“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” These were the words Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert announced to NASA’s Mission Control 50 years ago.
A malfunction to Apollo’s command and service module caused an oxygen leak. The space explorers needed the oxygen to breathe and they needed it to generate power in the spacecraft’s fuel cells. Apollo 13’s mission changed from astronauts landing on the moon, to astronauts landing back on earth alive. 50 years later, Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell reminisced about the essential role Mission Control in Houston, TX played in saving the lives of the Astronauts. Lovell remarked, “Without Mission Control, I think we wouldn’t be talking today.”
Two thousand years ago, the disciples’ mission of fulfilling the Great Commission faced a crisis. Acts 15 recounts the challenge the early Christians faced. Paul and Barnabas recognizing the threat to the Gospel advancement effectively said to the Jerusalem church, “Jerusalem, We’ve Had a Problem.” Then they traveled to Jerusalem, because, at this moment in the rise of the early church, Jerusalem was the mission control of Christianity. Here was the problem. Rogue teachers from Judea arrived in Antioch and began teaching a counterfeit Gospel. They essentially began teaching Gentile Christians (a Gentile is anyone who’s not a Jew) unless you accept the Gospel and become a Jew, you can’t be saved. These rogues were effectively saying it’s not enough that you follow Jesus. You have to keep the Mosaic law too. You have to become a Jewish Christian. It’s important to note these men were not authorized by the church. They just decided to create a counterfeit gospel and start proclaiming it.
Paul and Barnabas confronted the false teachers and debated them. The Antioch church deployed them to Jerusalem to address the issue. Paul and Barnabas understood, that, like the Apollo 13 mission, the false teaching threatened to suck the oxygen out of the Christian movement.
The Gospel plus or minus anything is a false Gospel. These false teachers were advancing a works-based salvation.
How did the early church address the counterfeit gospel that threatened their mission of fulfilling the Great Commission? They apostles and elders essentially did four things. 1. They Rested in the Wisdom of God. 2. They Recognized the Work of God. 3. They Referred to the Word of God. 4. They Redeployed the Witnesses of God. I’m persuaded that when we face threats to our mission—of fulfilling the Great Commission—of being disciples who make disciples, we can draw important lessons from the Jerusalem Council.
Let’s look at the first way the Jerusalem Council responded to the threat. They Rested in God’s Wisdom (v. 6-11). They examined the will of God for the Gentiles. What was God’s plan for the Gentiles? And they determined it was the wisdom of God, it was God’s desire, that they receive the Gospel. John 3:16 says, God so loved the world” not God so loved just Israel. So let’s take a moment to discuss what the Gospel is. We use that term all the time. But to paraphrase the great Inigo Montoya, we keep using that word, and we do not always know what it means.
Greg Gilbert in his book, “What is the Gospel?” says that the Gospel deals with four critical questions:
- Who made us and whom are we accountable? Evolutionary scientists say we’re here randomly. Therefore, we’re accountable to ourselves. Culture says you do you. YOLO. Live for yourself. Follow your heart. But God says in the Bible, “I made you in my image. You are the crowning achievement of my creation. You are loved and treasured.” We are unlike every other part of God’s creation, because we are image bearers of God. We can think, create, reason, love, forgive. Because we’re created, we’re accountable to our Creator.
- What is our problem? Are we in trouble and why? Why do we have pandemics? Why do bad things happen? Why does human trafficking exist. Why are people driven by greed? Why do we suffer and die? Why do we murder? Why do we slaughter the preborn? Why do we disrespect and abuse other people who are made in the image of God? A cacophony of voices from the culture attempt to answer these questions. Voices in our culture argue, we just don’t have enough laws. The wrong political party controls things. We have too much government. We don’t have enough government. The media lies to us. White privilege is the problem. White guilt is the issue. We don’t have the right education curriculum. But God says the root of all our problems is our sin. Sin distorts our perception of others—we fail to see them as made in the image of God. We see a distorted picture of our neighbors. We see stereotypes. We foolishly fixate on skin color or cultural differences. We’re absolutely in trouble. And the fundamental reason is that we have rebelled against a perfect, loving, and holy God. What is wrong with the world? Me. And you. Sin always leads to death. It fractures relationships. Sin leads to both physical and spiritual death. The sin of these Jewish Christians threatened the unity of the Christian church. These Jewish Christians were sinning by failing to see their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters the way God saw them: as brothers and sisters in Christ. They failed to see them as sons and daughters of their Father in Heaven. Instead they said, “You’re not good enough for God’s grace unless you become like us.” Their false teaching was rooted in the sin of pride.
