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Day 286 – Thru the Bible
Today we continue in Acts.
Acts 15 – Along with the rising persecution from outside the church, there are some within the church who begin speaking against Gentile Believers who do not adopt Jewish customs. The Jerusalem council is convened to decide whether non-Jewish believers must submit to all the requirements of the law of Moses, especially circumcision, in order to be accepted as members of the church.
After much debate, Peter stands up and asks, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (verse 10). The law informed God’s followers about how to walk in integrity with Him, but it never provided the power to obey it; instead, it only revealed the inability of God’s people to live up to God’s perfect righteousness.
In the Bible, graceless religion is presented as an intolerable burden that only brings discouragement and despair. When Peter refers to the law as a “yoke” that no one is able to carry, he is echoing the words of Jesus, who declared, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). God favors the weak and burdened, not the spiritually proud. Jesus embraces the meek and the broken—the ones who feel swamped with heavy burdens. It is no small thing that Jesus spent so much time with those considered the spiritual losers of His day.
Through their system of sacrifices, the people of Israel were to look forward to the sacrifice that was coming, the true spotless Lamb who would take away their sins forever (John 1:29). Instead, they attempted to attain righteousness through fulfilling the law’s commands, which only served to place them under the yoke of guilt-driven slavery.
The law binds, but the grace of Jesus frees (Galatians 5:1). As long as we attempt to salve our conscience through acting right, we will find ourselves bound to the taskmasters of guilt and fear: Have I done enough? Is God pleased with me now? True freedom from guilt comes only when we recognize the boundless and undeserved love that God has poured out on us through His Son. Jesus has done enough for God to be pleased with us.
Peter insists that both Jews and Gentiles are saved only by the grace of the Lord Jesus (verse 11). Because God has clearly chosen to include people of all nations in the new community of Jesus, the old restrictions that served to set Israel apart, such as circumcision and dietary laws, no longer apply.
If circumcision is unnecessary for salvation, then why are restrictions (verses 20, 29) given at all? Here we see an example of the principle of respect for the “weaker” brother (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8). The counsel to respect dietary restrictions was intended to demonstrate love and respect for the Jewish Christians. Because of their background, Jewish Christians would have struggled to share a meal with Gentiles who seemed to flaunt traditional Jewish dietary customs (verses 19–21). The Jerusalem council aims to avoid such potentially divisive offense by instructing the Gentiles not only to abstain from obvious sin (“sexual immorality”) but also to accommodate the sensitivities of their Jewish brothers and sisters. The response of the Gentile believers—joy—shows that they hardly view these requirements as burdensome (verse 31). As Jesus laid down His freedom for their sake, so they find joy in laying down their freedoms out of love for others.
How are you finding rest from your burden (of feeling like you must perform for God) through the Gospel of Jesus?
Acts 16 – Though circumcision was not one of the four regulations set in writing by the Jerusalem council, Paul will be taking Timothy with him in delivering the news of those regulations. Paul therefore asks that Timothy be circumcised, not as a requirement for salvation or even an act of obedience to God, but to remove a significant barrier as both men minister to churches of Jewish and Gentile congregations. This was grace and love in practice to others on behalf of Paul and especially Timothy.
Context and motivation are critical to Paul. He argues strongly against being circumcised if those arguing for circumcision believe that it is necessary in order to please God (Galatians 5:1–6); yet if the motivation is to remove barriers to people hearing about the grace of God, Paul will gladly give up any number of cultural practices or preferences (1 Corinthians 9:12–23).
In verse 14, yet again Luke emphasizes that God is the active agent in bringing believers to faith in Jesus, this time with the example of Lydia. The Lord is the one who graciously opens hearts to repent and believe the gospel. Because God is powerful and does this, it encourages us to pray for those who do not yet believe.
This is one of the most moving episodes in Acts (verses 25-34). Paul and Silas have been savagely beaten and imprisoned for rescuing a girl from a dishonorable and probably oppressive occupation. We then see the terror-ridden job of the Philippian jailer, one in which he faced death for any failure (see Acts 12:19). He knows he has failed, he knows his fate, and he decides to take his own life. He has given up.
But, through Paul, God rescues this man. “What must I do to be saved?” the man asks. The response is stunning. Paul and Silas do not tell the jailer to clean up his life. They do not exhort him to forsake any particular sin. They do not tell him to do anything. Rather: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Trusting faith in Jesus, apart from anything we bring to the table, is all that is required to be saved from what we rightly deserve: condemnation and separation from God. This is the promise of grace to us, as individuals, and it extends to our households as well.
How are you encouraged to know it is by believing (and not performing) that you are saved?
What other thoughts or questions does today’s reading bring up?
Some of these notes are from the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible study notes. We highly recommend this study Bible.
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