Grace & Truth

Grace & Truth

We are well into the historic story of how the Church got started and how this movement became such a big deal. We’re looking at this history to learn and be inspired by the early Church of how to be a Great Commission Christian, someone who shares who Christ is and what He has done for us in order to help others know our great Savior.

There was so much going on in that period of history that when you pause long enough to look at it, it’s incredible to think about how this message of Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, got past the first century.

Let’s recap the story so far. Jesus died on the cross, rose from the grave, and appeared before His disciples and a number of others several times. About two months after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and took the message that Jesus is the Messiah and that He died on the cross for the sins of the world, and that He rose from the dead, into the streets of Jerusalem. But this was the same city where Jesus was crucified, but without fear these disciples, who were eye witnesses of the resurrected Savior, boldly told everyone they could.

Within just a few short days, over 5,000 men, plus women and children had embraced that message. There was excitement, there was conflict, and this new movement called “The Way” (it wasn’t called Christianity yet) threatened the delegate balance of power between Rome and the temple leaders.

Therefore, the apostles were arrested and flogged, almost to death. They were left go and warned not to speak about that name, and no more talking about the “R” word either, the resurrection. But Luke, the author of the book of Acts, tells us that the disciples just couldn’t stop telling others about Jesus. Their boldness was off the charts, and ultimately, persecution broke out.

Stephen was the first martyr, the first one put to death in this persecution time. At his death, a new name came on the scene. Saul, who we also know as Paul. Saul led the widespread persecution of the Church for three years. And during that three years of unchecked persecution, the believers were scattered far and wide. But everywhere they went they told this crazy story of how a Jewish carpenter named Jesus was sent from God and was killed by the Romans and the Jews and had actually risen from the dead. Many of those followers were eyewitness of Jesus themselves, and many of the others heard directly from those eye witnesses.

But three years after the persecution started, Saul had an incredible conversion. He was made blind, then was miraculously healed, and suddenly became an advocate for the Way, the very thing he had been persecuting. Then, he did something really crazy and decided to take this message of Jesus outside of Judea and spread it throughout the known Greek world—today Turkey and Greece to all the Jews and Gentiles he could. He takes three long, treacherous journeys to do so.

Now, that leads us to today’s story. Just after his first missionary journey, back in Jerusalem which was kind of the hub of Christianity, there was a controversy starting to brew. Paul had been spreading the gospel to non-Jews which brought up a lot of questions. Like, what do they have to do in order to be a part of the Church? How many rules do you have to keep? How much of their lifestyle do they have to clean up before they can be accepted in the Church?

See, the Jewish people had the Ten Commandments and basically six hundred other laws that they had been raised to keep, and they believed that Jesus and Christianity were an extension of Judaism. After all, Jesus is the Jewish awaited Messiah, the Messiah that the Jews had waited hundreds of years for.

So after catching word that non-Jewish people were being converted, the leaders in Jerusalem sent people out to check on what was going on and to correct this.

But suddenly, all of these Gentile believers, whom Paul converted, found themselves stuck because they weren’t Jews, but yet were assured by Paul that Jesus died for their sins and that they too can have peace with God through grace and forgiveness.

For many people, this is the reason they drop out or don’t ever start going to church because they feel like they are just not good enough to be a church person. Now the flip side of that is that if you’ve been a Christian for many years or if you’ve been a church person your whole life, you can understand a little bit of the angst and part of the conflict. Because, come on, part of Christianity is a moral and ethical standard we are all accountable to.

Throughout the New Testament we’re told don’t lie, treat your husband a certain way, treat your wife a certain way. There are some dos and don’ts. We’ve got the Ten Commandments. There is a moral imperative that’s a part of Christianity, yet at the same time there’s this incredible message of grace and forgiveness.

Oftentimes in the local church, the truth of the gospel seems to come into conflict with the grace of the gospel. And when there’s a conflict, church people get really weird and start building walls and saying, we want you to be a part of our church, but before you come, here’s what you’ve need to do.

But when John looked back on his time with Jesus and wrote the Gospel of John, he said, “He (Jesus) was FULL of grace and truth” John 1:14. So in Jesus, grace and truth are one in the same. He wasn’t the balance of grace and truth. But that’s what churches like to do, just be balanced. But it’s as if Jesus completely embodied all of grace and all of truth and in Him there was no conflict.

When the local church gets this right, that it’s not a balancing act, it’s not a clean yourself up first kind of thing….and neither is it, let’s throw away the standards so everybody feels good about themselves kind of thing…when we get this right and come together in the name of Jesus, there’s an embodiment of grace and truth in such a way that forgiveness isn’t dumbed down, grace isn’t dumbed down, and neither are the morals of Christianity. They co-exist in a powerful way.

