A People for His Name from All Nations
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 15:1–15:21
What's Required for One to Enter God's Kingdom?
1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But through the grace of the Lord Jesus we believe in order to be saved, just as they will.”
12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’” 19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” [Pray]
In Acts 15 we encounter another controversy. Luke often gives the ideal, but he doesn’t whitewash the more messy aspects of church life. He tells the whole truth. In doing so, we should be all the more convinced that Acts is a trustworthy account. The early church wrestled with serious issues, both practical and theological. Acts 15 has two parts that answer two big questions. What’s required to enter the kingdom of God? And how does one live once in the kingdom of God? We’ll address only the first question today. What’s required to enter the kingdom of God?
A baseball team has certain requirements for you to play. A university has certain requirements for you to register. An employer has requirements before they hire you. Countries have requirements before you can pass through customs. We’re used to asking this question: what’s required for me to enter?
But among all places and institutions and organizations that we can enter, only one matters the most for eternity: the kingdom of God. The kingdom is where God manifests his presence and rules his people. His kingdom far surpasses all others in joy, glory, beauty, satisfaction, riches, peace, duration. What’s required to enter his kingdom?
The Bible teaches that we’re all born outside God’s kingdom. We’re born in Adam. That means we enter the world in revolt against our Maker. We’re banished from his kingdom; we’ll never see its light or know its life by our own doing. If we’re to enter God’s kingdom, it must be on God’s terms. But how does one enter?
The Question: Do Gentiles Need to Keep the Law to Be Saved?
That’s a question the early church wrestles with here. Paul and Barnabas finish their first missionary journey. In Acts 14:27 they “declare…how [God] had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” But some of the Jewish Christians aren’t so sure about Gentiles entering so freely. Luke mentions their issue twice.
Verse 1, “Some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you’re circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you can’t be saved.’” Again in verse 5, “Some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It’s necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the Law of Moses.’”
I’d hope that if someone entered our church and asked, “What’s required for somebody like me to enter the kingdom?” all of you would answer, “Faith in Christ alone.” But some Jewish believers here couldn’t say that yet. If you asked them, it was faith in Christ plus circumcision, plus food laws, and so on.
Now, it might be easy for us to judge, “How in the world could this come up?!” But we’ve got to understand how deeply ingrained their commitment was. For centuries the Law was their life, their identity, their pride. Some were Pharisees, passionate Jews now Christians wondering how the Law functioned. But not just that, God had commanded circumcision. It was part of the covenant.
The big question, then, for these Jewish believers is whether anything has changed since the coming of Christ? Some didn’t think so. But were they right? Are the Gentiles required to keep the Law of Moses to enter God’s kingdom? Do they need circumcision to become part of God’s people? The answer is a resounding No; and the next three speeches tell us why the answer is No.
God saves/includes the Gentiles by grace through faith alone
The first speech is Peter’s. Peter demonstrates that God saved the Gentiles by grace through faith alone. He recalls that God sent them the gospel. Verse 7, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.” He’s talking about the episode with Cornelius. God gives Peter a vision. God teaches Peter that he shows no partiality. God has Peter preach the gospel. Cornelius and his household believe in Christ.
God then gave them the Spirit. Verse 8, “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us.” What happened in Acts 2? Peter preaches the gospel; the Jews who believe get the Holy Spirit. God then did the same for the Gentiles. They didn’t get circumcised first. They didn’t become Jews first. God gave them the Spirit simply by faith. By giving them the Spirit while still uncircumcised, God testified they didn’t need circumcision at all.
Further, God cleansed them without distinction. Verse 9, “he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” We can’t enter God’s holy presence covered in moral filth. But through faith in Christ, the Spirit washes us from all that makes us guilty before God. God doesn’t grant that cleansing based on circumcision or law-keeping. That’s proven by the fact that he cleansed Gentiles simply by faith. They have no circumcision to show. All they have is faith in Christ; and that’s all that matters for entering God’s kingdom clean.
