A Mountain To Die On (Sermon)
A Mountain to Die On
Hi, I am pastor Rob, and it is a pleasure to be with you today!
Consider the breathtaking view from Mount Everest. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be on top of the world? Have you ever climbed to the top of a mountain and looked out and been astounded by creation? Do you ever feel the pull to get that kind of view? How much would you give for that 29,000-foot perspective?
Over 300 people have died trying to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Was it worth it? Would you risk it?
What is worth the risk? I can’t think of a greater hill to die on than the one we will talk about today. It has infinite significance. Let’s get our belay’s on and get ready to climb. Climb on.
I have asked _______ to read the scripture for us. We will be continuing our series in Acts. If you have your Bibles, you can follow along in chapter 15. We will read the first 35 verses. If you are able, please stand in honor of God’s Word.
15 1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 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? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 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 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.’
19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. 33 And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
Thank you. Let’s pray. God, we love you. Your word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. Help us to know what is true, stand for the truth, and let go of what isn’t. May your word work in us and grow us and change us to be more like your Son. We love you. In Jesus’s name, we pray, Amen. You may have a seat.
So the first missionary journey of Paul is complete. There are two more to go. Paul and Barnabas are back at their sending church, Antioch, teaching. After a significant amount of time, around 48-49 AD, we get to chapter 15, verse one. It tells us that new teachers come to town. They teach
“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
You need to be circumcised if you want to be saved.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Is that true? Let me tell you Paul and Barnabas had a problem with that. That is not what Paul and Barnabas were teaching.
An argument ensues. Verse 2.
2 Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them,
Luke, the author of Acts, uses a double negative to state the argument was heated. The New Living Translation puts it; they were “arguing vehemently.”
YOUR LAST ARGUMENT
When was the last time argued vehemently? Was it worth it? What mountains should we die on? For Paul and the Son of Encouragement, Barnabas, the issue of salvation was worth fighting for. This was a hill to die on.
Verse 2 continues.
Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
What question? What must we do to be saved? That is the question of the hour. Paul and Barnabas appeal to Jerusalem. Upon getting to Jerusalem, the issue is not regionally isolated to Antioch. The pressing concern greets Paul and Barnabas at Jerusalem.
Paul and Barnabas hear from brothers,
“It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
Really? If circumcision was not enough, now the Gentiles must keep the law? What must we do to be saved? Paul and Barnabas want to hear the Apostles and leadership on the matter.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
This morning I don’t have three points, but one. A question: What must we do to be saved? So, before I go back through the story and answer the question, what do you think? Take a moment, and answer in your bulletin or on your phone or in your head, “What must you do to be saved?” I will give you a minute. I want us, by the end, to have the same answer based on scripture.
IMPORTANCE - ETERNITY
This question is important. It is a mountain to die on. Not only are the stakes high, but our world also offers a vastly different solution. How often have you been to a funeral, for example, where they say, “He was a great guy” or “She was an example for us all.” Then nothing is said about the deceased’s faith in Jesus. “At least they are in a better place.” Why would they be in a better place? The implication at such a funeral is that all good people go to heaven.
HOW GOOD IS GOOD ENOUGH
What must we do to be saved? Is being good what saves us? If that is the case, how good must we be? Where is the cut-off? Does everyone go to heaven? The trouble with a human scale of good and evil is that we intuitively see atrocities like mass shootings, abuse against the young, disabled, and women, and think justice must be served. Certainly psychopathic, heartless killers won’t be in heaven. What about drug lords and murders? What about petty thieves and white-collar criminals and arsons? How about those who were young when they made their mistakes? Where is the line? If we are intellectually honest, we can’t draw the line. Too often, culture gives the nice guy a pass without thinking of the implications.
What must we do to be saved? Years ago, I was at a funeral that proclaimed the deceased’s heavenly hope was in their praying a prayer as a little child. I am all for prayers. I am all for little children praying little prayers of faith in Jesus. However, I am not sure the person whom I am thinking of had evidence of living faith before they died. The service didn’t offer any. I had concerns about what this person was saying on social media and how this person was living. I am not saying I know where they went. For argument sake, if this person prayed a prayer and had no fruit of faith, what kind of faith was that? Did that faith save them? What must we do to be saved? Is a commitment on a card, a prayer at bible camp, VBS, or baptism and communion able to save?
A FUNERAL THAT POINTED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
If you attended .... funeral last month, Pastor D.S. did a great job communicating the core of the gospel. He said something like, ...... as nice as they were, were sinners. Their hope for eternity was Christ. That is the unique hope of the Christian.
