How did the message of the gospel survive the first century? How did it survive Rome? How did it survive ancient Judaism? How did it survive 70 AD, when all of Judaism came to a screeching halt; the temple was torn down, the city was invaded, and all the Jews were thrown out of Jerusalem.
When you pause long enough to look at everything that was happening in the first century, you have to wonder how this little fledgling group of people, who believed this ridiculous notion that a man rose from the dead, was able to take that message and escape the first century.
That’s what we’ve been talking about throughout this sermon series. And what we’ve discovered is that Christianity escaped the first century because it wasn’t so much a location with a hierarchal structure focusing on attracting a crowd with programs as we have come to know it but rather, the church was a movement. A movement that was launched around an event in history; the resurrection of Jesus.
It began as a handful of people poured into the streets of Jerusalem soon after the resurrection, telling everyone, “Jesus, was crucified but he rose from the dead and we are witnesses” and within just a few weeks over five thousand men, plus women and children, had embraced this message, this idea, that Jesus had come to Israel as the long awaited Messiah; God with us, who died for us, and rose again.
And suddenly, this movement was gaining traction.
The problem was, there was a very sensitive balance of power between Rome and the Jewish authorities and it was important to keep the peace between the two.
This Jesus movement was beginning to disrupt the balance.
So, to stop this movement and restore the balance, the religious leaders dragged off the apostles and warned them to stop talking about Jesus and to make their point, they were beaten with whips within an inch of their lives.
But when they left, they just couldn’t stop talking about Jesus and this movement continued and the church grew and leaders emerged to take on responsibility, and one of those leaders was Stephen.
The religious leaders, thinking they could stop this movement once and for all, put Stephen to death.
This was the beginning of wide spread persecution and as we talked about last week, a guy named Saul emerged on the scene as one-man wrecking machine going from house to house arresting, torturing, and killing Christians. But as he persecuted the church, the church continued to spread. Basically, he would kick over the anthill, and the ants would scatter.
But then something happened. Saul had an incredible conversion experience. The kind of conversion when God stops someone in their tracks and suddenly, they go from one direction to another.
Saul was about to take his persecution up another notch when he was literally blinded by the light as Jesus appeared to him and told him to go to Damascus and wait. While in Damascus, a guy name Ananias shows up and lays his hands on him and something like scales fell off his eyes, and he was able to see again, and then they prayed together.
Ananias explained that God has given Saul an opportunity to take this message to the entire world and he does. After 15 years of learning all he could about Jesus’ life and message, he traveled throughout the known world and establishes little Ecclesia’s, little gatherings, little churches.
That leads us to today’s text: Acts 15:1-19
Before we jump in, let’s put this in to context so we can understand the thinking.
At first, those coming to Christ were Jewish; Jesus was Jewish, His disciples were Jewish, all the first Christians were Jewish. And because they were all Jewish, everybody knew the Old Testament, they knew the language, the customs, and the traditions. They even met in Jewish synagogues.
So naturally, they began assuming, “You have to become Jewish before you become Christian.”
Meanwhile, Paul is out in Gentile world telling everyone, “There’s this guy named Jesus, He came from God, He rose from the dead, and if you put your faith in Him, you can be forgiven of your sin.”
And these Gentiles who aren’t Jewish, begin to embrace the faith. They didn’t know all the Jewish customs and traditions—they just believed in Jesus.
When the folks back in Jerusalem got word that there were non-Jewish people becoming Christians and they weren’t adopting Jewish customs and traditions, they were like, “Hold on a minute. You can’t just love Jesus and believe in our God, you have to do some other stuff too.”
So, the church in Jerusalem calls a business meeting to address the question: Who gets in? Who gets to be a part of the club? And they decide that unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.
Suddenly, what was supposed to be simple . . . For God so loved the world that he sent his son and who ever believes in him will have everlasting life . . . becomes complicated.
So, Paul and Barnabas, along with some other believers, go to Jerusalem to meet with these religious guys to share with them all these remarkable stories about how these Gentiles have come to faith and how it was evident that God was in their lives—without surgery.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees, if you remember they are the ones whose job it was to make sure that all the rules are followed, and they were the ones who helped put Jesus to death because he wasn’t following the rules.
Well, some of these guys have ironically become followers of Jesus and they say to Paul, “Thanks for your stories and we think it’s great that they want to join our club—but not so quick! You must become Jewish to become a Christian.”
Now when we think of “the law”, we tend to think of the 10 Commandments but that’s not what they’re talking about. There were 613 laws in the Old Testament.