God sent the gospel; God gave the Spirit; God cleansed without distinction. What’s Peter’s conclusion? You best get out of God’s way. Look at verse 10: “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test…” This is serious business. They’re testing God, provoking his wrath. “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But through the grace of the Lord Jesus we believe in order to be saved, just as they will.”
That last part reads a little differently in the ESV. But the translation I just offered makes the point about grace and faith clearer: “through the grace of the Lord Jesus we believe in order to be saved.” One is saved by grace alone through faith alone. You may have heard the formula before: Jesus + anything = nothing. But Jesus + nothing = everything. Only the second is good news. The first formula is really bad news.
It robs Christ of his glory by saying that his righteousness isn’t good enough; it needs something more…from you of all people. It also says that Christ’s coming really didn’t fulfill the old covenant after all. That old Law-guardian is still in place, everything still imprisoned under sin. It says that your circumcision, the cutting off of your flesh, is better than Christ being cut off in your place. You boast about what’s up your own robe instead of grabbing hold of Christ’s robe for your right standing with God—the end of that life will be wrath and fury from God.
Peter points out another piece to the picture, though. Jesus + anything is bad news because it places the Christian under an unbearable yoke. It’s unbearable because sinners lack the moral ability to meet the Law’s demands. The Law demands perfect obedience in every point all the time to enter God’s presence. More than that, it condemns us wherever we fail but can’t ever save.
Where does freedom come? Through our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 5:1). Christ fulfilled the Law, even as that Law related to circumcision. He was cut off in our place. Through his death, Christ bore our curse. Christ’s righteousness alone is sufficient to make us right with God. That makes Christ our only access to God’s kingdom. Nothing else and nothing additional will grant us entry to God’s presence. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That’s the gist of Peter’s speech.
God authenticates the Gentile inclusion with signs
The second speech is by Paul and Barnabas. Luke shows that God authenticates the Gentile inclusion with signs. Verse 12, “And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” I won’t say as much here. We’ve already covered this several times lately. But signs and wonders in Acts have an authenticating function. Here they authenticate the Gentile mission. In the same way God performed signs among Jewish believers, God also performed signs among Gentile believers. God was manifesting his kingdom among Gentiles as Gentiles. Circumcision wasn’t needed.
God promised the Gentile inclusion in Scripture
Then comes a third speech by James. James recalls Peter’s words, but adds a crucial support: God promised the Gentile inclusion in Scripture. Verse 15, “With this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After this I’ll return, and I’ll rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I’ll rebuild its ruins, and I’ll restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’”
The quotation comes primarily from Amos 9:11-12. If you’ve read Amos, he’s not pulling any punches. He hammers Israel for their sin, their idolatry, their injustice. Israel looks just like the rest of the nations, and that’s why God would judge them. They had God’s Law; but surprise, surprise, they didn’t do it. He even compares them to a basket of rotten fruit that ought to be thrown out with the garbage.
In other words, Amos’s prophecy is filled with reminders of how Israel couldn’t save themselves by keeping the Law. If they couldn’t save themselves by keeping the Law, then how would they be saved? That’s where Amos 9:11-12 comes in. Right at end of a prophecy dark with condemnation, there’s a ray of hope. God’s future grace would work to save them. James mentions two aspects in particular.
One is God’s grace to restore David’s kingdom. Verse 16, “After this I’ll return…” This is God promising a future return to save his people. God was going to come to them; and when he did come, he says, “I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it.” David’s kingdom is on the brink of destruction, but God would come and restore the kingdom.
How does the book of Acts demonstrate that fulfillment? Through the resurrection of Jesus, right? Jesus is not only God in the flesh, he’s also the newly installed Davidic King. Back to back to back we saw this in Acts 13. Paul quotes Psalm 2, Isaiah 55, Psalm 16—all to say Jesus is the King in David’s line who has taken the throne forever. He rules over sin and death. He’s bringing God’s kingdom on earth. God’s rebuilding the ruins and restoring his people.
