Dear beloved Congregation of Jesus Christ.
The late great American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger said this. I could empty 70% of the beds in the psychiatric ward if I could convince my patients of 4 words. “Your sins are forgiven.” 70%! The anxieties, depressions, sometimes when we are impaired – it is often because of this spirit of self- condemnation. The Spirit from below. This is why Paul is agonized, they are surrendering the one unique solution to human beings’ greatest problem - of standing before God with guilt. It is pervasive, it is in this room, it is runs through all humanity.
Sir Conan Arthur Doyle was the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries but also a great practical jokester. On one occasion he sent the exact same telegram to twelve of his best friends in England. It read, “Flee immediately: all is discovered.” That is a cruel, cruel joke;) History tells us that within 24 hours they had all left England.
Your sins are forgiven. That is freedom. Forgiven: totally, freely in Christ regardless of anything you did before, and in spite of anything you did after – merely through faith in Christ. Nothing but Christ. Anything more than that will enslave us to the fear of sin, shame and guilt. That is the battle in the text today. Is Christ everything – which is freedom; or is he almost everything – which is slavery to sin.
There is one solution. Jesus Christ. When he hung on the cross of Calvary, he took our place. And his righteousness is ours so that I can say, with respect, “We have, in Christ, as much right to heaven as Jesus Christ does. This freedom of life in Christ was at stake.
The apostle goes to Jerusalem to defend this freedom – a gospel he had shared for a long time. 14 years to be exact. I don’t know what you were doing 14 years ago – I was a teenager in 11th grade. A lot has changed since then – in every aspect of my life, but also my thinking. That is because I did a lot of different things – but Paul had been doing the same thing for 14 years. You could say the gospel he was preaching was pretty clearly set out. Once you have been doing the same thing for fourteen years it is pretty ingrained. He would need his experience in Jerusalem – because freedom was at stake. I preach to you under the following theme:
When Freedom in Christ is at stake
- Stand together in the truth
- Work together in the truth
- Serve together in the truth
Stand Together in the Truth.
So just to review: The False teachers were saying that Paul’s message did not come to him from Jerusalem, and that he had lesser authority than the others. A couple of weeks ago we heard that Paul makes the point that his message came from Jesus Christ himself, and not from the Jerusalem apostles. Now he makes the argument that although the message came from Jesus, it is the same message that Jesus gave to the apostles in Jerusalem, they did not differ.
This book was written early in Paul’s ministry. He was known as a missionary, but probably not a leader. When they went to Jerusalem Barnabas was still the leader of the group. It is not Barnabas and Titus that went with Paul, but Paul that went with them. No, v. 1 says, “I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas. I took along Titus too.” Three friends – united in one Lord – fighting for the gospel. The three could not have been more different: A Pharisee, a Jew from Cyprus, and a Gentile Christ follower. Three friends going to Jerusalem to stand together in the truth.
Paul went with Barnabas and took Titus along – a Gentile who was not circumcised, he took into the heart of Jerusalem. Some would think it ridiculous. What are you doing taking an uncircumcised Gentile into Jew country? He is going to stick out like a sore thumb. Like an All Blacks fan at a Springbok game in Pretoria. You notice them, especially if they are sitting next to you, cheering loudly. But Paul knew it would be dangerous, but he does it anyway. Titus was a testimony of his gospel to the Gentiles.
He wanted to make a point – everyone is welcome in the church. There are not different teams. A Jewish team and a Gentile team. There was one church – the Church of Jesus Christ. And that church didn’t have initiation rites before you became part of it. It did not have tryouts, where they cut the players that were the weakest. You could enter freely by the front gate no matter who you were, no matter what your background, no matter what your ethnicity. The gate is Jesus Christ.
So these three friends go, we read in verse 2 “In response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preached among the Gentiles.” It’s not him that wants to make this a big deal, its God who considers this a big deal. This was a mission from God. Freedom in Christ was at stake so these three were sent to stand for the truth in Jerusalem.
Paul knows that he needs to go to the leadership – because if the leaders of the church stand united, no matter how different they are, the rest of the church will follow. I think we can all say from experience that when leadership is divided a church is divided. So Paul goes to them privately to make sure they are on the same page. In verse 2b we read, “But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run in vain.” This had to be done, privately and sensitively.
It’s hard for us today to see how big of an issue this would have been. The people’s entire identity was at stake. To be a worshiper of the one true God, had gone hand in hand with the Mosaic Law for thousand years! It is like being an Afrikaaner and braaing, you can’t separate those two. There are certain things that are just part of your identity. And for these Jews it would have seemed like the very identity of the church was at stake! Would it remain Jewish or would it be Christian? Where was their loyalty – Christ or Moses?
