ACTS14v26to28, ACTS15v1to5, GAL2v11to21: A PROBLEM, A PROTEST AND A POLICY.

(A) Introduction (Read the references.)

These are interesting and highly relevant passages for us today because they deal with the issue of church unity. Paul sets us a fine example of how to work for Christian unity. We owe him a lot because he did maintain the unity of the early church when at its most vulnerable.

(B) A problem.

(a) Most Christians don't like problems to arise in the church.
We particularly don't appreciate disputes about doctrine. Nothing arouses passions more quickly. Paul and Barnabas were in sharp dispute with the Judaisers from Jerusalem. It also means that we are asked to think things through for ourselves and make a decision. Some people hate thinking at all. They shrink from making a decision that will offend their friends. The last time we discussed a matter of belief in my own church the vast majority of members abstained from voting. Yet the issue was very important and led to three churches being forced to leave our Association.

(b) The cause of the problem at Antioch.
Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who were visiting the church said to the Gentile converts: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." Ch15v1. Now it was quite understandable that this should be the view of Jewish Christians.

Circumcision was part of the covenant God made with Abraham. See Gen17v10to13. The agreement that God made with Abraham - to make him the father of many nations, to give his descendants the land of Canaan and to bring blessing to all men through him was dependent upon every Jewish male undergoing circumcision. It was the sign that the Israelites were chosen of God and the Children of Promise.

The Law of Moses confirmed the significance of circumcision. In Leviticus we read: The LORD said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites: 'A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Lev12v1to3. The covenant that God made with his people through Moses states: So be careful to do what the LORD your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess. Dt5v32to33.

It is obvious that religious Jews considered circumcision highly important. At the time of Jesus great emphasis was laid on the ceremonial law - circumcision, the Sabbath, ritual cleanliness and dietary restrictions. Little wonder Jewish Christians considered that Gentiles needed to adopt Jewish practices to be truly saved. They believed salvation was through Jesus and circumcision. I think their position was more excusable than that of Christians today who teach Jesus and ..... . It may not be Jesus and circumcision but it can be Jesus and the authority of the church, Jesus and baptism, Jesus and the authority of a leader, Jesus and a list of doctrines, Jesus and a certain experience, even - Jesus and the Authorised Version! Certain elements in the church persist in this error in spite of Paul's epistle to the Galatians being with us for 2000 years.

(c) The trouble makers.
The Deputation from Jerusalem was very persuasive. James' representatives even got to Peter and intimidated him into agreeing with their position. Peter withdrew from communion with the Gentiles and influenced other Jewish believers in the Antioch church to do the same. Eventually even Barnabas went over to the opposition.

I wonder why they were so persuasive? I have little doubt that they were sincere, very earnest, single minded and high-minded. What could be more honourable than keeping the covenant made to Abraham and Moses? The delegation was united - a cabal of the super orthodox. And they were scriptural! Oh yes - they were scriptural. They could quote chapter and verse of the Old Testament to support their position. Perhaps, too, they had strong and intimidating personalities. They scared Peter! They were all this - and WRONG.

My own small Association of churches has been damaged by men just like the Judaisers from Jerusalem. They have sincerely, earnestly, with high-minded arguments and tears, argued for Reformed doctrine but more than that they have made church membership and fellowship between the churches dependent upon a commitment to those doctrines in their entirety. It has been a case of Jesus and ...... . And it has been WRONG.

(d) The repercussions.
The fellowship between Christians in the church at Antioch was broken. The Jewish Christians from Jerusalem would not eat with uncircumcised Gentiles. This meant that separate communions existed for Jewish and Gentile Christians.

Peter would only take communion with the Judaisers. Gradually the other local Jewish Christians and Barnabas followed his example. The main reason for the split in the Antioch church was that Peter was afraid of offending the circumcision party from Jerusalem. He wanted to maintain his reputation with this powerful and influential group.

It is a very bad to refuse to take communion with other believers. Nothing could be more judgemental. You say to anyone who professes to follow Jesus with whom you will not take communion, "I don't accept you as a Christian." You are dismissing them as not proper Christians. In this the Roman Catholic Church and Strict Baptists are as one!

Jesus must still be praying in Heaven: "I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." John17v21to23.

(C) A Protest.

(a) A lonely protest.
Only one Jew stood firm against the Judaisers. Only one Jew continued to take communion with the Gentile Christians. Paul protested because he knew that the advocates of circumcision from Jerusalem, the local Jewish believers, Peter and Barnabas were all wrong. He actually accused Peter and Barnabas of hypocrisy. See Gal2v11to13. In the absence of the hard men from Jerusalem Peter and Barnabas lived like Gentiles. In the company of those self-same men they went all Jewish. This was playing false.

There will always be Christians who lack integrity - who desire to be all things to all men and popular amongst those that really count; Christians who could rein back the militants but keep quiet and give tacit approval to what is wrong for fear of giving offence. There will always be Christians like that but I hope, at least, that they are sometimes ashamed of themselves.

