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Acts 15: Gentiles as Gentiles in Davidic Promise and the Clarification of Paul’s Offer of the Gospel in Acts 13

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The sermon Paul preached in Acts 13:16-41 offered OT Davidic hope equally to both Jew and Gentile. In the apostle’s words the salvation offered in Jesus was the fulfillment of promises made to David (2 Sam 7:12-16; Ps 16: 10; 89; Isa 55:3) and was guaranteed for “all who believe” (pa<" oJ pisteuvwn [13:39]). But because the “God-fearers” (13:16b, 26) who were present were connected to Judaism, at least in religious ways well beyond the average Gentile, the narrative leaves it ambiguous as to whether Gentiles were accepted as Gentiles or whether they had to become proselytes to Judaism, or to some degree submit to Jewish religious practices (i.e., tw</ e[qei tw</ Mwu>sevw"; 15:1) in order to be saved. That is to ask, then, what, is the extent of the free offer of the gospel to Gentiles in Acts 13? Can they remain as Gentiles or do they still need, in some way, to adhere to Judaism (i.e., through synagogue instruction, circumcision, baptism, etc.)? This issue, of course, becomes the reason for the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and is resolved there by the leaders of the church.1 The importance of Chapter 15 in the book of Acts and to the mission to the Gentiles is well argued by Marshall:

Luke’s account of the discussion regarding the relation of the Gentiles to the Law of Moses forms the centre of Acts both structurally and theologically. Once the Christian mission had begun to evangelize Gentiles who had not previously been circumcised, the problems of the conditions of their membership of the church began to arise. It had evidently been the policy of the church at Antioch and its missionaries that such Gentiles should not be required to keep the Jewish law; although this point is passed over in silence in chapters 11-14, it is clear from 15:1. But this policy was unacceptable to some Jewish Christians for two reasons.

First, they found it hard to believe that Gentiles could be saved and become members of the people of God without accepting the obligations of the Jewish law…Secondly, there was also the question of how Jewish Christians, who continued to live by the Jewish law, could have fellowship at table with Gentiles who did not observe the law and were therefore ritually unclean…this problem was particularly acute when the church met to ‘break bread’.2

The purpose of this brief article is to explore how Luke resolved the tension of Gentile inclusion in Davidic promise and blessing as Gentiles. We now turn specifically to the problem as outlined in Acts 15. In Acts 15:5 certain christian Pharisees—who supported the Judaizing wing of the church—argued that it was necessary (dei`) for Gentiles to be circumcised and “ordered to obey” (paraggevllein te threi<n) the law of Moses in order to be saved. Luke says in 15:2 that this caused “no little dispute between Paul and Barnabas and the Judaizers” (stavsew" kaiV zhthvsew" oujk ojlivgh" tw</ Pauvlw/ kaiV tw</ Barnaba/v/ proV" aujtouv"). The term stavsew" (“sharp dispute”) in 15:2, the stronger of the two words Luke uses to describe the debate (the other being zhthvsew"), occurs nine times in the NT, seven of which are in Luke-Acts (Luke 23:19, 25; Acts 15:2; 19:40; 23:7, 10; 24:5). In each case in Luke-Acts the term carries not the meaning of “existence” or “continuance” but the force of either “riot,” “discord,” or “strife.”3 The point is that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the promise as Gentiles severely threatened to divide the church along ethnic lines and put an end to the Jewish mission in the Diaspora (i.e., the witness to Jews living outside Palestine around the Mediterranean in cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome). Concerning the issue of Jew/Gentile relations in the church and Luke’s portrayal of the Jerusalem council, Witherington remarks:

Here the matter must be resolved as to what constitutes the people of God, and how the major ethnic division in the church (Jew/Gentile) shall be dealt with so that both groups may be included in God’s people on equal footing, fellowship may continue, and the church remain one. Luke is eager to demonstrate that ethnic divisions could be and were overcome, despite the objection of very conservative Pharisaic Christians.4

