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Testing God

Acts  15:1-31

It is one of the constants of the Scripture: Satan alternates his attack. Last lesson we saw the attack of persecution; this week, we shall see the attack of internal dissension - and how the church is to deal with it.

(Acts 15:1-31 NIV) 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." {2} 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. {3} The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. {4} When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. {5} Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." {6} The apostles and elders met to consider this question. {7} After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: "Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. {8} God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. {9} He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. {10} Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? {11} No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." {12} The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. {13} When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me. {14} Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. {15} The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: {16} "'After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, {17} that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things' {18} that have been known for ages. {19} "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. {20} Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. {21} For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath." {22} Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. {23} With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. {24} We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. {25} So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul-- {26} men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. {27} Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. {28} It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: {29} You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. {30} The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. {31} The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.

Testing God

In verse 10 there is a curious concept: testing God. The idea seems a little absurd to the modern mind (as if we could put God into a test tube). But the meaning in the original was clear. Let's see if we can understand it in modern terms.

Suppose that you (being possessed of far more money than sense) decide to test your relationship to your wife. Not content with having a private detective follow her about, you hire someone to attempt to seduce her - just to see if it will work, of course.

These things make for good romantic comedy - largely because such an action is absurd. When your wife finds out, she's going to be furious because you treated her as if she were a rat in a laboratory maze. In short, you have a very good chance of destroying your relationship with her by testing it.

There is the same thought here. To test God is to try out the relationship as if it were a completely impersonal thing, as if He would have no opinion on your experimentation. This is exceedingly unwise.

How we test God

You might ask, "How could a Christian test God?" Here are some ways you might want to consider:

·         In this instance, the party of the Pharisees is saying, "God can't save these people without Moses." In other words, they are attempting to place their limit upon God.

·         This might be because they are so confident of their own wisdom! "My wisdom and learning are so great that …" is also a form of testing God. (You will certainly test his patience with it!)

·         Reducing God to a set of rules is always such a form. By reducing him to rules, you are reducing him from a Person to a source of magic. He desires a love relationship with you, not the kind of relationship you have with your automatic teller machine.

In all these instances we attempt to treat God as less than he really is. Like the man who "tries out" his wife, it produces a reaction of anger.

Why would we do this?

Most of us would not be foolish enough to attempt the experiment described above on our wife's chastity. Why, then, are we foolish enough to test God?

·         One reason is familiarity. We have the image of "Me and Jesus in the telephone booth." We know he's such a buddy that he won't mind.

·         Another is pure presumption. We, after all, are in charge of the relationship. God is at our call. We mistake his loving kindness for our rights.

·         A third reason - particularly when we place limits upon him - is a lack of faith.

·         Ultimately, the worst possible cause is arrogance. This kind of arrogance comes from looking into the non-essentials of life as if they were essential. We look at earth and ask why this should not be heaven. So we tell God that if he really loved us, he'd buy us a Mercedes.

How the church resolves disputes

There is a certain dignity to the way the dispute is resolved. By warning the others not to test God, the argument has been placed on the right plane: what does God really want us to do here? We will return to that; now, let us look at the style in which the argument is resolved.

Gentleness, not anger

Gentleness is the mark of great strength. The Chihuahua barks at the Great Dane, not the other way around. Gentleness is strength shown politely and courteously. It is indeed a great virtue, greatly ignored today.

·         Gentleness is not just stupid indifference. There is no sense of indifference to the result, nor is there any sense that the content of the result should be sacrificed to politeness.

·         Gentleness is also not a desire to be liked. This is not a popularity contest.

The leader speaks last

It is a curious thing. There is so much debate over who the "leader" in the church in its early days must have been. If Peter was the first Pope, he submitted here to the bishop of Jerusalem - James. But this is perfectly natural:

·         Peter and Paul testify to their experiences with the Gentiles. They are more in the character of witnesses than attorneys. James testifies as to what the Scripture says. Thus we see that the truth of experience, the truth of the Scripture and the truth from the Spirit must all agree.

·         As elder (bishop), James proposes the solution to the problem. His is the authority to ultimately resolve the debate, after having heard all parties fairly. Note that Peter and Paul both submit to this authority, for it is ordained of God.

Out of evil, greater good

Augustine tells us that God does not permit an evil unless he can bring from it a greater good. We see that here. The heresy proposed was an evil, the evil of legalism. From it God produced harmony in the church at Jerusalem and we also read that the Gentile Christians read the letter, and were glad.

The Nature of the Resolution

The first thing we need to see about this: how light is the burden! They did not seek to resolve all possible problems, write a manual for Christian living - they stuck to the point. They solved only the problem they needed to, so that the burden on other Christians might be as light as possible.

Indeed, it is fairly easy to trace out their reasoning. Each of the items on their list of "don'ts" relates to idol worship. Idol worship is a common (and horrible) way of testing God in this time. It says, "God, I don't trust you to handle this situation by yourself. I'm going to go over to that idol over there and hedge my bets." The parallel in marriage is, "Honey, I love you and all that, but Tandeleya is a lot cuter, so I'm going over to her for this evening's festivities - see you in the morning." If you can predict your wife's reaction to that, you can predict God's reaction to idol worship.

How, then, do these commandments relate to idol worship?

·         They are not to eat food sacrificed to idols. Remember that a sacrificial animal was not, generally, totally burnt on the altar - it was cooked. Some of the meat then belonged to the priest; the rest was returned to the worshiper for celebration (no refrigeration - sacrifice a cow, throw a barbecue). Eating food sacrificed to idols gave the appearance of worshiping that idol.

·         They are to abstain from blood. Some hold this means they are not to commit murder (and thus kill what was made in the image of God - remember how the blood of Abel cried out from the ground?). Others see in this a reference to pagan rites in which blood played a prominent part.

·         The are not to eat the meat of strangled animals. This appears to be a ritual prohibition copied from the Jewish law. It is also an injunction against animal cruelty - and again there may be some pagan ritual involved here. We see that even today in some cults.

·         They are to refrain from sexual immorality - the most common form of which was temple prostitution. They might not have been sufficiently instructed in the Gospel to see the purity of marriage, but at least they should not commit adultery and support an idol's temple with it.

All these commandments are taken from the Jewish Law; indeed, they were selected, it would seem, as those which fit the occasion. This also goes some way to placating the party of the Pharisees - who could at least say, "Well, we had it partly right!"

The essence of the solution

It is tempting to conclude that "the Law" - any form of rules and regulations - is evil. This is not so. In Romans 14 we are taught that one who needs such rules and regulations is to be regarded as a weaker brother, and respected as such. We are to honor those regulations so that we do not burn out a brother's conscience.

The greater good here, however, is this: these other Christians were purified by faith, as we are. They therefore stand equal before God, Whatever burden we lay on them must be only of the most needful type. Christ never rose up in anger at prostitutes and tax collectors - only those who tested God by turning his temple into a market.

Lessons for the Christian

·         All of us are sinners - weak under the Law, strong in Christ alone. Therefore, lay no unnecessary burden upon your brother in the form of Law.

·         It is not for us, the weak, to test the Omnipotent. The great sin of testing is idolatry - the worship of things rather than the creator.

·         The church is in "the reconciliation business." In its arguments, it is to reconcile as we have been shown here. We are to reconcile with the Scriptures, by the Spirit, and in the authority of the church.

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