What they are saying to Paul is, “We want you to get back to those cities where you’ve established little Ekklesias and train those new believers to follow over 600 new laws. They’ve got to eat different, dress different, walk different, and act different . . . and once they’ve digested a lifestyle with 613 laws and the men have surgery, then they can be a part of the church.”
If these religious guys had gotten their way, can you imagine what the new member class would have been like for he Gentiles? The men would have dropped off their family’s curbside and said, “Honey, you and the kids can go on in. Have fun, enjoy, learn lots. I’ll just be out here waiting in the car.”
But I do want to pause here for a second. In our context, this is the very reason that some people have dropped out of church. Somewhere along the way, they were told, or they got the feeling, that they weren’t good enough to be accepted by the church and so they just walked away.
Sure, they still love Jesus, but they don’t connect their love for God with the local church.
Now, I believe that church is the primary connection between people and God. It’s an important part of our faith development. I also believe that the church should be the magnet that draws people to God.
People should be able to show up to Logos Dei Church and say, “I didn’t understand all of it, and I’m not sure I believe all of it right now, but I like those people. They accept me for who I am. There’s just something about them that draws me closer to God.”
I believe that’s our call. That’s our mission.
But the flip side of this, if you’ve been a church person for a long time, like me, you can understand a little bit of the angst and conflict among these early Christians because part of Christianity is a moral standard, isn’t it?
Throughout the New Testament, there are some very clear do’s and don’ts. There’s a moral imperative that’s a part of Christianity, yet at the same time there’s this incredible message of grace.
The truth of the gospel, it seems, comes into conflict with the grace of the gospel. And when there’s conflict, church people get weird. If you grew up in church, you know what I’m talking about.
We have business meetings, and we create barriers and boundaries saying, “We want people to be a part of our church but before they come here’s what they’ve got to do.”
But here’s something amazing, and I will confess right up front that I don’t completely understand this.
The gospel of John tells us that when Jesus interacted with sinners – which by the way is everyone he encountered – he embodied both truth and grace and in him there was no conflict.
When the church gets it right, there should be an embodiment of grace and truth in such a way that forgiveness isn’t dumbed down, grace is dumbed down, and the moral imperatives aren’t dumbed down, either. That somehow, they co-exist in a powerful way.
Let’s jump back into our story . . .
The leaders who know the law and have influence have created this HUGE obstacle for outsiders to believe in Jesus, because, they don’t want just anybody thinking they can be a part of this movement.
They must be willing to pay the price if they want to join the club. Now where’s the scalpel?
After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “If you make it difficult for unchurched people to become part of the church—if you make it difficult for people to connect with God through the church . . . you are testing God. You are working against God.
What’s God doing? Seeking to save that which was lost. Leaving the 99 to find the 1. But the church is protecting all that has already been found and making it difficult for those who have yet to be found.
So, Peter says, “Look, you want to put this heavy yoke on people who know nothing about Judaism—a yoke you and I couldn’t even bear? Come on! You haven’t even kept the law. In fact, you must admit that in your dark times that the law is a pain in the neck. It’s a burden.
And yet, you want to take a law that you and I don’t even keep well, and you want to try to make these Gentiles . . . who have never heard of such silliness, follow them?
And at that point, the whole assembly becomes silent.
He goes on. “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
As Peter finishes his speech, James stands up and says something that totally rocked their world. Something that I want Logos Dei Church to be all about.
James says, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
Coming to God should be easy and accessible to everyone. And if we don’t make it easy and accessible, we are testing God. We are working against God.
For some reason, the natural tendency is for the church to complicate it and to make it difficult for people who are turning to God. The church wants to say, “It can’t be quite that easy, because you’ve got to do, and you got to go, and you got to jump higher, and you can’t be involved in that.”
And before long, without really meaning to—nobody does this on purpose—we make it difficult for the people who are turning to God!
Here at Logos Dei, I want us to be committed to making the Gospel easy and accessible. Because I believe that Jesus came not just for churched people, I believe Jesus came for everybody!
At some point, everybody is going to face a crisis in life and want to know, “Does God really care about me?”
Most people would love to be able to pick up a Bible to find answers, but it makes no sense to them. So, we made a commitment—we’re going to keep it Easy and Accessible. No matter how much it costs—easy and accessible.
So, when someone who knows nothing about the Bible and Jesus shows up, they can say, “Okay… I can’t find Genesis, but boy, did I find a place where I can connect. I didn’t understand all of that stuff that guy said in his sermon, but my children sure do like it here!
Because the church is for everybody, because everybody matters to God!
God so loved the world (God so loved everybody) that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him has eternal life. John 3:16 (NIV)