Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a situation where something you knew in the depths of your heart to be true was being challenged...or a time when you saw that events going on around you were leading toward catastrophe. That unless someone took some kind of action, terrible things were going to happen. A tidal wave is coming....and the people on the beach haven't noticed....people are going to die unless someone takes action.
This is the kind of thing going on in Haiti right now...This earthquake was the worst to hit the region in over 100 years. We've all see images or heard stories of the vast devestation down there. We've heard about people trapped beneath rubble for days...seen images of new orphaned babies, and said, "Something needs to be done here!" As a result people all over the world have stepped up to organize efforts and collect funding to make a difference and help the people of Haiti.
There is something important to notice about the situation in Haiti, however. Haiti was a devastated nation long before the earthquake hit. As of 1997 about 75% of the population lived in poverty. Haiti is ranked among the lowest in health and education and about half the population is illiterate. Vast deforestation has devastated the environment making natural resources scarce.
Knowing all this highlights something important for us. Often, there is trouble going on around us even before a major crisis calls attention to it. We don't see it, however, because we get distracted by other things...or we grow complacent...or we are just not aware.
This is what I'd like to draw out of a situation we read about in Acts 15...(open Bibles...encourage to bring Bibles/take chair ones). Take a look at just the first 2 verses.
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." This brought Paul and Barnabas 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. (Act 15:1-2 NIV)
This passage says that Paul and Barnabus had a "sharp dispute" with these people from Judea-Jewish followers of Christ who felt that these Gentiles needed to do something more than just declare their faith in Jesus as the Son of God...they needed to prove their worth and set themselves apart in the same way the Jewish people had always done...by circumcision...in order to be acceptable to God.
Now to us circumcision is a common practice and we may not think much of this. We are also accustomed to a variety of religious practices. I often hear sentiments like, "You know...what ever works for you...that's great. Whatever floats your boat." Which, when it comes to certain issues-like styles of worship-night be true. But Paul and Barnabus were really upset about this. I want you to get an idea of just how upset they were by this. Paul writes about this issue and this group of people in other places. Listen to what he writes in the book of Philippians 3:2-3:
Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—(Php 3:2-3 NIV)
Galatians, Chapter 5.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. (Gal 5:1-2 NIV)
That's pretty strong...He goes even further Look at verses 11-12:
Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Gal 5:11-12 NIV)
Do you get the picture here...Paul is livid that these people would suggest such a thing. To him this isn't just an issue of style or tradition. This is a battle to be fought! Paul and Barnabus would not allow this to go any further. As you read on in Acts 15, you see that they took this issue to the church leaders and elders in Jerusalem to have them help settle it. This was a major deal.
Contrast this for just a moment with another dispute Paul and Barnabus have toward the end of Acts 15...this time with one another. Acts 15:36-40:
In this case, two two cannot agree on whether to trust this man, John Mark, who historians tell us is probably Barnabus' nephew. They do argue, but they don't take it to extremes. They end up deciding to part company for a while. Unfortunately we too often get these issues reversed today: we get aruging and fighting happening in our churches over minor disagreements like this on Paul and Barnabus had, but when it comes to major issues about our faith, we tend to want to not cause waves and be accepting of people's beliefs. I think this happens because in some ways...and for lots of reasons...we've grown complancent or distracted and are not aware of some major issues that can lead to trouble later. Paul and Barnabus were aware of these things though and they were determined to protect what Jesus came to do.
So what did Paul and Barnabus know...what caused them to respond so strongly to this circumcision issue?
I think the first thing is that there is one God...and one truth about who He is and what He has done in this world. We are not free to say whatever we'd like about Him. (In fact, when we are all done going through Acts, I've been thinking that I'd love to take some time to ask the question, "Who is God" and define the essential characteristics of God.) In this dispute we are looking at, though, the two groups agree on the basic understanding of who God is-what His characteristics are. They disagree, however, on the value and extent of what Jesus has done.
