Tensions Between Truth & Unity

Here is the sermon manuscript for a message I delivered at Word of Life Baptist church on 2/21/21. I often post these manuscripts because not everyone has been able to return to in-person services, and they are one additional way for the local body here to stay connected and engaged within the teaching of our church.

If you’d like to listen along, you can find the recording here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sloNDkoIoUI

Tensions Between Truth & Unity (Acts 15:1-18)

There is a tension in living as a Christian that we all should feel and wrestle with.

That is, how much and in what ways should we stand for the truth? How much and in what ways should we strive for unity, fellowship, and friendship? And what happens if those two things are competing against each other as they so often do?

Now, I need to admit upfront that I know absolutely nothing about cars. I’m very ignorant when it comes to car repair. I’ve even had to look up a YouTube tutorial to figure out how to put a simple windshield wiper blade on. But if you know anything about cars, you might know that the wheels to your vehicle are attached by something called an axle or wheel bearing nut. This is a large nut, found right in the center of your wheel, that secures your wheel hub to the axle and allows your car to drive smoothly.

And mechanics want this nut very tight, but not too tight. They want it secure, but not cripplingly so.[1]

To make sure that this is the case, when a mechanic is tightening that nut, they usually back off from it about a quarter-turn. Or they’ll use a special pre-loaded tool that does this for them.

But the mechanic who forgets to back off that nut by screwing it on too tightly creates friction. That’s not a good thing. Because eventually, metal will begin to grind on metal, the wheel will seize, and you’ll have a very overheated and scalding-to-the-touch problem on your hands. However, if the mechanic backs off the nut too far though, the wheel won’t be adequately attached to the car. That’s also a problem. The axle nut will be too loose, and that’ll make the wheels wobbly. 

One pothole or speed bump and that car is done for.

And that’s not a perfect illustration for our wrestlings with the tension between theological truth-telling and the necessary sensitivity within fellowship and evangelism, but it’s close.  Because, as believers, we need to always stand up for truth. We’re to never water down the gospel. But if truth isn’t talked about in love, are we really being adequately truthful? And, of course, as believers, we need to always strive for unity and fellowship, especially for the sake of our witness to unbelievers. But this shouldn’t come at the cost of truth-telling or standing up for right theology either. If we metaphorically back off the nut one way or the other here, we can do deep damage.

Acts 15 and 16 are all about this tension.

They are about the very fine balancing-act that Christians need to walk between those two things. And for the next two weeks, we are going to be spending time there in order to discover how we might be people who stand up for truth and love our neighbors well at the same time.

This week, we’re going to be talking mostly about the truth side of things by way of Acts 15:1-18 with this message titled “Tensions between Truth & Unity.” And then next week, we will revisit this topic to discuss more of the fellowship side of things by way of Acts 15:19-16:5 and a sermon titled “Tensions between Unity & Truth.”

1. Certain teachers within the church began to question the qualifications of salvation for newly converted Gentile believers (15:1-4)

For the past few weeks, we have been looking at stories about Paul and Barnabas as they’ve traveled around the Greco-Roman world spreading the gospel to both Jew and Gentile alike. And we’ve discussed at length how difficult a task this was.

Paul and Barnabas, no matter where they went, often faced trouble of some sort. Jewish leaders wanted them silenced. The people in Lystra mistook them for Greek gods. And Paul was even dragged out of the city of Lystra and stoned almost to death. But, despite all of this opposition, these two remained obedient to God’s mission. 

Despite hardships, they remained committed to the harvest. 

Our text today also deals with the topics of obedience and opposition. But instead of physical opposition, we are going to see an example of the early church experiencing theological opposition. And consequently, it was up to the very first church-wide council to be obedient to the Spirit by both discovering and proclaiming truth.

After passing through several more towns within their missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas settle down for a bit in the city of Antioch. But then, they, along with the church they were serving within, were approached by some teachers from Judea. And what these teachers were saying greatly troubled them.

Verse 1 tells us that these teachers had been telling believers in Antioch and the surrounding Greek cities that: “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” In other words, unless you become a Jew you could not be saved.

Circumcision, to us, is only something we think about after our sons are born in a hospital. And a lot of us elect to have this type of procedure happen for cleanliness purposes. But, and for good reasons, we usually don’t think too much about it after that. However, to an Israelite, circumcision was a huge deal. Circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant with Moses. It was an initiary rite that all Jewish males had to participate in in order to adequately follow the Torah law. It was something you needed to do in order to be counted among people of Israel and to experience the blessings promised in books like Leviticus, Numbers, and especially Deuteronomy. 