The issue was not easily resolved, however, for Luke says that it was only after “much debate” (Pollh<" deV zhthvsew") that any defining progress was made (cf. 15:7ff.). The fact that Peter stood up5 and brought to their remembrance what had happened in his case and how God had “chosen” (ejxelevxato) the Gentiles to hear the gospel through his mouth and believe (cf. also Acts 13:48) indicates that the mission to the Gentiles was God’s decision and that Peter was involved in it. Thus the gospel to the Gentiles had occurred about ten years earlier, with the then leader (Peter) of the Jerusalem church. Those at the council knew that to be true, though given the point of the debate, they may not have recognized the precedent God had set in doing it.6 Thus Paul’s law-free approach could not be scorned as a movement apart from God’s desire and against Moses. Peter’s conclusion is that the God who knows the hearts of all men gave the Spirit to the Gentiles in the same way (kaqwV") as he had done with the Jews.7 In fact, Peter says that God “made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith” as well (15:8-9). To turn around, says Peter, and force Gentiles to keep the Law (threi<n toVn novmon) is to put God to the test (v. 10; peiravzete toVn qeoVn).

After Peter stopped speaking, Paul and Barnabas, in v. 12, told all that God had done among the Gentiles through them—all of which supported Peter’s testimony. But when they finished speaking James did not refer to their stories, but to that which Peter had done. He uses the word “first” (prw<ton) to indicate that what God had begun through Peter, he was now carrying on through Paul and Barnabas (15:14). This indicates the continuity and unity between the Petrine offer of the gospel to Gentiles and Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Both were initiated by God.8

The council had listened to the testimony of Peter, and Paul and Barnabas. The conclusion was obvious. It only remained for James to give the scriptural precedent according Amos 9:11-12 (Acts 15:16-17).9 The introductory reference to tw<n profhtw<n in Acts 15:15 indicates that what follows is most likely a composite citation10 and that Luke understood the mission to the Gentiles not as a purely Christian thing,11 but according to a cumulative prophetic witness associated with Davidic hope.12 Thus the boundaries of the “people of God” (laov" qeou`) are widened to include the Gentiles on equal footing with the Jews on the basis of Davidic hope.13 While the LXX text makes it clear that Gentile salvation is in keeping with the restoration of David’s fallen tent, neither the LXX nor the MT clarifies exactly how that will come about, though the LXX lends itself more easily to James’ point about Gentiles remaining as Gentiles. This is so since the LXX does not regard Israel as possessing the nations, but the nations seeking God. In any case, as Tannehill points out, the reference to David is important,14 but it is important not only because it was fulfilled in Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation, but because it carries through from the infancy narratives to Peter’s sermon (Acts 2) and Paul’s (Acts 13) this theme of the universal blessing afforded in Davidic promise; Davidic hope in Luke-Acts is for all, regardless of ethnicity, and places all in the same position in terms of the reception of covenant blessing, including the reception of the Spirit.15

Thus through the combined witness of the missionaries and James’ citation from the OT, the law free mission to the Gentiles was officially sanctioned and acknowledged by the Jerusalem church. The ambiguity surrounding Gentile inclusion in Davidic promise in chapter 13 is settled in chapter 15. The only thing they asked was that the Gentiles maintain love for their Jewish brothers and sensitivity toward Jewish ritual purity for the sake of the Jewish-Christian witness in the Diaspora (15:20-21).16 Thus Luke accomplished his purpose of demonstrating how the Gentiles came to be accepted as Gentiles into what had hitherto been a predominantly Jewish church. Therefore, Peter is not mentioned again in Acts and the Jerusalem church plays little or no role (cf. 21:15-26).


1 The importance of Acts chapter 15 for the thrust of the entire book can hardly be overestimated. See Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, Hermeneia, ed. Eldon Jay Epp with Christopher R. Matthews, trans. A. Thomas Kraabel, James Limburg, and Donald H. Juel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 121. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1998), 439, refers to it as the “most crucial chapter in the whole book.” This is particularly true in the light of the tension between Jew and Gentile in the unified progress of the gospel to the ends of the earth. The resolution accomplished by the leaders is not to say that every party present agreed with the decision.

2 I. H. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. R.V. G. Tasker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 242-43.