And what does that include according to verse 17? That’s the second aspect of God’s future grace. It includes God’s grace saving Gentiles for his name. Verse 17, “that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name.” God’s grace benefits not just Israel, but all mankind. He would take a people for his name from all the Gentile nations and fold them into the people of God. James couldn’t help but see the connection. All these Gentiles streaming into the people of God through Peter and Paul and Barnabas’s ministries—they’re coming because God is faithful to his word. God’s future grace was present in Jesus, the true Davidic King. He was working powerfully to save the Gentiles quite apart from the Law.
So James concludes this way in verse 19: “Therefore my judgment is that we shouldn’t trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God…” Meaning, we don’t need to trouble them with circumcision or keeping the Law of Moses. Neither get them into the kingdom. Faith in Christ alone gets them into the kingdom.
Then he says this, “…but [we] should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
We’ll look at this more carefully next time. It’s a difficult few verses. But suffice it to say for now, he’s not contradicting himself. He’s not saying in one breath, “Don’t trouble them with the Law of Moses,” and in the next, “But keep these things in the Law of Moses.” Actually, he doesn’t ground the commands in the Law of Moses at all. Verse 21 is simply explaining the great difficulty Gentiles will keep having as Moses is read everywhere. The command itself comes straight from the apostles.
And it’s essentially this: you must renounce your idolatry and sexual immorality. That’s what the list represents: idolatry and sexual immorality. In other words, kingdom people live for kingdom things. New life in Christ means giving up your old pagan ways. That’ll be the major focus next time we’re in Acts. But for this week, let’s close with a few points of application.
The apostles’ authoritative instruction regulates church, not the Law of Moses
For starters, Acts 15 helps us see that the apostles’ authoritative instruction regulates the church, not the Law of Moses. We can see this in that the Law of Moses commanded circumcision, but here the apostles tell the Gentiles it’s not necessary. For the old covenant community, the Law of Moses was their authoritative guide. The Law had covenantal authority over God’s people. But the Law played its governing role only until the coming of Christ. Jesus inaugurated a new covenant, and that new covenant now regulates the church.
Acts is a great place to see this transition in God’s story of redemption. That’s also why you see the early church devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching. That doesn’t mean we disregard the Law. That doesn’t mean the Law is now less important, less authoritative. Rather, we just can’t read the Law apart from how the apostles interpret it and apply it to the church under the new covenant.
Reading it this way will keep you from making the same mistake the believing Pharisees did in our passage. They misunderstood the Law’s role, and tried to regulate the church by what was already fulfilled or abrogated in Christ. But that also means that we need to be devoting ourselves to the apostles’ words. You won’t know how you’re Bible fits together, or how this or that Old Testament passage applies, or where you’re at in God’s redemptive story, unless you devote yourself to the apostles’ instructions. You’ll end up reading the Old Testament moralistically instead of through God’s ultimate revelation in Christ, whom it all pointed to in the first place.
Hope in God to preserve the gospel; renounce anything that compromises the gospel
Second, hope in God to preserve the gospel and renounce any teaching that compromises the gospel. This controversy could’ve gone very badly. You have the false teaching itself. You have people within the church spreading the false teaching. Then you have the competing cultures of the Jews and the Gentiles. This had all the trappings of a total disaster waiting to happen. And yet the Lord sovereignly orchestrates the whole matter, so that the whole church unites around the true gospel. That gives me great hope that God can do the same when we walk through difficult matters.
At the same time, we have a responsibility to the truth. Notice, the church doesn’t strive for unity at all costs. They don’t seek the lowest common denominator. No. Being true to Christ meant renouncing any teaching that compromised the gospel. They united in denouncing the idea that Gentiles had to be circumcised to enter the kingdom of God. Likewise, we must unite in denouncing any teaching that compromises the gospel.
The gospel is always being threatened, muddied, twisted—and not just out there, but also in here. Look! The twisting started with believers. Our own hearts are capable of twisting the gospel to make it more suitable to our desires. If not careful, instead of letting the gospel mold us, we mold the gospel to fit our way of living. In the end, of course, the gospel we form is no gospel at all and leads to destruction. Let this passage remind you to unite in renouncing false gospels.
