Only By God’s Grace

“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “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. 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. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:1-11 ESV)

At my age, I find myself becoming more and more nostalgic. I enjoy looking back on my life and reminiscing about my childhood growing up with my brothers. Of course, depending on your age, much of your life may now be the “ancient past” and I think that only increases one’s feelings of nostalgia and reminiscing. In fact, earlier today I drove through the small oil-field town where I pastored 35 years ago. My wife and I told our granddaughter about life in that small town when her mother was just 5 years old and the people we knew and the life adventures we experienced. It was here that I rode (and almost fell off) my first cutting horse while helping one of our church members work cattle on a local ranch. If you have never ridden or watched a cutting horse work, it is an experience you are not likely to forget, especially when you are in the saddle and hanging onto the saddle horn in fear of your life.

What does today’s focal passage have to do with the past, feelings of nostalgia or reminiscing about old times? Stay with me and I’ll explain…

When Paul and Barnabas arrived back in Antioch of Syria, they were warmly welcomed and the church received an encouraging report of the Holy Spirit’s work among the people of Gentiles of Cyprus, Perga, Lystra, Derbe, and Antioch of Pisidia. While the church in Antioch definitely had Gentile disciples, it appears that the bulk of the church members were Jewish disciples. I base that statement on two simple observations regarding the church at Syrian Antioch: 1) Paul and Barnabas appear to emphasize that a “door was opened” among the Gentiles and there would be no reason to do so if that church consisted primarily of Gentile disciples; 2) this church is being heavily influenced by Jewish teachers from Judea which seems to indicate a primarily Jewish membership. Why is this important and how does that impact your discipleship and church? Let’s take a look…

As I mentioned above, the older we get the more we tend think about our past. The more things change and the older we get, the more we tend to resist change and long for life “like it used to be.” I know that I often long for the simplicity and innocence of my childhood. Not only was life simpler (of course it was – I had no responsibilities), it seems that things were simply safer, less stressful, and the world was not as scary as it seems to be, today. Not only is that how I feel (along with many of my peers from the same era), it seems to be how the Jewish disciples from Judea felt who arrived at the Antioch church. I think the massive changes that faith in Jesus had begun to cause in the lives of these Jewish disciples caused them to begin to long for “life like it used to be.” Simpler. Safer. Less stressful. Less scary.

Grace is a scary concept. It really is. It is an amazing and liberating concept, but it is also very scary and dangerous. Why? Because grace means our salvation, our forgiveness, our righteousness before God is not based on our personal merit or goodness. It means our relationship with God is not based on our obedience to God’s law but upon God’s redemptive sacrifice and Jesus’ obedience. It means that we are dependent upon God and not ourselves for forgiveness and relationship with God. See, I told you it was scary. Whenever we lose control over our own destiny or personal relationships (even with God, ESPECIALLY with God) then it becomes incredibly scary and awfully dangerous. This threatened everything the Jews thought they knew, and controlled, regarding God and man’s relationship with Him.

So, these Jewish teachers (also known as Judaizers) wanted to keep God’s grace, faith in Jesus and, thus, relationship with God, forgiveness and personal righteousness dependent upon the old traditions and Mosaic Laws. The Jewish religious leadership knew that salvation by grace removed any and all control they personally held over the lives of these Jewish worshipers. It wasn’t that grace removed all authority and obedience, it simply shifted it away from the religious elites, the Jewish High Priest and his cronies and onto God and His High Priest, Jesus. See, I told you it was dangerous. Dangerous for them, scary to them but incredibly liberating and life changing for you and me.

