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Handling Disagreement Within the Christian Community (Part 2)

September 10, 2023 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 15:13–21

Handling Disagreement Within the Christian Community (Part 2) – Acts 15:13–21

PRAY & INTRO: Not all disagreements are created equal. We squabble over petty things. Sometimes we bicker over nothing; we’re just grumpy, and we selfishly let that spill out on others. Or we take personal offense at something and forget what it is that we’re striving towards together.

But some disagreements are more foundational to what we believe and how we behave, and they have broader impact on our lives and the lives of others.

In Acts 15 there’s a pretty significant disagreement within the Christian community that has been brewing and begins to boil. All disagreements threaten unity among believers, but some disagreements threaten the very truth of the gospel, which is the foundation and fabric of right relationship to God and what binds us together in Christ.

Although our emphasis will be vv. 13-21 of the 15th chapter of Acts, let’s back up to get our minds into the flow of the situation and get a running start at this. We begin back in Antioch, where the disagreement picked up steam. (Antioch is a church where a significant number of the believers are Gentiles, and it is this church which confirmed the Spirit’s leading to send Paul & Barnabas out on their first missionary journey. They were now back in Antioch, having reported everything and staying some time to serve again among the brothers there.) But a conflict in the church proves to be symptomatic of a broader disagreement within the whole Christian community. Paul & Barnabas seek help, and the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem work to reach a consensus and communicate that decision.

Acts 15:1–2 ESV

1 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.” 2 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.

Now jump to v. 5.

Acts 15:5–12 ESV

5 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.” 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 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. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 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? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

And now James adds further clarity and wisdom.

Acts 15:13–21 ESV

13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “ ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’ 19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

I understand chapter 15 as having three main parts in this handling of a consequential disagreement in the Christian community: 

Urgent Defense of the Gospel: Paul & Barnabas go to Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-6)

(against works-based salvation; anything other than by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone)

Conclusive Arguments in the Discussion: Peter & James (Acts 15:7-21)

Peter’s conclusive argument largely corresponds to this first emphasis: an urgent defense of the gospel by faith and not by works of the law. James’ conclusive argument reinforces this same thing while also recommending some behaviors the Gentile believers could take to improve and facilitate regular fellowship with Jewish believers.

The Decision Disseminated: No compromise on the gospel, but compromise for fellowship (Acts 15:22-33)

(In a letter) We must not compromise the gospel (Jews and Gentiles are saved by grace through faith). But there is a wise compromise in behavior recommended for the sake of Christian fellowship between the two groups. [The letter sent out will be our emphasis next time in vv. 22-33.]

So today we’re really in the second half of the conclusive arguments section.

James’s reply has two main parts. First, he confirms Peter’s testimony (and that of Paul & Barnabas) with the testimony of Scripture (quoting the prophecy of Amos). Second, he aims to be clear about his own conclusion and recommendation.

Before we get into those two things, though, I want us to pause for a second in v. 13. What James says seems to bear a great deal of weight, so we need to consider why that is. And doing so will prove fruitful for us.

James says, “Brothers, listen to me.” Why should they listen to him? Why DO they listen to him?

Why does the Church listen to James?

Our best understanding, which is pretty well substantiated from external and internal evidence, that this James is the half brother of Jesus. (He would be the first kid of both Mary and Joseph [see Mk 6:3], since Jesus was conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit.)

Now like his other siblings, John tells us that James evidently did not believe in Jesus during the bulk of his earthly ministry (John 7:5 For not even his brothers believed in him.) Although his mother Mary was among the faithful disciples of Jesus during his three (or so) years of public ministry, James and his siblings were not.

However, we have good reason to believe that such changed, especially for James, after Jesus died and rose again. (In 1 Cor 15:7, Paul tells us about another one of the resurrection appearances during the 40 days before Christ’s ascension: “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”)

So this James who was formerly known as the unbelieving younger brother of Jesus, is now James a follower of Jesus and a servant leader in the Jerusalem church. We don’t know the details of how he rose to such influence, but we do know that he seems to have become the most prominent elder in the Jerusalem church. In Acts 12, when Peter has to depart because the persecution has grown hot on the Apostles in particular (In fact, another James—the apostle and brother of John—Herod put to death by the sword). After a miraculous escape from prison, Peter tells some gathered at John-Mark’s mom’s house to “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” (Acts 12:17)

Here in Acts 15 we see even more how influential James is as a servant leader in the church. In fact, what he recommends becomes the consensus sent out from these leaders. He also seems especially well-positioned as a devout Jew and follower of Jesus to command the respect of “the party of the Pharisees” from v. 5.

And honestly, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that he has familial proximity to Jesus. But familial proximity to Jesus would be of no use were he not spiritually close to Jesus and living out his new life in the footsteps of Jesus. That’s where the respect from others is coming from, and that’s as it should be.

