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What Changes?

Acts 15:1-5


 Last week we drew a very important distinction.  We learned that while it is important to leave the sin of a culture, that doesn't necessarily mean we have to abandon its style.  While I'm convinced that distinction is an important one, I'm equally convinced that it isn't so easy to make.  Yet, if we are going to be effective at penetrating cultures with the gospel message we will have to possess discerning hearts and minds and know the difference between sin and style.

 Let me cite an extreme example to illustrate the distinction.   One of the hot button issues of our day is same sex marriage.  In last Tuesday's election, eleven states voted to ban same sex marriages.   Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council says, "This is an issue that reaches deep and wide across this country.  The people are taking the lead - they're not waiting for the politicians to act." ( ) 

 I'm sure no one will be surprised to hear that I support prohibitions against same sex marriages.  Maintaining the sanctity of the marriage relationship is important to me and to most Christians who hold to the traditional values and the moral teachings of the Bible.  I believe homosexuality is wrong and is an affront to the natural order that God established when he created male and females.  (Rom 1:24-28) But while I readily teach that homosexuality is sin, that doesn't mean that every element of the culture that surrounds the homosexual lifestyle is sin. 

  I started working on a sequel to Future Church last month because it is my belief that the church is facing an increasingly hostile environment.  I wanted to get some insights from a Pastor who is on the frontline of the cultural wars, so I interviewed Rev. Phil Busbee, the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church, whose office overlooks the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Trans-Gender Community Center in San Francisco. Busbee says, "All of the gay culture is not anti-biblical or even sinful or even wrong.  Some of it is actually commendable, and one of the things I think about in the gay community is they way they've developed a commitment to one another in community."  While Busbee upholds the Biblical standards and condemns the sin he sees in those who practice homosexuality, he also acknowledges the elements of their lifestyle that is commendable.   When a homosexual person is radically transformed by the power of Jesus Christ, we want them to leave their sin, but we would want them to bring into the church their commitment to community.  Romans 12:10 says, "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor;" (NASB) 

 If that issue is a difficult one to parse, just wait until we address the issue raised in Acts 15.  We understand that a new believer can't be totally the way they were before their conversion, but Acts 15 addresses another issue, do they have to adopt the current subculture of Christianity; or to put it another way, do they have to become like us when they are saved?

 Acts 15:1-5 says, "Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved! [2] But after Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, they arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this controversy. [3] When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, explaining in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they created great joy among all the brothers. [4] When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. [5] But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses!"(HCSB)

 Circumcision was a big deal to the Jews (Genesis 17:10-24) and continued to be a big deal to some of the Jewish converts.  It was such a big deal that some of them taught that it was a necessary ingredient of salvation.  Paul and Barnabas argued with the Jews who came to teach this to the new Gentile converts and when the teachers wouldn't back down, they took their dispute back to the Apostles and Elders of the church of Jerusalem.  In the beginning, there was some heated discussions at the Jerusalem Council, some of the believers that were Pharisees pushed to adopt circumcision as a Christian practice, but Peter opposed them.  Drawing upon what he learned on Simon's rooftop and his experience in taking the gospel to the Gentiles, he said, "But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are." (Acts 15:11 NASB) Paul, Barnabas and James weighed in and the council came to a decision.  Acts 15:22-33 says, "Then the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, decided to select men from among them and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas: Judas, called Barsabbas, and Silas, both leading men among the brothers. [23] They wrote this letter to be delivered by them: From the apostles and the elders, your brothers, To the brothers from among the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. [24] Because we have heard that some to whom we gave no authorization went out from us and troubled you with their words and unsettled your hearts, [25] we have unanimously decided to select men and send them to you along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, [26] who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. [27] Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who will personally report the same things by word of mouth. [28] For it was the Holy Spirits decision and ours to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things: [29] that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these things, you will do well. Farewell. [30] Then, being sent off, they went down to Antioch, and after gathering the assembly, they delivered the letter. [31] When they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. [32] Both Judas and Silas, who were also prophets themselves, encouraged the brothers and strengthened them with a long message. [33] After spending some time there, they were sent back in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them." (HCSB)

 They made it clear that salvation came through God's grace and not by circumcision and that the Gentiles didn't have to become "Jews" to become Christians.  While they weren't asking the Gentile Christians to take on their culture, they did ask them to leave some elements of their culture.  Immorality was out.  Liberty in Christ is not a license to sin.  Even people who see the world in shades of grey have to also acknowledge that some things are black and white.  The counsel asked them to refrain from immorality.  They also asked them to not eat blood or anything that was strangled (Lev 17:14) because of their belief that the soul is in the blood (Keil/Delitzsch 410-11) and to refrain from eating meat that is offered to idols a form of pagan worship.   This was a big deal.  In the letters to the seven churches of Revelation, Jesus criticized the members of the Church of Pergamum (Rev. 2:14) and Thyatira Rev. 2:20 for eating meat offered to idols. 

 Paul further explained the prohibition in 1 Cor. 10:18-20 when he wrote, "Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? [19] What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? [20] No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons." (NASB) 

 How would the Pagan Gentile react when she saw the Christian Gentile eating the meat?  Would she believe the Christian was entering into pagan worship with her?  How would a Christian react in seeing another Christian eating the meat, would she believe the Christian was worshiping God and the devil at the same time?

 In Romans 14:20-21, Paul writes, "Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. [21] It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles." (NASB) 

 In essence, the Jerusalem Council told the Gentile believers that they didn't have to be like the Jews to be saved, but neither could they continue to be like they were.  When Jesus saves people, they are new creations in Christ.  All it takes for them to be saved is God's transforming grace, which will result in them living a new life.  They may not culturally become like the believers that introduced them to Jesus, but spiritually they will become like Jesus who saved them from their sin.

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