Reading Acts 14 and 15 this morning. The interplay of mission, theology and grace really struck me.
Paul and Barnabas go throughout Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Pisidia, Pamphylia and Perga, preaching “the word of God’s grace” (14:3); “the gospel” (v7); “good news” (v15); “the gospel” (v21); “the word” (v25). When they return to Antioch they call the church together for a mission report: “they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” (v27) Everyone’s thrilled.
But… you knew the next chapter had to begin with a but… “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)
Familiar pattern eh? Good news of great joy is preached to all the people. But the people of God are the biggest obstacle to the good news.
Paul and Barnabas are incensed and trace the rot right back to Jerusalem. When they get there some believers of the sect of the Pharisees repeat the heresy “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (v5)
Here’s my question: How long would these Judaizers have remained preaching their false gospel if it wasn’t for the missionary activity of Paul and Barnabas? The Gentiles come in and force the Jewish believers to rethink what it means to be saved and belong to God’s people. It stirs things up.
Now it’s true that once the matter is raised in Jerusalem, the council is quick to denounce this theology as “a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” (v10) But before the agitation of missionary activity and new converts, it was a yoke they all seemed to be tolerating. Legalism had become a comfortable yoke while-ever they remained ‘at home.’
But once the disciples saw the good news spreading and giving life they saw their anti-gospel living in a new light. When they saw the nations rejoicing in the Lord – even these unwashed Gentiles – they were forced to see the radical simplicity of the Lord’s salvation. In the light of a life-giving gospel their life-sapping theology was seen for the legalism it had always been.
Here’s an application that springs to mind… the best way to fight slave-making legalism within the church is to preach the life-giving gospel outside the church. When those who are far from God come in, only the true gospel can cope. The law can never handle the mess of radical conversions. Evangelistic churches need to be gracious churches. In this way theology is refined in the fires of mission.