Sermon on Acts 15: 1-5

Here are the (verbose) notes for the sermon I preached on Sunday.  This was the first time I had ever preached, I enjoyed the prep and delivery greatly and hope to be asked to do it again!

The slides shown were simply pictures to illustrate that part of the talk, so hopefully not too much is lost by not including them here.

Going places with God [16] Acts 15:1-5, Making a Stand



         By way of introduction…this incident comes at the end of Paul’s first journey.  We’ve traced Paul from the stoning of Steven, to his conversion on the road to Damascus, his return to the embryonic church in Jerusalem, and his journey via Caesarea to his home town of Tarsus, then the ministry to the church at Antioch, and from there a sweeping missionary journey through Asia Minor taking in Cyprus, Perga, Pysidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and then Paul returns to his home church at Syrian Antioch, and tells them of his travels.

         Paul has been busy, and Paul has been successful.  His preaching of the Gospel has fallen on largely receptive ears.  There have been problems, of course: being almost stoned to death; being worshipped as Hermes, but Paul’s first missionary journey has been a success.

Success followed by controversy

         SLIDE – ST PAUL

         Unfortunately, Paul’s success seems to have attracted the attention of others with differing views to his own, and the result is the first major controversy of the Christian Church (and goodness knows they are ongoing…)

         READ VERSE 1: “Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’

         Compounded in VERSE 5: “But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them [the gentile Christians] to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses”  The implication is that the whole law of Moses must be kept.

         Certain individuals come from Judea [possibly posing as having authority from the older Jerusalem church? In Galatians (2:4) Paul describes them, or others like them, as “false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us.”

         Notice the strength of what the Judeans are saying: not simply you ought to be circumcised as a sign of your faith, or as something pleasing to God.  NO, they say you must be circumcised in order to be saved, in order to be a member of God’s family.

Why circumcision?


         Why would they say that?

         Circumcision of males aged 8 days old was encoded in the Law of Moses in Leviticus 12:3.  If these Judeans were part of the Pharisee grouping, they would have been experts in the Law.  The law of Moses was presented as the authority for the Pharisees’ argument in verse 5.


         As we heard in our first reading, the Jewish tradition of circumcision goes all the way back to Abraham as the physical sign of the covenant between God and Abraham.  Covenant=promise or contract, although in a religious context usually a sense of relationship.

         God’s part of the contract was that Abraham’s descendants (or descendant singular?) would be numerous, as numerous as the stars, that God would be Abraham’s God and the God of his descendants, and that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan.

         Abraham’s part of the deal was that he would circumcise himself and his offspring, any slaves etc.  Like any legal contract, both sides have a part to play in the bargain.

         The result of not being circumcised was serious: you were cut off from Abraham’s people (Genesis 17:14).  You were not in God’s family, you were not saved.

         To Jews, then, the physical sign of circumcision could be seen as the only indication of a relationship with God, of membership of God’s family.  Without that physical sign, you were not a member of God’s family.

         Clearly and simply defines those who are “in” and those who are “out”, the members of the Jewish tribe who were “in”, and all the others: Gentiles/Greeks who were “out”.

         Can be determined from physical inspection! (of men.  Women would be considered as being “in” by their association (daughter or wife) of a circumcised man – so Paul’s opposition to them could be seen as very anti discrimination!)

         This makes for an easy, closed tribal religion, where outsiders/aliens/gentiles can be easily identified and excluded.


         But the Abraham story and Leviticus passage don’t tell the whole story of the Law.  And it’s interesting that in Acts 15:5 the Pharisees in Jerusalem insist on circumcision and the whole Law.

         In Deuteronomy, circumcision is revisited: Deuteronomy 10:16 “Circumcise your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer”.  Deuteronomy 30:6 “[…] the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you might live.”

         This is the Law referring to circumcision, the sign of God’s everlasting covenant as no mere physical sign any more, but a sign of a much deeper relationship, a spiritual sign indicative of a spiritual relationship.

         A sign we might say of faith?

Why not circumcision?


         This idea of circumcision of the heart takes us right back to the beginning of our journey with St Paul, to the stoning of Stephen.  Some of Stephen’s last words before he is stoned to death are these in Acts 7:51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.”

         I wonder whether Paul, elated after his successful missionary journey, and continuing ministry at Antioch was brought crashing down to earth on hearing the Judeans’ insistence on circumcision.  Those memories of Stephen professing his faith in Christ and then immediately receiving a brutal and undeserved death – and Paul doing nothing about it, Paul approving of it.  Is this why he is making such a strong stand here?


         READ VERSE 2: “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them…”

         “No small dissension and debate” – wonderful use of understatement here!  Paul is clearly not simply engaging in academic debate with the Judeans but is outraged and scandalised.

         But why are the Judeans wrong in Paul’s mind?  Why should they be wrong in our minds?  This is all set out in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  It is a short letter (6 chapters) and well worth reading (if you’ve not already done so!)  What can we learn from this?

         Try to keep this to three key points.



         Paul’s overarching narrative throughout his epistles is one of faith (hope and love) in Christ providing the key to membership in God’s family, and salvation/life eternal/life of the age/life in all its fullness (whatever you call it).

         What the circumcision lobby are effectively saying is “Look, these Gentiles have come to believe in Jesus, but that’s not quite enough.  Don’t worry, though, we can fix this problem with a minor operation!” 

