Give Me Liberty!
Read Acts 15:1-11
My wife is related to Patrick Henry, one of the founding fathers of the United States. His most famous moment came on March 23, 1775, when he addressed the Virginia Convention at a dramatic crossroads in American history: “If we wish to be free, we must fight!” he said. “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Sometimes you have to fight for freedom.
Today’s verses are thrilling for me because they describe a similar drama swirling around one of the most important decisions in the history of the Christian church — maybe the most important decision of all.
Until this moment disciples of Jesus were considered by most people as a sort of branch of Judaism. Then something surprising happens: People of other religions start to become followers of Jesus in great numbers.
So naturally many of the first generation of Christians insist that these new converts follow the traditional Jewish religious rules, especially those in the Hebrew Scriptures. This includes all the dietary restrictions for kosher food, circumcision of males, rules for appropriate dress, observing holy days, etc., etc.
But Paul (more on him tomorrow) and Barnabas, two upstart Christian teachers who’ve been finding eager audiences among non-Jews, disagree. They see Jesus not only as a Jewish Messiah, but as the Messiah for the entire world. If this is so, they argue, why would Jesus care if these new non-Jewish believers adopt Jewish religious customs? They point to Christ’s own teaching about the dangers of legalism and performance-oriented religion. What matters is not circumcision or diet or dress or holidays, they assert. What matters is “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6b). Jews, Gentiles, slaves, freemen — they are all welcomed in by grace, through faith.
This debate erupts into a controversy that threatens to blow apart the whole movement. So Paul, Barnabas, and some of the other leaders go to Jerusalem, center of the early church. There they meet with elders including none other than Peter, the well-known disciple of Jesus Himself, and James the half-brother of Jesus.
Imagine the tension as Paul makes his case. Then these icons of the faith stand up… and stun many in Jerusalem by taking Paul’s side!
In fact Peter rebukes the religiosity of those scrupulously applying their own traditions to the Gentiles: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Acts 15:10–11
And James agrees: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19)
This was one of the most important events in the history of the early church because it set the DNA for the faith: Authentic, vintage Christianity was to be about grace, not law; faith, not works.
You can understand why Paul, having fought for this freedom at the Jerusalem council and believing he had achieved victory, was upset when, as he planted new churches, religious legalizers simply followed in his tracks and taught the naive new believers the very theology that was condemned by Peter and James!
That’s what’s behind the emotion in so many of his letters to these young communities of believers, like the letters to the Galatians and Colossians. Paul cries “Liberty!” in the face of legalism.
We’ll be looking at Paul’s Patrick Henry–like passion this week!
Why would people turn back to religious legalism after being taught grace (like many of Paul’s early converts did)? What’s the appeal?
Do churches today ever unwittingly “make it difficult” for people turning to faith by putting on them heavy religious burdens? How so?
The decision of Peter and James was a dramatic one, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. What teachings of Jesus — or episodes from their own lives — could have led them to their conclusion that everyone is saved by grace, not works? (Review last week’s devotions for clues.)
Ask God to help you stay free from the bondage of legalism. Pray specifically for new believers in your church. Ask God to help them stay devoted in a simple and pure way to Jesus Christ, without unnecessary religious burdens that could steal their joy.