The Rules


Ryan Hayden Acts

Today's message touches on a subject that I've given a ton of thought to. If I'm known for anything by pastors outside of our church - it's my writing on this subject. Depending on who you are - this may make you mad, it may make you rejoice. I think it steps on everyone's toes. Today we are going to look at a passage that really speaks to rules - Christian rules - standards if you will - and the reason behind those rules.

Now, this is a "thinking cap" kind of message. You are going to have to hang on and follow along. I'll do my best to make it interesting - but it's definitely important. So try to stay with me.

Before we get into the passage - let's review the context for a minute. If you remember from last Sunday, there is a group of people that are going around the world telling gentile Christians that they have to follow the jewish law - they have to eat kosher, they have to observe the sabbath, they have to go through circumcision, etc. They are saying that you have to do those things if you want to be saved.

That's heresy. That's a problem. But remember - at this time, the vast majority of Christians were from a jewish background. They were doing this stuff already. So it was an easy heresy for most of them to swallow.

Paul and Barnabas had a real problem with it and they took their problem to the highest court there was - the church at Jerusalem. The apostles had a long discussion on it and in the end, their decision was summarized by James in verses 19-21:

"Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day."

That's where we left off last week. Today, we are going to continue right there and read verses 22 to 35.

"22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; [namely], Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: 23 And they wrote [letters] by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren [send] greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: 24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, [Ye must] be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no [such] commandment: 25 It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell [you] the same things by mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. 30 So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: 31 [Which] when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. 32 And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed [them]. 33 And after they had tarried [there] a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. 34 Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. 35 Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also."

Our outline this morning is going to be simple. Basically, two points and some lessons as we look at this passage.

The first point is:

1. The Test

The star of this chapter is the commands that James and the apostles give to the gentile churches. We see them in verse 20. Then the rest of these verses tell us how they were carried to the gentile churches. Then you see them again in verses 29-30.

So this passage is all about this command we see in verse 20 and in verse 29. How it was received. How it was transmitted.

The story here is pretty straightforward: The apostles made their decision, then Paul, Barnabas, and a couple of new names - Silas and Judas, went around telling everyone what the apostles had decided. That's it, that's all we see in this passage.

So what I want to do this morning is what I didn't do last Sunday, I want us to take a look at this command that was being passed around, look at what it actually saying and try to understand it.

So what does verse 20 say Gentile Christians had to do: Four things?

  • Abstain from pollutions of idols
  • Abstain from fornication
  • Abstain from things strangled
  • Abstain from blood

That's it. Seems kind of random right? Let me explain a little.

The first part: pollutions of idols - had to do with polluting your house with idols. Jews hated idolatry and if you had a bunch of leftover idols in your house and a jew came over - they would have thought that was unclean. So this is basically saying - get rid of all of your old idols. It also referred to meat that had been offered to idols. A lot of the food that gentiles ate would be offered to idols first. Obviously, jewish people would have a problem with that.

The third and fourth parts: things strangled and blood. Those are dietary. The jews wouldn't eat any meat unless it had been drained. They considered the meat that gentiles ate unclean because it wasn't properly kosherized. So the gentile Christians had to make sure that their meat met jewish standards.

So let's recap: get rid of idols, don't eat meat offered to idols, make sure your meat meets jewish standards.

The last thing is "abstain from fornication." This doesn't seem to fit. There are a lot of explanations for it. But the one that makes the most sense is that the gentiles lived in a very open society. They lived in a society where fornication, nudity, adultery etc. were very very common. People joked about them openly. Most people didn't see a big deal.

It's like today. If you poll most people under 40, the vast majority don't think there is anything wrong with living with someone outside of marriage. They dress to draw attention to their bodies. They read magazines about it. The TV and Movies make it seem like nothing.

The greek and roman societies were even worse than ours are about that. So what I think this last thing was saying wasn't just "don't have sex outside of marriage" what I think it was saying was "be really careful about the whole subject."

So the logical question is why?

Does this mean that we are supposed to eat kosher? Does this mean that we have to clean out our houses?

The why of this is really important.

That brings me to...

2. The cause

I think probably the most important verse in this whole chapter is actually verse 21. James gives this command and then he says:

"For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day"

The word "for there" signifies that what comes after it is a statement of purpose. It's like James is saying 20 "here is what you need to do" and in verse 21 he's saying "and here's why."

So here is the why for the command: because in every city there are synagogues full of people who follow Moses.

Did you catch that? Read the verse again:

"For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day"

Ok, so what does that tell us about this great command? Here it is:

This command isn't about salvation (believing the gospel) or sanctification (becoming Holy) it's about evangelism (or testimony with a lost world.)

You see, the stated point of this wasn't that you had to do these things to get saved - that was heresy and the apostles dealt with that. It wasn't that you had to do these things to be holy - we are made holy by Jesus Christ. We are accepted by Him. We are clean in him. The apostle Paul explicitly makes this argument both in 1st Corinthians and in Romans.

So this verse and this command has nothing to do with our standing before God and everything to do with our standing before our fellow man.

