Change is hard. Traditions beckon, bringing security, comfort, and resistance to anything that might threaten “the way things have always been.” And so it was for some Jewish believers who became followers of Christ. They were struggling. What constitutes salvation and therefore righteousness before God? Faith in Jesus Christ alone, or faith in Jesus Christ plus submission to Jewish laws and traditions? This raging debate threatened to tear the fledgling Christian church apart as Jewish believers sharply disagreed with each other about the Gentiles. And so the church acted, sending Paul and Barnabas to testify to the elders in Jerusalem and asking them to settle this foundational issue.
The modern day church still struggles with doctrinal differences and disagreements. Are there additions to the gospel that a new believer might encounter in your church? Consider the simple, wonderful, declaration of Scripture—that salvation is by faith alone in Jesus Christ, a free gift of His marvelous grace. What can you do to spread the message?
Read Acts 15:1-41 in one sitting to get the whole picture. As you do, read it freshly—as for the first time (try using different translations). Pray that God would open your heart to the truths He has for you from this text.
1. Discovering the Facts: What was the problem? Why was it a problem? Who were the instigators (see also v. 5)?
Scriptural Insight: For many of the Jerusalem believers, the church was the righteous remnant of Judaism, embodying the ancestral hope which all Israel ought to have welcomed, preparing itself for the impending day of the Lord: to countenance any relaxation in the terms of the covenant with Abraham, sealed in the flesh by circumcision, would be to forfeit all claim to remnant righteousness, all title to salvation on the last day. (F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, p. 287)
This tendency to be zealous for the law was still present 10 years later (Acts 21:20).
2. Share Your Life: The Pharisees were steeped in their tradition, aimed at keeping Judaism pure and “righteous.” Does tradition complicate the Christian church today? Explain with specific examples, if possible. (No names or denominations, please.)
3. How did the church in Antioch choose to resolve this conflict? Why?
4. Describe the journey Paul and the others made to Jerusalem and the kind of welcome they received once there. What did Paul purposely communicate everywhere?
Based on v. 22, the “them” in v. 7 is the Jerusalem church with the apostles and elders as well as those traveling with Paul and Barnabas.
1. What was Peter’s argument against the idea that the Gentiles must keep the Mosaic Law to be saved?
Historical Insight: Peter looked back ~10 years to God’s choice of Cornelius. The issue of whether to accept Gentiles was settled then before Paul and Barnabas went on their first journey.
2. Peter says that requiring Gentiles to be circumcised and obey the Mosaic Law does two things:
Historical Insight: “Taking the yoke” was used to describe Gentile proselytes coming into Judaism. It spoke of obligation. (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 393)
3. Read Ephesians 2:8-9. How were the Jews saved? How were the Gentiles saved? How are you saved?
Scriptural Insight: Peter’s statement, “we are saved, just as they are” is amazing. A Jew under the Law would say the opposite and in reverse order, but one who knew God’s grace, as Peter did, would not say that. (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 394)
4. Share Your Life: What is so hard about accepting by faith God’s absolutely amazing grace with “no strings attached?” Why do we tend towards adding conditions to salvation and complete acceptance before God? Do you? Why or why not? Write a prayer of thanksgiving in the space below for His amazing gift of grace in Christ and His complete acceptance of you by faith in Him—no strings attached.
Deeper Discoveries: Should the Jews have been surprised that God gave His Spirit to the believing Gentiles? Why or why not? Explain using other scriptures we have already covered.
Since the apostle James (John’s brother) was executed several years earlier (12:2), this James (15:13) is Jesus’ half-brother. Read 1 Corinthians 15:7, Acts 1:14, Galatians 1:19, and Acts 12:17; 21:18 for more information about him and his place of authority in the Jerusalem church. [If you have a study Bible or commentary, read the introduction to the book of James.] As head of the church in Jerusalem, what is his message to the assembly in vv. 13-18?
Think About It: “Should not make it difficult” is from the Greek for “to annoy” (to irritate). What would be annoying about having to follow the Mosaic Law as a Gentile Christian?
5. What four guidelines did James recommend to the Gentiles? What reason does he give for these guidelines?
Deeper Discoveries: Research the four guidelines given to Gentile Christians. How would these address traditional practices of Gentiles in cities where Jewish and Gentile Christians were trying to fellowship together? See also 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14 for practical application of these guidelines in the Gentile churches.
1. What was the decision of the Jerusalem church along with the apostles and elders? In light of Deuteronomy 19:15, discuss this decision and their choice of the men to send.
Scriptural Insight: Judas was a Hebrew name; Silas was Greek and a Roman citizen.
2. What information is given in the letter that would ease the minds of the Antioch church and would also reveal the Jerusalem elders’ regard for the missionary work sponsored by them? Who led them to their decision (v. 28)?
3. What was the response of the mainly Gentile church in Antioch to the guidelines and the Jerusalem church’s official representatives? Contrast this with their reception of the “unofficial” ones in vv. 1-2.
4. Unity of the church (locally and corporately) is an important theme throughout Acts. How is unity of the universal body of Christ preserved and strengthened in this entire passage (15:1-35)?
Think About It: Jim Cymbala, in his book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire (p. 92), declares the following: “There were no labels (Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal) at that time—and in God’s view, there still aren’t. He ignores our categories. All He sees when He looks down is the body of Christ, made up of all born-again, blood-washed believers. The only subdivisions He sees are geographical—local churches. Other distinctions are immaterial.” What do you think about that?
5. Share Your Life: Unity in the body of Christ is just as important today. What decisions have you made that help to promote unity in your church rather than foster divisions? If you haven’t made any specific decisions, consider asking the Holy Spirit for guidance about that as well as strength to carry out your decisions as needed.
1. Discovering the Facts: According to the text, what happened between Paul and Barnabas? What did each focus on? Is it clear that either was right or wrong?
From the Greek: “A sharp contention.” The Greek word here paroxysmos (provoking, stirring up, arousing) is used only here and in
Hebrews 10:24 where it’s translated “spur” or “stimulate.” (Robertson’s Word Pictures, note on Acts 15:39)
2. Based on what we’ve seen so far in their lives, we can assume both were praying about this upcoming journey, seeking the Holy Spirit’s direction. Is it possible the Holy Spirit was giving each a different answer about Mark? If so, how could they have handled this more agreeably?
3.Based on Barnabas’s giftedness, why was Mark a good choice for Barnabas? Based on the information given about Silas, why was he a good choice for Paul? How was the split used ultimately to further the spread of the gospel and glorify God?
4. Share Your Life: When we get comfortable doing things the usual way, we often don’t imagine life or ministry any differently. How do we handle the Holy Spirit giving different direction to individuals of a ministry team? Does someone always have to be right and another wrong? What can we learn from this lesson? See also Philippians 4:2-3.
Deeper Discoveries: Though neither Barnabas nor Mark is mentioned in the remainder of Acts, Paul refers to both in his letters. Read Galatians 2:11-13, 1 Corinthians 9:6, Colossians 4:10, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. What do we learn of Paul’s regard for Barnabas and John Mark later on? Can you draw any personal applications from their experience?
Scriptural Insight: Mark evidently returned from his work with Barnabas and became associated with Peter (see 1 Peter 5:13). Scholars consider the gospel of Mark to be drawn from Peter’s sermons.
Review the scripture passage covered in this lesson for evidences of the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. What will you ask God to do in your life?