- What is God’s solution to that problem? How has He acted to save us from it? The answer is God pursues us in love. He left His Kingdom in Heaven, came to earth and became a man thru the person of Jesus Christ. His rescue plan was dying in our place, taking our punishment as our substitute—the innocent for the guilty. Romans 6:23. He gave us the greatest gift we could possibly receive. Himself. His life for ours. No longer do we have to endure spiritual death. Physical death we earn for our sin, but it’s not final for followers of Jesus. The grave doesn’t have the last word. CH Lee Kemp preached a few weeks ago at Agape about Stephen’s death. He became the first Christian martyr. Luke writes that when he died he fell asleep. There’s a reason he refers to him falling asleep. For Christians, death is a temporary setback. We believe our bodies will be awakened when they are resurrected just as Jesus came back from the dead on Easter Sunday.
- How do I—myself, right here, right now, how do I come to be included in that salvation? What makes this good news for me and not just for someone else? The answer is you receive the gift of salvation. You ask forgiveness for your sins, turn from your sin, and you follow Jesus completely. You surrender your life to Christ. You enter into a relationship with God and let Him lead. God doesn’t force Himself on us. He invites us into relationship. You and I choose how we will respond. We either continue to rebel against Him or we surrender and receive grace.
When we think about the Gospel, we can summarize the four major parts like this: God, Man, Christ, Response. Here’s an example of Jesus explaining some core tenants of the Gospel during his earthly ministry.
One day Jesus was approached by the religious leaders of Israel, the Pharisees. They hated Jesus because he threatened their power and authority. They constantly tried to entrap him. They routinely tried to play stump the chump. Some Pharisees walk up, tries to flatter Jesus, and asks, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” They really think they got him. Here’s why. If Jesus says, yes, pay the tax, then his Jewish followers are going to disown him. They hate the Romans. They’re occupiers. They abuse the Jewish people. On the other hand, if Jesus says, no, don’t pay the tax, then the Pharisees report him to the Romans and Jesus is arrested for fomenting insurrection. They think they have him in a box where his response will lead to a riot either way.
I love Jesus’ response. He says, “Why do you test me, hypocrites?” It’s kind of an ancient equivalent of, “Why do you insist on playing stupid games only to win stupid prizes?” Then Jesus says, bring me a coin. He asks, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They answer, “Caesars.” Then Jesus says, “Therefore give to Caesar the things that Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus’ audience marvels when he says this. They’re completely blown away. Why?
The coin clearly has Caesar’s image on it. It was made in Roman mint. It clearly belonged to Caesar. The Jewish people were happy to acknowledge that reality and trade it back and forth to improve their livelihoods. But here’s why they were amazed. When Jesus says give to God, the things that are God’s—it begs the question, “Who’s image bears God on it?” The answer is Yours. And Mine. Jesus is saying you and I belong to God because we are made in His image. So our response should be to give nothing less than our entire lives to Him. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. When we do this, we are accepting the Gospel, we are recognizing God’s image in us, and we are giving every aspect of our lives to Him.
Paul reminds Corinthian Christians of this reality when he writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” The Gospel reminds us our redemption, our freedom, our ability to have relationship with God was purchased for us through Jesus’ death on the cross. Our response should be to surrender our lives to him and present them as a living sacrifice in gratitude.
So the council opened with vigorous debate. They were getting it all on the table. But then the Jerusalem council decides to rest in the wisdom of God. Peter takes the floor. He reminds the council it was God’s plan that the Gentiles be saved and that God revealed this to him along with many other Jewish Christians. Acts 10 recounts Peter’s ministry to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, a Gentile who becomes a Christian along with many other Gentiles.
44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.
Peter leads the council by bridging the Wisdom of God to the Works of God. He reminds the council of what God has done and is doing among the Gentiles. Then he says if we try to force Gentile Christians to become Jewish Christians, we’re testing God. We’d be working against what God has already revealed, and what He’s doing. Peter is saying we have a choice to make. Will we honor God or dishonor God? The stakes are extremely high. Notice that everybody quiets down when Peter speaks. What a lesson here for us. When God speaks to us thru His people, and we listen. It just hits us differently. The Holy Spirit quiets our souls, and we recognize divine wisdom and truth.
Cue Paul and Barnabas. They reinforce what Peter is saying by recounting the miraculous works of God among the Gentiles (v. 12). Now, note what Paul didn’t do here. He could’ve waltzed into the council and instructed the Christians from the Pharisee wing to take seats. Paul himself had been a Pharisee. He had studied under Gamaliel who was arguably the most respected religious leader of the day. Paul could’ve testified about his own experience. He could’ve said to the Pharisee believers, “Show of hands, anybody in here on the way to kill Christians, physically blinded, and had a conversation with Jesus on Damascus road? Nobody? Thought so. Why don’t you all just shut it, and listen to the guy who has gotten the latest guidance from Jesus? By the way, who has been doing signs and wonders among the Gentiles? This guy.” But Paul didn’t do that all.
