Acts 15

Acts 15:The Yoke

In this chapter we see trouble in the early church, internal trouble of a theological nature. Antioch has become the headquarters for the Gentile-Christian movement. So it is there a group of men, probably converted Pharisees came to teach these new Gentile converts. Here is where the trouble starts  and it is trouble with a capital “C”, which stands for circumcision. That is the issue. These men known as Judaizers preached a doctrine of grace plus works and faith plus circumcision. They told these new Gentile converts unless you are circumcised according to the law of Moses you cannot be saved. In other words, you had to become a Jew first  you could become a Christian.

Verse 2 tells us there was a heated debate between these men and Paul and Barnabas. Evidently they were unable to settle this debate and decided to appeal to a council in Jerusalem made up of the apostles and elders.  We look today at this movement of these men who would impose their false beliefs upon these Gentiles and wonder how they could not see the truth. Yet anyone or any denomination that adds anything to salvation besides grace through faith is committing the same error.  However, it is never easy to overcome the prejudices of education all at once.

When Jesus began his ministry he brought a newness that could not be contained in the old forms. He said:  ‘no one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old  garment for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” This was a new way, a change. The new way grew out of the old way. The old way pointed to the new way- but the old way was never intended by God to be the way one earned salvation. This became the crux of the debate.

At the meeting in Jerusalem,both parties are allowed to have their say, to speak their mind. The believers in circumcision stood up and said the Gentiles should be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses. Their position was clear. To them it had scriptural basis. Their view was that Christ was the Messiah and He would set up His Kingdom in favor of the Jewish nation. Do you see the pride they had in their heritage? Here in lies a principle we see even today- if one has a wrong idea regarding the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, they will also take the wrong measures to advance it.

Much discussion follows in this famous meeting.  Then Peter speaks. Peter reminds them they all believed God had made a choice among them that the Gentiles might hear from him( Peter) the message of the Gospel and believe. Furthermore, Peter continues God  knows the hearts of men and showed that He accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us. God sealed the believing Gentiles with the Spirit .

Peter then nails these Judaizers with this next statement:  “ Now then why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a YOKE that neither we or our fathers have been able to bear?  Peter warns them they are on dangerous grounds to say that God has not saved those who are obviously saved.  For by grace are we saved through faith and that not of our own, it is a gift of God , not works lest any man should boast.  No Peter exclaims we believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jess that we are saved, just as they are.

This grace plus works- faith plus circumcision and keeping the law of Moses was completely against what the Lord came to do and what God had intended from the beginning. Abraham was declared righteous by faith- for he had not even been circumcised yet. Jesus came to set the captives free from the yoke of the law, which they could never keep.  His appeal was to the weary and heavy laden. His invitation was to take His yoke upon ourselves.

Let’s look at this invitation of the Lord Jesus regarding taking up His Yoke in Matthew 11:25-30 and we will see the difference in the yoke the Pharisees would place upon the people and the yoke of the Lord Jesus.

“ At that time Jesus said, “ I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Father except by the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him. Come to me, all you who are weary ( labor) and are burdened ( heavy laden) and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon  you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Isn’t it amazing that many wise and learned people today do not know or understand that our Heavenly Father is Lord of heaven and earth? Yet, we who are His children know this and believe it. So the first key to revelation is humility. God gives grace and understanding to the humble. This is why Jesus told Nicodemus, a master rabbi and teacher, he must be born again. Become as a child completely dependent upon God without any resources of his own, including his intellect, knowledge and learning. One must humble himself or herself and come as a child in complete dependence on the Grace of God.

Jesus states in these verses that he has been commissioned by the Father and authorized to make this offer. He also tells us no one can know the Father except those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.  Sounds a little exclusive doesn’t it?  But listen to the invitation:  Jesus says,” Come unto me ALL YOU  who are weary and heavy laden .. He did not say come unto me the elect.

Let’s talk about the labor of the weary and the burden of the heavy laden.  Sin and guilt are a heavy burden to carry. We can most clearly see the impact of sin when we read the story of Adam and Eve.  Sin brought with it three emotions that will burden anyone. They were- guilt, fear and shame. It costs them their home and their very lives and would impact the first family in way they make us shudder. Adam and Eve would experience the worst of nightmares – a son murdered; their other son the murderer. So sin is horrific in and of itself. Add then on top of this load a plethora of laws, rules and works the Pharisees added that must be kept in order to pay for the sins and guilt and we see an overwhelming load that brings one to the point of collapse. Even today- we still have the mindset of the Pharisees trying as best we can to overcome our guilt by rationalizing, excusing and attempting to balance the scale with good works.

Let’s review the word picture of the yoke. The yoke was and is a type of neck frame, usually in Jesus’  time made of wood, to couple draft animals (oxen) together for the purpose of carrying loads.  Obviously a yoke was designed to make pulling the load easier. But when the load is too heavy and the burden too great and the yoke ill fitting it became an impossible task.  It is this yoke of legalism that Peter is referring to that he said was impossible for either them or their fathers to bear. And now they wanted to place this burden on these new Gentile believers?  God forbid!

Now the invitation of Jesus in this scripture is the invitation of the Gospel message. When Jesus invites all who labor to come, the Lord is issuing a call to repent. Repentance is a key element of salvation. What was the message of John the Baptist to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord?  Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand. What was the first message of the Lord’s first sermon- Repent!  To repent is to turn from the direction you are going- the broadway of sin that leads to destruction to the narrow way, the only One who can save you from your sins- the Lord Jesus Christ who is the way.  We see this message all through Acts from Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost when he called for people to repent- to turn from their sins, to turn from their idols.