In other words, If you were a gentile believer living around jews and trying to witness to them - you would have no chance if you didn't do these things.

The jews were raised to think that gentiles were gross. That their houses were full of wicked idols. That their food was idolatrous. That they ate and touched unclean things. So you couldn't lead a jew to the Lord if they wouldn't go near you.

That's what these commands were all about.

By the way, we aren't under these commands today. We aren't under the dietary law. What God said to Peter still works for us - "Arise and eat." You don't have to worry about kosher. You don't have to worry about people thinking your house is ceremonially unclean. That's Old Testament stuff and we live in the new testament.

That's never what these commands were about - they were:

  1. Telling the gentiles they weren't under the law and were saved by grace
  2. Telling the gentiles they needed to be careful for the sake of the jews around them.

And that's really backed up by the way these commands were recieved.

Look at verse 31:

"31 [Which] when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation."

When the gentiles heard this they rejoiced. We aren't under the law. Salvation is by grace. That's a consoling message.

So we've looked at the command, we've look at the cause of the command. Now let's talk for a few minutes about...

3. The consequences (lessons for us)

What in the world are we - believers who live in the 21st century, who live thousands of years removed from the Old Testament, who live removed from all jewish influence. What are we supposed to get from this passage? What does this teach us?

I think it teaches us three principles that we can apply to our own rules and our own ways of living.

Listen, church, rules are a part of life. We can't live without rules. We can't live as anarchists. God instituted authority in the home, authority in the church, authority in government, authority in the home. There are going to be rules in every aspect of our life. So how do we parse those rules?

Before I get into the lessons here, I want to say that there are two bad attitudes people tend to have that are kind of like the two extremes on this:

One of them is this "You have to obey the rules or you aren't saved." That's the problem that the people in this passage were dealing with and there are still people who have this attitude today.

But the second extreme attitude that we deal with is this We are Christians now so there is no rules. This is on the other side of the spectrum and we run into this from time to time.

Most Christians seem to be someone near one of those sides. So what do we learn from this passage that helps us with this?

I think the first lesson is this:

A. God is not out to get you

God isn't a sadist. He's not into making you obey rules for the sake of obeying rules. He's not into adding arbitrary rules that you can't handle.

Peter's question in this chapter really gets to this, he asked "Are we going to put a yoke on the gentiles that we couldn't handle?"

People have a tendency to make rules an end in themselves. When they do that it hurts people and makes God look like a monster.

Remember what Jesus said in Mark 2:27? He said "The sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath."

Over time in Israel people got the idea that the sabbath was an end in itself and they made the sabbath, which was something awesome God intended to help people into something awful that was a huge burden. It got to the point that Jesus was being criticized for healing on the sabbath and the disciples were getting criticized for having a snack on the sabbath.

Listen folks - no matter what rule God gives us - God has a reason. He isn't out to get you. His rules aren't arbitrary. They aren't "because I said so" rules. Behind every rule is a reason and that reason is almost always for our benefit.

The second lesson from this is...

B. God wants people to be saved

Salvation is by grace, through faith, not of works, lest any man should boast.

The biggest problem that the apostles had with this idea of adding judiasim to the gospel is that it would make it almost impossible for gentiles to trust Christ.

Listen folks - salvation is a free gift that God wants people to take. Salvation is by grace, not by gauntlet

You can be saved today. Just trust Christ and His finished work on the cross and He will save you. He wants to do it.

1 Timothy 2:4 says

"Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth"

God WANTS to save people. We get this idea in our heads sometimes that people have to run through an obstacle course to get to grace - but that's not how Salvation is supposed to work.

God wants people to get saved. But the biggest lesson from this passage is...

C. We should be willing to do things that aren't necessarily wrong for the conscience of others.

Remember - these rules that the apostles gave to the church - they weren't about salvation or holiness - they were about testimony, they were about evangelism. Peter and James weren't saying that meat offered to idols was inherently sinful. They weren't saying that meat with blood in it is inherently sinful. They were saying "Listen, there are a bunch of jews who think it is - so for their sake - stay away from it so you can reach them."

In other words, they had to give up things that weren't wrong for the good of others.

Can I tell you - that is God's expectation today too. You might have something that you think is perfectly ok - but it's not ok to your unsaved family member or some Christian who just got saved. You don't make fun of those people. You don't flaunt to those people. You give it up for their sake.

Do you know there are things that I think are perfectly ok - but I won't do because I don't want to be a stumblingblock. I'll give you an example: I love hot wings. I like the food at buffalo wild wings. I like their food a lot. But do you know what? I never go into buffalo wild wings. Is it because it's sinful? No. It's because I don't want lost person driving out of Walmart and watching me go in there and thinking "There goes that pastor into a bar" or I don't want some of you who have been saved recently seeing me in there and thinking "I guess it's ok to go hang out in there." When it would be terrible for them to hang out in there. Do you get it?

As believers we aren't supposed to just live on the plane of right and wrong. We are to live on the plane of "is this the best thing I can do for God and others?