  1. Does your life say to others, Transformed by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus?
  2. Instead of worrying about trying to become influential, shouldn’t we leave that to God and focus our efforts on growing closer to Jesus so that our character and wisdom will mirror his? Focus your attention on how God will measure your faithfulness.

Ok, so they listen to James because he has proven himself a trustworthy and wise follower of Jesus and servant of his people. Now, how does James make his point?

What does James wield to bring forward the weight of God’s own testimony?

The word of God. The Scripture.

James’ argument is this: What Peter describes (and what Paul & Barnabas are describing) accords with Scripture. Did not God’s word foretell such days by the mouths of his prophets, that from the Gentiles he would make a people for his name (v. 14)? With this the words of the prophets (plural) agree.

Although he quotes Amos on this point, he could have quoted Zechariah or Isaiah, Hosea or Jeremiah (Zech. 2:11; 8:22; Isa. 2:2; 45:20–23; Hos. 3:4–5; Jer. 12:15–16). On this point the old testament does agree (to be of one mind, to match, to share the same sound like a symphony).

Again, what is the point on which they harmonize, evidenced by the quote from Amos? It is that after this, after a time of discipline from the Lord because of Israel’s disobedience, that the Lord himself will return (to fulfill his promise) and take the fallen and ruined tent of David (the house, the dynasty, of David) and restore it. The reason that James quotes this is to show that the beginning of those days has come through Jesus, God’s Messiah from the line of David. Just as Peter quoted Joel in his sermon at Pentecost to show that the pouring out of the Spirit means that the last days are now here in Christ. (Acts 2:17-21).

And because God has now done this, so too the time is here that the Gentiles have been invited also to come (v. 17)… that the remnant (or rest) of mankind may seek the Lord, which includes “all the Gentiles who are called by my name.”

Here’s the point: God has returned to his program promised to Abraham and to David, which includes not only an invitation to Israel but to Gentiles also. And Amos confirms what James himself is demonstrating: It is God who says these things, making them known from of old. This is not new news. Scripture teaches that this would happen, and it is now here.

James brings the weight of God’s own word to bear on the situation. What does God say? I will return. I will rebuild (twice). I will restore. So that mankind will seek the Lord, and Gentiles will be called by my name. … Says the Lord.

As James emphasizes to the devout Jews in the crowd (and to everyone), it should be so to us: Scripture communicates what is true and therefore must confirm our experience. What Peter and Paul & Barnabas are describing is consistent with what the prophets foretold, and it’s happening without the Gentiles being circumcised and coming under civil and ceremonial aspects of the law.

  1. Spiritually sensational things could be from the Spirit and they could not be. Are there not other spirits? (We must test the spirits according to their submission to Christ and to the teaching of the Apostles, 1 Jn 4:1-6. And clearly their teaching submits to the consistent testimony of the rest of Scripture. So our teaching and understanding must submit to Jesus and the Apostles in the way they handle Scripture.)
  2. When you are aiming to see God convict hearts so they’ll turn to faith in Jesus, and when striving to challenge believers to continue growing to be like Jesus, what is our greatest weapon? Is it not God’s own revelation? (What is the sword of the Spirit? Eph 6:17 The word of God. - What is sharper than any two-sided sword that pierces right into people’s souls and reveals the thoughts and intentions of our hearts? Is it not the living and active word of God, Heb 4:12?)

This is how we must view the word of God, submit to the word of God, and use the word of God. 

Together, the words of Peter and James appear to settle the dispute, and perhaps especially those of James. Now James recommends a solution and suggests a course of action.

How does James’ judgment guard the Gospel but promote sensitivity in fellowship?

“Therefore my judgment” (v. 19) (conclusion or decision based on careful evaluation) - James’s recommendation first agrees with Peter not to trouble (not to burden) the Gentiles with things that are not necessary for their salvation, but to suggest abstinence in certain areas that are particularly offensive to Jews, for (because) there are law-observing Jews dispersed in pretty much every major city where the gospel is being advanced. So the first is what should not be compromised, but the second is concessions that the Gentiles should make in order to promote united fellowship with Jewish believers (mostly, save the moral imperative for sexual purity according to both the law and Christ).

  1. We should not trouble them (greatly and unnecessarily putting a hindrance in their path) … by heaping on them the burden of circumcision and of keeping the whole ceremonial and civil law of Moses - The conclusion has already been shown that we have three extremely trustworthy witnesses, plus the testimony of the God in giving the Spirit to these Gentile believers, plus the clear fulfillment of the inscripturated word of God. What God has said about the salvation and inclusion of the Gentiles by faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ should not be in doubt.

