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(Acts 15:1–12) The First Reformation, Part 1

(Acts 15:1–12) The First Reformation, Part 1

by Stephen Davey
Series: Sermons in Acts
Ref: Acts 15:1–12

What do the scriptures say? That question could settle most debates when Christians disagree. Dividing God's truth from man's opinion was the cry of the reformation. The scriptures alone answer the question, "What must I do to be saved?"

CLICK HERE to access all of the messages in this series.


Part One    Acts 14:1-35

If you ask the average person on the street “What is a Christian” or, “How can you spot a Christian” you’ll get 99 different answers today.

My friends over at IBM sent me a lengthy email of weekly humor – Here’s how you spot somebody from the deep south – they call them by the less than flattering name - rednecks – you heard any of this stuff?  I’ve heard of a comedian who made a fortune doing this line of humor – but I don’t believe he came up with any of these – in fact, I’m quite sure the engineers at IBM came up with them – the reason I’m sure is because half of them are too technical too understand.

I thought you’d appreciate some of my friends humor –

You might be a redneck if: (my seminary professors would shoot me…)

  • The Home Shopping Channel operator recognizes your voice
  • You hammer bottle caps into the frame of your front door to make it look nice (I could be risking my life here)
  • You momma has ammunition on her Christmas list
  • There are more than five McDonald’s bags on the floorboard of your car . . . I didn’t appreciate that one
  • You might be a redneck if you think Beef Jerky and Moon Pies are two of the major food groups
  • If the fifth grade is referred to as your senior year
  • If you have more than two brothers named Junior
  • You might be a redneck if you had to remove a toothpick for wedding pictures
  • Or if on really special occasions you use your Elvis jello mold
  • The antenna on your truck is a danger to low flying airplanes
  • Your house doesn’t have curtains, but your truck does
  • You just now bought an 8-track player to put in your truck
  • In fact, you might be a redneck if you spent more on your pickup truck than on your education.
  • You might be a redneck if you saved lots of money on your honeymoon by going deer hunting instead.
  • And taking your wife on a cruise means circling the Dairy Queen
  • Finally, you might be a redneck if you don’t think any of this is very funny.

Now that you can spot a redneck, what do you do if you spot yourself in that list?

On October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, challenging the practices of selling forgiveness, papal infallibility, most importantly, the definition of justification/salvation.

There had already been others before him who had questioned the church – and paid the price - but this was different – this was a clergyman from the inside saying that the definition of a Christian was something different than the established church’s definition.

The church was saying, “You might be a Christian if you do penance, buy indulgences, take mass, confess your sins to the priest, etc.  But Martin Luther was coming up with a totally different list.

So, in 1517, the rumblings of a reformation began.

The following year, heated debates were held in Augsburg and the lines were clearly drawn.  It was in Augsburg where the battle cry of the reformation, sola scriptura, was forged. 

Phillip Melancthon, whose biography I finished reading recently, was the brilliant Greek professor at Wittenberg and Martin Luther’s closest friend.  It was actually Melancthon who put into writing the Loci – the first systematic theology of the what would become the Protestant – the protesting  - movement. 

Martin Luther, Phillip Melancthon and others became the heroes of the liberated German people – liberated by the preaching and teaching of a free gospel and full forgiveness.  They also became enemies of the church.

The issues at stake were not trivial.  They weren’t debating the color of the carpet or which side the piano should be on at the front of the church – they were risking their lives over the definition of salvation – the authority of church councils and leaders, the forgiveness of sins and what would give someone entrance into the church.

I believe we’re living in an exciting time- a period in church history when the debate over the nature and definition of salvation is once again in the forefront.  We’re hearing the rumblings again of 16th century eruption – we’re hearing the cry, “Sola scriptura” as the primary axiom around which every other issue and debate revolves.

Nearly every other day, there is something in the newspapers or magazines about the Catholic – Protestant debate over church issues and doctrine.

Just read this past weeks N & O article on the accord that was struck between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Roman Catholic church and they declared the issues of the reformation are no longer dividing issues today.

I received my current issue of Newsweek magazine –

The cover reads The Meaning of Mary; A Struggle over her role Grows within the church.

There is an incredible surge going on within the catholic community to have the dogma made.  More than 100,000 signatures are arriving every month in Rome from people around the world who want to see Mary take the next step in a progression of promotions that began in 431 when she was given the title Mother of God to 1854 when she was declared sinless to 1950 when she was declared to have been taken up bodily into heaven instead of dying.  Now, the movement is gaining ground to have her formally declared Co-Redeemer.

The article explained how the current pope is quite convinced that Mary is the co-redeemer of humanity (he’s said so at least 5 times), in fact, I’ve given you his recent quote, dated April 1997 – where he says, “Having created man “male and female,’ the Lord also wants to place the New Eve beside the New Adam (the new Adam being Christ) in the Redemption.  .Mary, the New Eve, thus becomes a perfect icon of the church . . . we can therefore turn to the Blessed Virgin, trustfully imploring her aid in the singular role entrusted to her by God, the role of co-operator in the Redemption.