Unfortunately, we still face the same issues in the church today. Grace, true liberating and life changing grace as offered through Jesus Christ, is incredibly dangerous and scary to those who would like to exercise control over mankind. Why? Because it removes our dependence upon them (the religious, cultural, political and economical elite) and places it where it belongs, on the one, true, unique, holy and life-changing Son of God. Still don’t believe me? Let’s examine the text a bit closer…

Our focal passage says that when these teachers from Judea challenged Paul and Barnabas, the dynamic duo fired back with debates and arguments that resulted with the church at Antioch in confusion. They decided the only reasonable way to answer these questions was to send a delegation to the Apostles in Jerusalem for clarification. The delegation from Antioch arrived in Jerusalem and was warmly welcomed by the Apostles and the church in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas shared with them the incredible things that God was doing among the Gentiles in the regions they had visited. Then a group in the church, who all seem to be former Pharisees, stated that for God’s grace through Jesus to be effective it must be combined with circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic law.

After much debate, Peter’s wisdom and leadership shines through. He states, “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 goes on to point out that God affirmed this change in their personal understanding of God’s grace and the gospel by sending the Holy Spirit upon these new believers. Notice how Peter states it, “he (God) made no distinction between us and them (Gentile believers), having cleansed their hearts by faith.” God DIDN’T cleanse their hearts through circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic law, but by faith.

“He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-19 ESV)

Notice, in the passage just cited, that Jesus tells Peter that the church holds the keys of the kingdom. This is often interpreted as Papal authority and succession, but that is an incorrect understanding of this passage. I believe Jesus is telling Peter and the other Apostles that the KEY to unlocking the kingdom of God is Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God. You see, Peter isn’t the rock that the church is built upon, Jesus is that rock (see 1 Cor. 3:11). In other words, the key that unlocks the entrance to the Kingdom of God is NOT circumcision and the Mosaic law for these Jewish men. THAT is revolutionary and absolutely game-changing! Access to God is NOT dependent upon your actions, but upon God’s actions towards you through Jesus. Salvation is by grace, through faith (see Eph 2:8-10).

For us, this equates to moral goodness and social justice. Modern religious thought is that access to God comes through moral goodness and social justice. In other words, people in our culture believe that they achieve salvation, relationship with God and Heaven as a reward because they have lived morally good lives and acted justly towards others. They haven’t committed any egregious crimes (murder, bank robbery, rape, etc.) and they regularly donate to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Need more proof that’s how our culture thinks? One of the biggest questions posed in our modern culture by those who are skeptics of the Christian faith is, “why would God condemn someone to eternity in Hell for a single sin?” In case you aren’t catching it, that implies that they believe they are really morally good and guilty of only a single, minor offense.

Next, notice Peter’s response to the Jewish disciples who are trying to stay aligned with Pharisee-ism…

“…why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”

The yoke these men are trying to place on the disciple’s neck is the unbearable burden of absolute obedience to the Mosaic law and the Pharisaical interpretation of those laws. Jesus specifically addressed this yoke, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV)

Jesus call us to obedience, but not based on a burden but based on the joy of grace and the power of love. When we begin to experience the grace of God it results in the overwhelming joy of love for God and willing obedience to God. Disciples aren’t obedient to God out of fear of judgment, but out of joy based on grace. That’s exactly how Peter ends his argument to the other Apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church, “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Saved by GRACE, not my personal goodness and adherence to religious ritual. Isn’t that liberating? Doesn’t it relieve the heavy burden of religious rituals? Doesn’t it drive you to adore God and make you want to show Him your love?

Let me end today with a thought regarding Father’s Day. I happen to be one of the lucky few who has experienced the love of a father who knew, adored and desired to obey our God. But, many of you have never experienced that kind of positive example from your earthly father. I am deeply sorry for that. God meant for you to know him through the example of a godly father and I’m deeply saddened that so many fathers have abandoned that path. However, let me assure you that your Heavenly Father HAS acted towards you in perfect love and longs for you to know Him. As the perfect FATHER, He has taken every step needed to bring you back home and into His presence. The perfect Father’s Day gift can be simply summed up this way…

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17 ESV)

The perfect Father’s Day gift was a gift from your Heavenly Father to you… the gift of His son so that you “might be saved through him.” God loves you SO much that He gave you a gift for Father’s Day, Jesus. Will you trust Him today and discard that burden of trying to be good enough to earn God’s love. He has already loved you that much. Happy Father’s Day!

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