Some Pharisees who had become Christians insisted that it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough to believe in Jesus. They insisted that all new Christians needed to follow the Jew-ish laws too. You talk about making things difficult! I don’t want to go in depth about cir-cumcision, but if a man had to be circumcised to join our church today, how attractive would that be? What would that do for outreach? At the same time, these had been God’s commands for his Jewish people. They took God’s Word seriously. You can’t just cut out the parts of God’s Word that you don’t like! So what’s really essential to being a Christian? Can you see how important that question was?
It was such an important question that the early Christians had a big council in Je-rusalem. Three main speakers spoke. The first was Peter. God had given Peter a vision and commanded Peter to go and preach about Jesus to a Gentile named Cornelius. At first, Pe-ter refused. It didn’t seem right! The Gospel was for the Jews! But God commanded him. So Peter went. He preached about Jesus to this Gentile family, and something amazing hap-pened: They believed in Jesus! Peter’s whole thinking changed: “God made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.” “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” It’s not the foods you eat or your race that saves you, it’s faith in Jesus and his grace!
Paul got up next. He had just returned from his first of many missionary journeys. He told about all the miraculous things that God had done, even among Gentiles in places like Syria and Turkey. There was silence as everyone listened in amazement. No one ex-pected this! So many people from so many places were coming to faith in Jesus! It makes me think about Africa and China and Vietnam today. As Christianity fades away in America, people in the most unlikely places are thirsting for God’s Word. How are so many people believing? It’s all God. All grace!
Finally, James got up to speak. Do you know who James was? He was Jesus’ brother. Well, half-brother, because Jesus was the son of God. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. James took what Peter had said about his vision and what Paul had said about the spread of the Gospel, and he did what Christians must always do. He connected it to God’s Word. He pointed to the Old Testament, to the book of Amos, and he said, “This is what God has always promised. He’s always promised that he wants people from all na-tions—Jews and Gentiles—to be saved.”
As God guided these three men, I want you to pay close attention to three verses. Look at verse 9: “He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.” There is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, because how are we forgiven and saved? By faith! Now look at 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?” If God has decided to save us by faith in Jesus, should we insist that other people follow laws that we ourselves can’t keep? No! Understand? Now look at verse 11: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Grace means no one deserves it. It doesn’t matter who you are! But God gives it anyway. It is by grace you have been saved through faith in Jesus.
Think about these three men. Peter. Remember what he did? He denied Jesus when it mattered most. Paul? The chief of sinners and former persecutor of Christians. James? Do you know what Jesus’ brothers—like James—thought about Jesus? They refused to believe in him until he rose from the dead. So you’ve got the denier, the murderer, and the unbe-liever—now the three leaders of God’s church. What does that tell you? Grace. What’s es-sential? What’s at the heart of being a Christian? It’s not your language or your family his-tory. It’s repenting of your sin and trusting in Jesus’ grace. Peter, Paul, and James—were exhibits A, B, and C of how we’re saved by grace!
So what did the council decide? Here was the verdict: “We should not make it diffi-cult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” “We should write to them, telling them to ab-stain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” They settled on four things. No idolatry. No sexual immorality. No stran-gled animals. No blood. What were they asking? First, trust in all of God’s Word, including the parts about no other gods and no sexual sin. Second, be concerned about other people. Those new Christians didn’t need to become Jews, but they needed to understand their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ and not offend them by eating things like blood. Con-cern for God’s Word and concern for God’s people. This is what it’s all about! Make sense? Since we’re saved by God’s grace, let’s not make it difficult for people turning to God!
So do we? Do we make it difficult? Remember the Texas sheet cake story? It’s easy to be blind to the roadblocks that make it difficult for those who are turning to God. In what ways do we expect people to become like us to be Christians? Do we think, “Other people are welcome, as long as they like getting up early like we do. As long as they have quiet kids. As long as they like organ music. As long as they dress nice….” Do you think peo-ple feel like they have to like a certain kind of music or dress a certain way to be part of our church? Do people out there know more about our traditions or our Savior? What require-ments do we attach to the Gospel? “They are welcome as long as they become like us!” Compare that with, “We should not make it difficult for the people who are turning to God.”