This week, we’re reading about how the gospel crosses social, racial, and ethnic boundaries. Although it doesn’t come easily or without conflict and hurt, the grace of Jesus is greater than any barrier and worth bearing one another’s burdens.
These are two significant chapters in the book of Acts and for the rest of the New Testament. First, we read of Saul’s conversion on the Damascus road. Don’t let the immensity of this moment pass over your head. When Paul asks “Who are you Lord?”, he’s expecting Yahweh. But the answer comes, “I am Jesus…” It’s significant because Paul (though blind) now sees with spiritual eyes that Jesus self-identifies with Yahweh, I AM, the Lord God whom Paul worshipped zealously. His life’s work and his life’s study had just been turned upside down. Through Paul, though, the Spirit of Christ would turn the world upside down, too. In Acts 10, we get a glimpse of exactly how the world will be turned upside down as Peter sees the Holy Spirit fall even on the Gentiles. Two unexpected moments change the trajectory of the church forever.
Most of Acts 11 is Peter’s recounting of his experience to Cornelius to the Jews in Jerusalem. I like Peter’s rhetorical question in 11:17, “Who was I to stand in God’s way?” I believe it reflects that he’s learned from the previous experience of standing in Jesus’s way by rebuking him after confessing him as the Christ. That the gospel should go to “unclean” Gentiles might have been equally as shocking a concept as a crucified Messiah. But, as the gospel goes global – even to Greeks at Antioch – persecution comes quickly to the church in Jerusalem. But the church perseveres and the Lord judges all who fail to give God the glory due his name.
With Acts 13-14, the focus begins to move away from the apostles in Jerusalem to follow the apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. Sometimes it’s easy to think of Paul as a “renegade” apostle blazing his own trail as a gospel hero. Acts 13 checks that thought by showing us that even the apostle Paul had a sending church to whom he was accountable. An interesting note in chapter 13 is it’s the first time Saul is also called Paul – thirteen years after his conversion on the Damascus Road. Why now? Likely to “become all things to all people” as he was with the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus. Paul’s first journey continues in Acts 14 with more people believing the gospel and more persecution. But Paul is not thwarted – he returns right back through the towns that persecuted him strengthening the souls of the disciples.
As Paul moves away from Jerusalem on his missionary journeys traveling first to the synagogues and then to the Greeks, today’s reading in James gives us a glimpse at how the church in Jerusalem encouraged Jewish believers who lived away from Jerusalem (the Dispersion) - perhaps in those same places Paul visited. As you read James, consider it the “Proverbs of the New Testament” which is striving to give believers practical wisdom for living as a faithful follower of Jesus in everyday life. James will instruct believers about trials, obedience to God’s word, order in the worship service, good works as a fruit of faith, warnings about being attracted by the world, boasting, a warning about money, and how to pray in faith.
It should be no surprise to us that conflict often arises as the gospel crosses racial and ethnic barriers. In an ancient culture where much of one’s identity is found by being loyal to one’s own society, it must have been strange when two different groups gathered together under a new, common identity in Christ. What we read in Acts 15 is the account of how Jews and Gentiles worked out their new identities as they began meeting together within the same church. The primary goal was to remain faithful to the gospel while refraining from adding any unnecessary hurdles for gospel-faithfulness, which amounted to four key ways for Gentiles to honor Christ: abstain from things polluted by idols, abstain from sexual immorality, abstain from food that’s been strangled, and from eating blood. Acts 16 begins Paul’s second missionary journey and we see how Paul and Timothy honor the Jews first but also share the gospel with Gentiles. Just as we saw in Acts 2 and 10, when the gospel crosses barriers, it comes with confirming signs from the Spirit. Reflect:
Sometimes what’s good in principle is really hard in practice. Paul’s primary concern in writing to the Galatians is to remind them of the gospel he preached because they are evidently being led astray by a false gospel (1:6). Apparently, this gospel was a gospel which supported salvation but only if certain aspects of the law were kept. We see evidence of this in chapter 2 that even Peter struggled to uphold to the decision of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Paul gets into his full argument in chapter 3 where he’s reminding them that salvation is only by faith, not by works.
In these chapters Paul continues his comparison between the law and the gospel. The law was a guardian until the promised Christ came. The law gave regulations and rules – elemental principles for what we should or shouldn’t touch or taste. But the gospel was promised from the very beginning to free us from the penalty of the law. The example of Hagar and Sarah gets at this distinction: do we receive salvation because of our fleshly obedience or because of God’s initiating promise? It’s the promise through which salvation comes. Chapters 5-6 change gears to the application of chapters 1-4. These chapters apply to all believers, but I’d argue they’re especially relevant to those of us in the South, where we’re sometimes prone to revert back to good works and “niceness” as a way to gain some merit in God’s eyes. Let’s not boast in anything but the cross.