Monthly Archives: June 2013

Battle Over

BATTLE OVER

“And so off they went to Antioch. On arrival, they gathered the church and read the letter. The people were greatly relieved and pleased. Judas and Silas, good preachers both of them, strengthened their new friends with many words of courage and hope. Then it was time to go home. They were sent off by their new friends with laughter and embraces all around to report back to those who had sent them there.

“Paul and Barnabas stayed on in Antioch, teaching and preaching the Word of God. But they weren’t alone. There were a number of teachers and preachers at that time in Antioch.” Acts15:30-35 (The Message).

A happy conclusion to a critical time! Satisfaction for the leaders and relief for the non-Jewish believers who could so easily have been burdened with the load the Jews themselves were unable to carry had the decision gone the other way! Mission accomplished, Judas and Silas returned to home base while Paul and Barnabas stayed on in their familiar territory to continue their work of grounding the church in the faith.

Everything settled back into a normal routine, but there was another storm brewing, not a matter of doctrine this time but a personal issue which was to split the team and create a rift which would take many years to heal.

As we have journeyed through Acts, one factor has appeared and reappeared – the apostles and church leaders’ efforts to preserve the unity of the Body. They had been called on many times to make critical decisions which would affect the whole church, probably the most crucial and difficult being the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers.

Theoretically, the age-old rift between them had been healed through the cross but it was up to them to thrash out the practical issues that arose as they implemented the effects of the cross in their everyday lives. Their prejudice ran very deep, centuries of conditioning passed down from generation to generation, and needed a paradigm shift to bring the two groups together in a strong bond of loyalty and brotherhood which would wipe out the old feelings of antagonism and replace them with acceptance and love.

For the church of the Lord Jesus today, the issue may not be Jew and Gentile but we are still faced with prejudices that criss-cross the entire world. Without the official ruling of the early church leaders, those who were advocating that circumcision be imposed on Gentile believers would have been free to propagate their teaching and unnecessarily enslave naive Christians wherever they went.

The decision of the first church council in Jerusalem laid the foundation for the experience of unity in the body of Christ from then on. In his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul enlarged on this aspect of Jesus’ death, reuniting all people by destroying the reason for their alienation.

“For He Himself is our peace, who made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in Himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death their hostility.” Ephesians 2:14-16 (NIV).

“Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.” Colossians3:11 (NIV).

We are a new creation, a new race and a new culture and all the old ones fall away.

What Price Unity?

WHAT PRICE UNITY?

“Everyone agreed: apostles, leaders, all the people. They picked Judas (nicknamed Barsabbas) and Silas — they both carried considerable weight in the church — and sent them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, with this letter:

“From the apostles and leaders, your friends, to our friends in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
Hello!

“We heard that some men from our church went to you and said things that confused and upset you. Mind you, they had no authority from us; we didn’t send them. We have agreed unanimously to pick representatives and send them to you with our good friends, Barnabas and Paul. We picked men we knew you could trust, Judas and Silas — they’ve looked death in the face time and again for the sake of our Master Jesus Christ. We’ve sent them to confirm in a face-to-face meeting with you what we’ve written.

“It seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us that you should not be saddled with any crushing burden, but be responsible only for these bare necessities. Be careful not to get involved in activities connected with idols, avoid serving food offensive to Jewish Christians (blood for instance) and guard the morality of sex and marriage.

“These guidelines are sufficient to keep relations congenial between us. And God be with you!” Acts 15:22-29 (The Message).

What godly wisdom! It took quite a while for them to reach these conclusions but the end result is what counts, not the process. We have already examined the process by which they reached their conclusions. Now we must add one more factor to the mix.

Apart from protecting the truth of the gospel (that Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world, and that His death is sufficient to satisfy the just demands of God’s law, and to free mankind from its penalty so that all who believe in Him are forgiven and have free access to the Father in Christ), they were also protecting the unity of the body of Christ.

Doctrine is important since our lives must be anchored in the truth, but the fellowship of believers also needs to be closely guarded. The conditions contained in the letter to the Gentile churches had more to do with fellowship than faith. Idolatry and the sexual impurity that accompanied idolatry had been part of the rebellion that contributed to the exile the Jews experienced in their past history.

Apart from it being an abomination to the Lord, these things had become abhorrent to Jews. For Gentile believers it had been their way of life and contributed to the rift between Jew and Gentile as did the consumption of the non-kosher meat offered to idols, and sold in meat markets.

