Christ’s Blueprint for His Church: The Church Distinguishes Between the Law and the Gospel

Christ’s Blueprint for His Church
Studies in the Book of Acts
“The Church Distinguishes between the Law and the Gospel”
Acts 15:1-2

If you were to ask the typical American on Main Street, USA what he or she needed to do in order to go to heaven, the answer would probably be something very similar to: “Trust Jesus and keep the Ten Commandments.” There is a lot of misunderstanding about the role of the Ten Commandments in the life of Christians and in God’s overall plan.

On the first Sunday of every month, we are examining the pattern that Christ left for His church, primarily focusing our study on the book of Acts. We are studying the book of Acts because it is the history of Christianity from the time it was established around A. D. 30-33 for the next thirty years. During those three decades, Jesus sent out His twelve apostles to teach the Gospel in cities and villages throughout the Mediterranean world. As they taught the gospel they also told people what to believe about Jesus Christ and what to do in order to worship through Christ acceptably. In other words, the apostles left a pattern for us to follow.

We started our travel through the book of Acts in January, looking at the fact that:

God wants us to get our message from His apostles inspired by His Spirit - the gospel that was first revealed in Jerusalem (Acts 1).
God wants us to preach the gospel, its broad outline revealed by the apostle Peter (Acts 2).
God wants us to share with others, those who are in need (Acts 4).
God wants us to live faithfully to His expectations (Acts 5).
God also wants us to fellowship with one another (Acts 6).
God wants us to know history - His history - His story of His interactions with His people - biblical history (Acts 7).
Jesus wants us to answer that question: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 8)
God wants all men and women to be saved; that is, God wants the church of Christ, to be a universal body (Acts 10).
God makes both genders equal in His eyes through Jesus Christ (Acts 21).
God want us to be His instruments to take the Gospel message into the hearts and lives of others (Acts 13).

Today, we examine a fundamental teaching in the New Testament, both in the book of Acts and a very important theme in the rest of the NT: we must distinguish between the Law and the Gospel.

First, we must emphasize the fact that the law of Moses was given to the nation of Israel. The law, including the famous Ten Commandments, was given, beginning in Exodus 19 and it is clear there that it was the nation of Israel that was assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai when Moses received the law and the Ten Commandments. Later, forty years later, when Moses refers to that event, in Deuteronomy 5:2-3, Moses clearly says it was to the nation of Israel that God gave this covenant, this law, the law of Moses, the Ten Commandments.

From that point on, there is no, not a single piece of evidence in the rest of the OT that Israel was supposed to make Israelites out of other nations. In other words, there was no “Great Commission” for the Jews. They were to show the world the existence and nature of the one true God - they were to be lights to the nations - but there was no command from God, as there are for Christians, to make “Jews” out of other nations. God did allow non-Israelites to join with Israel in worshipping God if they met certain qualifications but, again, and I am trying to emphasize this as strongly as possible, the Law of Moses was never commanded to be given to the nations of the world.

The law of Moses existed for two purposes: 1.) To regulate the civic life of the Jewish nation; 2.) To regulate the spiritual lives of the Jewish nation, to keep them holy and monotheistic so that when God came in the flesh, then the Jewish nation would and could accept Jesus as the only begotten, unique, Son of the Living God, in fulfillment of their own prophecies. Once Jews accepted Jesus, they would of course become Christians. Most Jews did not follow through with God’s plans but thousands of them did.

Before we get into the book of Acts, let’s take a moment to discuss one aspect of the Law of Moses and that is circumcision because it ties in with our text we’ll be looking at this morning.

The word “circumcise” is found 87 times in the Bible. It is first commanded of Abraham in Genesis 17:10… God commands Abraham to be circumcised and then for all the male members of his family and any foreigners who want to be associated with Abraham’s family - they all had to be circumcised. In that context, God refers to circumcision as an “everlasting covenant” (17:13). Those who were not circumcised would be “cut off” from the people because they had “broken the covenant” (17:14). Most nations in the Ancient Near East did circumcise; Philistines were notable for not practicing this rite and that’s why we read last week how David refers to the Philistines as “uncircumcised.” It was a term to suggest the Philistines were not cultured.

A male had to be circumcised, even a stranger, before he could eat the Passover (Exo. 12:44, 48). This passage was commanded before the Law of Moses was specifically given. But circumcision was inscribed into the law of Moses, at 8 days old (Lev. 12:3 - this is the one and only commandment in the Law to circumcise). It is interesting that there are twice as many references (actually two) to the need for Israel to circumcise their heart as to circumcise the flesh (Deut. 10:16; 30:6).

There is a reference to circumcision in Joshua 5 but otherwise, we do not see circumcision again until Jeremiah 4:4 where the prophet commands Israel again to circumcise their hearts. A few chapters later (9:25), God warns Israel that one day, He would punish those who were circumcised physically but were not circumcised spiritually; that is, whose hearts were not fully dedicated in trust and obedience to Jehovah God.

So, before we get into Acts 15, we need to keep these two points in mind: the Law of Moses was given to the nation of Israel which formed them as God’s people; (#2) circumcision was practiced by the Jews under God’s command. Yet, too many believed that as long as they were circumcised they really could live any way they wanted. It’s like in our day, I had a young man who wanted me to baptize him but he was at that time living with his girlfriend. I said, “I can’t do that. You are living in violation of God’s law. Baptism would do you no good. You repent first and then I’ll baptize you.”