3 See BAGD, 764, 2, 3, s.v. stavsi". Two additional points may well serve to paint the background to this problem and the severity of the issue. First, we have already suggested in another paper (“John Mark in Acts: A New Testament Jonah”) the likelihood that John Mark left Paul and Barnabas because of his uneasiness with a mission to the Gentiles. With that in mind, it may well be that his return to Jerusalem (13:13) sparked the issue with the Jewish Christians there, with the result that they sent men to Antioch to command the Gentiles to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses. Second, the rather sudden appearance of James as the leader of the Jerusalem church in Acts 15:13 is probably connected to Peter’s removal as a result of visiting with Gentiles (10:28). Andrianjatovo Rakotoharintsifa, “Luke and the Internal Divisions in the early Church,” in Luke’s Literary Achievement—Collected Essays, ed. C. M. Tuckett, JSNTSS 116 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 174, suggests that “Within the narrative of Acts, the meeting of Peter with Cornelius and the ensuing consequences prepare the reader to understand a crucial point in the background to the debate in Acts 15. Thanks to his vision of unclean animals ‘coming down from heaven’, Peter has been able to get over the earthly obstacle of ritual purity which separates Jews from Gentiles. This particular act of boldness has cost him a high price: he has had to hand over his role as leader to James, the brother of Jesus. The latter’s rise to power is never recorded in Acts, but his sudden appearance in 12.17 (just after 10.1-11.18) and 15.13 (the controversy about ritual observance) suggests that his presence may be due to Peter’s loss of prestige following the scandal meal at Joppa.” See also Witherington, Acts, 457, who regards James as more than just another “rhetor” but one who is portrayed as a “judge or authority figure who can give a ruling that settles the matter.” This indicates the primus inter pares position he had early acquired.

4 Witherington, Acts, 439.

5 The expression is ajnasta;" Pevtro" which recalls the similar expression before Peter gave his definitive sermon regarding the phenomena of Pentecost (2:14; Staqei;" de; oJ Pevtro").

6 So Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 445.

7 See also 15:11 where Peter says that Jews are saved by the grace of God in the same way as (kaq o}n trovpon) Gentiles. The repeated mention of the identical manner of reception of the Spirit indicates Luke's focus on unity among the Jews and Gentiles in the church.

8 This is clearly the case in the unfolding of the narrative of Acts. Peter was given a vision which led to the meeting with Cornelius and his salvation (10:9-16). Paul and Barnabas were set apart by the Spirit for the “work” of reaching the Gentiles with the gospel (13:1-3).

9 For a discussion of the textual differences between the quotation in Acts and its original setting in Amos 9:11-12 LXX, see Pierre-Antoine Paulo, Le problme ecclsial des Actes la lumire de deux prophties d’Amos, Recherches Nouvelle Serie 3 (Montral: ditions Bellarmin, 1985), 74-79.

10 Witherington, Acts, 459.

11 Rebecca I. Denova, The Things Accomplished Among Us: Prophetic Tradition in the Structural Pattern of Luke-Acts, JSNTSS 141, ed. Stanley E. Porter (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 146-47.

12 The plural tw`n profhtw`n may refer to the scroll of the ‘minor prophets’; so Henry J. Cadbury and Kirsopp Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity: Part I—The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 4, ed. F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1965; reprint London: MacMillan, 1922-39), 176, and Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, trans. Bernard Noble and Gerald Shinn (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971), 448. But there appears to be portions taken from Jer 12:15 (meta; tau`ta ajnastrevyw for ejn th`/ hJmevra/ ejkeivnh/) and Isa 45:21 (ejpoivhsen tau`ta ajp ajrch`" for oJ poiw`n tau`ta). It is interesting to note that Isa 45:22 rings with a universalistic salvation (ejpistravfhte prov" me kai; swqhvsesqe oiJ ajp ejscavtou th`" gh`"). The use of ejpistrevfousin in Acts 15:19 recalls the same term in Isa 45:22, both of which refer to the Gentiles turning to God (qeov"). See David P. Moessner, “The Script of the Scriptures in Acts: Suffering As God’s ‘Plan’ (Boule) for the World for the ‘Release of Sins,’” in History, Literature, and Society in the Book of Acts, ed. Ben Witherington III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 242; F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd revised and enlarged edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 310; John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery, vol. 26 (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1992), 329.

13 Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation—Volume Two: The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 187, comments, “The speakers are making the important affirmation that Gentiles can be God’s laov" in the full sense that Israel is.

14 Tannehill, Acts, 188-89.

15 Cf. Paulo, Le Problme Ecclsial, 79-85.

16 For a discussion of the complicated textual problem in 15:20, 29; 21:25 and an accompanying bibliography, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 379-83. Whether there are four requirements or three, and whether they are all moral or all ritual (which is the more likely position), or some combination thereof, the point the council is making is still the same: the requirements were stressed so as to make table fellowship between Gentiles and their more scrupulous Jewish brothers possible and that the mission to the Jews in the Diaspora not be hindered. The point is to maintain a practical unity in the church.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)