue?
- Apply God’s word.
V16-18 is a quote from the prophet Isaiah. They allowed God’s word to interpret their situation. How many people make important decisions without even opening their Bible to consider what God calls them to do. How can you honor God if you don’t know what he calls you to do?
- They were patient and gracious.
They had a conciliatory tone using the word “Brothers” (v13, 23), and basically saying “We the leaders are telling all you idiots what to do.”
Wisdom from above. They didn’t rush to a decision. Consult others. Let’s learn from leaders.
- Made a decision and brought everyone into it.
The decision honored God and was shared with others. They didn’t leave it ambiguous or allow things to fester.
- Healing in the Church.
Note this passage ends with the people who were troubled now experiencing peace.
the people rejoice at the decision. v31
they are encouraged and strengthened. v32
they were sent back with peace. v33
they continue teaching and reaching v35
This came about not because they turned away from the mess but because they pushed into it. The confronted the problem, the got advice from leaders, they read the word, and they waited on God. You have been hurt, and you are trying to find help outside of the place God designed you to experience his grace, his people.
Do you see the power of God at work in the mess, or do you just see the mess? Some of you have been hurt and only see the mess. Scripture says it’s in the church the manifold wisdom of God is made know to the world. Some of you have been pushed out of alignment this last year. You see church as a threat to your health, safety, society. It’s worth taking risks for.
Reminds me of this Spurgeon quote:
“If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it.”