Churches resolve problems by siding with the will of God through the Word of God (Acts 15.18-21). James comes to his conclusion as pastor of the church in Jerusalem. God knows from eternity all His works and all that He will do (Acts 15.18). James determines that “we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God.” However, he does say that they should abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, and from things strangled with blood (Acts 15.19-20). Why? Acts 15.21 gives the answer and points up the transitionary nature of the Book of Acts: “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” What does this mean?
We have the resolution of the council, but is James adding a little of the Mosaic Law back into the Gospel here? No, he is saying that Jewish and Gentile believers need to avoid anything that has to do with pagan idolatry. These are pollutions, and indicators of flesh-driven not Spirit-driven Christianity. Paul will say later:
“For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8.10-13).
James mentions sexual immorality because this was connected with pagan worship as well. Eating animals strangled instead of slaughtered and drinking blood were also pagan practices. James is saying in that there is no reason to modify what Moses had taught in this particular case (v. 21). Plus all believers should respect Jewish concerns. Believers have liberty in Christ. Gentile believers should not be bound to Jewish legalism. All believers should be compassionate and considerate when it comes to the feelings of others. This is the will of God.
What must we take away from this meeting of the Jerusalem Council? Our top concern is to make sure the Gospel stays the Good News. It becomes bad news when men corrupt it. There are four important lessons for us as a church from this text:
- The Mosaic Law (ceremonial, moral, or any other aspect) was not given to justify men, but to condemn them. It is an instrument that leads us to the end of ourselves. It is the ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3.7). Paul reasons that “if the ministry of condemnation (the Law) had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory” (2 Corinthians 3.9). “If there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3.21-24). So, now we are Spirit-fed and Spirit-led believers.
- If you want to be justified by the Law of Moses, your will have to perfectly obey it. This has never been done and cannot be done by sinful, fallen man. “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them” (Galatians 3.10).
- If you want to mix your obedience in with the Gospel of Jesus Christ (like the Pharisees here in Acts 15), then you are building a foundation of boasting and pride for yourself. As Paul writes, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith (which means faith is not a work but a response to God’s grace)” (Romans 3.27).
- A church that loves the Lord Jesus Christ will not tolerate another gospel. We are saved by the grace of God through faith alone in Christ alone.
There are two warnings that all of us need to heed as Christians. First, we must not abuse the free salvation we have in Jesus Christ. If you think that once you’re saved you are free to despise a holy, moral life, you don’t understand Christianity. You’ve been saved to grow into holiness not away from it. Genuine faith works. If it doesn’t, what distinction is there between you and demons? James will later ask this very question.
Second, don’t lose sight of the free salvation you have in Jesus Christ. Not ever! If you’re thinking it couldn’t happen to you, just remember it happened to Peter. Paul had to call him on it. All of us tend toward self-righteousness. But self-righteous people will populate Hell. “Stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5.1). Christians are dead to the flesh (Romans 6), dead to the Law (Romans 7), and alive in the Spirit (Romans 8).
Paul says in Romans 10.2: “For I bear them [his unsaved brothers in Israel] witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10.2-3).
Paul sought such people out with compassion not contempt. We should do the same. Acts 15.21 teaches us that there will be people that could easily stumble over the Gospel. We must remove as much human offense as possible. God will have to crush, chasten, and chop away at us for this to happen. The Holy Spirit saves and transforms through you. You bring nothing to the table. It might take the Lord some time to help you figure that out. Just remember that a day is coming when “the LORD shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be ‘The LORD is one,’ and His name one” (Zechariah 14.9).