We are well into the historic story of how the Church got started and how this movement became such a BIG deal and is still a big deal today with about a third of the world’s population believing Jesus is connected to God.
There is so much going on in this period of history that we’ve been looking at from: the Roman Empire, who took over and is pressing down on the people every day; the delegate balance of power between Rome and Judaism, Rome allowing the religion but only if they keep everyone under control, no disturbances; The Great Revolt that led to the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD when all of ancient Judaism came to a screeching halt; the temple was torn down, the city was invaded, and all the Jews were thrown out of Jerusalem.
There was so much going on in that period of history that when you pause long enough to look at it, it’s incredible to think about how this message of Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God got passed the first century.
We know Jesus died on the cross, rose from the grave, and appeared before His disciples and a number of others several times.
About two months after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and took the message that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of the Living God, and that He died on the cross for the sins of the world, and that He rose from the dead, into the streets of Jerusalem. This was the same city where Jesus was crucified because He said He was the awaited Messiah. But these disciples were eye witnesses of the resurrected Savior, something so HUGE they just had to tell everyone they could.
Within just a few short weeks, over 5,000 men, plus women and children had embraced that message. There was excitement, there was conflict, and this new movement called—remember from last week—”The Way” (it wasn’t called Christianity yet) threatened that balance of power between Rome and the Temple leaders.
So the apostles were arrested and flogged, which meant they were very close to death. They were left go and warned, no more talking about that name, that the religious leaders wouldn’t even say, and no more talking about the “R” word either, the resurrection. But Luke, the author of the book of Acts, tells us that they just couldn’t stop telling others about Jesus. Their boldness was off the charts. And ultimately, persecution broke out.
Stephen, who we talked about that last week, was the first martyr, and when he was put to death because he followed Jesus, a widespread persecution broke out and a new name came on the scene. His name was Saul, who we also know as Paul. Saul was his Jewish name. Paul was his Roman name. Saul led this widespread persecution of the Church. And for three years Christians, as they would eventually be called, were scattered throughout that region fleeing this persecution. But everywhere they went they told this crazy story: A Jewish carpenter named Jesus was sent from God and was killed by the Romans and the Jews, and He has risen from the dead. All those followers were either an eyewitness of Jesus themselves or they spent time with men and women who actually saw the resurrected Savior.
But three years after the persecution started, something incredible happened. Saul had an incredible conversion. He was literally blinded by light, was miraculously healed, and suddenly became an advocate for the Way, the very thing he had been persecuting. Then, he did something really crazy—he decided to take this message outside of Judea and spread it throughout the known Greek world—throughout Turkey and Greece.
And all these little red dots represent places where Paul went and created little ecclesias, little gatherings, little churches. And for years, he traveled in this dangerous part of the world sharing the message of Jesus.
Now, that leads us to today’s story.
The First Controversy
While Paul was doing all of this, back in Jerusalem which was kind of the capital or hub of Christianity at that point, there’s a controversy that starts brewing. The first BIG church controversy was a controversy that would surface over and over again in the history of the Church. And it still happens today in our modern churches.
This is about twenty or so years after Jesus rose from the dead, right after Paul finished his first missionary journey where he’s spreading the gospel to all these non-Jewish people. Here’s what the controversy was about: Who should be a part of the Church? How good does a person have to be in order to be a part of the Church? How many rules do you have to keep? How much of their lifestyle do they have to clean up before they can be accepted in the Church? Truthfully, the controversy is very understandable if you understand the first century.
There was this group of Jewish people who had the Ten Commandments and basically six hundred other laws that they had been raised to keep, and they believed that Jesus and Christianity or the Way was an extension of Judaism. After all, Jesus is the Jewish awaited Messiah. And so, they assumed that in order to become a follower of Jesus, first you had to become Jewish, which makes perfect sense because even Jesus taught, “I didn’t come to abolish the law; I came to fulfill the law.” So it made perfect sense to them that in order to become a Christian, you first would become Jewish.
But suddenly, all of these Gentile believers whom Paul converted found themselves stuck because they weren’t Jews, yet Paul assured them that Jesus died for their sins, and that they can have peace with God through grace and forgiveness. And now the leaders in Jerusalem are sending people out to check on them and telling them to slow down, it’s not that simple. First, you’ve got to memorize some things, you’ve got to do some things, you’ve got to jump through a few hoops, you’ve got to clean up your act and then you can embrace Jesus, and then you can become a church person.