Isalm, we are talking about 1.8 billion people, teaches in Surah 5:9 that, "To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness and a great reward."
They have no substitute savior. Jesus is merely a human prophet, not the Lamb that was slain to take away the sin of the world. Forgiveness is contingent on work, your work. You want to be saved in Islam, work.
Hinduism, we are talking about 1.1 billion people, teaches you to achieve a type of salvation through what is called asceticism. Spiritual practices can free your soul from this bondage of the physical world. Hindu beliefs are diverse. They have over 2 million gods. There are many paths to many different types of heavens. Jesus is merely one. Truth is relative. They deny Jesus’s clear teaching about himself and Isalm’s teach, yet they agree with Isalm, hope is contingent on work, your work.
Buddhism, we are talking 500 million people, comes from Hinduism and follows the teachings of Buddha. Buddha never claimed to be the savior. The goal of Buddhism is Nirvana, some heavenly state. Getting to Nirvana is through following an eight-fold path and reincarnating into greater and higher beings. Jesus is only a person. If you don’t want to do the eight-fold path in this life, you can try the next. Buddhist and Muslims don’t agree on many things, but this they do, hope is contingent on work, your work.
Mormonism, we are talking about 15 million people, teaches this on their website, “salvation is conditional, depending on an individual’s continuing in faithfulness, or enduring to the end in keeping the commandments of God.” Jesus is a person like you or I. If men follow the commandments of God, then one day men and only men can be gods of our own planet. Women you can help populate the planets if you keep the commandments of God according to Mormon teaching. Ultimate salvation is based on your work. You want salvation, work for it.
Jehovah Witnesses, we are talking about 8.4 million people. They teach on their website, “To gain salvation, you must exercise faith in Jesus [that is good] and demonstrate that faith by obeying his commands.” (See also). That sounds closer. However, they believe Jesus was a God, not Jehovah God. A close analysis shows they believe you need to work your way to get to the highest heaven. Only 144,000 will make the cut. Salvation is based on your obedience to God’s commands.
TOTAL of 3 BILLION MISSING IT?
These examples are what over three billion people believe. They don’t all agree with each other except for one thing; your work is your hope. Who is right? Can three billion people be wrong? Does the majority define reality? To answer that question, let us ask, has the majority ever been wrong? You bet.
Take colonial slavery, for example. That was clearly evil, yet the majority of people held it as right and good. The majority doesn’t define reality.
JESUS NARROW WAY
13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
GOING TO JERUSALEM
What is the gate? What is the way? What is the truth? What must we do to be saved? Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to find out what the church teaches. Let’s join them. Climb on.
WHY WOULD THIS EVEN BE AN ISSUE?
Before we get an answer, let me ask this. Why would believers and brother teach circumcision and obedience to the law as necessary? Why is this even an issue? Let me take a stab at that. Jesus was Jewish. Paul was Jewish. Barnabas was Jewish. The Apostles were Jewish. The first Christians were Jewish. Circumcision was a command given by God to the Jewish people.
If you have your Bibles, keep a finger in Acts 15, and turn to Genesis chapter 17 verse 9. Follow along.
And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. ...12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, ….So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.”
FOLLOWING GOD’S WORD
I think those who brought this teaching to Antioch wanted to keep God’s word. Who was right? Do the Gentiles have to be circumcised to be saved? How do Christians relate to the Old Testament? Do we throw it out? How do we understand God’s everlasting covenant with His people?
ANSWERING THE QUESTION - APPEAL TO AUTHORITY
Antioch wanted an answer. They go to the higher authorities and seek resolution from those who knew Jesus personally. Paul and Barnabas are convinced in their minds, and I am sure those bringing the counter-arguments were convinced too. What do those closest to Jesus and mature in the faith think?
Look at verse 6.
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 ...there had been much debate,
The leadership came together and debated the matter. They didn’t all agree at once. If you are struggling to figure this out, you are not alone. The leadership was verbally processing and working this out in real-time. The Apostles and elders looked at the question from various angles and perspectives. They wanted to think this through. We know they wanted God’s perspective on it, and they had “much debate.”
Peter, the Apostle, spoke first, probably representing the Apostles. Listen to his three points.