Paul understood how big this issue was, and how important it would be for the leaders to stand for the truth of the Gospel. He does it sensitively but firmly. He was afraid they might not stand with him for the gospel. The fear of any pastor after many years is that one false doctrine undercuts years of preaching Christ. That is Paul’s fear. You can feel his apprehension in the words, “for fear that I was running or had run in vain.” He knew he had to lay all his cards on the table now otherwise this would be a factor that would destroy all the work he had done.
You can almost hear his excitement at the abruptness with which he starts verse 3 …”But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain…”But GUESS WHAT?! V. 3 “Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was Greek.” It was not as if they didn’t try, as verse 4 explains, “This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and make us slaves!” Nevertheless, the heart of it is that Titus was not circumcised.
Why is this so important. Because this put human criteria onto being a Christian, and was thereby enslaving them. It’s like our society says, you have to be thin to be beautiful. You have to go to university to have a voice in the world. You have to do this to be a Christian. These things right away are enslaving. We become enslaved to a certain body image (thinness), we worship higher education (for a voice or money). Beauty is not limited to those who are thin, having a voice is not limited to those with university degrees, being a Christian is NOT limited to any cultural or human criteria.. Western culture has no more monopoly to Christianity than Jewish people did. The majority of the church might very well be non-white and non-Jewish.
Why will this be? Because the leaders in Jerusalem stood together for the truth 2000 years ago, as we read in verse 5, “We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain in you.” Paul knows that the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection could not be improved. It is the perennial danger: elevate some aspect of Christianity to a supreme place: even something good, like a distinctive doctrine or style of worship, some political or social cause, some way of doing or not doing what the world does.
But for the gospel to be the Gospel it has to stand alone. The Gospel is Christ plus nothing. “Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Our hope is also built on nothing more than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. There are not additives. No alternatives to Jesus. Thankfully the leaders of the early church recognized this and did not give in for a moment. They stood together in the truth and recognized each other as brothers in Jesus Christ. Which brings us to our second point…
Work Together in the Truth
Paul says in verse 6, “As for those who seemed to be important – whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance – those men added nothing to me.” These leaders in Jerusalem that the false teachers said were the real leaders of Christianity added nothing to Paul. His Gospel was the message of grace – and grace puts everyone on the same playing field. We are all equal before the cross. I don’t care if you are the king in a castle or the homeless person under the bridge at Frans Condradie – in the church of Christ you are equal. Popularity and wealth mean nothing before God. in fact, “He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” The message of the Gospel is the great equalizer: bringing down the proud and arrogant and lifting up the lowly. And it was to this gospel that the apostles in Jerusalem added nothing, rather they partnered with him in Gospel ministry.
You see Paul’s purpose was to unite a new humanity under one banner: the banner of Jesus Christ. My one desire through this sermon series is that that banner is lifted high here. This does NOT mean being homogenous (being all the same) it means unity in diversity. It means Jew and Gentile sitting in the same building. There were no more two opposite groups of people. It means looking your brother and sister in the eye even though they do not agree with all your view points and saying – “we may not agree on everything, but I love you, because we are united in Christ. In Christ we all have the same Father, we are all related. I can say that everyone in my church is my brother and sister, mother and father, son or daughter. This counts not just inside the church, but also is true for relations with other churches that preach Christ. The last thing Paul wanted was a million different churches and federations with their own distinctive characteristics. He wanted one common church – a fellowship of Jews and Gentiles. Neither mission has superior value! All are one in Christ!
It didn’t matter if you were Dutch, or African, American, or Asian: you are one in Christ. Circumcision is not right or wrong in itself – he had Timothy circumcised after all – but these things are no longer markers of salvation. This is freedom. To still have your own traditions and customs, while recognizing that they do not make you superior. This freedom is not some kind of inner spiritual thing – it is a freedom that allows no single cultural tradition to have supremacy in the church. And this is exactly what the church confesses in verse 7 – two cultures – one people – one message.
Verse 7, “On the contrary, they saw that I have been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews.” The same gospel preached to different people. That is beautiful. They were united in the truth. Why? Because the same God was at work in both – the God of truth. And he has the same kingdom message for all people who will listen still today – Do you want new life? Come, join us at the cross.
So, the apostles were united yet each had a distinct task. The point is that the church can only allow for diversity of mission where there is unity in the message. And now that they were agreed they could each go their own way.
Verse 8 says, “For God, who is at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles.” In verse 7, we see that “they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, and here we have “they recognized the grace given to me.” How did they recognize the grace? – because they themselves had been shown it in Christ. You can’t recognize grace if you have not seen it first. I love seeing grace at work in others: they are those people who encourage, those that recognize grace in their brothers and sisters and are not afraid to tell them. Slow to criticize and slow to anger are these people. I am thankful there are many of you in this church. God’s grace opens our eyes to his grace in others. Open your eyes and rejoice in God’s grace for your neighbor.