The early church was wrestling with this. So let’s look at this very first church business meeting as they wrestled with this tension of grace and truth. There are some huge takeaways for us as we think about our responsibility and our stewardship of being the Church today. But I’ve got to warn you, you’re likely going to be a little uncomfortable, but that’s okay. When scripture makes us uncomfortable, that’s when we’re growing.

Acts 15:1
Some men came down from Judea (that’s where Jerusalem is and the apostles are) to Antioch and were teaching the brothers (the new believers): “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

By the way, Antioch is the first place that the word Christian was used to describe the people following the Way. The new Christians are like wait, what? Unless I have a surgery, I can’t become a Christian? Paul didn’t say anything about that. What are you talking about?

The Jews were saying that you can’t be Christian until you’re Jewish. And since you are Gentile, non-Jewish people who didn’t have this done when they were eight-day old babies, well to be saved you have a little surgery first.

Now what this really meant was that the new membership class was primarily women. The guys are sitting outside going, “Honey, you go on in. I love Jesus and all, but I’ve got to think about this.”

See we read this and just go right to the next verse. But if you read this slower and think about how the people must have felt, you get a whole new perspective. This was serious business. They really believed that before you can be fully embraced by the Church, men, you have to join the Moses club before you can join the Jesus club.

Acts 15:2, 4
2 This brought Paul and Barnabas (who is traveling with Paul) into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

So, Paul shows up in Jerusalem and says, we’ve got to talk. But before we talk, I got to tell you what’s been going on. I need to give you a report. For the two years I’ve been traveling around the Mediterranean planting churches, everywhere I go there are Gentiles who are embracing the message of Jesus, and when they embrace the message of Jesus, God does something extraordinary in their lives.

But I haven’t been telling them they’ve got to clean up their act and become Moses followers before they can become Jesus followers. I haven’t been telling them we’ll give you about six months to see if you can keep it up and if all of that works out, then you can become part of the church. He says, so guys, we’re sending mixed messages to the Gentiles, and we’ve got to sort this out. Your kind of messing up my whole ministry. Now this is really fascinating.

Acts 15:5
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses.”

This is huge. Don’t skip over this. The Pharisees were the group that put Jesus to death. Remember that? They are always the recurrent bad guys in the Bible. But what we don’t often hear is that once Jesus rose from the dead, even some of the Pharisees said, you’ve totally messed up all of my understandings, but you absolutely have to be the Messiah? So some of the Pharisees, who joined the Way, are also committed to the law of Moses, and they’re struggling with all of this.

When we think “the law,” we think of the Ten Commandments, and those are good commandments. We like most of them. We don’t obey all of them, but we like them. We want our kids to obey them. But that’s not what this is talking about. In fact, there were over six hundred laws, in fact 613 laws.

So here’s what they’re telling Paul. We want you to get back on the boat, go to all those cities, and train all those new believers in how to change their entire lifestyle to adapt to 613 laws, and once they have digested a lifestyle with 613 laws and have a surgery, then they can be a part of the Church. That sounds absurd!

But here’s where we’re going today so be careful before you judge them too harshly. If you’ve been in the church for a long time, this kind of thinking creeps in for all of us. You think you’re open-minded, but if we’re not careful, we all settle into our own version of Christianity. And suddenly, someone comes along that doesn’t fit our version, and we become a little bit like the majority of the Pharisees, judgmental. We make our own standards and become very comfortable.

And that’s what happened in the very first century. They were very comfortable with their own standards and didn’t want to change.

Acts 15:7 -11
7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.

Peter’s saying, this isn’t just a Paul thing. Remember, I went out and talked to the Gentiles too.

8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.

To which the Pharisees in the group go, He might have purified their hearts, but they’ve got some nasty Gentile habits. He might have purified their hearts, but they don’t eat right, don’t dress right and are offensive. So Peter asked them a question:

10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of disciples (these brand-new believers) a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?

He’s basically saying, look you and I both know there is no way in this world that you and I have been able to keep every single one of those 613 laws? So why then do we want to expect the Gentiles, who didn’t grow up being taught the law like we were, why do we want to put on their backs something that has burdened us for years? Let’s not be hypocrites.

11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

God knows the heart. Not us. So whether you haven’t been in church in years or you never miss, God knows our hearts and none of us are perfect. But look, God can purify your heart before you purify your life, before you drop that nasty habit. God can purify your heart before you fix your marriage, or finally face up to the fact that you have some insecurities that drive you into behaviors that you’re ashamed of. If He can do that for you, He can do that for the people around you. It’s called grace and truth.