In humility, he and Barnabas say, “God has been showing His incredible power thru us among the Gentiles. He has done miracles thru us and signs that are convincing the Gentiles that Jesus is the Son of God.” It’s not about them. It’s about Him.
So the council rests in the wisdom of God, they recognize the works of God thru Peter, Barnabas, and Paul. Then thru James they refer to the Word of God. James provides such an example for all of us. When we face conflict, when we face uncertainty—we need to go to God’s Word. And we need to know it. James just rattles off Isaiah and Amos here. I mean this is just extraordinary. Talk about saying the right thing at the right time. James knocks it out of the park.
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[b] 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.’
You want to really help people in crisis? You want to offer solid wisdom? Give them divine wisdom from God’s Word. How? Study it. Memorize it. Daily Bible reading and devotions. Weekly corporate worship—what we’re doing right now. At Agape, we study and apply God’s Word together thru missional communities. We have over 30 to choose from. When we’re obedient to study God’s Word, apply what we’re learning, the Holy Spirit brings to our minds what we’ve read and mediated on when we need it the most.
Peter reminds the council to rest in the Wisdom of God. Barnabas and Paul help the council recognize the works of God, the power of God, thru their ministry to the Gentiles. James strengthens their testimony by referring to the Word of God–the prophets of old who foretold 750 years before Jesus arrives on the scene that the Gentiles will become followers of the one, true God. And note how James puts the icing on the cake with verses 17-18. God is making it known from of old. God is revealing His plan by drawing the Council’s attention to what the prophets of old said. James explains that the prophecy is literally being fulfilled in their midst!
The Council issues the dietary restrictions and reminder about sexual purity to serve as spiritual guardrails for the Christians. Guardrails direct and protect us. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the Council stresses to the Gentile Christians certain things they are to avoid, so that they resist sin, remain salt and light in a dark world, avoid offending Jews outside the faith, and promote unity and harmony between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
Sexual immorality is any sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman.
Sexual purity and unity among believers are essential to making the Gospel clear. That was true in the days of the early church, and it’s still true now. When we resist sexual immorality and promote unity in the body of Christ, the Holy Spirit often rewards our obedience by making the Gospel clear through us. We can serve as effective witnesses in proclaiming the Gospel.
Sexual purity is hard. We must establish guardrails in our lives to protect our hearts and our relationships. Men, one of the easiest and most practical things you can do to protect your marriage and your family is installing internet accountability on all your electronic devices (phones, tvs, computers). Pornography is a form of sexual impurity that is rampant in our society, and we must defeat it. There are several great internet monitoring/accountability tools out there. I use Covenant Eyes. I have it on my phones and computers. I have accountability partners that receive screen shots of where I go and help me by holding me accountable. If we fail to establish spiritual guardrails in our lives, we will damage our credibility as followers of Jesus, and we will dishonor our King.
The Jerusalem Council rested in the Wisdom of God, they recognized the Works of God, they referred to the Word of God, and lastly, they Redeployed the Witnesses of God.
In verse 22, the council selected two leading members of the Jerusalem Church to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch. Why? To encourage and strengthen the Christians there. To reinforce the decision of the council and rebuild trust between Jewish and Gentile Christians. To promote unity. They asked that the Gentile Christians promote unity by observing some dietary practices and then they walked their talk and promoted unity by sending Judas and Silas to Antioch to build up the believers.
Verse 31 says the Antioch Christians rejoiced. The council was led by the Holy Spirit, and their faithful obedience led to joy and peace among the early church. A few weeks ago, CH Kemp mentioned how Satan intended to destroy the early church thru persecution. He failed. The persecution led to rapid growth. Here Satan tries again to destroy the church thru division and cultural differences. He fails again.
Satan’s tactics haven’t changed. He wants to attack Agape by dividing us. You and I must be agents of unity and peacemakers.
You know God redeploys us, his witnesses in the DoD routinely with PCS moves. Our addresses are never an accident. God has you here for a specific purpose. He wants every one of us to use our spiritual gifts to promote unity, encourage and strengthen the faith of believers, and proclaim the Gospel.
Are you resting and applying the wisdom of God? Trust in the sovereignty of God and His plan for your lfe.
Are you apart of the work God is doing here at Agape? Commit and serve in the life and ministry of your church.
Are you relying on the Word of God? Trust God’s Word to guide the course of your life. Bible reading and study should become part of our daily and weekly rhythms. It means hearing from God thru personal devotions and applying it thru missional communities and corporate worship.
Are you a witness for God? Fulfill the Great Commission by proclaiming the Gospel to people who have need to hear it. We share hope and the message of Jesus with family members, co-workers, and neighbors.