BY GOD’S GRACE ALONE
By Mark Moon
Key Verse: 15:11
“No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
In the last passage we learned about the conclusion part of the first missionary journey by Paul and Barnabas. Right after being stoned and left for dead, Paul got up and went back into the city instead of escaping the city. Strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith, they said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (14:22) We should not avoid inevitable hardships for pure Christians. We must go through them by faith to enter the kingdom of God.
Today’s passage describes the first church Council held in Jerusalem. It considers whether Gentile Christians need to be circumcised to be saved. After much discussion, led by the Holy Spirit and the word of God, the Council confirms gospel faith that all Christians, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, are saved by God’s grace alone. Fallen human has been always tempting and tempted to add something to God’s grace and distort gospel. May God help us to realize that we are saved by God’s grace alone.
First, “Unless you are…” (1-5).
Look at verse 1. Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” The Gentile Christians at Antioch had simply accepted the gospel message by faith. Then the Holy Spirit worked in their hearts to forgive their sins and give them a living hope in the kingdom of God. But these men claimed that in addition, they needed to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses. This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute with them. Paul and Barnabas strongly believed that the Gentiles were saved only by believing the gospel. They debated the matter vociferously. But it could not be solved in Antioch. It had to be settled in Jerusalem, where the problem began. So the Antioch church appointed Paul and Barnabas, along with some other believers, to go to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
The church sent them on their way. They welcomed the opportunity to tell what God had done among the Gentiles. As they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they shared the conversion stories of the Gentile believers. They loved to tell the marvelous things God had done. Those who heard about God’s work among the Gentiles were very glad.
When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church. Paul and Barnabas reported everything God had done through them. They reported how a great number of Gentile people in Antioch believed and turned to God, establishing Antioch church (Acts 11:21). They reported how the Holy Spirit set Paul and Barnabas apart to carry gospel to many Gentiles and carried the first mission journey that resulted in many Gentile believers and churches in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.
Though Paul and Barnabas reported joyfully, there was tension in the air. They had to settle the issue of circumcision of Gentiles. There would be no spiritual unity until it was resolved. In due time, some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” (5) How did the Jerusalem church resolve this conflict?
Second, by God’s grace alone (6-11).
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. Their lengthy discussion is not recorded. Probably, each leader must have stood and said what he had to say. It took a long time. After much discussion, Peter stood up. Peter could have spoken with an air of authority. But he did not. After letting everyone else speak, he said, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe” (7). As we studied in chapter 10, the Holy Spirit carefully orchestrated the conversion of Cornelius. Through that event, God taught Peter as well as Jerusalem church to accept the Gentiles. Peter summarized what he learned in Acts 10:34,35: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” God had accepted the Gentiles. So Peter accepted the Gentiles. Shortly thereafter, at a meeting of leaders, the Jerusalem church also accepted the Gentiles. Still, however, some of the circumcision party thought that the Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved.
Peter continued in verses 8-9. “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.” Peter’s point is that God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles when they simply believed the gospel from their hearts. The gift of the Holy Spirit is everything to a Christian. It is the sign of God’s approval and acceptance. If one has received the Holy Spirit, he is a child of God. God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles when they believed the gospel message. They were not circumcised first. As soon as they believed the message, the Holy Spirit came on them. Clearly, to God, Gentiles did not need to be circumcised to be saved.
What matters to God is the heart of man. To God, the problem with the Gentiles was not their lack of etiquette, strange appearance, or weird observances, but their hearts. Their hearts were dirty with sin. The Gentiles were especially characterized as immoral and lawless. But when they accepted the gospel by faith, something happened in their hearts. The blood of Jesus purified their hearts. They were changed from the inside out. They were washed and cleansed and made pure before the holy God. All the idols and bad images were cleansed from their souls and they could enjoy fellowship with Jesus. They could worship Jesus as God in spirit and truth. They began to love and serve God with all their hearts and souls and strength. This was possible only by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came when they accepted Jesus by faith. It was purely the work of God. John 1:12-13 says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
So, Peter challenged the group in verse 10. “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” God had made it very clear that he accepted the Gentiles when they simply believed the gospel. To ignore God’s clear revelation was to test God. It tests God’s patience and makes him angry by one’s stubborn refusal to believe what God has made plain.
