Harbor Lights Sermon Sep 19th, 2010

Peter and Paul

These next couple of sermons we'll learn of a significant controversy that occurred in the early church that led the apostle Paul to clarify a very important aspect of the gospel, namely that salvation is free gift given by grace through faith and its not something earned.

This week we'll look at the historical background that led up to the controversy. Continuing in the book of Acts, which is Luke's compilation of the history of the early church, last week we learned that even if a person is good by human standards, they still have to be saved. Though he was hesitant to do so initially, the apostle Peter obeyed the Lord's instruction to talk to Cornelius in order that he may be saved. At his conversion Peter concluded saying, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right." Acts 10:34,45 But in fact he had more to realize.

The story starts off in Acts chapter 8 which introduces us to prehaps the most zealous Jew of his day, a man named Saul. In Acts chapter 7 Saul had been involved in the murder of the first Christian matyr, Stephen a matyr. Then in Acts 8 it begins, "On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria." Acts 8:1 and goes on to say, "Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went." Acts 8:3,4

So this man Saul leads a persecution against the church, which turns out to be a good thing, because, despite the reluctance to leave Jerusalem, it causes the gospel to be spread elsewhere. Sometimes bad things happen for the greater good. Just as it is written in Romans 8:28 "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

It was Jesus who commanded the apostles, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." Mk 16:15 But the apostles and the Jewish Christians were largely reluctant to do so, just as Peter was reluctant, discriminating against Gentiles. So perhaps God allow this persecution so to scatter the Christians and with them spread the gospel. But even so we read in Acts 11:9 that those scattered by this persecution ended up speaking the word to no one except Jews only. And notice the apostles still hadn't left Jerusalem. For in Acts chapter 5 the Jewish ruling council had decreed the apostles not be subject to persecution lest get they too much attention provoking others to take up their cause. So they weren't subject to persecution until Acts chapter 12 when King Herod kills the apostle James.
But by this time God got somewhat fed up with the reluctance of the other apostles to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and so chose a most unlikely, perhaps the most unexpected candidate for the job. Getting back to this man Saul who was persecuting the church, he was a Pharisee, a former student of Gamaliel. Gamaliel, by the way, is renowned even to this day among Jews as an outstanding teacher in Judaism. Saul was brought up in the strictest sect of Judaism. Jesus spoke harshly of Pharisees, the religious elite of his day. The whole of Matthew chapter 23 is a rebuke to such people among which he says, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." Mt 23:13

Now in Acts chapter 9 it says, "Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem." Acts 9:1,2

But while going to Damascus Saul met the Lord. The incident literally blinded him. The Lord commanded him to go to a certain place where he would receive instructions.

Acts 9:10-16 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!" "Yes, Lord," he answered. The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight." "Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."

Now think about this. For 3 years Jesus had trained the 12 apostles, one of whom he had predicted would betray him, namely Judas, and the apostles were eyewitnesses to his miracles, his resurrection from the dead and had experience preaching and ministering in the church. They founded the church in Jerusalem. But he passes over all those guys and choses this man, this Pharisee, this persecutor of the church, to be as he said, "my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel." A most unlikely candidate and a choice that puts the other apostles to shame.

You might know this man Saul better by his Roman name, Paul. This was the apostle Paul who was to become the author of the majority of the New Testament writings. And one of the guys on his ministry team was Luke, who wrote the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Paul later writes, "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners— of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen." 1Tim 1:12-17

Contrast this again with what Peter said concerning the conversion of Cornelius, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right." The gospel is not just for good people. It's for everyone, even a violent man, a slanderer, a man who commits acts of violence out of religious zeal. The gospel is not limited in the categories of people it is intended for. Much as the apostles may have previously written off the Gentiles until the Lord had Peter preach to Cornelius, they also may have written off those blinded by their religious zeal, the religious elite who had Jesus crucified. But everyone who repents and believes the gospel will be saved, regardless of what category of person they had been. In fact not only was Paul saved, he was chosen as an apostle.

Conflict with the Legalists

Now as I mentioned from Acts 11:19-26 those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. Barnabus, by the way was the cousin of Mark who wrote the gospel of Mark. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul,  (that is, Paul) and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

This was the first Gentile church. And here's when the controversy arises. Some time later it's recorded in Acts 15 that Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. When they arrived, some of the believers, in the church at Jerusalem, who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses."

This was a controvery. You may be surprised to learn that at the time, a Jew did not have to convert to Christianity to become a Christian. For Christianity was viewed as the true path of Judaism. Rather at the time the controversy was how Jewish a Gentile must be to become a Christian. But this had broader implications which still arise today - implications about what is the actual requirement for a person to be saved.

Paul also talks about this meeting in Jerusalem in Gal 2:1-5 This is how he describes it. I went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas. I took Titus along also.  I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. 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. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.

There were people disguised as Christians who had infiltrated the church at Jerusalem right under the noses of the church leaders, Peter, James and John. There was a cult forming in their church and going out from their church preaching a false gospel. And the apostles were either unware of it or negligent to deal with it. And once again we see God's wisdom in chosing a guy like Saul for the job. Because to him, this was a serious issue and he's not going let any fear of man get in his way dealing with it.

Acts 15:6-12 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: "Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.  God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.  Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?  No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.

And miraculous signs are the credentials of Jesus and his apostles. Being a Christian is not a matter of ceremony, it's a matter of faith. Paul writes in Galatians 6:14,15 "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation."

Now getting back to Peter, notice he says, "you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe." But at this meeting Peter and the others decided that the evidence pointed to Paul being the one God called to preach to the Gentiles. And I think Peter may have realized that he had again failed to live up to the Lord's expectations, the Lord having chosen another for that job.
Paul writes, in Gal 2:6-10 again concerning this meeting in the Peter's church, "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 my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews.  For God, who was 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. James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do."

But the story doesn't end here. For later Peter came one time and visited the Gentile church at Antioch. Paul writes of this saying

Gal 2:11-14 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

Imagine - the apostle Peter was afraid of people in his own church! It was this same group of men who had come out from his church and were preaching a false gospel. Peter and the others had been negligent in overseeing the members of their own church and consequently a cult had developed in their church which threatened the very message of the gospel.

And so Paul writes the book of Galatians. Just to get a sense of how angry Paul was about this whole thing he writes to the Galatians who were being misled, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ." Gal 1:6-10

In contrast to Peter, Paul is not afraid of people. He doesn't need to win the approval of men. If a person is afraid of what others think of them, this often leads to neglecting to deal with things, unpopular things, things that might make people feel bad, but which if not dealt with could lead to serious consequences. The gospel is a serious thing. What a person thinks of it will determine his fate, whether eternal life or eternal condemnation.

Nonetheless Peter and Paul remained on good terms. Later Peter writes of Paul saying, "Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him." 2Peter 3:15

But that's it for the historical background of this controversy. Next time we're going to look at some of Paul's teachings as to why this was such an important issue, its implications and what a person must do to be saved, how secure is our salvation. And later to consider what place works and deeds have in the Christian life.

Jul 29,2015