         What they claim, therefore, is that membership of God’s family comes from physical human intervention, rather than God’s generosity and grace. 

         As St Paul puts it in Galations 5:2 “Listen! I Paul am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.”

         As the theologian Matthew Henry puts it “They are saying that salvation itself cannot save them. “


         We know from the whole Gospel narrative that it is by Christ we are welcomed into a relationship with God.

         John’s gospel, Chapter 1: “He [that is, Christ] was in the world and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own [the Jewish nation], and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

         God’s family is established by God through Christ and not through blood and flesh. 

         Not through who our parents are – we do not inherit our membership of God’s family from our own blood family.

         And not through the bloody, fleshly ritual of circumcision.  We cannot enter into God’s family simply through human decision.

         No, our entry into God’s family comes as a free gift, a free invitation from God.

         What we should take from this is a God and Christ centred faith, not a human-centred religion.

         Our assurance of membership in God’s family comes in the form of our faith, that blessed assurance.  We must not forget that faith comes from God.  It is God’s gift as a reassurance.  It does not come simply by our own will of mind – of course our own response is required, but faith comes from God.

         This should be a consideration in all areas of our faith.  When we worship God with music, that is our expression of our God-given faith as an offering back to God. 

         When we read from the scriptures (publically and privately), we should always remain open to God speaking to us through those texts.

         When we come together to share in the Lord’s Supper we must always remember that it is Christ’s table to which we are invited.  Christ himself reaches out to us.

         We are all invited to the Lord’s marriage supper.  We will take Him up on that invitation?



         We heard a few weeks ago about the signs and wonders seen in those embryonic churches founded by Paul and Barnabas.

         Paul had seen the clear evidence of the Holy Spirit working amongst Gentiles. 

         We have also heard of both Jews and Gentiles responding by the action of the Holy Spirit to Paul’s preaching of the gospel.

         So when such a response has been seen, when the action of the Holy Spirit has been seen, how can God’s action be denied?  How can the membership of those believers in God’s family be questioned?

         That, of course, is exactly what the Judeans were trying to do.

         This sets us such a great challenge. 

         We must avoid the prevalence to make our opinion and practice a rule and a law to everybody else, and to judge others by our own standards. 

         For example, where do we see the Spirit working today?  Is it always in church?  What if we can sense the Spirit at work in Christians of other denominations, people of other faiths, or people of no faith?  Is it possible for the Spirit to be at work in people who aren’t even aware of it?  These are just questions…NOT ANSWERS!

         Paul gives us tests for the evidence of the Holy Spirit.  Again from Galatians 5:22 “[…] the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  There is no law against such things”.

         If we see the Spirit at work, we should certainly not oppose Her!



         We see in these early days of the church that a partisan tribal religion has had the doors thrown open, has had the doors broken down forever by the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, by his revolutionary teaching, his undeserved death and glorious resurrection. 

         Nothing would ever be the same again.  The way is now open to anyone who would follow it.

         There is a new covenant in Christ, which fulfils the old covenant made with Abraham.  Paul’s view espoused in Galatians is that Christ is Abraham’s “seed” or “descendant” referred to in the first reading we heard earlier.  So the covenant with Abraham is fulfilled, not replaced. 

         This new covenant in Christ, this new life in Christ is that which was prophesied in Isaiah 43:18-19, our church motto text for this year: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? ”  Do we perceive it?  Do we perceive the fresh shoots of Christ in our own lives?

         The new covenant in Christ, the new life in Christ which was announced by Simeon as “the light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of God’s people Israel.”  We are those gentiles, and Christ is our light.

         It is this new covenant in Christ, this relationship we have with Christ which frees us from the Pharaseeical way of thinking shown by the Judeans in this passage. 

         As Paul puts it, again from Galatians 5:13 “For you were called to freedom brothers and sisters”

         But then comes a warning,”only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

         Our calling is the freedom to serve one another.  Our calling is not to consider ourselves superior to others, as special, as picked out.  Our calling, our election is to serve!

         We are freed to serve, we are saved to serve.


         How should we respond to this freedom in Christ?

         We should heed Christ’s own invitations, to take up our cross, to put on Christ’s easy yoke [as he shares with us in bearing our cross], and to love one another as Christ loved us.

         As Christ loved us!  That love of Christ which ended with him laying down his own life for us.  In taking the path of weakness, in adopting the position of shame, crucified even for sinners like us.

         Do we really live and love as Christ did?  Do we even want to? Or do we in fact live as the Judean faction did, holding to their old ways and creating stumbling blocks for believers who were beginning to trust in Christ?

         Do we live in the freedom of Christ by clinging to his cross?  Or do we instead stay clinging to the law, the law of Moses [or our own created laws] clinging to their certainty, and not perceiving the new things of God?


    Dear God,

    Heal our paralysis, that we may have faith to overcome barriers.

    Help us befriend those outside the Law of Moses, beyond our comfort zones,

        open our hearts to those we see as different to ourselves

        and make us all bearers of reconciliation.

    Help us to enter right relationships with You and each other,

    that together we may work for love and peace.


    Where we have sinned against You and our fellows,

    God forgive us.

    Where we have forced others to leave our communities,

    God forgive us.

    Where we need light and knowledge,

    God enlighten us.


    Where new visions are needed,

    God help us to dream.

    Where love is needed,

    make us Your instruments of grace,

    In the name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.