Testing God is Always a Bad Idea! But when the church makes things hard for people to believe in Jesus then we are in danger of testing God's patience. Acts chapter 15 unpacks a time of division, resolution, and blessings that still flow when we keep Jesus as the main thing.
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Acts chapter 15 Testing God is always a Bad Idea!
Introduction: As you face mid-term elections, one of the questions that strikes me that needs to be asked is how do you live together when you are so divided? Division happens anywhere- even in the church - especially in churches! Because when you believe the most important things in life are at stake then the stakes are highest. This chapter begins with division and ends with division: The first is on the macro level- a huge issue- and it gets resolved. The second is a micro dispute between two close friends but that doesn’t get resolved in this passage, though there is reason to believe that it eventually did. But the issues behind the first division brought the church close to testing God, something we always need to avoid in life.
1. Face the Conflict: The Issue: School lunches- no one will eat with you! Division over what? Unless = Jesus + Something = heresy! v.2 disputes- need somewhere to God- UP! X3 groups- evangelists, the leaders in Jerusalem, and then the legalistic group. You cannot be saved…smashing into a roadblock- you cannot pass…you are in DANGER! Jesus + Moses! Peter too- Galatians 2:11–14, Peter ‘used to eat with the Gentiles Syncretism comes in many shapes and sizes.
- Danger: Testing God! Because it would put up barriers to people finding Jesus. It would make the good news bad news. It would make Jesus' yoke heavy not light- and all that tests God and storm clouds of judgment will come and empty churches will follow.
The solution - But they talked! V.7 much discussion, and much wisdom in many counselors. God blessed = God has already answered v.9.The question of unity was behind the dispute- Jews and gentiles were now together in the church – especially in meals- fellowship. V.20- all focused on meals- including the sexual one! Because it was common in that culture to treat a big banquet like the office Christmas party where people drink too much and end up doing things they will regret. So the solution – freed the Gospel- to be the Gospel- Jesus + nothing = salvation.
But these four commands = unity between two totally different groups allowing them to function together. It also allowed the Jews to still follow much of the Law, while clarifying that none of it saved them, only trust in the Risen Christ. Some conflicts have to be had because too much is at stake. Be prepared to stand for the essentials. Question- how do you define those?
2. Identify the Essence: It is the most essential question- be Right with God. Maybe society doesn’t’ ask that question today about God, but it’s obsessed with being seen to be right- based also on performance- the right career, income, results, sales etc. all performance. Looks, clothes, contacts, cultural aesthetics etc. people turn to a host of different things in the absence of the One God because we crave this need to be viewed as in the right, accepted by others and/or to look down on others.
Here is the essence - through Christ alone V.9 purified hearts- that means nothing to hide, totally accepted- RN before the all-seeing eyes of God. That is liberating! Very helpful to remember that when you are in conflict. The most important eyes are? Once you answer that and get it right- see that it’s God. Then ask, how do we get right with our creator- many religious attempts- but the answer of Christianity- is you can’t. You need a savior who does it for you. So why did these Jews and Gentiles all become convinced that Christ could do that? Rose from the dead and sent his Spirit into their lives. That’s the only kind of encounter that will work for you. Repent, believe and follow Christ. He has bought the rights to this show, he must become the director of all that happens on the stage of your life. You are bought with a price, even the precious blood of Christ and you are no longer your own.
Does that freak you out? Consider the popularity of TV series like - The Handmaiden’s Tale. Some feel Christianity is a straight-jacket, oppressive patriarchal force that restricts people from doing what will make them feel happy. But is that true? Yes, there is much Christ might ask you to change in your life that presently feels good to you. But what if your feelings are disordered? Then if they are your only measure of what is good (emotivism), then it’s like having a wonky measuring tape where the inches or cm can be as long or as short as you want them to be! That isn’t freedom- recipe for disaster! A culture that can’t agree on such things, can’t live together. The church can over-adapt to that pressure. That in turn will lead to new Pharisees hiding around the corner- furious with the excesses of the modern-day.
3. Use the right tools On top of that- logic, Scripture, and the Holy Spirit: V.10! A “why” question is a logic question- a good argument and it seemed to convince all three parties. Sc….Harmonize this with the voice of the Spirit in Sc. Ac 15:13 When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Then he goes on to quote Amos in the Old Testament as his authority. So read your Bible prayerfully, and steep yourself in it. Do you read the Bible regularly? Do you know it or do you presume it only? This allowed the church (as a community) to discern a way of avoiding division. They gave testimony to what the Spirit was doing and married that to what the Scripture was saying = clarity. The church can never improve on that combination. Common basis – missing in society today.
Results: Right tools will build a large house…When the church gets this balance right, then we turn people on to the faith- v.10, which leads to incorporating new people into the church today. The same situation in principle faces us, how do you incorporate people with no background- v.19 is our working principle- that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
Today the greater danger may be to make Christianity so anemic that it looks the same as the culture, so people won’t even be able to see it let alone embrace it. Or to overreact and create a new legalism- but wokism or legalism are both wrong. Centered on Christ and the marks of the Holy Spirit at work amongst a people will alone draw people to God.
God overruling disagreements v.36ff. It is interesting that Luke records immediately after our story of reconciliation in Jerusalem that Paul and Barnabas fall out. Even when at a personal level believers fall out, God can overrule all of our sins, or even just our genuine differences of opinion to take something good out of it. The good thing here was that two teams and been created instead of one, so twice the amount of work could be accomplished. The hint that Paul mellowed and forgave Mark- 2 Tim.4:11
Conclusion: Get the Good news right, major on that and unity will prevail and outsiders will be reached because we aren’t testing God’s patience! You don’t ever want to do that!
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 243.