Sermon Summary - Love Considers the Conscience of the Other - Acts 15:12-29
Love Considers the Conscience of the Other - Acts 15:12-29
Not compromising on the theology of the gospel is a black and white issue. Justication by grace, through faith in Christ alone is a core, central salvation issue. But there is a temptation to take the black and white attitude that we have towards the gospel and core isssues to areas of conscience, which are non-essential areas where believers may disagree (infant/believers' baptism, musical worship song/style choice, drinking alcohol). Spiritual maturity requires standing firm on core gospel issues, but favoring love and unity over disagreement on non-essentials. There are times when conceding to others' consciences is right, wise, and loving.
Our passage picks up with James affirming what Peter has said about the gospel of salvation through the grace of the Lord Jesus (Acts 15:11). Out of concern for needlessly offending the Jews throughout the Roman empire, James lists four things that the Gentile Christians should not do. With the church's agreement, two elders are sent along with Barnabas and Paul to deliver James' letter to the churches in Antioch and the surrounding cities. The presence of the two elders protected Paul and Barnabas from any false accusations about slanting what was agreed upon in the Jerusalem council.
This passage illustrates that there are times when we as believers should make concessions to others for the sake of love. However, it is never okay to make concession for those who compromise essential truth in God's holy word. James quotes Amos 9:11-12 to show that God has chosen to save both Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles, such as those who heard the gospel from Peter. And those Gentiles do not need to convert to Judaism through circumcision or any other Mosaic requirement to be acceptable to God. James shows how Amos' prophecy is being fulfilled through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. First there is a remnant of Jews being saved, and then Gentiles such as those in Cornelius' household and throughout the regions of Galatia also. James, the apostles, and elders make it clear that the theology of this sect, which teaches circumcision as a requirement for salvation (Acts 15:1), is to be rejected.
On the other hand, concession may at times be the right thing to do. In Acts 15:19-21, James sums up his judgment by first affirming that Gentiles should not be forced to adhere to the Mosaic law for salvation. Then he lists four things that Gentile Christians should abstain from for the sake of not offending Jewish communities. One tricky thing here is that three of these things are not moral issues, but one is (sexual immorality). James is taking the social situation into account, so as to not needlessly and insensitively offend Jews- both to not close off a door for the gospel to the Jews, as well as to not cause a division within the church. This was the content of the letter that was sent to Antioch by the hand of Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and Silas (Acts 15:22). The tone of the letter (Acts 15:23-29) is very encouraging to the Gentile believers in Antioch. The request to abstain from the four particular behaviors does not come with a "do this or you cannot be saved" kind of tone. This is more of a gentle wisdom request.
First, "things sacrificed to idols" refers to the normalcy of eating meat sold in a market after it had been sacrificed to one of the Greek gods. "Blood" and "things strangled" refers to eating meat that had not been killed properly, by draining all the blood from it as the Jewish dietary laws required. "Sexual immorality" refers to any sexual relations outside of marriage. Why would he include sexual immorality, a forbidden practice for any Christian, along with the other three cultural issues? Sexual immorality in the Roman empire was such a common practice and was so deeply embedded in the culture that the elders knew they had to address it.
What lessons can we learn from this passage? First, out of love for the lost, there are times that we should not do culturally offensive things that would close off the lost from us and hinder the gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Second, out of love for fellow Christians, we should abstain from some morally permissible things so as not to lead a brother or sister into sinning against his or her conscience (1 Cor. 8:4, 7-13).
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