No Small Debate
Acts 15 stands out as one of the most important chapters in the Book of Acts because it’s the only place where we see the church come to a theological crossroads. There are other key decision points in Acts, but this is the only decision that has the purity of the gospel at stake.
So this is really important, but we don’t read an epic sermon here. We also don’t get to read another amazing missionary story like we saw in chapter 14. But instead, we read basically the minutes of a meeting — a big, long meeting. Now, if that sounds exciting to you, bless your heart. If that sounds just a little boring to you, it’s going to be okay.
It might sound boring, but really, if we look closer, it’s not. The debate here ends up being pretty fascinating, and the decisions that are made go on to set the course not only for the rest of this book, but for all of church history. So it’s a big deal.
And what I want us to do is simply two things:
First, I want us to understand why this debate is happening and why it matters (so get more context).
Then second, I want us to see the turning point of this debate, and how the turning point of this debate should also be the turning point of our own lives.
What’s Going on Here?
So, let’s get started.
One summer in college I worked part time for this car dealership. I just did customer service stuff, which was pretty basic, but the sales manager at this dealership was this Russian-American guy named Vlad. He was a nice guy. But just so you get the image right in your mind, Vlad was in his forties. He was a short man. He had this thick Russian accent, and he walked around like he probably carried a pistol with a silencer on it. Well, from time to time, Vlad would drop by my desk to say hello. To be cordial. And I figured this out after a while, but he would come by, and he would mean to say “What’s up?”, but somehow that got lost in translation and instead he’d say, “What’s going on here?” Now, I’m not going to try to impersonate him, but if you could imagine being asked “What’s going on here?” in a thick Russian accent by a man who looks like he carries a pistol with a silencer on it — it was pretty intimidating. And for whatever reason, I hear Vlad’s voice at the beginning of Acts 15. What is going on here? What’s the problem? We go from this amazing missionary journey in chapter 14 to a debate here. How did that happen? That’s what I want us to see.
Well, as you know, Paul has just finished his first missionary journey and he has started to spread the reports of what God did. We saw that last week, in Acts 14:27 — he came back to Antioch in Syria and “declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” So the news was spreading that people from the nations were trusting in Jesus.
And then, while in Antioch, there were some men who showed up who had come from Judea and they started telling everyone that in order to really be saved, you needed to keep the law of Moses. Basically, they were teaching that you needed to become Jewish before Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, can actually save you.
So Paul and Barnabas say, No, that’s wrong, and they debate them. And then, because the source of this teaching was probably from Jerusalem, the church in Antioch sends Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to figure things out. And while in Jerusalem, in 15:4, they reported what God has been doing through them on their first missionary journey, and once again, they ran into this same misunderstanding.
Paul and Barnabas were telling everyone how all the people from these pagan nations were putting their faith in Jesus, and then, some of the Jewish Christians in verse 5 were like, Yeah, but wait. They need to keep the law of Moses.
And that is when the big meeting was called in verse 6. All the apostles and elders got together and had “much debate” about this issue.
And I really want us to get the nature of this debate. Luke doesn’t describe this as a good-guy-versus-bad-guy thing. I think that at this point in the church’s life, there were some believers who just had not put the pieces together. There were former Jewish Pharisees, the group that had Jesus killed, and some of them ended up believing in him, which is amazing. And they were fine and happy with Gentiles also believing in Jesus — Luke doesn’t say or imply that the issue here is racism. It’s not that the Jewish Christians just hate non-Jews, and therefore they’re grumpy about the nations trusting in Jesus. That’s not what is happening. These Jewish Christians know that Gentiles can become part of their people. God, in the Old Testament, had a way for Gentiles, non-Jews, to become Jewish. And I think that is actually what confuses them here.
See, they thought that believing in Jesus, the Messiah, was a Jewish thing and that these Gentiles who believed in Jesus were actually becoming Jews who then needed to do all the same things that Jewish people did, mainly like keep the law of Moses. And it takes the New Testament to explain how this goes. But I want you to see that the issue here is honest confusion about identity.
And this meeting in Acts 15 is a watershed moment when these early church leaders are able to see and say that what God is doing in Jesus is something very different from what they had been a part of. This is a new thing — people who trust in Jesus have a new identity, and as Paul would later say, it’s neither Jew nor Greek, but Christian (Gal. 2:28) — and the law, which once had its purpose, is not what it used to be.
So that is what is going on here. Jewish people and now many Gentiles were both embracing Jesus by faith, and these leaders were trying to figure out what that means. A new people has been formed in Jesus. Now who are they?
Well, let’s look at the turning point in this debate.
The Turning Point
Luke tells us, in verse 7, that there was “much debate.” We don’t know exactly how long this debate lasted, but we know that things changed when Peter starts talking. [Do you guys see that in verse 7?] “Peter stood up” — well that is the same thing said about Peter in 1:15 and in 2:14. Peter stands up. Some of you may remember that we talked about this earlier in the year — that Peter had become the leader-spokesman for the apostles, and that was an amazing work of God’s mercy. Peter went from denying that he even knew Jesus at the end of Luke’s Gospel, to, here in the Book of Acts, he’s leading the apostles and speaking boldly about Jesus. He’s the main guy all throughout chapters 1–12, and now here in chapter 15 is the last time we see him.
