Well g’morning! And Happy Friday. School is out, summer has begun, and my kids are already running laps around the house. While “free time” is pretty much nonexistent, “fun time” is officially in session.
So I don’t have any funny stories or clever openers for you today. Truth is, some days we need nothing more than to cut the fluff and get right to it—yes? So let’s kick the Word wide open and let it spill out.
Acts 15. You should read it.
Let me tell you what I love about Acts 15. There’s some drama going on—a controversial debate—which brings a famous cast of characters onto the scene and into the same room, ALL AT THE SAME TIME. Because, back in the day, you couldn’t just Google the experts. You had to physically go see them.
PETER. The same Peter who left his nets in the sand to follow Jesus. The same Peter who saw Him heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and miraculously feed thousands with his very own eyes. The same Peter who was in Jesus’ inner circle and with Him during the transfiguration. The same Peter who watched Jesus die on that cross, who ran into the empty tomb, and who laid eyes and ears on the resurrected Christ. Even with a rambunctiously temperamental personality, it was Peter who preached at Pentecost on the day the church was born—exploding by 3,000+ new believers. He not only spread the life-changing message of Jesus to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles (which is just a fancy word for non-Jews).
JAMES. James was the half-brother of Jesus and a skeptic until that first Easter Sunday. Can you blame him? If my brother, Jared, told me that he was the Son of God, the prophesied Messiah, I would check him into a psych ward. The only thing that could possibly make me believe him is IF HE CAME BACK FROM THE DEAD, which is exactly what changed James’ mind. James—along with Peter and John—were known as the “pillars of the church” (Galatians 2:9). In the secular work, Antiquities of the Jews, historian Josephus refers to the stoning of “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name is James.” James was willing to face even death because of his genuine revelation and ultimate conclusion that his half-brother, Jesus, really was the Son of God.
PAUL. Paul, who used to be Saul. Who tormented Christians for their faith—the very faith He began preaching after an encounter with Jesus himself. Paul had legit bragging rights in nearly every category on the background check: He was Jewish, a Roman citizen, and a member of the rigorous Pharisee sect. He was basically as hardcore and “religious” as it gets. Unfortunately, he ignored his very own scriptures regarding the coming Messiah. The Messiah, however, did not ignore him. Paul has one of the most radically dramatic transformations in the entire Bible, with God quite literally getting up in his business and showing Himself. So Paul began preaching and teaching The Good News all over the ancient world. He also wrote a solid chunk of the books in the New Testament we still read today.
And there they were—all of these great men—TOGETHER IN ONE PLACE (plus some other apostles, leaders, and elders).
Oh, to be a fly on the wall!
This gathering of biblical heroes is often referred to as the “Jerusalem Council,” but that sounds a bit too formal to me. Let’s remember who these men were… Peter: a fiery, blue-collar fisherman. James: the leery half-brother of Jesus who was also the son of a carpenter. Paul: a legalistic radical whose life-mission was to persecute Christians—until he became one.
Instead of the angelic faces and flowing robes often portrayed in paintings, I imagine this meeting to be more “real life” in nature. I’m guessing their calloused hands were strong from hard work; their skin darkened by the hot sun. I bet there were words and tones and expressions that unfortunately never translated onto these ancient scrolls. A group of ferociously Godly men, no doubt, who had seen and heard A LOT. They experienced the sweat, the stories, the supernatural, the surprises, and the scars—all first hand. And here they were, together, navigating through this little deliberation.
So what was the fuss about? And what was decided?
Oddly enough, the dispute was over circumcision. Strange, right? But don’t tune me out yet.
Jesus clearly stated that “those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me will have eternal life” (John 5:24), and that’s exactly what was being preached. But Paul and Barnabas came across a separate group of men were teaching the new believers: “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)
[Rabbit trail: Can we address the fact that discussing a grown man’s circumcision, or lack thereof, is completely awkward? I’ve always wondered how they knew if someone was or was not circumcised. Like, was there a Penis Policeman on duty at all times, making guys drop their drawers around every turn? Were there check points? Full-body screenings? These are just a few questions I have.]
So basically, these other men turned the whole ordeal into a legalism issue, treating salvation like a gum-ball machine—i.e., you put the quarter in (works, traditions, rituals) and get a colorful ball of sugar in return (eternal security). But God doesn’t work like that. He chooses us despite ourselves, and gives us the opportunity to take hold of His gracious gift—quarter free!
The real question here is this: Is it really Jesus + nothing? Or it is Jesus + a laundry list of to-do’s and to-don’ts?
WHICH ONE IS IT? A question we are still asking today.
But both Peter and Paul had personally experienced the uncircumcised Gentiles hearing the message of Jesus, believing in Him, and receiving the Holy Spirit. They’d classified this as a non-issue—understanding that the Gospel was for everyone, at any time.
I can imagine these guys being all: “Excuse me… We saw what happened. We were there. WE WITNESSED IT. Do you think Jesus DIED and went to the trouble of rising again so that we could go back to the formalities of working our way to God instead of stumbling into His amazing grace?”
Peter’s take: “God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 15:8-11)
James’ take: After quoting the prophets who confirmed these Gentile-conversions long ago, he settles it: “And so my judgement is that we should not make it more difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19)
In layman’s terms: STOP MAKING IT SO DANG HARD.
Even Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
His burden is light, y’all—not heavy. So why do we insist on making it so difficult?
It’s true that circumcision specifically might not be the name of the game in our society, but this mindset still happens all the time. “You cannot be saved unless you first…”
Clean up your life. Become a member of a church. Read the entire Bible. Pray—every day and twice on Sundays. Be “good” boys and girls. Do a detailed study on the book of Revelation. Give a certain dollar amount to Christian organizations. Fast the first month of every year. Get baptized. Get clean. Get perfect. Get it together.
But if someone says you must first do these things, JUST RUN THE OTHER WAY. The criminal hanging next to Jesus on the cross didn’t have time to do anything but believe, and believe is exactly what he did.
Sure, the things on that list are great, and can absolutely draw us closer God. He built us, after all, and knows exactly how we were made to tick; how life works best. Having a relationship with Him and turning from the sin that holds us down is a game-changer. We should take His advice! He’s the one who hold the blueprints.
But a to-do list does not save us. It cannot save us.
Paul’s take: “We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who you are.” (Romans 3:22)
So to anyone who’s feeling guilty for not being enough, or guilty for being too much—just come to Him. Even in your mess, and especially in your mess. If following Jesus doesn’t make you feel free, you’re doing it wrong. Because His unexpected and underserving grace truly is FREEING.
But before we get too far on the free and easy train, Paul addresses the question that some of us are thinking: Does that give us the right to do whatever the heck we want?
“Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2)
“Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the law.” (Romans: 3:31)
“For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-15)
No matter your religious background. No matter the color of your skin. No matter what you’ve done. No matter how you dress. No matter where you live or what you drive. No matter if you’re rich or poor.
We come as we are, but God doesn’t leave us that way. As we give Him our hearts, His spirit will be a life-giving well inside of us—and we’ll begin to yield good fruit. He’ll prune us, He’ll water us, and He’ll raise up a harvest within us. We are not saved by good works, but a genuine faith can’t help but produce them.
So let’s turn to God and love one another. Let’s point each other to the liberating freedom that loosens chains, forgives our wrongs, and shreds our debt.
And, most of all, let’s not make it so difficult.