GOD SAVED GENTILES
17 “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
God made the choice to save Gentiles. God spoke through Peter and caused them to believe. Peter didn’t make this happen, nor did his hearers. God chose Gentiles, non-Jewish people, to believe. God used Peter in chapter 10 to save Cornelius and his entire household. They heard the word of the gospel, the good news, and they believed without being circumcised.
Point 1: God saved Gentiles without rule-keeping.
GOD GAVE THEM THE HOLY SPIRIT
The second thing Peter said was this,
8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,
God demonstrated salvation through the Holy Spirit without commanding circumcision or obedience to the law. One example of this was some Gentiles received the gift of tongues, the ability to speak foreign languages, without prior knowledge of that language.
Point 2: God gave the Gentiles the Holy Spirit without rule-keeping
GOD SAVED THE GENTILES BY GRACE
Now the punchline, Peter’s third and final point. Look at verse 9.
9 and he [God] made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 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?
What yoke? It is the yoke of trying to earn salvation by doing good things. Hear this. The Jews were not saved by works. They had to do works as God’s covenant people but were saved by mercy through the future work of Christ on their behalf. Look at verse 11. Memorize it. Know it. This is key.
11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
God made no distinction, Peter said.
Point 3: God saved the Gentiles through grace, not rule-keeping.
UNIQUE CLAIM OF CHRISTIANITY
This is what separates true Christianity from all other religions. It calls sin, sin, and says we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, in Christ alone. Peter knew this. He knew intimately that Jesus died for the sin of the world. In less than two decades, Peter, himself, will die for his faith. He will lay down his life for this mountain called grace. His life was a testimony to the veracity of his theology. “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”
CHURCH’S RESPONSE - SILENCE
How does the church respond? Look at verse 12.
12 all the assembly fell silent.
This was jaw-dropping. I don’t think they wanted to place a yoke around the necks of baby believers. They didn’t want to be hypocrites.
CHURCH’S RESPONSE - LISTENING
The verse goes on.
12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened
They listened to the corroborating evidence of Paul and Barnabas as they heard of how God moved in power among the Gentiles. The Spirit moved on men and women and families who were not circumcised. For example, a man from Lystra, born without the ability to walk, sprang up and walked by the healing power of the Spirit! Following the Mosaic law was not a prerequisite for this healing. The healed man didn’t have to convert to Judaism for God’s help. God was on the move as Paul and Barnabas traveled hundreds of miles by land and sea, sharing the gospel with Jew and Gentile alike. The church listened to this experiential proof of Peter’s words.
James, the author of James, Jesus’s half brother, and the new leader of the elders at Jerusalem, spoke up in verse 15 and gave the elder’s perspective.
15 And with this the words of the prophets agree
The Prophets agree. They agree with Peter. They agree with Paul, and they agree with Barnabas. What do the prophets say? James loosely quotes Amos 9.
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 of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
Some Gentiles, "ethne" in Greek, are called by God's name. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, teaches that some from every nation “ethne” will be called by God’s name. Jesus promised the message would travel to the ends of the earth. He said his followers would receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on them. Moreover, they would be witnesses to Jerusalem, all of Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. James knew this teaching rooted in the Bible. He believed it. He agreed with Peter, Paul, and Barnabas.
Then, curiously, he concludes with four things to abstain from-
the things polluted by idols,
and from sexual immorality,
and from what has been strangled,
and from blood.
The Apostles, elders, church, Paul and Barnabas have no problem with that and send the requirements on. Why? Why would James and the church say that? What is going on? I think the context is driving a conclusion here that needs explanation.
IMPORTANT TO NOTE
Before we climb further, I think it is crucial to repeat how James agreed with Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, saying, “15 And with this the words of the prophets agree.”
James did not disagree with scripture or the prophets. However, James understood that beliefs should impact actions; we see that in his letter later in the Bible.
MEAT SACRIFICED TO IDOLS
Let’s look at each prohibition, briefly. The first prohibition was not to eat meat polluted by idols. Why? The source of food was the issue. You can’t unite yourself to an idol and Christ at the same time. You must choose. If you trust in Christ as your Lord and Savior, then don’t say your Christian one hour a week and live like you're not the rest. We must follow Jesus with all of our lives, not just part. Some of you need to hear that. Whom are you following? What are you trusting in? Live, my friends, what you believe.
Paul will write about this prohibition later. He communicates we are free in Christ to eat meat sacrificed to idols, but we are constrained by conscience and love for our brothers and sisters in the Lord to abstain when it leads to other’s temptation. He commends abstaining from our freedom to pursue a path of unity and care. Part of what may motivate Jame’s teaching could be a desire for unity as well as purity.