But we also need to remember that because of its initiary status, the word “circumcision” became somewhat of a synecdoche in 1st century religious talk.

For example, if it was baseball season and I said, “Wow! Detroit really gave it to Cleveland last night. They won by 6 whole runs!” you’d know that I was talking about the Tigers. Even though I didn’t say the name of the team, the word “Detroit” stands in for the baseball that happens in that city during a particular season of the year. And it’s the same with the word “circumcision” here. “Circumcision” stands in for the entire law of Moses.

So, what these men were teaching was that in order to find salvation in Christ, you had to obey the entire law of Moses. You had to not only get circumcised, but also needed to eat kosher, throw away all of your clothing that was made from mixed fabrics, observe all Sabbath regulations, and follow any of the other rules found in Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Torah.

To put it another way, according to these teachers, Jesus alone wasn’t enough.

And as we see in the following verses, Paul and Barnabas were troubled by this. They were Jewish. But from their experiences out in the mission’s field, Gentiles, or people from other nations who weren’t Jewish, were coming to genuine salvation without following the law of Moses. And, more so, the Holy Spirit seemed to be confirming that this was the case. Something wasn’t right with the words of these teachers.

Truth was on the line.

So, Paul and Barnabas, after being appointed by the church in Antioch, took this question with them to Jerusalem and initiated the first ever church-wide council.

2. A diverse group of mature believers, gathered together to debate the issue at hand, listen to the experiences of the apostles concerning Gentile conversion (15:5-12)

When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem, they discover that the message they’ heard in Antioch wasn’t an isolated thing. This particular teaching wasn’t just the message of this group from Judea. There were also believers in Jerusalem who felt the same way and agreed that Gentiles needed to be circumcised. That is, there was a deep theological rift in the church forming before their eyes.   And it was on a very serious topic. The qualifications for salvation were being called into question, and this was something that needed to be settled right away.

But how does an apostle of God figure out what’s truth and what isn’t?

How did the early church decide what was an orthodox belief and what was heresy?

Well, we see that the first thing they did was gather together a good-sized group of wise elders and other Christian leaders to discuss and debate the issue at hand.

I want you all to notice with me some characteristics of the group that was formed here. That is, let’s look a little bit closer at who this group consisted of and then what this group did.

First, and maybe obviously, this group wasn’t just Paul and Barnabas. And it wasn’t just Paul or Barnabas. No, the early church recognized that this type of topic wasn’t something that should be talked about in isolation. They needed a multiplicity of wise voices and mature believers to weigh in. But, and maybe more importantly, this group wasn’t monolithic in its understanding. They didn’t all have the same opinion going into the discussion.

Notice that this church council contained people of varying perspectives. Verse 5 tells us that some believers who belonged to the Pharisee party sided with the teachers from Judea. And I think that we’re safe to conclude that there were people within the council that were also at least sympathetic towards that viewpoint because it says that there was “much debate” in verse 7. It wasn’t something easily answered. The early church refused to create an epistemic bubble or an echo chamber amongst themselves. They knew that this topic was an essential one, and because of that, it needed to be debated properly.

So that’s who the group was. Let’s now talk about what this group did. And the first thing we see this group do, after a period of debate, was open the floor for a few among them to share their experiences.  

The apostle Peter goes first.

He begins to share about his dealing with Cornelius’s household as is recorded in Acts 10 and 11. And we talked about those two chapters a few months ago, but just a reminder, Peter was called by the Spirit to preach the good news to a Gentile centurion named Cornelius. But he was hesitant to do so mostly because of prejudice against those from other nations. In the culture that Peter and the rest of the apostles were raised within, those from outside of Israel were not looked upon favorably. Or kindly. Gentiles were thought to be unclean. To their minds, they weren’t any better than stray feral dogs.

But, and as we saw in Acts 10, the Lord gives Peter a series of visions which confirmed that what was being asked of him was truly of God. And in response, Peter steps away from his prejudice and towards obedience. Despite the mounting pressure that his ethnic biases brought, Peter shared the gospel with Gentiles. And immediately after these Gentiles hear and respond to that good news, the Holy Spirit shows up to miraculously confirm that their belief was genuine.

That’s what Peter was getting at with his words in verses 7-9. But the apostle then goes on to give an interpretation of his experience for the council as well. Peter explains to them what he’s now learned from that moment. He says: “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on their necks that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

To expound a bit, in the days of old, God saved the people of Israel by rescuing them from Egypt before giving them the Law. Salvation through God’s grace came before the Torah. But even more importantly, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christ’s atoning work on the cross, anyone who professes faith in Him can be saved. Gentiles don’t have to follow the law of Moses because God’s grace is the only thing that truly brings salvation. And the rules put in place about who could be saved have now been opened up to fully include all peoples from all nations.