See for many people, this is the reason they drop out of church, because they feel like they are just not good enough to be a church person. Now the flip side of that is this: If you’ve been a Christian for over ten years or if you were like me brought up in the church so you’ve been a church person your whole life, you can understand a little bit of the angst and part of the conflict. Because, come on, part of Christianity is a moral and ethical standard we are all accountable to, right? Throughout the New Testament we’re told don’t lie, treat your husband a certain way, treat your wife a certain way. There are some dos and don’ts. We’ve got the Ten Commandments. There is a moral imperative that’s a part of Christianity, yet at the same time there’s this incredible message of grace and forgiveness.
Oftentimes in the local church, the truth of the gospel seems to come into conflict with the grace of the gospel. And when there’s a conflict, church people get really weird. And when there’s a conflict, church people start building walls saying, we want you to be a part of our church, but before you come, here’s what you’ve need to do.
But when John looked back on his time with Jesus and wrote the Gospel of John, here’s what he said, “He (Jesus) was FULL of grace and truth.” John 1:14 You see, in the church, grace and truth often collide. But in Jesus, grace and truth are one in the same. He wasn’t the balance of grace and truth. That’s what churches like to do, just be balanced. But John says, no, I didn’t really see any balance. It’s as if Jesus completely embodied all of grace and all of truth and in him there was no conflict.
When the local church gets this right, that it’s not a balancing act, it’s not a clean yourself up first….and neither is it let’s throw away the standards so everybody feels good about themselves…when the local church gets this right, when we come together in the name of Jesus, there should be an embodiment of grace and truth in such a way that forgiveness isn’t dumbed down, grace isn’t dumbed down, and neither are the morals of Christianity. That somehow, they co-exist in a powerful way.
The First Church Business Meeting
But in the early church, they were wrestling with this. I want us to look at this very first church business meeting, because in this very first church business meeting, as they wrestled with this tension of grace and truth, there are some huge takeaways for us as we think about our responsibility and our stewardship of being the modern Church.
So we’re going to be in the book of Acts once again, chapter 15. And I’ve got to warn you, you’re likely going to be a little uncomfortable, but that’s okay. When scripture makes us uncomfortable, that’s when we’re growing.
1 Some men came down from Judea [That’s the capital, where Jerusalem is. That’s where the apostles are.] to Antioch and were teaching the brothers:
By the way, Antioch is the first place that the word Christian was used to describe people following the Way. The brothers were the new Christians. So you’ve got these Jews that came down (up) from Jerusalem to Antioch, and here’s their message to these brand new Christians:
“Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Wait. What? Unless you have a surgery, you cannot become a Christian? But Paul didn’t say anything about that. What are you talking about?
The Jews were saying that you can’t be Christian until you’re Jewish. And since you’re Gentile, non-Jewish people who when their little boys are eight days old….well that didn’t happen for you so here’s the deal. To be saved, you have to be Jewish first, which means you guys are going to have a little surgery to be saved.
Now what this really meant was that the new membership class was primarily women and children. The guys are sitting out in the car going, Honey, you go on in. I really have to think about this. I mean I love Jesus and everything, but . . . I know it’s kind of weird, isn’t it?
See we read this and just go right to the next verse. But if you read this slower and think about how the people must have felt, you get a whole new perspective. This was serious business. They really believed that before you can be fully embraced by the Church, before you can become part of the ecclesia, part of the gathering—men, you had to join the Moses club before you could join the Jesus club. That’s what they taught. Let’s move on.
2 This brought Paul and Barnabas [who is traveling with Paul] into sharp dispute and debate with them. [See Paul had been going throughout the Gentile world saying, it’s simple, just embrace Jesus] So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles [That’s guys like Mathew, John, and Peter] and elders about this question.
And Paul is eagerly ready to go back to Jerusalem because they were kind of messing up his ministry. Messing up what he believed to be the Gospel of Jesus. So this needs to get straightened out.
4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the ekklesia [by the gathering] and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
So, Paul shows up in Jerusalem and says, we’ve got to talk. But before we talk, I got to tell you what’s been going on. I need to give you a report. For the two years I’ve been traveling around the Mediterranean planting these ekklesias, and everywhere I go there are Gentiles who are embracing the message of Jesus. And when they embrace the message of Jesus, God does something extraordinary in their lives.
