Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death: ACTS 15

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ACTS 15

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry was a great patriot of the United States when it formed during The Revolution, and he was of course referring to England and the crown when he said this. I like it because it holds a great spiritual truth.

In Acts 15, Judaizers arrived in Antioch, from Judea, preaching a gospel that required circumcision and adherence to the Jewish Law. It caused great turbulence and confusion among the believers, and it was infant territory for the Gentiles. Paul argued vehemently against this doctrine, and the church sent him to Jerusalem for clarification. So Paul, Barnabas, and Titus traveled to Jerusalem for what is known as the Jerusalem Council. The same argument arose among the Christians there as well, as a sect of Pharisees, whom Paul referred to in Galatians as false Christians, insisted that these Gentile converts must be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Paul believed they were positioning themselves to destroy the message of grace. The environment held thick conflict and division; not the romanticized early church of which we often think. These Judaizers were so influential and moved their deception with such speed around the region, that it prompted Paul to pen his letter to the Galatians. His letter argues the gospel message, Christ plus nothing!

In these passages of Acts and Galatians we see three kinds of people described:

  • First we see a Christian believer who faithfully follows the Jewish law, maintaining the traditions of God (a.k.a.  in contemporary terms, the Christian Conservative),
  • Second we see a Christian believer who may or may not follow their pagan customs, which varied greatly from the Jewish customs (a.k.a. in contemporary terms, the Christian Liberal), and
  • Thirdly we see the “false” Christian (who very well may not have a faith in Christ at all) encouraging a doctrine based on works.

These were complicated issues at the time, and Paul was desperate to have his voice on the record.  Because grace was not well-understood,  he anticipated his message would be completely diluted if these Judaizers succeeded. Even with Paul’s tremendous efforts and his words recorded for thousands of years, we still face many of these same issues today. We need to understand what a life of liberty really is, so we aren’t purchasing it with chains and slavery.  This is not at all what God intends for a life of freedom.

THE CHRISTIAN CONSERVATIVE

Let’s look at the conservative and consider the Apostle James. Although it’s not real clear, many scholars believe him to be the brother of Christ based upon Galatians. With this, we can be sure he was brought up in a devout home, faithfully following the law. Paul refers to James as a pillar of the faith, but that didn’t dissuade Paul’s agenda. The Book of James was written by James, and he’s famous for the phrase,

Faith without works is dead. (James 2:20 KJV)

Many bristle because these words have oft been used to insist that one must show works to have faith and be saved. What James is actually saying however, is that a Christian who pushes liberty beyond its boundaries, may actually move into sin.  Jesus would never lead his sheep into sin, and sin has always been associated with death.

James is one who loved his traditions, honored his values, and I believe that he truly saw those traditions as a form of worship. Exactly how God wanted them to be practiced, as worship. However, James probably also had a tendency to see them as critical to a faithful life. Basically the idea that whatever works for me should work for you too. However, when debated with Paul, he recognized the truth, and he agreed not to saddle the Gentiles with an unnecessary burden.

If you identify yourself at times as a conservative Christian, finding comfort and joy with your traditions, it’s not a bad thing. In fact it’s beautiful to worship in merited ways, and perform respected duties, and hold cherished, long-held values when you’re prompted by and through the Holy Spirit. The danger of this category is becoming legalistic and doing these things out of a sense of obligation, rather than through the power of the Holy Spirit. Legalism brings chains and slavery, and is absent the Spirit.

THE CHRISTIAN LIBERAL

Peter, Barnabas, and Paul were likely considered liberal Christians at that time. They departed from the rules and guidelines of their youth, and many were either puzzled or angry. These men understood that faith, and faith only, ushers in salvation. When Gentiles, who never once followed a Hebraic law, received the Holy Spirit right before their eyes, they were convinced of this truth.

THEN ONE DAY some men of James arrived in Antioch. I assure you, James’ conservative convictions held heavy influence in the church. Peter suddenly stopped eating with the Gentiles because he was afraid of their criticism (rightfully so, I’m sure). It influenced others like Barnabas to do the same. A more liberal life can receive much criticism from conservatives, but Paul’s conscience was not affected. He felt no need to hide his actions. My guess is that Paul and the others also strayed from their lawful diet more than once, and that was a very big deal. Paul discussed eating meat and other food quite a bit in Romans 14, and it’s clear his conscience was squared away. He felt free to depart from tradition.

If you identify yourself at times as a liberal Christian, one who chooses to vary from tradition, it’s not a bad thing. Paul indicates that these people aren’t weak. (Romans 14:1) The danger here is taking advantage of that liberty, allowing Satan to lead you down a path of sin. It’s quite easy to slide down this slippery slope, and Paul repeatedly encourages believers to avoid dark deeds.   He even lists a few in Galatians: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, and wild parties. (Galatians 5:19) He takes time to list these in quite a few of his letters. Many of his readers participated in pagan traditions including these practices, and Paul wanted to advise them of the chains, the slavery, the darkness and death. This was wisdom, not legalism.

THE LETTER TO ANTIOCH

So here you have a clash of two kinds of Christians who were poised for conflict in Jerusalem, yet conflict does not ensue. Paul chooses harmony. It’s very possible that Paul sought a letter from the Council that held absolutely no strings attached to salvation, but it appears there may have been a compromise. They had agreed to not saddle the Gentiles with circumcision, but we still see requirements in James’ letter.

You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. (Acts 15:29 NLT)

Isn’t that still adding works when the gospel is clearly Christ plus nothing? It may appear that way at first, but we actually see Paul resolve this question in his ministry letters that follow. Based on various commentaries, it seems that James’ primary concern for these requirements may have been focused on idol worship. Food offered to idols, strangled animals, blood, and sex were all commonplace in idol worship at that time. James may have wanted them to completely separate themselves from pagan worship, and Paul would have no doubt agreed with this.

Isn’t it interesting that when Paul references James’ letter to the Christians in the book of Galatians, he doesn’t mention this particular content at all?  He instead discusses the Council’s desire that they help the poor. (Galatians 2:10) My best guess is that Paul chose not to argue these minor points while in Jerusalem, and instead chose to clarify them later. He does so in his letters to the Galatians and Romans and others. He clearly disagrees with the requirement regarding food because he says in Romans 14 that there’s nothing wrong with eating any kind of meat in and of itself. Rather it was a matter of conscience. As for sexual immorality, Paul is in agreement and clearly warns against the evils of it in many of his letters. I believe Paul prioritized harmony over correctness to maintain unity with Jerusalem.

LIBERTY SHOULD FOSTER UNITY

Liberty and unity come from Jesus who carried our sins into death, and the Holy Spirit who guides us into truth. Chains hold us captive whether we are bound to a toxic tradition or bound to sin; when the only voice we hear is our own. God’s grace provides liberty to move in or out of tradition with complete freedom as the Holy Spirit provides guidance and conviction toward our purpose. The Apostles in Jerusalem pursued their purpose to reach the Jews while the Apostle Paul pursued his purpose to reach the Gentiles. Seemingly disparate, they all worked together for God’s overall purpose and remained unified.

Live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. (I Corinthians 1:10 NLT)

The grace and liberty that God gives us, we must give to each other.

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!– Patrick Henry

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