We are all saved by grace through faith, and not be these works. SEE vv. 10-11 from Peter. - This is the gospel, not only for the Gentile, but for the Jew. We must guard the gospel truth that we are not saved by works of the law, but that any man, woman, or child, of any ethnicity or heritage, is made right with God only by faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16). The Apostle Paul has developed the argument further to say that anything else is not the gospel at all (and he was specifically targeting such legalism, such “Judaizing” - Gal 1:6-7)

So, James wants to make sure the Gentiles are not troubled by Judaizers, but he also challenges them to be sensitive to Jewish sensibilities, for the sake of Christian fellowship.

  1. But we should write to them (Gentile Christians, bc it is confirmed that they are indeed already Christians) and recommend that they willingly abstain from things that are particularly offensive to Jewish sensibilities (whom they are extremely likely to be in close contact with, v. 21).

Three of the four things are dietary restrictions that were important to Jews (bc of the law) and related to the circumstances of these churches. (food sold in markets that had first been set before pagan idols; strangled meat with the blood still in it; or from any other meat with the blood still in it, or eating the blood itself) These churches would be regularly sharing meals, which would bring such issues front and center. The point? No need to create an offense where such things could be avoided.

One of the abstentions pertains also to the circumstances of these churches in more Gentile contexts, but is related to the moral law of God and is taught by Christ, and thus applies to all people of all times in all churches: Keep yourselves apart from sexual immorality. The Gentile believers would need to demonstrate themselves far above reproach in this matter because the pagan culture from which they came was wantonly licentious in sexual promiscuity. It was like our culture has become. They needed their purity to be obvious, partly for the sake of fellowship with Jewish believers who took this matter very seriously.

  1. I wonder if our sexual purity is blatantly obvious to one another and even to outside observers?
  2. I wonder if it is apparent in us that we will willingly forego certain freedoms and preferences for the sake of each other?

(Back to the overall point here…) James reaches a conclusion that the gospel must be protected from legalism, but that Christians can and should prefer one another above themselves for the sake of fellowship. So these are some important recommendations for the Gentiles toward that end.

Before we leave this text, let’s review and confirm what we can learn from James... in the midst of handling disagreements in Christian community.

Conclusion: Learn From James

(and from those who listen to and accept his wisdom)

Nothing matters more than who we are before God. Nothing matters more than relating rightly to God. James has clearly come to see that Jesus is in fact Lord and Savior, and that the life he now lives belongs to God through Jesus. The humility and wisdom in his words arises from this close relationship with Jesus.

Because God’s word is inspired and infallible… it is breathed out by God and is the flawless communication of a flawless God. James clearly believes that the greatest tool at our disposal for knowing God and his will is his word… as recorded in the Scripture, the Bible.

We cannot compromise on the gospel because Jesus is the only Mediator. Not even the Mosaic law and Levitical system was meant to make us permanently right with God. Only God can do that himself, when by his grace he grants us saving faith in Jesus Christ alone. James knows this is true, so even though he is a Jew, he knows it isn’t right to burden Gentiles with what were God’s requirements for Jews. The New Covenant in Christ is new for a reason.

But we can compromise in given situations where preservation of unity and fellowship with believers needs to be a priority, so long as we are able to do it in a manner that doesn’t threaten what we know is true from God’s word. (This almost always plays out in areas where we have to give up some of our rights and freedoms and preferences in order to prefer others above ourselves. See Romans 14 & 15a.)

How should we apply what we learn from James?

Additional Probing Questions:

  • Are you striving to be a leader who is submissive to God, especially the authority of Scripture? Do you display a closeness to the heart and character of Jesus? (Some of us are risk-takers and some of us are guardians. Some of us are steady and some of us are fiery. But we must all be submitting to the authority of God’s word, and we must all be growing in nearness and dependency upon our Lord.) - Know yourself, grow in areas that are not your strength, and be patient with your teammates.)
  • Are your feelings (even strong ones) consistent with the whole counsel of God in Scripture? Are you submitting to the letter and spirit of Scripture?
  • Are you quick to seek the counsel of and listen to those among you who are wiser and saturated with God’s truth and consistency of character? (There are those among us who, under a hood of silver hairs, hide an engine that throttles with a love for God and the things of God. We do well to let them take us for a drive in their experienced seats.)
  • Do you run the risk of majoring on minors instead of majoring on majors? Are you willing to submit to godly leaders who are close to Jesus and submissive to Scripture, especially when they reach consensus?
  • Do you posture yourself as ready to prefer the needs and preferences of others above your own preferences and freedoms or “rights”?

If you walk away with nothing else from today, please leave here meditating on this: The difference in James was Jesus—a submission to Jesus. The strength in James was a submission to the word of God. And the wisdom in James was a call for others to submit to Jesus and to the word, and to prefer others above themselves.

Especially in situations where disagreements arise among us, we do well to learn from James.

PRAY

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