Gentile believers were called to distance themselves from these practices for their own sake as well as for the sake of the new culture that brought Jew and Gentile together under a new system called the kingdom of God. They could not afford to cling to the old way of life just because it was their “right”.

The early church did all in its power to preserve unity because love and unity are the hallmarks of the church, or should be. The modern church is infected with the spirit of democracy, everyone deciding for himself or herself whether to obey the leadership or not. It’s no wonder the church has, by and large, become the laughing stock of the world. Whenever someone does not “agree” with the leadership, off he goes to start another “church” or to join somewhere else until he does not “agree” there.

The unity that Jesus pleaded for is no longer a priority in the church, yet it was the core of the Hebrew creed: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD, the LORD is one..” Deuteronomy 6:4.

Where has the attitude gone that was displayed by the leaders as they faced this crisis in the church – “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” Whose church is it, anyway?

That Was A Close Shave!

THAT WAS A CLOSE SHAVE!

“‘So here is my decision. We’re not going to unnecessarily burden non-Jewish people who turn to the Master. We’ll write them a letter and tell them, ‘Be careful not to get involved in activities connected with idols, to guard the morality of sex and marriage, not to serve food offensive to Jewish Christians — blood, for instance.’ This is basic wisdom from Moses, preached and honoured for centuries now in city after city as we have met and kept the Sabbath.'” Acts 15:19-21 (The Message).

All the heavyweights in one place, holding the future of church of the Lord Jesus Christ in their hands! Could they be trusted to make the right decision?

It was their responsibility to interpret and implement the yoke of their Rabbi to the infant church in the Roman world then and for all the generations of believers that followed them to this day. Their decision would either set people free or entangle them in the bondage of legalism and rob the cross of its power to save.

What would the New Testament have looked like for us had the decision gone the other way? Would it have become just another rule book for another powerless religion to enslave people and keep them from access to the God who yearns for the freedom and fellowship of His people?

Thank God for the Holy Spirit who was in them to guide their thoughts and understanding at this critical moment in the history of the church. The foundation was being laid for all the generations that followed. So Paul could write to Gentile believers with all the confidence and authority of the Lord Jesus and the backing of the church leaders:

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In Him, the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.” Ephesians 2:19-22 (NIV).

All the circumcision and law-keeping in the world had not changed the hearts of the Jews. In fact, it had only made them worse because they thought they were above everyone else; they despised the Gentiles, calling them “dogs”; they would not associate with them, much less eat with them; they considered God their exclusive possession despite their rebellion and did not think it appropriate to share His word with “outsiders”.

But now all that had changed. God had to use drastic means at times, for example, Peter’s bizarre vision before he was persuaded to go to the house of Cornelius and share the good news with him; the shocking observation of the Holy Spirit coming on and manifesting Himself in the exactly the same way as He fell on them at Pentecost, to change the minds of these stubbornly prejudiced Jews.

How could they now come to any other decision than that the Message of life in Jesus Christ was for the whole world and not just for those who had undergone a small operation? That had served its purpose for a season but had now become obsolete with the coming of the Messiah to whom all these rules and rituals pointed. Never again did they need to peer through the dark at types and shadows because Jesus had ushered in the full light of day.

Anyone who adds anything to what He has done had gone backwards from light to darkness, from life to death and from freedom to slavery all over again.

Let The Evidence Speak

LET THE EVIDENCE SPEAK

“There was dead silence. No one said a word. With the room quiet, Barnabas and Paul reported matter-of-factly on the miracles and wonders God had done on the other nations through their ministry. The silence deepened. You could hear a pin drop.

“James broke the silence. ‘Friends, Simeon has told us the story of how God at the very outset made sure that racial outsiders were included. This is in perfect agreement with the words of the prophets:
“After this I’m coming back;
I’ll rebuild David’s ruined house;
I’ll put all the pieces together again;
I’ll make it look like new
So outsiders who seek will find,
So they’ll have a place to come to,
All the pagan peoples
Included in what I’m doing.”

“‘ God said it and now He’s doing it. It’s no afterthought; He’s always known He would do this.'” Acts 15:12-18 (The Message).

Jesus left His disciples with one commission: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation…” and one promise: “…And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will lay their hands on sick people and they will get well.” Mark 16:15, 17-18 (NIV).

So what was the big deal with these people? Were their tradition and their prejudice so strong that they had forgotten the Lord’s commission? What would it take to get it into their thick skulls that Jesus had sent them into the world, not to take the good news to the Jews only, especially since they were their fiercest antagonists, but to share the good news with all people, even those they had previously hated and avoided?