Join the Lord in gathering the Gentiles for his name
Third, the Davidic King has taken his throne. Jesus is spreading God’s kingdom. God is taking a people for his name from all nations. So let’s join the Lord Jesus in gathering that people for his name. I know that you know this, because I’ve mentioned it nearly every other sermon since we started Acts. Acts constantly rehearses the resurrected Christ and the Gentile mission. So you’ll likely hear it again.
But here’s where I want to exhort you more directly: let’s be doers of the word and not merely hearers only. It may be that Acts has renewed your vigor to share the gospel with friends and family and coworkers and strangers you meet. I give thanks for people like Dale and Wes and Nate and Kristen who model evangelistic zeal, who faithfully preach Christ to those they meet.
But I long for such zeal to characterize the whole church. I long to see new converts baptized and growing in the faith. I long to see our members so thrilled with prayer and making new disciples that they forget they even have a Facebook page. What are we living for? Is it worth dying for?
Acts 15 reveals what God is up to in the world, brothers and sisters. Right now, he’s gathering the remnant of mankind; he’s calling out Gentiles for his name. Let’s join him by sharing the gospel with those Gentiles. Some of you are taking notes. Don’t make your note-taking an exercise in futility. Circle verse 17, write down one or two people you want to share the gospel with this week, and then pray toward that end.
Salvation is by faith alone, not by works
Fourth, as you share the gospel with others, remember that salvation is by faith alone, not by works. Even Christians can be very prone to forget this. What started as a mission to bring someone to Christ, can turn into a mission to make people just like them. You know, “Sure, you can enter the kingdom by faith alone, as long as you lose the lip-piercings, don’t wear your hat backwards, and vote Republican.” It may sound ludicrous, and perhaps we wouldn’t even use those words, but sometimes we don’t even realize how much our cultural commitments warp our gospel call.
Acts 15 teaches us that we can’t be adding requirements for salvation. All God requires is faith in Christ alone to enter his kingdom. When people trust in Christ to save them, they get the Spirit and they get cleansing from sin the same as us.
How can you tell if you’ve forgotten that salvation is by faith in Christ alone? By whether you relate to God through the cross or through your own doings. Instead of resting in Christ, you think you’ve got to play well to justify your acceptance. Or, you think that as long as you didn’t look at porn, lie, or steal anything this week, that you’ve protected yourself from judgment. The thing is, nothing you do can ever earn acceptance with God or protection from God in the first place. Christ is all.
The Lord’s Supper is a great test for this. If you think that you have to go through a bunch of rituals to get yourself ready to eat, you’ve forgotten that salvation is by faith in Christ alone. His righteousness is enough. If there’s anything to do in coming to this Supper, it’s simply receiving what he’s done for you.
Also, if there are other believers in this room whom you struggle to eat the Supper with, then you’ve likely forgotten that salvation is by faith alone. At some point before Acts 15, even Peter forgot that salvation was by faith alone. He was eating so freely with the Gentile Christians in Galatians 2. Then all of a sudden some Jews show up; and Peter, fearing the circumcision party, drew back. He separated himself from the Gentiles. He didn’t want his old Jewish buddies to see him associating with Gentiles—after all, Gentiles didn’t have the badge of circumcision. He might have said salvation is by faith in Christ alone, but his actions suggested otherwise.
Paul has to rebuke Peter for this. He said that Peter’s conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel. How about your conduct? Is your conduct—that is, the way you treat others in the church, no matter how much they’re not like you or don’t do things like you—is your conduct in step with the truth of the gospel that salvation is by faith alone? Or, is there maybe a little bit of Jesus + something else you’re requiring of others?
Acts 15 turns us away from such conduct by pointing us to a much better gospel. The good news is that all that Jesus is and all that Jesus has becomes ours simply by trusting in him to save us. He and he alone is our entry into the kingdom of God. Faith in him is all that God requires to enter his kingdom. His life, death, and resurrection are totally sufficient to save. Let’s come to the Supper with Christ as the sole object of our faith. “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to the cross I cling.”