What does it look like to turn to God? In the book of Acts the apostles have been preaching the need for repentance. They have been calling for people to turn to God. But in Acts 15 a major controversy arises over what turning to God is supposed to look like? Now it was not hard for the Jewish people to understand what it looked like for them to turn back to God. But a question came up about what it meant for the Gentiles to turn to God. It was made evident by the Lord in Acts 10-11 that the Gentiles have access to the kingdom of God. Peter was told to not call unclean what God had cleansed. So the issue is not if Gentiles can be saved. The issue is not if Gentiles are equal participates in God’s kingdom. Those questions have been answered by the Holy Spirit falling on Cornelius and his household in Acts 10. The issue is framed in Acts 15:1 and Acts 15:5.
In Acts 15:1 we see that some of the Jewish Christians coming to Antioch from Judea declaring that unless Gentile Christians were circumcised as taught by the Law of Moses they could not be saved. In verse 2 we see Paul and Barnabas disputing with them. So they are sent to Jerusalem to deal with this question. In verse 5 we see some of the Christians who were Pharisees declaring, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” The question is an important question for us because we are Gentiles and we need to know what is required for us to belong in the kingdom. We might read this dispute in Acts 15 and think that it is nonsense. But the argument makes sense. Are there not some of the Mosaic laws that need to be followed by the Gentiles? Do they not need to keep certain requirements of the Law? In particular, surely circumcision is a requirement because circumcision was a symbol of belonging to God’s people. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant God had made. The Gentiles at least need to do this to be saved. We need to recognize how persuasive the argument was that these Christians made. We learn in Galatians 2:11-14 that Peter and Barnabas had been caught in this thinking some parts of the Law of Moses remained on the Gentiles. Peter stopped eating with the Gentile Christians when the Jewish Christians came around. Barnabas fell into this too. So it is a really important question. In short, the question is: what does it look like to turn to God? What else must be done to belong as God’s people? So the apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem come together to discuss this important question (15:6).
Unbearable Yoke (15:7-10)
After much discussion, Peter addresses the group, reminding them about how God used Peter to go to the Gentiles so that they would hear the gospel and believe (15:7). He also reminds them that God gave the Gentiles the Holy Spirit just as he had given the Jews (15:8). Then Peter makes the point that God made no distinction between us (Jews) and them (Gentiles), having cleansed their hearts by faith. We observed this point in Acts 10-11 and Peter makes it explicit to this gathering. There is no difference between Jews and Gentiles coming to the Lord. God did not lay on them any extra requirements or laws. Now look at verse 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? (Acts 15:10 ESV)
Peter’s first point is that turning to God does not mean looking to the requirements of the Mosaic law. Turning to God does not mean that we go back to any of the laws of Moses. If turning to God means that we must go to the Law of Moses, then we are putting a yoke on ourselves that no one has been able to bear. The point of the Law of Moses was not that it could save but to show how badly you need a Savior. This is a really important point for us to understand when it comes to our desire to turn to God. We do not look to those laws as how to live before God. Peter’s point is that we do not go back to circumcision because that belongs to the Law of Moses. Please notice that in Acts 15:1 and Acts 15:5 the point was for the Gentiles to keep some part of the Law of Moses.
Now we do not see any today telling people to go back to the Law of Moses for circumcision. Nor do we see people trying to go back to the system of sacrifices. But there are so many religious group who try to go back to the Mosaic regulations for other requirements. People will go back to the Law of Moses and tell people God requires tithing. But that was part of the old covenant and not the covenant of Christ. People will go back and try to take the Sabbath, which was only given to Israel and is the seventh day of the week. But that was part of the old covenant and not the new covenant. People will try to grab the instructions for instrumental music. But that also was part of the Mosaic law. People try to go back and have a dedicated priesthood which was part of the old covenant also. People will try to go back for defining modesty, declaring piercings and tattoos to be sin, or even to the dietary rules. If someone tells us that this is something you must do to be right with God and then can only show that by turning to the Old Testament, then you are putting a yoke on that you cannot bear. We do not follow Moses. We follow Jesus. The apostle Paul declared in Colossians 2:11-14 that all of that law with its legal demands was nailed to the cross of Jesus.