Are there ways you act that might lead others to sin. Do you have freedom in Christ, that should be constrained for the sake of unity and purity of others? Does anything you do lead your children to stumble? Does anything you do lead your buddies to stumble? Are you stuck in worldliness? James first instruction is a prohibition meant to help us in our battle for godliness.
ABSTAIN FROM SEXUAL IMMORALITY
The second requirement James spoke of was to avoid sexual immorality. This makes sense in our minds, I think. Purity doesn’t save us, but it is logical. Moral obedience to God is a reflection of our allegiance to God. Our actions demonstrate our beliefs.
WHAT DOES SEXUALITY AND IDOLATRY HAVE TO DO WITH EACH OTHER?
What do sexuality and idolatry have to do with each other? In ancient times religions often connected sex, eating, drinking, and beliefs together. They all had power over people. James knows these people and the type of guard rails needed for their faith to flourish.
LINE BETWEEN CULTURE AND CHRISTIANITY
Where is the line between culture and Christianity? How do we live in the world but not become part of it? What can we watch online or do with our friends? Morality reflects theology. What we do with our bodies matters. We can’t live one way one hour a week, and the other 160 some hours another. James calls people to live out what they believe in the bedroom as well as the lunchroom. This fits with what he writes in chapter 2 of his letter.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
James wants us to live out our faith with action, dedicating our sexuality and diet and days to God. Some of you need to stop what you are doing at night or in private and turn to God for forgiveness and grace and help. We live in a culture that is sick and trying to find joy through illicit short cuts. Take your cues from James instructions and abstain from sexual immorality friends.
ABSTAIN FROM STRANGLED MEAT AND BLOOD
James concluded with two more instructions about eating that are again tied back to worship. He said they should not eat meat that “has been strangled, and ...blood.”
If you strangle an animal, presumably the blood remains.
WHY IS THAT IMPORTANT?
What is the big deal? What is James getting at? Genesis taught about circumcision as wells as about blood in the meat. God said to Noah,
3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. (Gen. 9:3-4)
Why would blood be such a big deal? Centuries later, God gives us an answer in Leviticus 17. God said,
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. (Lev. 17:11)
Blood was sacred. God gives life and takes it away. Atonement means to get right with God relationally. We are born with a broken relationship with God because of sin. We have rebelled, ignored, and failed to follow Him in countless ways. The letting of blood sacrifices in the Old Testament pointed to Jesus’s once for all sacrifice on the cross. God wants his people to connect blood to forgiveness and atonement. So every time the Antioch believer abstains from drinking blood or eating blood, they could think of Jesus.
DO WE HAVE TO FOLLOW THIS?
Now, here is the tricky part, do we have to follow this? Can we order a rare burger or steak? Indeed, we should avoid sexual immorality and idol worship. I think the question about diet is personal because of the differing cultures and teachings about food and drink in the Bible. All meat has some blood in it, so this is not an argument to be vegan. The relevant questions for us are, "Do you honor the blood of Christ shed for your forgiveness? Do you value the life God gives? Do you recognize your debt to God for dying in your place? Wrestle with that. Ultimately, James is calling for us to live out what we believe. We believe we are sinners in need of a savior. And our savior is Jesus who gave up his body and blood for our salvation and the forgiveness of sin.
Paul taught to another church this,
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Gal. 5:6)
To another church, he wrote,
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10)
Today, we celebrate communion. The cup symbolizes Jesus’s blood poured out for your forgiveness.
- Some of you want to work your way to heaven, to earn it, to contribute. It just feels right. Recognize the teaching here and your ultimate inability to outweigh and never erase your wrongs. Trust in Christ alone, my friends. He is the way, the truth, and the life.
- Some of you need to dedicate this moment to end your two-timing God. You need to turn from sin and live for him. Take communion as an opportunity to rededicate your life to him. Trust in him, my friends.
- For some of you, you need to confess your sins and embrace the forgiveness of Christ’s body and blood given for you. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Trust in him, my friends.
- For some of you, you know this, use communion as an act of worship. Thank God. Praise God, and love God for his gift of grace. There is no other blood necessary. He paid it all. All.
What must we do to be saved? Friends believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. Peter said it this way; we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. Say that with me. “We will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.” Do you believe? Good. Then, climb on. Let your beliefs impact your life. Embrace grace today.
Let us pray.
*Use by permission only.
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