15:22 Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.
23 They wrote this letter by them:
The apostles, the elders, and the brethren,
To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:
Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” —to whom we gave no such commandment— 25 it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.
So an argument that started over circumcision ended with four "rules" which had nothing to do with the original argument. Or did they?
First let's affirm again that there is no "us" and "them". All people everywhere are saved (healed) in the exact same way, by grace through faith in Jesus.
I am reaffirming this so that no one leaves this reading of God’s Word thinking salvation for the Gentiles was Jesus + no meat sacrificed to idols, no blood, no things strangled, and no sexual immorality.
Notice how the letter to the Gentile churches ends. "If you keep yourselves from these you will do well."
That doesn't sound like: "You must do this or you will be lost."
So what's the deal? Why these instructions or suggestions? How did an argument over circumcision end here?
Let's be clear. The underlying issue is one of culture. The preaching of the Good News of what Jesus has done for all people has suddenly thrust together very different kinds of people with very different backgrounds and cultures. The Jews who have chosen to follow Jesus are still Jews in every other way. Being human it was their expectation that anyone from "them" who accepted "their" Messiah would become just like them in every way. This was a false and unreasonable expectation based on a misunderstanding of what following Jesus meant and on a lack of understanding of what some of their own cultural practices (like circumcision) meant.
Paul got it right away. He felt no need to turn Gentiles into Jews in a cultural sense. This is a problem we still struggle with today. Recently a seminar was held at a camp meeting on the topic of music and worship. Present at the seminar were believers in Jesus who were culturally diverse. Very diverse. When the presenter was finished and asked if there were any questions a passionate discussion followed. The discussion quickly revealed that people weren't having a problem with music and worship. They were having a problem with music and culture. Some had the idea that the music they grew up with was "holy" and anything else was not and anyone who was going to worship in "their" church must conform.
How quickly details become preeminent and Jesus gets pushed to the side.
Yesterday I preached about the freedom we have in Jesus, that He came to set captives free and that any belief in Jesus + __________ was lies. Nothing can be added to what Jesus has done for us. Any attempt is really treason. Someone I love and who was well meaning challenged me afterwards. They said "If anyone truly believes in Jesus there are certain things they will do."
It's true of course but what we struggle to realize is that none of those things have anything to do with our salvation. We do them because walking with Jesus changes us but they have nothing to do with our salvation. We don't become more saved when we start to become more like Him. We were saved the moment we made Him our Saviour.
So back to our original question. Why those four instructions to the Gentiles? Simple really. All four are practices they held as idol worshipers. The elders in Jerusalem were saying "You are following Jesus now. You need to cut all ties to idol worship."
The instructions make no sense to us and that is perfectly logical because the instructions are not for us. They were for a specific culture group at a specific time and place. The instructions were simple. "You need to stop doing anything that is related to worshiping your old gods and idols because no man can serve two masters."
Tomorrow we'll explore what these instructions might mean for us today and the reality that we will always struggle and that's OK because in our struggle Jesus has already saved us completely.