So, to insist on Gentiles needing to follow the law of Moses would be to dive into the depths of legalism. It’d be to add restrictions to salvation over top of what God has already qualified. All who put their trust in Christ are saved by God’s grace alone, and not by works.

We are saved by God’s grace alone and not by works.

If you put your faith in Jesus as your Savior, you are saved by grace alone and not by any effort on your part. Jesus’ spilled blood sufficiently and completely covers your sins.

After Peter shares his testimony, verse 12 tells us that the council fell silent. It also tells us that Paul and Barnabas stood to share similar experiences to that of Peter’s. But this council also took one more very important step before deciding what was truth and what wasn’t. Let’s check that out now.

3. James confirms that scripture backs up their testimony: it is only by God’s grace that anyone is saved (15:13-18)

I remember back to when I was in High School, I was confident that I knew the way from the Grandville Mall in Grand Rapids to my house in Muskegon. So confident, in fact, that I didn’t print out a map or bother typing that route into my new dashboard-mounted GPS.

I was 17! I had a whole year of road experience. Why should I waste my time with things like that? But what should have been a 30-minute drive started to seem a lot longer. And things got a bit more confusing when highway billboards kept advertising a Phantom fireworks store located in Michigan City, Indiana. And for those of you younger than me here, fireworks used to be illegal in Michigan. There weren’t stores like that anywhere near Muskegon or Grand Rapids. Eventually, and after about an hour and a half of driving, I had to pull over and call my Dad for directions back. I’d gotten myself pretty lost.

I had some navigation experience but experience alone wasn’t enough.

Earlier in Acts 15, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas shared their experiences about what happened when they witnessed to Gentiles. And it very much seemed to them that God was confirming that Gentiles could be full participants in salvation without having to become Jewish first. But the council also knew that experience alone couldn’t have the final say. Experience alone isn’t enough. That’s because scripture is what gives us our standard for faith and practice. It’s our GPS, our map.

Our experiences are important. And they can help us see things in scripture that we might have previously been blind to without them. But God’s word is our ultimate authority on matters of truth, and that’s why James did what he does next.

James, an elder at the church of Jerusalem, offers up a portion of Amos chapter 9 for the council to consider.

And he likely did this from memory. It was really only local synagogues who had copies of Old Testament scrolls. Books didn’t exist yet. And biblical scrolls were too expensive for the average person to have in their possession. So, that is to say, James knew his scripture well. And his quotation from Amos 9:11-12 was James’ attempt to show the group gathered there that God’s word from the prophets did confirm what Peter and the others were saying.

Amos 9 is the last chapter in that book. And it functions as a hope-filled conclusion to a somewhat harsh message to the northern kingdom of Israel recorded about 800 years before the events in Acts. Back in Amos’ day, the people of God weren’t acting very godly. They were too busy seeking after their own interests to pay any attention to the marginalized in their midst. And because of that, Amos tells them that God is going to destroy the northern kingdom!

However, and as it says in the portion that James quotes from, one day, God will bring about restoration. And the restoration that He’s going to bring about will be for both Israel and the rest of humanity. All peoples will one day be able to seek the Lord. Even Gentiles will have the chance to join God’s family.

For James, the words of the prophet Amos were realized in the work of Jesus. And for the first ever church council, the words of the prophet Amos were the confirmation they needed to properly decide on and declare truth. Gentile believers do not have to follow the law of Moses to become full participants in salvation.

We are saved by God’s grace alone, and not by our works.

Applying Acts 15:1-18 Today

Acts 15 is a chapter that can teach us a lot about a very important biblical truth: We are saved by grace through faith, and not by our works. But this chapter can also teach us a lot about discerning truth in general, too.

The example that the Jerusalem council gives can serve as a model for us on what to do when we are confronted by the confusion and tension that I mentioned at the beginning of this message. It can help us make sure that the axle nuts on our metaphorical cars aren’t too loose or inappropriately tight.

So, towards that end, and before we wrap this all up, I’d like to spend a bit of time talking about how we should apply the words here within our own faith practice.

1. When confronted with a new teaching, we need to carefully consider what is truth and what isn’t. Every new idea, or pushback on old ideas, should be investigated.

Within that transitional period in the early Church, after Jesus’ ascension but before this council’s meeting, there were a lot of things that believers needed to figure out with aid from the Spirit. And we can thank God that we are on this side of the scriptures. We can thank the Holy Spirit that we now have a biblical canon and a New Testament that confirms for us big truths like the one discussed in Acts 15.