And because they recognized the grace, they sealed it with the right hand of fellowship. verse 9, “James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right had of fellowship whey they recognized the grace given to me.”
There is this legend of Churchill, the prime minister of England during the 2nd world war, standing in a receiving line shaking everyone’s hand and getting very bored. So, he decided to start telling the people shaking his hand, “I am a German spy,” just to see what kind of a reaction he would get. He said it in a very pleasant voice just like he was saying, “Hello,” and most of the people responded, “That’s nice. Isn’t it a pleasant evening.” They weren’t even paying attention! Then one man whispered in Churchill’s ear, “No wonder the Germans are losing.”
How often do we shake hands and it really doesn’t mean much? It was not so in the first century. When they extended “the right hand of fellowship,” they were forming a partnership. They were agreeing to share together in a common task. They were shaking on it! In this case, it was the task of proclaiming the Gospel, and they agreed not only to proclaim it together. They agreed to stand together. And in doing so they agreed to serve together. Bringing us briefly to the last point.
One of the heartbeats of Christianity is the fact that it cares. That’s it. It cares, it cares about others. It cares about a person’s well-being eternally and in the present. Servant love is the heartbeat of our faith – because it is the heartbeat of God – the reason Christ’s heart stopped beating on the cross. While the world positions and jostles for power, money, influence, and prestige the Church of Jesus Christ simply goes on loving and serving – not looking for recognition – but doing so because in Christ she realizes we are all of us not one better than another.
It’s no wonder that the last verse of our text reads, “All they ask is that we should remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” The gospel of grace is practical – the gospel of grace cares for those who have nothing. While the false teachers were still hung up on popularity, and the prestige of the real apostles in Jerusalem, Paul, and the rest of the church at the end of the section, lift up the poor. One of the heartbeats of this church is to care for the poor, first in our own church but then also in our community, as we have also seen through the work of the deacons in the past few months, through asking an offering for Nicea, and Straatwerk.
Some people still live in the realm of a false gospel where worldly status and worth mean something. They say depending on who you are and what church you go to you are worthy. But they do not have the slightest idea of what it means that Christ died for the ungodly. Read through this Bible and you will quickly figure out who God cares for. He cares for broken, humble, sinful humans. He cares for the widow and the orphan. He cares for the poor. He cares for us.
God’s criteria for worth are not ours. He pays no attention to entitlement or how far you and I have made it up the social ladder. In a community of grace you will find something amazing, you will find that those who are considered great are the ones serving the least. The poor during the time of Paul were considered “culturally worthless.” Those that have nothing to contribute to society. The attitude of the day was ‘they got themselves there they should get themselves out’. But the church recognized that if God thought that way there would be no church, so, if they had the mind of Christ, they could not think that way either.
Just a few years ago (2012), Princeton published Peter Brown’s massive study of wealth and poverty in ancient society. He noticed a radical shift in society’s view of the poor in the 4th and 5th century due to the influence of Christianity. Brown writes that at that time, “The poor were frequently seen to represent an extreme of the human condition, persons teetering on the brink of destruction and condemned to the outer margins of society.” The poor were viewed as OTHERS, as THOSE PEOPLE.
Then the good news of Christ swept across the Roman empire, bringing about a dramatic change. Brown writes, “The poor were not simply OTHERS – creatures who trembled on the margins of society, asking to be saved by the wealthy… They were also BROTHERS. They had the right to ‘cry out’ for justice in the face of oppressors, along with all the other members of the ‘people of God.’”
You see, when we truly believe that God accepts ALL who trust in His Son, we don’t make any distinction between rich or poor, blue collar or white collar, our kind or their kind, colored white or black. There are no OTHERS in the church of Jesus Christ. Rather, we are all BROTHERS and sisters in God’s family, stretching across time and place.
We are united, church. One family, different backgrounds’, opinions, visions forward. That is ok. Even good as long as we can go back to Scripture at the end of the day, and know that we are united on the message of this book. In Christ alone. The same message for every tribe, tongue and nation under heaven. Every human being whether in China, America, Europe or Africa has the same problem and needs the same solution. If Christianity was going to be tied to the Jewish culture the message would have been restrained. It is like tying Christianity to the Dutch culture, or Dutch church.
And this week as you go out, I pray that you can recognize the grace of God in those around you, in your family, in your co-workers, in your church, in yourself. And realizing that grace in yourself I pray that you may remember the poor, the outcast, also this week. Because that was you, that was me, before God took us. So this question that was answered that day in Jerusalem was of utmost importance. Would Christ be held captive by a people, or would the gospel explode into the farthest reaches of the earth. The fact that you and I are sitting here is an answer to that question.