The Meeting that Forever Changed the Church

It was a key moment for the Church. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the future of the Church hung in the balance. Decisions made at this meeting would define the Church for generations to come.

That meeting is recorded for us in Acts 15. All the leaders of the early Church were gathered to answer one question: What should be required of Gentiles who put their faith in Jesus?  Or, said another way: Do Gentile believers have to practice Jewish customs?

This was due to two realities. One: the very first followers of Jesus came from a Jewish background. So, their faith in Jesus was an outgrowth of their Jewish faith, and continued to include: Jewish circumcision, Sabbath guidelines, and food restrictions. In other words, the debate over how inclusive their faith practice would be was very much an open question, for Jewish practices kept a very clear separation between Jewish and Gentile life.

In Acts 15, the early Jewish Christian leaders gathered to wrestle with this reality. In that meeting, Peter gets up, and say: GOD chose to use me to speak the word of the Gospel to the Gentiles. HE was the one to give them the Spirit, just as He gave us. And then Peter says: How could we put a yoke on them that we ourselves have not been able to carry? For the bottom line is this: They will be saved the same way we are: By Grace.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say: those words changed the course of the Church. Those words pointed us to the reality that it is not tradition, or religious practice, or law that saves us. That saves ANY of us. That saves ALL of us. It’s grace.

James goes on to affirm what Peter has stated, when he says in verse 14: Simon has described how God has first visited to receive from the Gentiles a people for His own name.

God has visited the Gentiles. A promise that Luke, the writer of Acts, first brings up all the way back in his gospel, in the Prophesy of Zechariah. In Luke 1.68, Zechariah describes how God has visited His people. At the end of his song, in verse 78, Z says, “Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the Dawn from on high will visit us” (HCSB). This promise, Acts 15 now tells us, has come true for the Gentiles. God has visited them to receive them. And by describing them as a “people,” James uses the word people that elsewhere is used to describe the Jewish people of God.

Could it be ANY clearer, in this pivotal meeting of the early Church, just what God’s plan is? What is God’s desire? It is crystal clear: God has visited the people who once were not a people, and has invited them to become His people. That is what makes Christmas, Christmas. God, in Jesus, visiting us with His saving mercy – a salvation now clearly offered to everyone.

4 Ways To Think about God

In a thought-provoking article on how to speak to people in today’s culture, Daniel Strange notes that there are 4 ways people respond to God. Randomly pick someone out of a crowd, ask them their view of God, and when you parse out the answer, it will boil down to one of these four approaches:

1. Displacement: Not content with the God who is, many people make another God. They displace the One who sits on the throne, and they put another god of their choosing in that place. And the gods available for choosing are about as numerous as the people choosing them. There’s the obvious ones: Money, Sex, and Power. And there’s the churchy versions of false gods: Legalism, Spiritual Arrogance, Pious Language with a life that doesn’t match it. All of us were made with a thirst for transcendence – with a need for more. And many seek to slake that thirst with any liquid, rather than the One who is Living Water.

2. Distortion: Another way to (mis)understand God is to distort Him. Don’t like that God calls us into a relationship of holy, faithful living? Envision God as a kindly Old Fella who loves us, but doesn’t hold us accountable. Don’t like a God who takes on flesh and is so much a part of us? Picture God as withdrawn, available only when we need Him. Or, maybe you prefer a God who hates the same people you hate? Then you’ll look to a God who plays favorites. Just as we can displace God with many knock-off versions, so we can also distort God to fit our idea of what God should be. But be careful: the God you distort will probably end up looking a lot like you.