Saved Through Grace (15:11-12)
Peter continues in verse 11 that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as the Gentiles will be. Now this is an important definition for us to understand about being saved through grace. Notice that being saved through grace does not mean not doing anything. Later in our lesson we are going to see that there are requirements for turning to God. You do need to do something to receive the grace of God. Being saved through the grace of Jesus means that we do not look to be saved through the Law of Moses. Saved by grace means that there are not a list of requirements that put me in right standing with God and if I just do them I will be fine. Being saved by grace means that there are not enough things in the world that I can do put me right with God. Only the blood of Jesus can put me right with God. What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash away my sin. It is not by doing certain things found in the Law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas agree with this in verse 12, declaring all the miracles God had done through them as they have been teaching the Gentiles.
God’s Restoration Plan (15:13-18)
James, the brother of Jesus, notes how what Peter said and what they are seeing with Paul and Barnabas confirms what the scriptures say. James draws everyone’s attention to the prophecy of Amos and quotes from Amos 9:11-12. God promised to return, rebuild, and restore his kingdom. Notice the effect of God’s restoration plan. The rest of humanity will seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who are called by his name. Now we might read this and be confused how this helps. But what James is focusing on is the wording of the prophecy. The prophecy is not that just the Jews will seek the Lord. Nor is the prophecy that Gentiles will become Jews to seek the Lord. The prophecy is that Gentiles will be called by the name of the Lord. Gentiles will stay Gentiles but be called by God. This is the point being made. God was going to restore people to himself, not by turning to the Law of Moses, but being God’s people as Gentiles.
How To Turn To God (15:19-31)
James now declares what needs to happen for Gentiles to turn to God. In verses 19-21 he declares that Gentiles who turn to God must abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from what has been strangled, and from blood. Everyone agrees with this in verse 22 and they write a letter to be circulated among the Gentile believers. The message in the letter is the same. The Holy Spirit has declared no greater burden than these requirements (15:27-28). So what does this mean? What are these requirements that the Gentiles must follow? We are told in verse 21 that what they are teaching is nothing new, but has been declared in the synagogues every Sabbath. So what are these requirements?
It is important to note that this is not saying that the only laws that must be followed under Jesus are these four things. The New Testament scriptures would be much shorter if this were the case. Nor are these things a summary of the Mosaic laws or even God’s moral laws. You will notice that this says nothing about murder, anger, or any of the sins of the flesh that are mentioned throughout the New Testament. What we are reading are things that are tied to idolatrous practices. You will notice that this is how the list begins. Abstain from things polluted by idols. The rest of the list includes things that were tied to idol worship. Temple prostitution and sexual immorality was tied to the pagan worship places. Things strangled and blood also refers to how the animals were killed and not drained of the blood so that the blood can be consumed through the pagan rituals.
So it is not that this is all that it means to be a Christian. But here the big point they want to communicate to the Gentiles. Turning to God is not by adding rules or following the Mosaic law, but by rejecting worldly behaviors. That is what the Gentiles are told to do. You cannot participate in what the world deems to be morally acceptable. Culture is not the definition of what is moral. Culture is not the definition of what is right or true. This was going to be a big problem in that culture and it is the same problem in our culture. It was normal for them to go to the pagan temples, sleep with the women, proclaim allegiance to the Roman Empire, and eat the foods that had been offered to their pagan gods. It is what they grew up with and it was the way things just were. They are being told to turn their back on that culture and that way of thinking and turn to God.
This can be a very hard message for us. We cannot participate in all that the culture says is right and good and also turn to God. God and culture stand in opposition to each other. Just because we grew up thinking a certain way and living our lives a certain does not make it godly or right. In our culture, people live with each other, sleep with other, divorce each other if they ever get married in the first place, and deems all sexual behaviors acceptable. Our culture has redefined marriage. Our culture has redefined gender. Our culture will continue to change all kinds of truths. We have been told to come out from the world and be separate in the way we think and act.
For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:16–18 NRSV)
We have to accept that the culture is not right. We have to accept that what you were taught for values and truths are not the standard. These Christians had to come out from that world and live differently. We must do likewise to turn to God. God is restoring people to himself as we reject the ways and worldview that this world has and accept the ways and worldview of God.