Look at verse 11. Peter concludes: “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Peter makes a clear statement that people are saved by God’s grace alone. This is as much a personal testimony as a theological statement. Peter himself was saved by God’s grace alone. He did not choose Jesus; Jesus chose him by his grace. Peter was just an ordinary fisherman. Peter knew that he was a sinner, nothing more. But Jesus forgave his sins and gave him eternal life and the kingdom of God by his one-sided grace. Peter was saved by God’s grace alone. Likewise, the Jews were saved by God’s grace alone. The Gentiles were saved by God’s grace alone, too. Paul explains this so well in the book of Galatians. Paul says in Galatians 2:15, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” Note the rationale at the end, “because by observing the law no one will be justified”. There is no righteousness by observing the law or any human effort. We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone. It is by God’s grace alone, we are saved.
Third, the Council’s decision was based on the word of God (12-21).
Peter’s testimony carried great weight in the Jerusalem Council. It gave the clear principle that salvation comes by God’s grace alone, not by human merit of any kind. On this basis, Barnabas and Paul began to share what God had done among the Gentiles through them. They told of miraculous signs and wonders God did. They shared how they went through many hardships including being stoned to nearly death to enter the kingdom of God. Their mission report was so fascinating and heart-moving that all the Council members listened intently as they spoke.
When they finished, James spoke up. This James was the brother of Jesus and the moderator of the Jerusalem Council. Since Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, James emerged as the leader of the Jerusalem church. They say he was a most Christ-like person in his humbleness, love, and purity, and especially in the life of prayer. It was up to him to share the judgment of the Council.
Look at verses 14-18. James begins by recognizing Peter’s testimony of what God had done among them. Then James quotes the words of the prophets: “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’ that have been known for ages.” James refers to the word of God as the basis for his decision. Recognizing the word of God as the final authority, they based their decision on the word of God.
Look at verse 19. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” In essence, James was saying that since God had accepted the Gentiles simply by faith and by grace, the church should not make it harder for them. They should not burden the Gentiles with Jewish legalism. Instead, they should accept the Gentiles into Christian fellowship. Although James makes this decision, it seems to have been the consensus of the entire Council (22). In this way, the issue of circumcision-that evoked passion in the hearts of many-was settled spiritually. At the same time, all believers, both Jew and Gentile, could be united in the church.
James went on to give a few instructions to the Gentiles. Look at verse 20. “Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” Most likely, this promoted fellowship between Jews and Gentiles, especially eating fellowship.
Fourth, peace and unity are restored (22-35).
The apostles and elders wrote a letter to the Gentile churches informing them of their decision. In addition to the letter, they sent some leaders, Judas and Silas, to confirm in person the decision of the Council. They treated the Gentile believers with respect and love. They really reached out to the Gentile believers to embrace them, explaining that the circumcision party had gone out without authorization. The main point of the letter is verse 28 which reads, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” When this letter was delivered to them, the Antioch church believers were glad for its encouraging message. They were glad to study the Bible with Judas and Silas. Then they sent them off with the blessing of peace to return to Jerusalem. After that, Paul and Barnabas and many others taught and preached the word of God in Antioch.
In conclusion, we have learned that we are saved by God’s grace alone. It is not by anything we have done, but by what God has done for us. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16). When we believe this gospel, God forgives our sins, purifies our hearts, and gives us the Holy Spirit. It is by God’s grace alone. This grace makes us thankful to God. This grace enables us to embrace others with love and respect. May God help us to accept the grace of God in our hearts deeply. May God help us to defend and preach gospel truth.