Day #322: Daily Bible Reading Plan - November 15th
Scripture Reading: Acts 15 - 16 …
What is being described throughout the book of Acts is the birth of the Church, this body made up of Jews and Gentiles, brought together through the cross of Christ in order to proclaim to the world God's message of grace and His offer of forgiveness and life through faith in Jesus! It seems that many today have forgotten the simplicity of God's plan to gather for Himself a people from among the nations of the world to be His people. The Bible is ONE book and it reveals the unfolding of ONE plan, beginning with Abraham, but extending to all nations. Only those who study God's Word and who are given wisdom from God's Spirit to see the progressive revelation of His plan are able to understand the dynamic transition that was taking place as the apostles carried the Gospel into the world.
Because many fail to see God's purpose and plan unfolding, they veer from the course that God has laid out for His Church today. Instead of preaching the Gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ, they become more concerned about making people feel good about themselves and allow people to remain in their sin without calling them to repentance and faith in Jesus. Doing so leaves people separated from God and without hope of salvation. The early church faced the same temptation to become distracted by trying to get people to "be good" by obeying the Law, without knowing or loving Jesus! Many churches today are more about getting people to "be good," than about sharing with people the message that has the power to transform their hearts and minds and to produce joyful obedience to all that God calls His people to obey.
That's what was at stake at the first gathering of the leaders of the Church at Jerusalem … what is often called the "Jerusalem Council." The issue that was being raised was whether or not the Gentiles could be saved without being circumcised (15:1). Some of the new believers were Jews and while they believed in Jesus they still believed that "the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses" (15:6). They were missing the very heart of the Gospel, and it is important that you and I understand what was happening here.
Nobody was saying that the Gentiles, or the Jews who had become believers for that matter, did not need to obey the moral law revealed in the Ten Commandments. In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom" (Matthew 5:17-19).
There you have it! Further, in His "Great Commission" Jesus said, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). Obedience to the commands God had given to Israel was not the issue. What was the issue? First of all, circumcision. Circumcision had nothing to do with the Law of Moses. Circumcision was a sign of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants wherein God promised to be their God and they would be His people. It was a sign, sealed in God's Name, that those who believed, as Abraham did, would be "credited with righteousness" (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3). Circumcision, like the Law, pointed to the origin of mankind's sin and the need for the shedding of blood, the need for a sacrifice, the need for a Savior.
Now that the Savior had come, Jesus said that those who believed (and their children) should be baptized into the Name of the Father, Son and Spirit … into HIS Name! You will notice here, however, that while the Jerusalem Council determined that the Gentiles did NOT need to be circumcised, it does not mention baptism with water either. It DOES mention the work of the Holy Spirit, which Paul would later call the "baptism of the Holy Spirit." John the Baptist had said that One would come after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). It is only by being born again by the Spirit that we are born again and enter into God's kingdom (John 3:3,5).
This was the issue that was before the Jerusalem Council and it is the issue that is at stake in the church today. Are we saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, or are we saved by something WE do … whatever that may be? Peter testified before the Council that God was at work in the Gentiles just as He was in them. "God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith" (15:8-9). Then he made it even clearer when he added: "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are!" (15:11).
Surely, Paul must have been thinking about this when, inspired by the Spirit, He wrote to the Ephesians, "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Grace offers forgiveness to all who believe through faith in the blood of Christ shed on the cross once for all. You can't add anything to grace … you don't need to add anything to grace. As soon as you tack on anything, whether circumcision or even baptism, you destroy grace. If you say that people HAVE to obey the Law, you lose grace. "Grace" is "undeserved favor." It is what Noah received from God in Genesis 6:8 and it is what Abraham received when God called him to be the "father of nations" in Genesis 12:1-3.