On one side...the Judiazers...or circumcision crowd-the mutilators-were born and raised within the Jewish customs and traditions. When they looked upon these Gentiles...these outsiders...they saw people living in ways they found strange...and even disgusting. They were saying, "Look, if you are going to be part of God's people...if you are going to be acceptable...you have to have the same mark we have...you've got to be circumcised.
Paul & Barnabus, however, understood something essential about what Jesus did. They knew that the history of the Jewish people recorded in the Scriptures (our Old Testament) showed that even with God's laws given directly to them, people will continue to turn to their own ways and fall short of God's standards and desires for them. They knew that even with their laws and traditions-established by God Himself, the Jewish people were no better off than these Gentiles as far as their standing with God because they couldn't live a perfect life. By offering His own life and a perfect sacrifice for sin,Jesus provided a way to be washed clean and presented as perfect before God..a way that we cannot earn by our own efforts. Jesus declared, "I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Paul and Barnabus saw that this gift of Christ was necessary and available for all mankind. They also saw that if you add any little thing...any effort of man...to what Jesus did, you nullify it and you deny the truth of what Jesus said. You take the focus off of what Christ did for us and put it is all back into our hands, and now we humans are going to prove how great we are to God. Paul and Barnabus saw that this was a lie and a denial of our essential need for Jesus to provide a way for us back to God.
In our world today we have all kinds of people offering definitions of who God is and how we can enter into His good graces. Many people want to say that it's OK to believe whatever you want...as long as it makes you feel good. But that's like walking up to a man and saying, "I choose to believe you are a woman because I just feel more comfotable around women. OK?" Regardless of how you feel, it's just not true. Some people want to say that religions worship the same God..and we do'nt need to make distinctions. But that's like walking up to someone and saying,...you are a man...and a woman...and a child...and a dog...and a cat...and a bird...and on and on. But it's not true! As Paul and Barnabus demontrate is it important for us to take a stand on the truth about who God is...and the truth about who Jesus is and what He did. Anything else we add or take away distracts and nullifies what He's done.
Lives are at stake
Now this takes us to the second important fact Paul and Barnabus knew that caused them to react to the mutilators so fiercely. They knew that this debate was not just a matter of opposing philosophies. They knew that this spiritual beliefs have a real impact on us. They knew that lives were at stake in this debate. What we believe about Jesus affects us in ways we may not always notice. The Bible is clear that man is made for eternity. We are destined for either eternal life with God or an eternity apart from Him. Believing what is true about Jesus affects our eternal destiny. Paul and Barnabus wanted to give every man the best possible chance of making the best eternal choice.
Knowing the truth about Jesus affects out lives today, too. A life without Christ really does suffer. There are serious consequences to a life of sin...and hopelessness...and unforgiveness...and lack of grace...and the absence of the Holy Spirit. And even with Christ in our lives, we face a continual battle to keep our focus on Him. We are easliy distracted and led astray. The is also a devil who is determined to ruin God's work in and around you. He will attempt to fill your mind with false ideas about God. Because this battle is ongoing it is important to remind ourselves of God's truth as He has revealed it to us in His Word...and to avoid being distracted and led astray by opposing beliefs.
Paul touched on this in Col 2:8: See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Col 2:8 NIV)
Paul and Barnabus were determined that NOTHING would get in the way of people pursuing a live based upon the truth of Christ. They knew there is a was raging for our souls and they were prepared for fight for the lives of the people they were reaching.
So there is a danger out there...all around us..as we live out our lives day after day. Danger that we will be led astray. Danger that we make choices that negatively impact ourselve and the people around us. It can be easy to fall into it if we do not stay prepared and if we do not fight for one another. We need to know and to remind ourselves diligently of who God really is and what Jesus really did for us...and we need to know that lives are at stake.
As followers of Jesus Christ we have been invited to engage in a battle for one another's lives just as Paul and Barnabus were. I want you to take a look at the people next to you for just a moment. Look into their face and realize that their lives are in danger. Let's not wait for a major crisis to occur before we do something to protect them. God has called you into this church family to be a part of their protection. What can you do...what will you do to help fight for the lives of these people?