3. Denial: This is the version of the un-God that is so popular these days. Denying God is simple, straightforward, and carries with it a sense of chic. Believe in God? Me? Haven’t we moved past our need for a great eye in the sky? Some folks who choose to disbelieve have done their homework: they’ve read the Bible, they’ve attended worship, they’ve wrestled with the issues. But I suspect that such a description fits a minority of atheists. The majority, I would think, disbelieve in God because so many people practice displacement and distortion. In other words, the God many folks choose to reject is the God who is less than the One revealed to us in scripture. As Daniel Strange notes: “These days when people tell me they don’t believe in God, I often say, I bet I don’t believe in that god you don’t believe in either.” Regardless of the reason people decide not to believe in God, those of us who choose the fourth option have a responsibility to make sure they get a chance to see what real love from the real God looks like. Which leads to the fourth way to approach God…

4. Devotion: At its heart, this is a full trust in the God who has made Himself known in Jesus. This is a belief that God has made us, and invites us to be His children. God is a relationship God, which is shown in the fact that God doesn’t simply love, He is love. And God shows this clearly at a time like now, when, at Christmas, we celebrate the unthinkable – that God became one of us.

In a world that displaces, distorts, or denies God, what people need most is to see those devoted to God live that out – every day, in every way. So, of these four ways to respond to God, which one describes you?

Jesus & the Story of God

On Sunday, I mentioned that the story and the scriptures of the Old Testament are all throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Because of this, Richard Hays compares Matthew to an annotated study Bible.

Hays focuses on 13 places where Matthew points to the Hebrew scriptures in clear, can’t-miss terms. If in Matthew’s day they had invented sharpies and oversized print, he might have used them in these 13 places.

On Sunday, I pointed to 3 of those 13. The first is in Matthew 1.22-23, just after the angel tells Joseph who Mary is carrying in her womb. “All this took place,” Matthew writes, “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.

I then spent some time highlighting two others (Matthew 2.15, 17-18). That leaves ten more. All key passages, all beginning with some form of the phrase: This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet…. 

Matthew 2.5-6: Herod calls together the religious scholars to find out where Jesus had been born. They point him to Bethlehem, for this what we read in Micah 5.1-3.

Matthew 2.23: Though he was born in Bethlehem, he is raised in Nazareth – for this was spoken by the prophets, Matthew says.

So, five of the 13 references come at the beginning of Jesus’ life – indicating Matthew’s clear desire early on to connect this child Jesus to God’s Great Story. Jesus is clearly a vital part of what God is doing, and the wise reader will not simply gather around the nativity, but “read backwards” to better understand just who this child is.

Matthew 3.3: Along comes John the Baptizer, and Matthew wastes no time in tying him to the prophet Isaiah. John is the voice crying out: Prepare the way for the LordSo, before Jesus makes his first ministry appearance, Isaiah (through John) is letting us know: The Lord is coming.

Matthew 4.14-16: When Jesus begins his ministry in the region around the Sea of Galilee, Matthew again ties in the prophet Isaiah. He says that through Jesus a Great Light is coming, right in the midst of the darkness. So, this is the 7th of 13 clear references to the OT – and they all shine a spotlight on Jesus. Clearly, everything changes with Jesus.

Matthew 8.17: Jesus takes up our infirmities.

Matthew 12.17-21: This quote, again from Isaiah, makes it very clear: Jesus didn’t come for some limited, only-among-my-kind-of-people ministry. His coming brings hope to the Gentiles – the non-Jewish, outside-of-the-covenant people that fill the world. Jesus came among the Jews, but Matthew, relying on Isaiah, makes it clear that Jesus’ message is meant to reach every man, woman, and child across the globe.

Matthew 13.14-15: Jesus compares his disciples with the crowd. The disciples see and hear; the crowds do not. This has been prophesied, Matthew says – perhaps a glimpse at the way many of Jesus’ own people will not “see” who he really is.

Matthew 13.35: Those parables of Jesus reveal what has been hidden since the foundation of the world – which means: they are probably worth listening to, and learning from.

Matthew 21.4-5: Jesus is entering Jerusalem as a king, as THE king. The Messiah is coming, and within that pivotal week, those who have eyes to see will learn exactly what that means.

Matthew 27.9: The last “what was spoken by the prophet” is about Judas, and his betrayal of Jesus. Kind of interesting one to conclude with, but perhaps a clear pointer to the need for each person to decide: Who do I say Jesus is?

In fact, that’s the point of this season. Strip away the presents, the wrapping, the parties, the glitz & glitter of the season, and what’s left? Jesus. The one the prophets pointed toward. The one who has come to continue, and complete, the story that God is writing.