So we see a process that begins with humility. For God gives grace to the humble,but resists the proud. The proud are referred to here as the ‘wise and learned.’ The ‘ babes’ or children are those who realize their helplessness and abandon their own resources and attempts to work to earn their salvation.  A baby is completely dependent upon his parents for everything. No resources of their own. Even as children, we come to trust our parents completely for our every need . As an adult I knew if my father said he would do something for me- I could trust him completely to do what he said he would do. That is why Jesus said it is more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  Meaning- a rich man is a person who is self sufficient, independent and in need of nothing. He did not say a rich man could not be saved- just that it was difficult for them. Pride does that- it makes them think their opinions are better than others.

The promise of the Lord to all who come to Him is rest. Notice in this passage there is a rest that is given and a rest that is found. The rest we are given is the forgiveness of our sins. All our sins are forgiven. I am now released from the burden of unforgiven sins. I am released from the guilt.

However, we are now called to service. To do this work, we must submit to the Lord. We have learned from the teaching and preaching and from life experience that the Christian’s life involves hardship. There is a load to be drawn but the purpose of the yoke is to make it easier. I imagine the Lord Jesus as a carpenter had knowledge and experience of fashioning a yoke. It began with measuring the neck of the oxen on which the yoke was to be placed. The fit must not be too loose or too tight or else it will chafe. The burden placed upon the ox must not be greater than the ox can carry.  I have faith in the Lord Jesus as I submit to Him, He will never place more on me than I can bear. I also know by being yoked with Him I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I find rest in submission, for it is not in trying but trusting.

The Lord says when we take up His yoke we will learn from Him. He is our teacher. And unlike the Pharisees, the Lord Jesus is a gentle and humble teacher. He does not upbraid us when we ask for wisdom. He is patient with us for He remembers our frames are dust, that we are slow learners. He does not ridicule us or teach us in a condescending manner of the wise and learned; He stoops to pick us up and is patient to repeat over and over until we learn.

Now in Acts 15 at this council, those gathered listened quietly to Peter, Paul and Barnabas. When they finished, James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, used the scripture from Amos to reveal what was clearly God’s purpose and intent to save the Gentiles. He summarizes then what in his judgment they should do.

“ It is my judgment, therefore, we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols; from sexual immorality; and from meat of strangled animals and from blood. “ All agreed to this decision.

Then to make sure there was no mistakes in their decision, they put it in writing.  Gina’s father, Houston, always said when there was any agreement or deal to be done-‘ get it in writing.’ Obviously these thought this was a wise thing to do. Put it in writing, in a letter. Send down some men to read it to them.  They selected Paul and Barnabas as well as Judas and Silas.

Do you see what God is doing here?  He has impressed upon them to put their decision in a letter. But also to send men there who could answer their questions. People learn best by having truth presented two ways. Through the eye gate- reading the written word. And through the ear-gate- hearing the word. Some learn better through reading, others learn better through listening.

God has written us a letter. It is the Bible. He put His truth in writing  so we could read it. But He has also appointed men and women to come and explain it, teachers who are equipped with the spiritual gift of teaching.

We should also take note how the early church dealt with a problem within in its midst that had the potential to split the church.

First they heard everyone’s viewpoint. Everyone had a chance to be heard. That is important. One must not think their voice is not important.

Next James acting as the spokesperson for the council takes note of the obvious work God is already doing and had done in the salvation of Gentiles.

However, James did not accept this activity as genuine activity of God without it agreeing with the Word of God. This is why James quoted the Scripture from Amos which verified it.

A yoke speaks of discipline. Discipline is training that corrects, molds and perfects.

The purpose of spiritual discipline is for the purpose of godliness. Godly people are disciplined people. God uses three primary catalysts for changing us and conforming us to Christlikness.

  1. People. Like iron sharpens iron, God uses people in our lives to encourage us, teach us and help conform us.
  2. Circumstances. God uses circumstances to discipline us- health, financial, pain and blessings. “ For we know that God works together all things for good for those who love Him land are called according to His Purpose.” ( Romans 8:28)
  3. Spiritual Disciplines.  Spiritual disciplines are different from the other two catalysts in that they are internal rather than external. As God works on the inside. They are also different in that we have little choice in the first two catalysts but we can decide if we will exercise the  spiritual disciplines the Word of God teaches.

Here are the Spiritual Disciplines :

  1. Bible intake.
  2. Prayer
  3. Worship
  4. Evangelism
  5. Serving
  6. Stewardship
  7. Fasting
  8. Learning.

It is by exercising these disciplines we put ourselves before God for Him to work in us in our pursuit of holiness. Each of these disciplines are actions we must take up for ourselves. “ For it is God who works in you both to will and to do His good pleasure. We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” ( Phil 2)

Think of the story of Zaccheus, a wee little man, short of stature who climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. He took the  efforts to put himself in the path of Jesus. That is what the yoke of Spiritual Disciplines will do for us- put ourselves before God so He might work in us.

Do you know why the Yoke of the Lord is easy?  Because it is a Yoke lined with love. Everlasting, Unconditional, Calvary Love.

Are you weary and heavy laden?  The Lord invites you to come along side Him- to take His Yoke upon you for it is easy- a Yoke made and fashioned from a Cross.

Copyright © 2010 Linda Benthal
Last modified: 08/12/14