(b) Paul's tactics.
Paul confronted Peter before all the Jewish Christians - perhaps, at the commencement of their communion service. It was Peter that had led the local Jewish Christians and even Barnabas astray.

Paul confronted Peter openly, boldly and bluntly. He didn't wrap up his rebuke in smooth and smarmy words. He wasn't gracious! What he did required conviction and courage. I would not like to have been in Paul's shoes. It took guts to denounce the behaviour of all the Jewish Christians.

(c) Paul's argument.
Paul's argument as recorded in Galatians2 is a very powerful one:

    (1) He says: "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law." Gal2v15. No-one, except Jesus, has been able to perfectly keep the law of Moses. The best of men would find it hard to say that they have never coveted. None of us love the Lord our God with all our hearts and our neighbour as ourselves.

    My friend Dean Sykes was recently head hunted to take charge of 200 retail outlets. I didn't covet his status or his very generous salary. What I coveted was the fact that he had been head hunted - his talents had been recognised. He was wanted.

    (2) Paul argues that if in fact "righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing." v21. If we could please God through our own efforts then we wouldn't need a Saviour and the great work to which Jesus believed he was called would be a waste of time. Worse still Jesus was deluded in thinking that he had to make a sacrifice for our sin.

    (3) Paul states that by making justification dependent upon keeping the law the grace of God is set aside. Christ's death is God's way of forgiving our sins and reconciling us to himself. It is by God's grace we are saved. He agreed to accept the sacrifice Jesus offered on our behalf to set us free from the consequences of sin.

            Oh, the love that drew salvation's plan!
            Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
            Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary!
            Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
            Pardon there was multiplied to me;
            There my burdened soul found liberty, at Calvary.

    (4) The Jewish Christians had come to believe in justification by faith in Jesus. Paul, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, a patriotic Jew if ever there was one, said: "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." v20.

    Paul would have been glad to sing:

            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,
            All other ground is sinking sand.

    (5) The Gentile position was exactly that of the Christian Jew. Both Jew and Gentile were justified by faith in Jesus. Paul concludes Gal3 like this: You are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. vs26to29.Wonderful stuff!

(d) Paul's partial success.
Paul's argument wins Peter over. If we look at what Peter said to the Council in Jerusalem he repeats what Paul says: "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they (the Gentiles) are." Acts15v11.

Peter was humble enough to stand corrected. This is a very rare grace. It is much to the Big Fisherman's credit that he practised what he preached:

            All of you clothe yourselves with humility
            toward one another because:
            'God opposes the proud
            but gives grace to the humble.' 1Pet5v5.

Barnabas also accepts that he was wrong and joins with Paul to dispute with the Judaisers. The bulk of the local Jewish Christians concur with Paul's teaching but the representatives of the Jerusalem Church remain unpersuaded. They are in conflict with Paul, Peter, Barnabas and the church at Antioch.

(D) A policy.

The church at Antioch decided, in view of the sharp difference of opinion between its members and the delegates from Jerusalem, that a deputation headed by Paul and Barnabas should be sent to Jerusalem to thresh the matter out. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. v3.

Paul shows his greatness in co-operating with this policy. Paul was no separatist. There are church leaders today, like Dr Ian Paisley of Northern Ireland, who make a virtue out of separation. Paul was not like that. He could so easily have broken with the fellowship in Jerusalem. They were traditionalist in outlook and unwilling to move far from Judaism. Paul was a radical. He could have gone his own way, which he could easily have been persuaded was God's way, and set up a separatist church to the Gentiles.

To Paul's everlasting credit he was more concerned for church unity than for his own personal prestige. Very few separatists can say the same. Paul would argue and reason. He would confront error sharply, bluntly and publicly. But he never resorted to jeers, sneers or personal abuse. Paul loved his brothers and sisters in Christ. He was concerned for the unity of the church. Paul never forgot the mistake he made before his conversion when such was his intolerance, his certainty in the rightness of his cause, that he persecuted Christians, including women, to death.

Separatism is an offence against the mind and will of Jesus. The disunity of the church is a scandal and a disgrace. Even in the little Association of Churches to which I belong, where there are very small variations of belief amongst member churches, three fellowships have had to resign. It is just so wrong. God has accepted us in Christ irrespective of the differences between us on whether baptised believers or all believers should be invited to the Lord's Supper. If God accepts us in Christ Jesus we should have fellowship with one another.

The apostle Paul had many differences with the church at Corinth. They were seriously in error over many things! However, Paul did not separate himself from the Corinthian Christians. He did not dismiss them, as would Ian Paisley, as apostate. He reasoned with them with loving concern because he accepted them as brothers and sisters notwithstanding their errors.

As Paul and Barnabas journeyed to Jerusalem they visited churches in Phoenicia and Samaria. We should note that Paul and Barnabas did not whinge about the Judaisers. It would have been so easy for them to complain about the "aggro" at Antioch. I think that I might have done. No, Paul and Barnabas were positive and told the churches how the Gentiles had responded to the gospel and been converted.

This news made all the brothers glad.

Isn't that just lovely.