By its definition, you can't earn grace or it stops being grace! "The wages of sin is death; BUT the GIFT of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). After Paul and Barnabas reported on God's activity among the Gentiles through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, James reminded the council of how Peter had reported to them that God was "taking from the Gentiles a people for Himself" (15:14). He explained that this was the fulfillment of God's promise through the prophet Amos that "the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name …" (15:16). This was God's plan from the beginning. The Law was given to point people to Christ, not to be a way to earn salvation. After all, no one could keep it!!
The beauty of the Gospel is that it saves us by grace and then moves us to obey the very law that previously condemned us, now not because we have to, but because we WANT to. Paul explains in Romans 8:1-4 that the law no longer condemns those who are united to Christ by faith because the Holy Spirit is now at work within us. God now transforms our hearts and minds and we become new creations in Christ, "in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:4). Life in the Spirit is a life of obedience. We no longer need the sign that points to sin and the need for the shedding of blood. Christ has offered the perfect sacrifice once for all and by the baptism of the Spirit we are united to Him, once and for all.
How do you know if you have been "baptized by the Spirit?" Ask yourself some questions: Have you placed your faith in Jesus Christ? Do you desire to turn from sin to obedience out of thanksgiving to God for His marvelous gift of grace in Christ? Then you have been born again by His Spirit, "for we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body" (I Corinthians 12:13). With the apostles and the brothers who met in Jerusalem so many years ago, we must agree that "we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God" (15:19). How many people today do not come to God because they believe they have to "fix themselves" first, they have to change their lives by their own power, they have to "measure up" to the standard that those who act like the Pharisees demand.
GRACE is GRACE!!! When Paul and Barnabas carried the letter back to Antioch, the brothers there were encouraged and they continued to preach the word of the Lord and others believed and were saved. This is God's way, the only way to be saved. As Paul and Silas, and Barnabas and Mark, now went out to visit the churches Paul had planted on his first journey and to encourage them and to preach in other places, God continued to build His Church, gathering people from both the Jews and the Gentiles, bringing them together into one body. It was not an easy transition, and there were "bumps" along the way. But God was fulfilling Jesus' words, "I will build My Church!"
God called the apostles to new places and wherever they went they found those who had heard the message and believed. They taught them and encouraged them and more people believed and were baptized, along with their households (16:14-15; 31-34). The apostles were severely persecuted, but nothing could stop them from preaching the message they knew was the power of God unto salvation to all who believed (Romans 1:16). Whether it was a business woman, a slave girl or a jailor, God brought His Word to those whom He had chosen before the world began to be His and he called them to Himself. No gimmicks, no steps or requirements but one: "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved" (16:31).
How glorious is this message! For nearly 2,000 years God has sent His people into all the world to proclaim this one message. The message has not changed since these days that we read about in the book of Acts. It is the one Gospel, the good news, the only message on the face of the earth that has the power to save, for it alone is the Gospel of God's GRACE in Jesus Christ. Every other religion … no exceptions … offers salvation through works of one kind or another. That is why it is such a tragedy when some in the church do the same thing. Add one thing to what Jesus has done and it is no longer grace. Faith itself is the gift of God, produced by the work of His Spirit in the hearts of those whom He chooses. As God "opened Lydia's heart to respond to Paul's message" (16:14), so He continues to do today.
If you have been saved at all, you have been saved by GRACE!! Rejoice in that truth. Give thanks for the Gospel of God's grace in Christ Jesus. Believe in Jesus and share this message with those to whom God sends you ... family, friends, co-workers, classmates, neighbors, strangers ... for His work will continue until all who are Jesus' sheep hear, believe and are saved ... by GRACE!!
"Heavenly Father, I praise You for Your grace and thank You for Your love to me in Jesus! I confess that I am a sinner, unable to save myself and in need of a Savior. By Your grace alone I have placed my faith in the blood of Jesus to redeem me, to purify my heart, to SAVE me! Now Your love compels me to share the good news with others, that they, too, may believe and be saved by Your amazing, marvelous grace. To You, Father, be glory and honor and praise, in Jesus' name, Amen"