Let’s turn now to Acts 15…

THE PROBLEM - 15:1-5:
We have looked at the baptism of the first non-Jew - Cornelius - in Acts 10. In Acts 10:45, we saw where Jewish Christians went with Peter to study with Cornelius. Luke refers to them as “circumcised believers.” It was important to point that out because Cornelius was probably not circumcised but the greater point was, he was a non-Jew. It amazed the circumcised believers that God would pour out His Spirit on a non-Jew who was, again, probably not circumcised. That was God’s message to the Jews that circumcision, physical circumcision, was no longer required in order to be in the new covenant with God.

As we can all imagine, the relationship between Jewish Christians and the Law of Moses, in general, and the rite of circumcision, specifically, becomes a major issue in the early days of the church. Paul will mention circumcision 16 times in the letter of Romans and 13 times in the letter of Galatians, the two letters most concerned with Jewish Christians’ relationship with the law & circumcision. Paul will also mention circumcision in 1 Cor (7:18-19), Eph (2:11), Philippians (2:11; 3:2-3, 5), and Col (2:11; 3:11; 4:11) as well as Titus (1:10). Remember how God commanded Israel to circumcise their hearts? Well, in Colossians 2:11-12, Paul says that baptism, burial in water, is the moment when our hearts are circumcised by Christ.

But that whole question of the role of the law and circumcision is really resolved right here in Acts 15, with the conference that occurs with the elders of the church in Jerusalem, the apostles of Christ, and the two missionaries who have been preaching the gospel of Christ to non-Jews and not requiring them to be circumcised to be saved - Paul and Barnabas.

THE EVIDENCE - 15:6-21:
There are several lines of evidence that is brought forward in order to answer this question.

Evidence #1 (15:6-11) — Peter rehearses what happened when he went to the house of Cornelius. Cornelius received the Holy Spirit of God without having to be circumcised and Cornelius responded to Peter’s preaching by being baptized. In that whole way, Cornelius was acting on faith in Jesus (15:9) and that’s how he received the grace of the Lord Jesus (15:11). There was no command by God for Cornelius to be circumcised. But I also want to point out here that Peter says, “We believe that we [Jews] are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they [Gentiles] also are.” Here, Peter states emphatically that there is only one plan of salvation, for both Jews and Gentiles and it does not consist of obeying the Law of Moses nor circumcision.

Evidence #2 (15:12) - The two missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, then related what God had been doing through them among the non-Jews without them requiring circumcision! If Paul and Barnabas had been teaching error, God would surely not have been working signs and wonders among them!

Evidence #3 (15:13-21) - James, who is Jesus’ brother and is a strong spiritual leader in the church in Jerusalem, stands up and finds support in the OT for not requiring circumcision of the non-Jews. James knows that God wanted to take from among the non-Jews a people for Himself. Amos, the eighth century B. C. prophet, taught that clearly (Amos 9:11-12).

God wants non-Jews in the church of Christ. God does not require non-Jews to be circumcised (or keep any other part of the Law of Moses for that matter). Therefore it should not and cannot be required of non-Jews. So, in verse 19, James gives his guidance…

James’ answer also deals with the question how you can have unity between Jews who were moral people and non-Jews who often came from very immoral backgrounds? In verse 20, James suggests four things that non-Jews should not do in order for there to be peace and unity in those congregations which would have both Jews and non-Jews in them:

1. Abstain from eating foods that had been offered to idols - the Jews had a conscientious problem with eating that. Later, in 1 Cor. 8 and Romans 14, Paul will point out that when Jewish Christians mature in their faith, they’ll be able to eat anything as along as it is received with thanksgiving.

2. Abstain from fornication - sexual immorality was so very prevalent among the non-Jewish world.

3. Abstain from things strangled - This point appears to be closely related to the last point. Animals which were strangled would not have their blood drained out of them.

4. Abstain from blood - Jews could not eat blood because the Law of Moses forbade it because the “life is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11).

Note that circumcision, even to “keep peace,” is not listed among the things non-Jews needed to do to have unity with the Jewish Christians.

The apostles, note that Christ’s apostles are listed first so as to emphasize the authoritative nature of this letter - it had the authority of Christ behind it, and the elders decide to write a letter and send it to the church of Christ in Antioch which was composed of a large segment of non-Jewish Christians. They sent this letter with Paul and Barnabas and Judas and Silas.

In this letter, we note:

1. The apostles and elders corrected some false ideas and false information (vs 24). They were not requiring non-Jews to obey the law of Moses or be circumcised to be saved.

2. The apostles and elders are all united (vs 25). It is important to note that God does not require different things from different people in order to be saved. Everyone has to respond to Jesus Christ in the same way.

3. The apostles and elders want to make sure there is no misunderstanding (vs 27). They are writing a letter and sending men who were personally present in the discussion.

4. The Holy Spirit of God gave His approval to what had been decided (vs 28). There was simply no way to ignore the decision of this meeting. It had God’s ultimate stamp of approval.

5. The apostles and elders share their decision (vs 29).

Finally, in verses 30-35, the men took the letter to the church in Antioch and everybody read it and were happy and thankful.

We do not have further time to go into depth in the passages that substantiate what we have said about the fact that today, neither Jews nor non-Jews are obligated to follow the Law of Moses or circumcision in order to have a relationship with God. But let’s read just a few verses…

Romans 2:28-29; 2 Cor. 3:14-16; Gal. 3:24-25; Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 2:13-14; Heb. 8:7, 13.

There is a difference, a big difference between the Law of Moses and the gospel of Christ. John writes that the law came through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). We are not saved nor condemned by anything written or commanded in the law of Moses. We study the OT, the law of Moses, to learn more about the nature of God, the nature of humans, the nature of sin, the nature of obedience. But we do not follow it to be saved.

Take home message: We are under the law of Christ, the gospel message, with its truths to be believed, its promises to be trusted, its commands to be obeyed, and its warnings to be heeded.


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