Oh, church business meetings can be so fun. Here before us is what often is referred to as the very first church business meeting. It was a rousing debate to be sure. The content is a little strange and probably somewhat uncomfortable for you to teach about.
The passage begins with really bad news for men (and again, in our culture, sounds really strange): “Want to be a Christian? Great! Go have a surgery and then you can become a follower of Christ.” Certainly not a proposition adult men would look upon favorably.
As Acts 15 goes along, we hear of incredible happenings among the Gentiles. One would think everyone would be rejoicing. But yet again, the Pharisees want to not look forward in their Christianity, but rather look backward to Judaism and Moses. Even though Christ had risen from the dead and ushered in his glorious kingdom, the Pharisees wanted to maintain the status quo. Maintaining tradition, and therefore separation from the Gentiles, was somehow more important than freely unleashing the grace of Jesus Christ.
Just like Jesus, Peter turned the tables on the Pharisees asking, “Why do you put a burden on the disciples we were not able to bear?” (v. 10) I love that! Put another way, “Why are we front-loading the Gospel?”
Maybe Peter had Jesus in mind. How about the man born blind from John 9? He’s questioned about how he received his sight several times. All he knew was he was healed by a man named Jesus. His gospel was not front loaded. His simply says to Jesus, “Lord, I believe” (John 9:38). Evidently, that was enough. Does this gospel sound front loaded to you?
We probably are all aware that churches accidentally front load the gospel. We make it difficult for people to become followers of Christ, but we have done it so long, we don’t even realize it anymore. Often, our traditions are not born out of Scripture at all.
In example, think about our normal Baptist “invitation.” We ask people to “walk the aisle” and profess their faith in Christ. I think it is a wonderful tradition. This gives the person the opportunity to profess their faith to many people, to not be ashamed of the gospel, per Scripture. But doesn’t baptism accomplish the same thing? Doesn’t our Baptist doctrine believe baptism is an outward expression of an inward reality?
Then why do we ask people to walk the aisle? Did anyone in Scripture walk an aisle? Of course not. Then why do we include this added step toward salvation? If you look at it from a non-Christians perspective, we are making it more difficult for them to be integrated into our church. Just an example.
And then, why do we have church membership? I’m a proponent of membership for sure, but is it a biblical mandate or just a tradition? If it’s only a tradition, then why do we have it? Does it make it more difficult for people to become followers of Christ? Yet another example.
In many areas of church life, we have unknowingly decided to be Pharisees. We have been more concerned about the outside of the cup compared to the inside of the heart and soul.
Many Christians quietly assume a new Christian should immediately be able to drop all “heathen practices” like smoking, drinking and the like. While Christ can certainly do that (and has in people I have known), often the habits become a matter of discipleship.
Let’s remember something very powerfully that I heard a prominent pastor say a few years ago: “God can clean a heart in an instant, but he will take the rest of your life to clean up your life.”
Simply stated, let’s not front load the gospel. Let’s trust God to sanctify after salvation, not before. Let’s expect people without Christ to, well, act like people without Christ.
Thank God for James. He was a straight shooting apostle. Just read James 3, and the previous sentence will make sense. He proclaims “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” Did you catch the subtle, carefully selected word choice? “Gentiles who are turning.’”
For many people today, salvation is not a “I heard it once and accepted it” experience. Sadly, the Billy Graham crusade experience does not work well in our society anymore. Our society in general does not view the word of God like you and I view it. They are skeptical. They need time to decide if they will trust it and trust Christ. They need answers to tough questions. They need the gospel to be a one on one dialogue.
Maybe it was the same way in our story in Acts 15. James basically said “Hey fellow apostles and church leaders. Some of these Gentiles are in a process of belief. The Holy Spirit is at work in their lives. Let’s not mess up the Holy Spirit’s work with a bunch of rules and regulations. Let’s just let them soak in the gospel until they decide to follow or walk away. Let’s not pressure them. Let’s not rule and regulate them out of the kingdom. Let’s not front load the gospel. No surgery necessary.” And a collective cheer must have rang out from the men.
Inspiration and application
A few years ago, a shaved-head, big-bearded, Harley Davidson-type guy started attending a church I served. We became friends, though we didn’t have much in common. He was a recovering alcoholic. He had lived a very “spiritual” life, but not a Christian life.
The work of the Holy Spirit in his life was quite evident. He was gobbling up Scripture like every day was Thanksgiving. His questions were abundant. But, as he moved ever closer to salvation, his mystical, spiritual past was in conflict with his newly found interest in the gospel.
One day, he was sitting at the base of an incredibly large tree, legs crossed, arms crossed, eyes closed. I saw him. He didn’t see me. I thought about disrupting him, letting him know that “God was not in the tree … don’t bother worshipping that way.” But somehow, I couldn’t gather the courage to disrupt him.
A few days later, he came to me for more gospel discussion. At the very end, I asked him what he was doing at the tree. “That’s where I find my center” he said. Before I could correct the bad theology, he added “but the tree just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I’ve discovered that what I need is Jesus Christ.” Right then and there, he was led to Christ and gave up trees.
The moral: I was tempted to disrupt the Holy Spirit’s work in his life. I was tempted to make it more difficult for him. And yes, there were some people around who verbalized, “He doesn’t look like a Christian.” By not front loading the gospel, he was given time and space to be led to Christ organically. He still looks the same, and he even sits at the same tree from time to time, but with his Bible in his lap and prayer on his lips.
Since we are morphing your Bible study group into a Bible-doing group, here are a few application steps for this week:
1. How have you personally made it difficult for someone to follow Christ? What attitudes do you have toward how people look? Do you question if someone’s Sunday worship attire is nice enough? Do you cringe when someone with a tattoo or piercings say they are followers of Christ? Watch out! You might be a silent Pharisee.
2. First-time guests at your church may be in attendance because they are in a crisis. Do you have a greeting team? I don’t mean ushers and people who hand out bulletins. Does your church have some designated, smiling faces to seek out guests and introduce them to regular attendees? If not, your Bible study group can easily do this. You will be shocked at the difference it will make.
3. If you want to be radical, take a good look at your church from a non-Christian perspective. What barriers to the gospel exist? What attitudes of exclusivity exist? Are attending nonmembers treated like second-class citizens? How can your church become more “user friendly?” Ask hard questions.