Mother Angelica, a nun whose Eternal Word Television Network reaches 55 million homes in 38 countries said two weeks ago on the air, “If the Holy Father (Pope) would define this dogma, it would save the world from great catastrophes and loosen God’s mercy even more upon this world.”

What I found interesting is that Newsweek, a secular magazine had the insight to simply state,  “This view seems to contradict the basic New Testament belief that “There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus (I Tim. 2:5).”

That, ladies and Gentlemen is the core of the issue – what do the scriptures say?  it is the singular point which could settle the debate - what is so exciting to me is that for the first time in years, the dividing line between truth and error will be the cry of the reformation – sola scriptura - the scriptures alone teach what is sufficient for faith and practice.

The scriptures alone answer the question, “What must I do to be saved”

That question by the way has raged in councils and the writings of theologians since the church began.

In fact, the first reformation within the church began just 20 years or so after Jesus Christ ascended to the Father.

The church in the first century reached a boiling point over the question – “What does a Christian look like - what does a person have to do to be saved?” 

Acts 15 gives us the whole story.

While you’re turning there, I don’t want any one to misunderstand my introduction to this study – I’m not on a campaign against Catholics –  I’m not arguing about people – I’m arguing for a pure gospel – I’m not against Catholics – I am against Roman Catholic theology – or any doctrine that is at odds with evangelicalism which historically has believed in the authority of scripture alone and justification by faith in Christ alone.

Now, in Acts 15 a storm is brewing in Jerusalem, and it is spilling over in Antioch.

You see, the church is taking on a new look – a Gentile look.  You need to understand that the Jews are no longer the majority stock holders in the church – it is becoming a Gentile church – the focus of ministry has swung away from Jerusalem and centered on Antioch, where Paul serves on and off as the Pastor of Missions.

The trouble is, the Jews are struggling, rightly so, with the vast changes – pre-eminent among them is the inclusion of the uncircumcised Gentile into the church as a member with full rights and standing.

That’s the context behind the very first verse of Acts 15:1.  And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

There you have it – pure and simple – you cannot be saved unless you believe in Jesus Christ plus bear the mark of circumcision. 

Now you may say, this is no big deal – certainly no one got caught up in this issue – it’s obvious - you don’t have to be circumcised to become a Christian – that’s easy right? 

Wrong – turn over to Galatians chapter 2 and discover with me how deeply controversy developed.

Chapter 2 recounts how, just prior to the Jerusalem council of Acts 15, the dissension was growing in Antioch.  It gives you a behind the scenes look at the brewing discord.

Galatians 2:11-16

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? 15 “We are Jews by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.

Did you notice who was caught up in the controversy over the inclusion of the Gentile believers – v. 12 – Peter used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof.

In other words, Peter began to act hypocritically out of fear of the prominent Jewish leaders.  Here he is eating with Gentiles – enjoying some barbecued ribs and smoked sausage – then some big wigs came to visit from his home church in Jerusalem – the Gentiles noticed Peter wasn’t comin’ to supper anymore – he wouldn’t even speak to them on the street – see, he didn’t want to tarnish his Jewish reputation.

Notice who else got caught up in this racial divide - verse 13 – the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy.  The church is now divided – the Jews and the Gentile believers are sitting on different sides of the auditorium; they don’t have dinner on the grounds anymore – the men’s softball team disbanded – cause the pitcher was a Jew and the catcher was a Gentile and they refused to touch the same ball - little Isaac can’t go over to Alexander’s house to play anymore because Alex’s mom doesn’t kosher the kitchen. 

This issue has divided the church!

Did you notice the shocking statement in the latter part of verse 13 – “and even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.”  Paul’s own companion – the man who years earlier had begun the Antioch revival – the man who first declared the Gentiles true believers is now struggling because of influential Jewish leaders and his own years of tradition and worship.

The passive voice for the verb “carried away” indicates that while Barnabas didn’t play an active role in the hypocrisy, he was indeed swept off his balance concerning the issue.

He understood where the Jews were coming from and yet he sympathized with the Gentiles – he fairly quickly was restored to balance because he joins Paul in debating the Jewish leaders in Acts 15.

So we’re not talking about the a disagreement over the wallpaper in the ladies room – we’re talking about a division over the nature and definition of salvation – how do I know that?

Because of what happened in verse 14.  When I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of them all . . .”– see, it’s about more than barbecue – it’s a matter of doctrine – so Paul grabs Peter by the collar and in the presence of them all – evidently at the next worship service says, in effect, “Peter, there are going to be millions of people one day who think you were infallible as the first pope – but let me tell you something Peter, “You’re dead wrong on this – you have really stubbed your theological toe and you’re leading everyone astray - have you forgotten Peter that a Gentile is not saved by acting like a Jew – v. 16  that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law.

C’mon Peter – get it straight!  Stop this hypocrisy now! 