But, again, we can also learn from the process by which the Jerusalem council arrived at their truth conclusions. We can learn from Peter’s willingness to change his mind about past prejudice against Gentiles, and from that diverse council coming together to collectively wrestle their question towards a definitive answer.

Of course, the Jerusalem council wrestled with an essential truth. And their decision then confirms for us something that is not negotiable now. We are saved through the grace that Jesus has offered us, no question about that.

But what do we do when we come across something that is a bit more grey? How might we properly discern what truth is, both in the big essential things and in the non-essential things? And how can we make sure that we aren’t just swayed by every new idea that comes our way? I think that following the process of the Jerusalem council is key. And remember, they did three things to discern the truth. 

First, they gathered together a group of wise Christians.

And they didn’t just chose any church leader or mature believer. It seems that there was some emphasis on diverse opinions being represented within their council. But let me try to illustrate why diversity is so important within the discernment process. Think about the last time that you had to write a research paper for a class in school.

For some of us, that’ll be easy as we’re still in school. But for others, we might have to think a bit father into our pasts. But think about the last time that you had to write a research paper, and one that you had to collect a lot of books or other types of sources in order to write. In which one of these scenarios do you think you’d get a better grade?

First scenario. You’ve been given your research topic and head to the library to check out a bunch of books by multiple authors, search through various online databases and articles, and even consult printed academic journals. And after reading and analyzing all of that, you write your paper.

Scenario two. You’ve been given your research topic and head to the library. But instead of looking for diverse sources, you decide to check out 20 copies of the exact same book. It is a credible book on the subject your studying, so reading it twenty times over would help, right? And after reading and analyzing your 20 copies of the same book, you write your paper.

In which of those two scenarios do you think you’d have a better chance of getting high marks? Obviously, it’s the first one.

Diverse opinions help us better process information. So, if we’re trying to discern the truth, it’s better to look outside of just one opinion even if that one opinion is held by a large number of people. 

The second thing that the council did was listen to experiences and testimonies. That is, they took time to hear those various points of views. There wasn’t a tenacious rigidness or a rejection of change just for sake of keeping with tradition. No, the council took time to listen and learn from the different perspectives of these wise Christians. They listened to Peter, and then Paul and Barnabas, and doing so helped them decide.

But then thirdly, the council consulted and checked with scripture to make sure that they were on the right track. I said it earlier, but it’s God word that gives us our standard for faith and practice. Diverse opinions and our experiences are critical as they help us properly interpret scripture through the help of the Spirit. But, at the end of the day, our foundation for finding and discerning truth is found within the pages of the Bible.

So, if we want to discern what’s right and wrong like an apostle, we first find a group of mature believers to help us. We make sure that we don’t all think alike, and we let our experiences and perspectives bring to light any blind spots we might unknowingly have. 

But most importantly, we go to the Bible as our ultimate source of truth.

2. At the end of the day, we need to stand up for truth.

Acts 15:1-18 shows us the process that the Jerusalem council took to answer the question about the requirements for salvation.

And we’re going to revisit Acts 15 next week as we continue to wrestle with that tension I mentioned at the beginning of this message: How much and in what ways should we stand for the truth? How much and in what ways should we strive for unity, fellowship, and friendship. And what happens if those two things are competing against each other as they so often do?

Well, I think that this first half of Acts 15 informs us that we need to stand up for truth all of the way. If we take the time to properly discern what is right using the methodology given to us here, and if we see that scripture confirms what we believe to be right, we need to not be afraid of saying that.

The early church did not tolerate false teaching. They did their due diligence to test such through the Spirit, but once knew that it wasn’t of God, they rooted it out with the utmost urgency. That’s because they understood that if they allowed unorthodoxy or heresy to continue, it would eventually cripple their congregations.

And of course, sensitivity is required. That’s the topic we’re going to tackle next Sunday in a much more fleshed out way.

But also consider that you could take this final point in the sermon notes and put the emphasis in one of two places. We could say that, at the end of the day, we need to stand up for truth. Or, we could emphasis that we need to stand up for truth. That is, we need to make sure that what we are standing up for are actual truths and not opinions.

There are black and white essentials that scripture shows us. But there’s also a lot of grey. Drawing battle lines within those grey areas isn’t wise and doing so often causes more damage and disunity than not.

But again, when all is said and done, like the Jerusalem council, we need to stand up for the truth. And we can all rest easy in one truth that’s been definitively decided: we are saved by grace alone and not by our works.

You can find salvation in Jesus by simply declaring Him to be Lord of your life.

There’s nothing extra required.

Jesus is sufficient.

[1] This illustration was modified from Michael Wittmer’s book “Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough,” pages 29-30.

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