Those who obeyed Jesus’ instruction were amazed to see that He meant exactly what He said. Peter had watched while Gentiles received what the disciples had received on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit falling on them the moment they believed. Paul had seen Gentile people transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and not one of them had been forced to embrace Judaism first.

And the miracles Jesus had done through them were abundant evidence that He was actively confirming His word just as He had said.

All their arguing and rationalising fell way in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the prophetic word and their experience of its fulfilment. That had to convince them that the Gentiles were welcomed into God’s kingdom through faith in the finished work of Jesus, plus nothing, and that race and culture were obliterated by the new order God had established in His Son.

David’s dynasty failed to follow in their father’s footsteps, but God had promised that one of his descendants would reign on his throne in righteousness and truth forever. Jesus, the Son of David, fulfilled that promise and reigns over a kingdom that has no end and that welcomes all who repent of their rebellious independence and willingly come under the authority of God’s rightful king.

Over the centuries, man in his “wisdom” has reconstructed the superstructure of works that Jesus demolished at the cross, cancelling the grace by which we are saved. Where does that leave those who have mindlessly swallowed the lie and fallen into the trap of the devil? Right back under God’s judgment because any attempt to satisfy God’s perfectly righteous and holy standards by offering their own efforts, fails miserably.

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf and like wind our sins sweep us away.” Isaiah 64:7 (NIV).

As the old hymn puts it:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
(Edward Mote, 1797 -1874)

Follow Jesus

FOLLOW JESUS

“The apostles and leaders called a special meeting to consider the matter. The arguments went on and on, back and forth, getting more and more heated. Then Peter took the floor. ‘Friends, you well know that from early on God made it quite plain that He wanted the pagans to hear the Message of this good news and embrace it — and not in any second-hand or roundabout way, but first-hand straight from my mouth. And God, who can’t be fooled by any pretence on our part but always knows a person’s thoughts, gave them the Holy Spirit exactly as He treated us, beginning at the very centre of who they were, cleaning up their lives as they trusted and believed Him.

“‘So why are you trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and crushed us, too? Don’t we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as He did those from beyond our nation? So what are we arguing about?'” Acts 15:6-11 (The Message).

Thank God, someone had the good sense to examine the simple facts instead of formulating doctrines based on reason and not truth!

We don’t know what they were arguing about but, whatever it was, it got them nowhere until Peter came up with his story. It is dangerous to make experience the criterion for a doctrine, for example, we know that Scripture is full of stories of miracles that God did then, but we cannot say that God no longer does miracles today simple because He may not have done a miracle for us.

At the same time, when we match our experience with Scripture, we know that we stand on solid ground, because God confirms His word to us through experience.

Peter had the wisdom to match his experience with God’s Word to realise that the answer to their dilemma was right there for them. God Himself had supplied the answer by giving the Gentiles the gift of the Holy Spirit in the same way He had fallen on them so that they would be in no doubt about their salvation. This was God’s confirmation that salvation comes by faith alone and not by any additions to faith with which the Pharisees wanted to burden the Gentiles.

They themselves had not fully understood the complete and final work of Jesus on the cross; otherwise they would not have made this such an issue that it warranted a church council to settle it. In spite of the fact that it was settled there in Jerusalem in unity, the Judaisers continued to dog the footsteps of the apostles as they carried the gospel across the Gentile world.

It is still very much alive today and still robbing many people of the truth of Jesus’ simple invitation, ‘Follow me!’ He did not come to set up a new religion and He certainly did not burden His followers with the rules and rituals that we see in so many “denominations” today.

For example, for whole groups of people, the church is a building — not the people who are the temple in which God dwells by His Spirit, and is treated with superstitious reverence as though bricks, stones and mortar are somehow holy. Priests and ministers are the professionals and the laity subject to them and their superior knowledge and wisdom. Where do we find this in God’s Word? All God’s people together are a royal priesthood.

I suspect that many sections of the church are still enslaved to the old covenant with its rules and rigmarole; altars, sacred garments, dietary laws, symbols, etc., and have never stepped into the freedom of God’s grace, resting in Christ alone for His gift of righteousness which no amount of effort on our part can earn.

What a tragedy that the spirit of the Pharisees is still very much alive in the church and doing what the Pharisees tried to do to Jesus — kill the truth!