But I haven’t been telling them they’ve got to clean up their act and become Moses followers before they can become Jesus followers. I haven’t been saying there are some things you’ve got to start doing and some things you’ve got to stop doing. And we probably need to give you about six months to see if you can keep it up and then if all of that works out, then you can become part of the church. He says, I haven’t been saying that, so guys, we’re sending mixed messages to the Gentiles and we’ve got to sort this out. Now this is really fascinating.
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees…
This is huge. Don’t skip over this. The Pharisees were the group that put Jesus to death. Remember that? They are always the recurrent bad guys in the Bible. But what we don’t often hear, is that once Jesus rose from the dead, even some of the Pharisees said, you’ve totally messed up all of my understandings, but how could you not be the Messiah? You rose from the dead. So some of the Pharisees have joined the Way, but they are so committed to the law of Moses they’re struggling.
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 keep the Law of Moses.”
Now for us Gentiles we have no idea what this means, so let me explain really quick. When we think “the law,” we think Ten Commandments, and those are good commandments. We like most of them. We don’t obey all of them, but we like them. We want our kids to obey those commandments, don’t we? But that’s not what this is talking about. There were over six hundred laws. In fact, 613 laws in the Old Testament.
So here’s what they’re telling Paul. We want you to get back on that boat, go to all those cities, and train all those new believers in how to change their entire lifestyle to adapt to 613 new laws. And once they have digested a lifestyle with 613 laws and have a surgery, then they can be a part of the Church. That sounds absurd! But here’s where we’re going today so be careful before you judge them too harshly. If you’ve been in the church for a long time, this kind of thinking creeps in for all of us. You think you’re open-minded, so accepting, but every once in a while, we all settle into our own version of Christianity. And suddenly, somebody comes along that doesn’t fit our version, and we become a little bit like the majority of the Pharisees, judgmental. We make our own standards and become very comfortable.
Well, that’s what was happening in the very first century. They were very comfortable with our own standards and didn’t want to change.
7 After much discussion, Peter [who is like the president of the Church at this point—in fact, if you were raised Catholic you believe he was the first pope, so he’s like the authority figure in the room.] 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.
Peter’s saying, this isn’t just a Paul thing. Remember, I went out and talked to the Gentiles too.
8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.
They didn’t know the law; didn’t even know there are Ten Commandments, much less 613.
9 He [God] made no distinction between us [the Jewish boys, who followed the rules] and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.
To which the Pharisees in the group go, Okay, He might have purified their hearts, but they’ve got some nasty Gentile habits. He might have purified their hearts, but they don’t eat right, don’t dress right and are offensive. So Peter asked them a question:
10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of disciples [these brand-new Gentile believers] a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?
He’s basically saying, look you and I both know there is no way in this world that you and I have been able to keep every single one of those 613 laws? So why then do we want to expect Gentiles, who didn’t grow up being taught the law like we were, why do we want to put on their backs something that has burdened us for years? Let’s not be hypocrites here.
11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
God knows the heart. Not us. So whether you haven’t been in church in years or you never miss, God knows our hearts and none of us are perfect. But look, God can purify your heart before you purify your life. God can purify your heart before you drop that nasty habit. God can purify your heart before you fix your marriage. And God can purify your heart before you finally face up to the fact that you have some insecurities that drive you into behaviors that you’re ashamed of. If He can do that for you, He can do that for the people around you. It’s called grace and truth.
Now at the end of Peter’s sermon, James, the brother of Jesus gets up to say his thoughts.
By the way, if you have doubts about Jesus being the Son of God, Jesus’ strongest argument is James. Just think about it. What would your brother have to do to convince you he was God? Family members are usually the hardest ones to convince about anything good. The fact that James concluded that his brother was God is powerful evidence.
So James stands up and makes the most extraordinary statement.
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
Guys, I’ve heard the debate. I’ve heard the discussion. I know we have a moral standard. I know there are commandments, but I also know Jesus is all about grace and forgiveness. Bottom line: As we keep this movement alive and it grows, we should not make it difficult for people to turn to God. Anything that makes it difficult for people to turn to God, we should remove it if we can. This is about people and a process. This is about outreach. This isn’t about who’s here, but rather who’s not here yet. Anything that we do that makes it unnecessarily difficult to turn to God is resisting the will of God. Instead, he says….
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.”