Peter, of course, isn’t finished yet. He goes on to write two letters of the New Testament before he is killed, but the Jerusalem Council here in Acts 15 is the last time Peter shows up in the book. And this is important because Peter has been so crucial for the first half of this narrative. And you can kind of see what’s happening here. Remember last week in chapter 14 we saw that when Paul healed the crippled man it was just like when Peter healed the crippled man in chapter 3. And here in chapter 15 — it’s interesting — after Peter speaks, in verse 12, Luke says that’s when the brothers listened to Paul and Barnabas. And the rest of the book is about Paul.
So Peter has been replaced.
Peter has prepared the way for Paul, and he’s basically done now. He’s not the main-character apostle in this story anymore.
Okay, time-out. Little parenthetical here. So in the Acts storyline Paul is replacing Peter. Let me use that observation to remind us that every church leader is preparing the way for another church leader. And that’s why at Cities we care about leadership development. So all four of our pastors are investing in the lives of other men. And as a church collectively, we are investing in our children.
We know it’s our turn right now, but it won’t always be. And we want to have the long view in mind. That’s what you do when you are trying to build something. All right, close parenthesis.
Okay, so Acts 15 is the last time we see Peter in this book. Grammatically we can call this Peter’s last stand — and what he does here is so beautiful.
His argument is simple and glorious. He basically says:
- God is doing this
- But you are doing that
- Stop. Don’t you get it?
God Is Doing This
Verse 7, Peter says,
“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.”
He is referring back to chapter 10 when Peter has his vision and Cornelius believes the gospel and then the Holy Spirit comes to the Gentiles. When he says “early days” he means early in the gospel’s advance. So early on the Gentiles have been embracing Jesus, and Peter says, God put me right in the middle of that. Then look at verses 8–9,
“And 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.”
So God made no distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, which means: Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t matter, Jesus just saves. That’s what he does. Gentiles don’t have to become Jews in order for God to save them. And we don’t have to become something in order for God to save us.
We don’t have to perform certain things to clean ourselves up in order to get God’s attention. Peter says that God is the one who does the cleaning, and he does it in the heart. So it’s not us doing stuff with our hands that define our relationship with God. It is God coming to us and changing our hearts. We should know here, especially if you’re investigating Christianity, that this is one reason the gospel is so different from every other religion in the world. Every other religion is about man getting to God. Man does X-Y-Z, he climbs the steps, he jumps the hurdles, he does whatever he ca to get to God. See, we are trying to get to God at all cost. But the gospel says that God has come to us at the cost of himself.
That is what God is doing.
You Are Doing That
So Peter says God is doing this, he is saving the Gentiles by faith, but you’re saying, basically, that the Gentiles need to act Jewish before God can save them. You are putting a weight on their neck saying that they need to do certain things to be saved. So God is doing this, and you are doing that.
And it is striking what Peter says in verse 10. He calls this putting God to the test. In other words, when God has said and done one thing, and then we say and do another, we are, by implication, criticizing what God has said and done. So when God says that we are cleansed by faith, but we say No, there are a few more things we need to do — we are saying that God’s way is not good enough. We are criticizing him.
And this goes not just for the group here who get it wrong in Acts 15, but it goes for us Christians, too. Anytime we think we need to go beyond God’s grace in order for him to act on our behalf, we are insulting his grace.
We feel this struggle in prayer probably more than anywhere else. You can tell so much of what you think about God by how you pray. You know how it goes. When we pray, there are things that we ask our Father — there are things that we want him to do in our lives and in the lives of others, and so easily we slip into this way of thinking that tries to negotiate. We act as if there is some system we need to manipulate, and so we figure that if we pray a certain way, or a certain number of times, or at a certain point of the day, then that’s when God will hear us. Or maybe if we just do a few things then it will work. We treat prayer like God is some moving target that we’re just trying our best to hit. We think it’s all up to us to get his attention. But it’s not.
God wants us to trust him, not perform. And when we make it about performance, whether that is keeping the law of Moses, or keeping up on your Bible-reading plan, we’re criticizing God. When we think the determining factor of God’s kindness is what we do, we are belittling his kindness.
And that’s what this group was doing in Acts 15.
Peter says God is doing this but you are doing that, and then in verse 11 he says Stop. Let me read to you in verse 11 how he says that.
“But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
It is grace, Peter says. God is doing this, but you are doing that, now Stop. Don’t you get it? It’s all grace. We, Jewish people, are saved by grace. They, Gentile people, are saved by grace.
It’s all grace — don’t you get it?
You can’t earn God’s love. You can’t finagle his favor. You can’t maneuver his mercy. If God is going to save you, he’s going to save you by his grace. Now stop it. Stop trying to find another way. There is no other way. We are saved only by the grace of the Lord Jesus.
And there is the turning point.
Look at verse 12: “And all the assembly fell silent.”
That’s what grace does, you know. Grace is the great mouth-shutter.
Grace shuts our mouths, because what else is there to say? It’s grace.
And that’s what brings us to the Table.
You know, it’s a remarkable thing that when we come to this Table we don’t have to say anything. The Table of Jesus is a table of grace and when we come to him, we open our mouths not to speak, but to receive. So that’s what is going to happen here in just a moment. We are going to pass out the bread and the cup. And when you eat the bread, it’s grace. And when you drink the cup, it’s grace. And as you receive it, you are saying: There’s no other way, it’s grace.