By the way, this public rebuke of Peter evidently resulted in Peter acknowledging his error – because by the time you get to Acts 15, it is Peter who becomes the chief spokesman in correcting the theology of the  Jews and casting his vote to include uncircumcised Gentiles as full members of the church.

Now let’s return to Acts 15

15:1 And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. 3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. 4 And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”

For centuries, the male Gentile who chose to follow the God of Israel would be circumcised as an outward sign that he was following the covenant given to Abraham by God – thus symbolically following the law of Moses.

Circumcision marked the people of God as separate, pure and distinct from the surrounding nations.

In other words, what the synagogue has done for years to Gentile proselytes, the church now has to do the same.  You enter the church and the coming kingdom through the doorway of circumcision.

You see, it was bigger than circumcision – the debate was, “What must I do to be saved?”

They wanted to add circumcision.  Others today want to add baptism by water.  Others want to add acts of grace and love.  Others want to add association with a church or worship on a particular day. . .

The religious landscape of the 20th century is no different than the 1st century. 

God says, “My Son died on the cross for you, to pay the penalty for all your sins – to offer salvation as a free gift – God wants to know – “What have you done with my Son?”

6.  And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 7.  And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them,

Now you need to understand that when Peter stood up – the council expected him to defend circumcision – Peter was the Jew of Jews – he was the one who had already wavered on his acceptance of the Gentiles into the church – surely Peter will set the matter straight for the sake of the law.

Instead, Peter makes three points in favor of Paul’s argument – he shocks the audience, no doubt:

His first argument in favor of accepting the Gentiles was the presence of the Holy Spirit within the Gentile community of believers.

7b.  “Brethren, 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. 8 “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;

Now you can understand the critical importance of the sign gifts.  When the Spirit came at Pentecost, there was the audible sign of speaking in tongues.  Then at Cornelius’ house, as Peter aludes to here, when the Gentile’s believed, the Spirit of God manifested the same tongue gift through the Gentiles.

Peter now summarizes – listen, “The Gentiles evidenced the same gift, proving undeniably that they had received the same Spirit”.  In other words, “God is not looking at the Gentile believer differently than the Jewish believer.  He isn’t saying, “The Gentiles are second class”  no!  They were equal in standing with the Jew, having received the exact same manifestation of the Spirit the Jew had – thus proving they had received the same Spirit.

First point - The presence of the  Holy Spirit.

The second point is the forgiveness of sin.

9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by works?  Circumcision? No – by  faith. 

Point # 3:  The inability of law to save

10 “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?

In other words, “You keep pointing to obedience to the law, the works of the flesh as the means to salvation – well, who among us have ever been able to keep the law?!”

You ought to circle the word yoke and write in the margin of your Bibles and then write the reference - Matt 11:28.

The yoke of the law was an unbearable burden – Rabbi Shammai and his school had already developed Sabbath restrictions that were oppressive – you couldn’t carry a chair from one room to another – you couldn’t lift a spoon on the Sabbath weighing more than one fig or you’d be guilty of bearing a burden on the Sabbath . . . the 613 commandments of the law itself were more of a load than a man could carry.

The law was a schoolmaster to point to mankind’s need of a Redeemer.  It revealed our need for a sinless Savior to bear the penalty of guilt before a Holy God.  Peter is saying, “No Jew ever kept the law – why impose it on the Gentiles?!”

That’s why Jesus Christ said in Matthew 11 - “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest”  You’re tired of self-effort; you’re burdened with repeated failure and sin – come to me.  Jesus Christ went on to say , “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The religions of the world make salvation hard – do this, don’t do that, go here, pray this, say that, accomplish this. . .

Peter says in verse 11 “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

Salvation is easy – because it is not attached to work of man – it is free – only because Jesus Christ paid it all.  Whose yoke are you attached to?  The yoke of religion – of self effort – or the yoke of Christ?

12 And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Barnabas and Pauls two illustrations:

  • personal testimony
  • proof through signs and wonders

Then James, the leading elder of the Jerusalem church stands to deliver the decision:  we’ll look at that in detail next time we meet around the Book of Acts, but for now, James, basically concludes two things:

Number 1 – that God is moving among the Gentiles

Number 2 – that Gods word substantiates the movement

It isn’t enough to discern a movement – the question is, does the word of God validate the movement as a movement emanating from scripture – from the clear teaching of the word.

You can almost hear the battle cry of the first reformation - sola scriptura – coming from the verdict of James for the church.

When Martin Luther was eventually tried by the church as a heretic in April of 1521, he stood before the imperial court, the Emperor was there along with many other officials of both state and church.  Martin Luther responded to his charge of heresy by saying, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture or by right reason (for I trust neither in popes nor in councils, since they have often erred and contradicted themselves) – unless I am thus convinced, I am bound by the texts of the Bible, my conscience is captive to the word of God, I neither can nor will recant anything . . . God help me, Amen.

Would to God that we would have such courage and resolution today – that you and I would live lives bound by the scriptures; that we would say, of our lives and our church – we are captive to the Word of God.

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