At this point, the guy who’s taking notes at this meeting is like, what’s the fourth one all about? And that’s it? You’ve just set 613 laws and the Ten Commandments to the side and the only thing we’re going to tell them is basically two things—try not to offend the Jews and abstain from sexual immorality? That’s it.
What he’s saying is, let’s not burden them with all that stuff right yet. Let’s just tell them try not to offend the Jews, because you know you’re going to be mixing with Jewish people and the meat thing is very offensive to them. So be sensitive to your Jewish brothers and sisters, and abstain from sexual immorality. That’s it. Come on in. Join the church. Be a part of the gathering.
So they agree to send the letter. Some men were sent off down to Antioch where the church was gathered together and they delivered this letter from Jerusalem. In other words, they’re opening the envelope and all the men are like, surgery or no surgery; we really want to know what’s in that letter.
31 The people read it and they were glad for its encouraging message.
I bet they were. And suddenly, the church dodges the first big split. You know what the split was going to be over? Truth or grace. And they said, we should not be in conflict. Somehow the church should embody both truth and grace, not just one or the other.
Every local church, every denomination struggles with this. And there can be terrible consequences, like very insider-ish results, to where there are people who would never step foot inside of a church because of a conflict and the way it was mishandled. So if we want to embrace both truth and grace in this church, there’s a few things we’ve got to avoid, and I put them in the form of a drift because wrong directions are always a slow drift.
First, we’ve got to avoid the drift toward insiders and away from outsiders. By insiders, I mean the people who are already there, who know the songs, know where to sit, know the deal inside and out, these are our people. Every local church struggles with this drift because it’s easy to just focus on the people who are here—the people who are paying the bills, the people who are coming and we see every Sunday. It’s natural. But in order to be a church where we’re the embodiment of grace and truth and not just one or the other, or to not get into this balancing act that never works, we’ve got to be intentional about avoiding the drift toward insiders and ignoring those who are on the outside.
And we have to avoid is the drift toward preserving rather than advancing. For those of you who started your own business, remember when you started your business, and you had nothing, and there was nothing to preserve because you had nothing? And then you finally had a big company or a medium sized company and all of a sudden you began to protect everything. Remember how risk opposing you became over time, whereas in the beginning you were willing to risk everything, because there wasn’t a whole lot to risk.
Churches are the same way. In the beginning, we had nothing but a vision, and now we’ve got a beautiful building and comfy pews and people.
Our tendency is to do exactly what the Jews did. They just wanted to preserve the law. God gave them the law, so they want to preserve it. And in their effort to preserve something that was really good, they forgot to advance the kingdom. Then Jesus came along and said, we’re going to condense the law and advance the kingdom, even if it gets messy. And we’re going to take risks, and we’re going to accept people and love people that are hard to love and hard to accept, but we will not make the mistake of allowing our desire to preserve, to override our mission and our passion to advance this cause.
We have to do ministry like this: open-handed. God gave it; God can take it. We’re not trying to preserve anything. We want to be financially responsible. We want to be wise, but we don’t want to get so comfortable we quit taking risks because this isn’t about us, this is about a big old world that doesn’t know Jesus.
So three things we can do:
- Be bold. To keep from becoming insider focused, be bold. Be bold in terms of who you invite and what you invite them to. Be bold in terms of how you live your life and the fact that you let people know that you’re a Christian. I’ve been saying this for weeks for a reason.
- Err on the side of grace. When someone comes to this church who doesn’t have it all together, err on the side of grace. Aren’t you glad God errs on the side of grace for you? Aren’t you glad He didn’t say, I’m going to love and accept you, but here are 613 things you’ve got to do first. Call me when you get them all situated.
- Remain open-handed. God gave it; God can take it. We want to be financially responsible. We want to be wise, but we don’t want to get so comfortable we quit taking risks because this isn’t about us, this is about a big old world that doesn’t know Jesus. Instead, I hope as a church, we take risks. We may have a lot to lose, but we have even more to gain. Let’s not become a church that accidentally drifts into a posture where we’re trying to protect something as opposed to advance something.
And if we can be intentional about avoiding these drifts, and if we can be intentional about trying to be a church where truth and grace come together, not in a balanced way, but in a powerful, dynamic way, then perhaps God will use us. And perhaps God will use you to do something unique and remarkable in our generation as we continue to be a part of something BIG called the Church.