Tempting and Limiting God
(Acts 15:10) Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
(Acts 15:11) But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
Previously, we had noted that the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 was convened to deliberate on a major issue: should Gentile believers be bound by circumcision and Moses’ Law? As a point of order, it should be noted that the format was not an open debate among the entire church. Rather, “...the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter” (ACT 15:6). The church of Jesus Christ should not be a wild, open forum like the vain gathering of heathen, “Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused...” (ACT 19:32). God is not the author of confusion (1CO 14:33): “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1CO 14:40). The apostles and elders deliberated in the open, not in secret chambers, for truth needs not fear scrutiny. Jesus spoke openly (JOH 18:20), was shown alive openly (ACT 10:40), made open show of His enemies’ defeat (COL 2:15); “...this thing was not done in a corner” (ACT 26:26).
That the Pharisees were imposing circumcision and Moses’ Law on Gentile believers was an insinuation that God wasn’t doing things correctly, or that His work was inadequate. That is a very dangerous position and is reminiscent of God’s rebuke of Job, “Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous” (JOB 40:8)? The Pharisees had a penchant for correcting God and His works. In view of that, James’ remark in ACT 15:18 is interesting, “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” God knows what He’s doing, why He’s doing it, when He’s doing it, for whom He’s doing it, where He’s doing it, and wisdom will always justify Him (LUK 7:29; ROM 3:4), not one’s own bright ideas.
These Pharisee Christians that had gotten into the church should have snapped to attention when Peter said, “...why tempt ye God...” (ACT 15:10). Tempting God was the very charge levelled against their disobedient fathers in the wilderness who refused to enter the Promised Land after coming out of Egypt: “Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel” (PSA 78:41). For lack of faith, the Israelite exodists that came out of Egypt would not enter into the promised land and were charged with hardness of heart (PSA 95:7-11). Through unbelief they would not enter; therefore they died in the wilderness and could not enter (HEB 3:17-19). It is too oft our “will nots” that set us up for “can nots” and forfeited blessings. Blessings accrue only to the “will dos” who therefore “can do” through Christ which strengthens them (PHIL 4:13).
PSA 78:41 deserves further treatment relative to Peter’s discourse in ACT 15. The fathers not only tempted God, they “...limited the Holy One of Israel.” The Pharisees in the church at Jerusalem were following suit. They were limiting God’s salvation to only such as met their criteria, and were doing so in defiance of the evidences of God saving the Gentiles without their criteria. Matthew Henry here observed, “Those tempt God who prescribe to him, and say that people cannot be saved but upon such and such terms, which God never appointed; as if the God of salvation must come into their measures.” How foolish are the sentiments of those who likewise prescribe to God that He can only eternally save such as: 1) hear and believe the gospel, or 2) are baptized, or 3) have a survivor that does something on their behalf after death, or 4) manifest sign gifts like tongues, or 5) any number of other works which men suppose are necessary conditions of the salvation by grace that utterly excludes works (ROM 11:6). All such systems hold one thing in common: God’s work in Christ for the justification of the elect was inadequate and unfinished, and sinners must perfect it. The Christs of such systems can never, unlike the true Christ, see the travails of their souls and be satisfied (ISA 53:11).
The fathers in the wilderness had witnessed the hand of God in mighty plagues that destroyed Egypt but touched them not. They had been miraculously delivered through the Red Sea, miraculously supplied with water and fed with manna from heaven (PSA 78:12-25). Yet in spite of all this, they did not believe that God would provide for their challenges and needs if they entered Canaan. They even used the children’s welfare as an excuse (NUM 14:31). They thus limited God’s power to provide and protect. Believers must ever be on guard against thus limiting God Who knows their needs and has promised to “...supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (PHIL 4:19). Faith demands that we seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (MAT 6:31-34). It is a lack of faith that says, “I know I should do what the Bible tells me to do, but what about this, what about that, what about my friends, what about the children, etc.” It is a lack of faith that says, “I can’t afford to be purposeful and liberal in giving of my wealth unto God” and then such wonder why they just seem to be earning wages to put in a bag with holes (HAG 1:3-11).
The Pharisees by imposing Moses’ Law with all its ceremonial and ritual details upon the Gentile believers were doing them a great disservice. Those were weak and beggarly elements of bondage (GAL 4:9-10), not “...the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free...” (GAL 5:1). Let Matthew Henry speak again:
“They offered a very great wrong to the disciples: Christ came to proclaim liberty to the captives, and they go about to enslave those whom he has made free. See Neh 5:8. The ceremonial law was a heavy yoke; they and their fathers found it difficult to be borne, so numerous, so various, so pompous, were the institutions of it. The distinction of meats was a heavy yoke, not only as it rendered conversation less pleasant, but as it embarrassed conscience with endless scruples. The ado that was made about even unavoidable touch of a grave or a dead body, the pollution contracted by it, and the many rules about purifying from that pollution, were a heavy burden. This yoke Christ came to ease us of, and called those that were weary and heavy laden under it to come and take his yoke upon them, his easy yoke.”
Mr. Henry, of course, was referring to our Lord’s words:
(Mat 11:28) Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
(Mat 11:29) Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
(Mat 11:30) For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
The Apostle Paul was not only concerned about Gentile believers being brought into bondage: he was concerned for ALL believers. Heed his words about the incident at Jerusalem:
(Gal 2:4) And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out OUR liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring US into bondage:
(Gal 2:5) To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.
That element within the Jerusalem church was deliberately subversive, and Paul was obviously concerned about the spiritual liberty of believers in general, Jew or Gentile. A goodly portion of Paul’s ministry was dedicated to weaning believers from Moses. The response of GAL 2:5 was the response that true churches of Jesus Christ should have had to the first incursion of Old Testament bondage, whether it came in obviously or subtly by repackaging Moses or Judaism as Christianity. It should have been the response to Millerism (sabbath-keeping, dietary law), Darbyism and Scofieldism (Jewish chiliasm repackaged as Christian pre-millennialism), works-righteousness, and to any other doctrine that purports to bind Christians with Old Testament peculiarities or Pharisee delusions. The introduction and acceptance of any such thing will not be confined, even as Paul warned the Galatians about the doctrine of the Judaizers:
(Gal 5:9) A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.
Enough with sabbaths, dietary laws, feast days, holydays, mandatory tithing, works-righteousness, Mosaic ceremonies, rituals and ablutions, an earthly kingdom of God, millennialism, restored temple or any other vestige of Old Testament or Pharisee religion. Enough with holding back on commitment to God for lack of faith in His promises as Israel did when they came out of Egypt. To every Christian, Jewish or Gentile, a better rest awaits that dare not be squandered and lost for lack of faith as did those who tempted and limited God of old:
(Heb 4:10) For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.
(Heb 4:11) Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.