After all the turmoil that Paul and Barnabas experienced in Acts 14, the ending verse is a wonderful statement of rest (Acts 14:28). They reported all the things God had done with them and how He opened a door of faith to the Gentiles, but then they stayed a long time with the disciples.
Now we come to the first Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. With all these non-Jewish believers coming to faith, the early church needed to define what it took to become a follower of Christ. Some were saying that converts needed to become Jewish first, while others where saying that becoming Jewish was no requirement in the gospel (Acts 15:1, 2, 5). Practically this meant that Gentile converts to Christianity would need to go through circumcision, which was the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham (Genesis 17:10, 14). Proponents of this view where called Judaizers or legalists who wanted strict obedience to the Law of Moses.
These legalists would rather split hairs than rejoice that people were coming to faith in Christ. If we look throughout history, it is probably legalism that has caused more churches to die, more servants to quit and more denominations to split than anything else. It starts out in the name of righteousness in order to clean out false teachings and poor interpretation of Scripture, but it ends up causing people to take sides and feud. Legalism is that same as a group being in pursuit of a godly standard. I love what James says in Acts 15:19, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles turning to God. A letter was drafted stating such, only to avoid four practices that were offensive to the Jewish brothers (Acts 15:29).
Three Mistakes Regarding Legalism:
They drew a universal standard out of their personal experiences; since they had been circumcised prior to salvation, everyone should experience salvation this way. The truth is that we all come to Christ out of different experiences. Some get saved out of a wild and reckless life and never return to that old lifestyle, while others might grow up in the church and regularly stumble with lifestyle issues. Both are saved based on their faith in Christ, but one cannot say to the other that they can only be saved if they have the same experiences as the other.
They tried to make salvation harder than it is; adding something to the basic truth of salvation by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). We all come to God with nothing to offer but simple faith in Christ, believing in His resurrection.
They expected of others what they could not keep themselves; they should not yoke the believers with something they and their forefathers could not bear (Acts 15:10). If we cannot live up to our own expectations, we can that failure. When we cannot live up to the expectations we put on others, that is called hypocrisy. Let’s remember the simplicity of salvation.
Once the Son sets people free, let us not enslave them in a system of laws from men (Ezekiel 34:27). What about the four restrictions (Acts 15:29)? They were free from the laws of Moses but not free from the life-giving laws of God. God gives us the freedom to separate from the practices of those around us. Abstaining from these four practices should keep them free from falling back into the old lifestyle.
Application: Don’t make salvation harder than it is. Avoid legalism that eliminates the Holy Spirit working in your life. If there is something you need to avoid or change, it is much more convincing and convicting to hear the Spirit tell you to give it up than to simply follow a man-made rule. Don’t fall back into your old lifestyle, the old hangout, the old friends, the old refreshments. It may be harmless and not forbidden, but will there be a temptation to slip back into your old ways? Don’t risk your freedom in Christ only to get enslaved all over again.