Acts 15:1 And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
When Paul was ministering in Galatia, he was followed by legalists who desired to tear down that which God accomplished through his mission. After Paul’s first missionary journey was over, word spread throughout the believers in Israel about how God had used Paul and Barnabas to take the gospel to the Gentiles, and that they were receiving the gospel with gladness and being saved. A contingent of legalists came down from Judea to Antioch, with a letter from James, the brother of Jesus and a leader of the church in Jerusalem, to inquire as to what was happening. It boiled down to this … they had heard that Gentiles were receiving the gospel but were not being circumcised. These legalists came to Antioch not to learn about grace, but to spread legalism. Paul, Barnabas and the legalists got into it, and they headed up to Jerusalem to council with the Apostles and church leaders there. But, not all the legalists went back to Jerusalem with them. Unknown to Paul, some of them headed out to Galatia (where Paul had just planted four churches) perhaps lead by a man that Paul referred to as his thorn in the flesh.
2 Corinthians 12:7 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
Some say Paul’s thorn was a physical disability, malady or perhaps a temptation, but I’m of a mind to believe that this thorn was a person whom Satan inspired to follow Paul, teaching legalism and trying to undo the work that Paul had been doing.
Those legalists, and this Thorn in Paul’s flesh, went out to those four young Gentile churches with a plan to discredit Paul, calling him an impostor, a renegade Apostle operating outside of the blessing of the Jerusalem church, and to bring the Galatian church under the yoke of legalism, telling them they have been lied to and were not saved unless they undergo circumcision. Perhaps that very person was with this group that came up from Jerusalem, with a letter from James, the brother of Jesus and a church leader, to see if grace was triumphing over legalism and try to quell the joy of those who were living by grace rather than by the law.
As you may can see, we have two problems here. First, the church in Antioch was very impressed by these men who were sent down from Jerusalem. Second, James, brother of Jesus and a leader of the church, sent them, even validating their inquisition with a letter from him. I think we need to receive a word of caution from these facts, that being that we need to be discerning about those things that impress or dazzle us. That is because the flesh is easy to dazzle and goes after things that are impressive, even though they may be hurtful rather than helpful.
That might be things like people who portray that they have some Bible knowledge or some missing information that others do not have. Years back those who claimed to have secret or hidden knowledge that others did not have were mystics and gnostics. Today, there are those within the Christian church who claim knowledge that is extra Biblical … even hidden knowledge that only they have found. What we discover when we closely examine their claim is that the knowledge they have is from extra Biblical books and writings which they give the same level of credibility as the Bible, when only the Bible is the inspired Word of God.
We need to be careful of being dazzled by church buildings that have all the trappings of the world, with a veneer of spirituality. There are lots of really pimped out church buildings that have all the amenities of the local shopping mall, but that does not mean what is being taught there is Biblical.
We need to be wary of legalism. It appeals to the flesh, because it is about works and our ability to do them. James wrote that if you endeavor to be saved by the keeping of the law, you better not fail even in the smallest one (James 2:10). There are many today who take pride in keeping the Sabbath or in what they do or don’t eat or some other “pet” law. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless they desire to put others under the same burden they have placed on themselves, acting as if it’s a requirement for salvation. They can really talk it up, too, … make it sound like it’s better than grace or that grace is better when it is enslaved to the law and then our flesh takes that idea and runs with it because how the flesh can glory in itself if we are able to keep that one law. The Jewish Roots of Christianity are amazing to explore. Studying the Jewish Roots of Christianity is a great thing, but be careful that you don’t set aside grace for the law.
We should also be aware that pastors and leaders are not perfect. James, the brother of Jesus and a church leader, had sent these men with a letter. Don’t place any Christian, whether lay person or pastor on the same level as scripture. The reason why some Christians end up deceived is that they mistakenly place the words of a Pastor on the level of scripture, or they forsake scripture altogether in exchange for books written by Pastors about scripture and Christian living. Be as the Bereans and search the scriptures to make certain that what you hear is true. There are other things to exercise caution over, but if we abide in the Word of God, not trying to add or take away from it, or bend it so it says things it is not intended, then we should have no problems. Weigh everything against scripture and you won’t have to worry, because scripture points us to truth and grace.