Now at the end of Peter’s sermon, James, the brother of Jesus gets up to say his thoughts. By the way, if you have doubts about Jesus being the Son of God, Jesus’ strongest argument is James. Just think about it. What would your brother have to do to convince you he was God? Family members are usually the hardest ones to convince about anything good. The fact that James concluded that his brother was God is powerful evidence.

So James stands up and makes the most extraordinary statement.
Acts 15:19-21
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.

Bottom line: As we keep this movement alive and it grows, we should not make it difficult for people to turn to God. Anything that makes it difficult for people to turn to God, we should remove it if we can. This is about people and a process. This is about outreach. This isn’t about who’s here, but rather who’s not here yet. Anything that we do that makes it unnecessarily difficult to turn to God is resisting the will of God.

20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

At this point, the guy who’s taking notes at this meeting is like, what’s the fourth one all about? James basically narrows down 613 laws and the Ten Commandments to two things—try not to offend the Jews and abstain from sexual immorality? That’s it.

He’s saying let’s not burden them with all that other stuff. But since they will be around Jewish believers, who are offended by the whole meat and blood thing, be sensitive to your Jewish brothers and sisters and abstain from sexual immorality. That’s it. Come on in. Join the church. Be a part of the gathering.

So they agree to send the letter, and every man in Antioch when the letter arrived were on the edge of their seats waiting to hear, surgery or no surgery.

Acts 15:31
31 The people read it and they were glad for its encouraging message.

I bet they were. And suddenly, the church dodges the first big split. You know what the split was going to be over? Truth or grace. But they said, we should not be in conflict. Somehow the church should embody both truth and grace, not just one or the other.

Every local church, every denomination struggles with this. But if we want to embrace both truth and grace in this church, there’s a few things we’ve got to avoid. And since wrong directions are always a slow drift, let’s call it just that.

First, we’ve got to avoid the drift toward insiders and away from outsiders. By insiders, I mean the people who are already here, who know the songs, know where to sit, know the deal inside and out. Every local church struggles with this drift because it’s easy to get comfortable and just focus on the ones who are here—the people who are coming and we see every Sunday. It’s natural. But in order to be a church where we’re the embodiment of grace and truth and not just one or the other, we’ve got to be intentional about avoiding the drift toward insiders and ignoring those who are on the outside. This is something we need to put constant effort towards.

And we have to avoid the drift toward preserving rather than advancing. For those of you who started your own business, remember when you started your business, and you had nothing, and there was nothing to preserve because you had nothing? And then you finally had a successful business and all of a sudden you began to protect everything. Remember how risk opposing you became over time, whereas in the beginning you were willing to risk everything, because there wasn’t a whole lot to risk. Churches are the same way. In the beginning, it’s only a vision, and then it’s a beautiful building and comfy pews and people.

Our tendency is to do exactly what the Jews did. They just wanted to preserve the law. God gave them the law, so they want to preserve it. And in their effort to preserve something that was really good, they forgot to advance the kingdom. Then Jesus came along and said, we’re going to condense the law and advance the kingdom, even if it gets messy. And we’re going to take risks, and we’re going to accept people and love people that are hard to love and hard to accept, but we will not make the mistake of allowing our desire to preserve, to override our mission and our passion to advance this cause.

We have to do ministry open-handed. God gave it; God can take it. We want to be financially responsible. We want to be wise in all we do, but we also don’t want to get so comfortable we quit taking risks because this isn’t about us. This is all about Jesus and a big world that doesn’t know Him.

So three things we can do:
Be bold. To keep from becoming insider focused, be bold. Be bold in terms of who you invite to church. Be bold in terms of how you live your life and the fact that you let people know that you’re a Christian.

Err on the side of grace. When someone comes to this church who doesn’t have it all together, err on the side of grace. Aren’t you glad God errs on the side of grace for you? Aren’t you glad He didn’t say, I’m going to love and accept you, but here are 613 things you’ve got to do first. Call me when you get them all situated.

Take risks. We may have a lot to lose, but we have even more to gain. Let’s not become a church that accidentally drifts into a posture where we’re trying to protect something as opposed to advancing something.

If we can be intentional about avoiding these drifts, and if we can be intentional about trying to be a church where truth and grace come together, then perhaps God will use us. Perhaps God will use you and me to do something unique and remarkable in our generation as we continue to be a part of something powerful called the Church.