23. The Jerusalem Council: The Gospel Defined and Defended (Acts 15:1-35)
… 34 But it seemed good to Silas to remain there.322 35 But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching, with many others also, the word of the Lord.
While there is a time to fight, there are many times when a fight is simply not worth it. I can remember Vance Havner once saying something like this: “Shucks, a hound dog can lick a skunk any day, but it just isn’t worth it.”
A friend of mine used to say, “There are some things I would go to the wall for, but this isn’t one of them.” We should strive to avoid conflict, but there are those few times when we must engage in conflict in order to stand for what is essential and true.
Acts 15 contains Luke’s account of two such instances, where conflict was necessary and where the gospel was advanced as a result of both disagreements. The first 35 verses describe the conflict which Paul and Barnabas had with certain men who had come to Antioch from Judea. The issue at hand was whether Gentile converts had to become Jewish proselytes in order to be saved. The outgrowth of this conflict was the first church council, which included some heated words but resulted in a very wise decision on the part of the apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem. The remaining verses in Acts 15 describe the disagreement which arose between Paul and Barnabas. This was a matter which was settled privately and into which the church leaders were not drawn.
We will concentrate in this lesson on the first conflict between Paul and Barnabas and some overly Jewish Christians, and the Jerusalem Council which met to settle the dispute. We will take note of the way in which the problem was handled and of the basis for the decision, as well as the decision of the Council and its impact. We will then seek to discern those principles which are inherent in our text and ponder their implications for the church today.
The Issue, Its Advocates and Its Assumptions
The issue is that of the gospel itself. What did the gospel require of those who were Gentiles and who were converted to faith in Christ? The answer of Paul and Barnabas can be summed up in these words:
The gospel requires nothing more than a personal faith in the substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, in the sinner’s place, resulting in the forgiveness of sins, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and the certainty of eternal life.
There were certain unnamed men who had come down to Antioch from Judea who held to a very different “gospel,” a “gospel” which, in reality, was a false one.323Their “gospel” might be summed up in this fashion:
Christianity is Jewish. To be saved, one must believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, but in order to be a part of this covenant community, Israel, one must become a proselyte, which is entered into by circumcision, which obligates the individual to keep the Law of Moses.
Put differently, to these “Judaisers” salvation meant identifying not only with Christ but with the nation Israel. It meant placing oneself under the Mosaic Covenant and keeping the Laws of Moses, as defined by Judaism.
We know for certain that these men who opposed Paul and Barnabas were from Judea. We can be sure they were Jews and that they had been and continued to be Pharisees (15:5). We are also told that these men were believers (15:5). We can infer, with some confidence, that these men either claimed or implied that their position represented the viewpoint of the apostles and the church in Jerusalem.324 It is probably safe to say that they taught with great confidence and an air of authority. When Paul and Barnabas opposed them, the sparks began to fly. Neither party was willing to budge.
As wrong as these “Judaisers” were, they believed their position was biblical.
A brief look at some Old Testament passages will show us the basis for their error, as well as an explanation of the error. Tracking the concept of circumcision through the Old Testament provides us with the reasons these Pharisees believed as they did and the reason they were wrong. Consider these two passages, the first found in Genesis 17 and the second in Exodus 12:
5 No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6 I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” 9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” … 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him. 23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen (Genesis 17:5-14, 22-25, NIV).
43 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover: “No foreigner is to eat of it. 44 Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have circumcised him, 45 but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it. 46 “It must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. 47 The whole community of Israel must celebrate it. 48 “An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the Lord’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. 49 The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you” (Exodus 12:43-49, NIV).
Circumcision was no mere ritual—it was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. By being circumcised men bore witness to their faith in the God of Abraham and in His covenant with him and his descendants. Failure to circumcise his son nearly cost Moses his life (cf. Exodus 4:24-26). Failure or refusal to be circumcised placed one outside the covenant community. In order for one to participate in the Passover meal, one had to be circumcised. Aliens (Gentiles, for all practical purposes) could participate, but only after being circumcised.
How easy it would be for a Jew to reason that these circumcision passages applied equally to those who wished salvation in Christ. Jesus was a Jew, the Jewish Messiah. If men wished to benefit in the blessings which God promised in and through the Messiah, they must identify themselves with Israel, with their covenants, and with the Mosaic commands.
The fallacy of this Pharisaical position was that one did not have to identify with Israel to be saved, but only with Christ. Indeed, the baptism of John and later that of our Lord and His apostles was a public renouncing of Judaism as a system of works and an identification with Christ, on the basis of faith alone. Men turned their backs on legalistic Judaism and turned to Christ, who alone kept the law and bore its (death) penalty for sinners. The law could not save anyone; it could only condemn all men as sinners. Christ alone can save, and thus men had to choose between self-righteousness, based upon perfect obedience of the law, or Christ’s righteousness, a gift of God’s grace, through faith in the person and work of His Son, Jesus.
The Judaisers viewed circumcision from these early texts in the Old Testament, but not from the other texts which showed the “true circumcision” to be an act of God, performed on men’s hearts and not on their physical flesh.325 Notice how this “spiritual” circumcision becomes more and more clear as the Old Testament progresses:
14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer (Deuteronomy 10:14-16, NIV).
6 The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live (Deuteronomy 30:6, NIV).
1 “If you will return, O Israel, return to me,” declares the Lord. “If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, 2 and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ then the nations will be blessed by him and in him they will glory.” 3 This is what the Lord says to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem: “Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns. 4 Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it (Jeremiah 4:1-4, NIV).
23 This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. 25 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh—26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart” (Jeremiah 9:23-26, NIV).
Though the term “circumcision” is not used, God’s promise of a new covenant and a new heart is surely referring to the “spiritual circumcision” which God will perform on men’s hearts, by faith, under a new covenant:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33, NASB).
Paul will make much of this in his epistles. Here are a few of his comments on circumcision:
23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” 25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. 28 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God (Romans 2:23-29, NIV).
3:31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. 4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5 However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. 6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” 9 Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. 13 It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, 15 because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all (Romans 3:31–4:16, NIV).
17 Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him (1 Corinthians 7:17-20, NIV).
2 I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. 3 Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. 4 This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. 5 We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you … 11 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? 15 “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. 17 “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:2-5, 11-20, NIV).
1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. 2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love … 11 Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 6:11 See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand! 12 Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. 14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. 16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God (Galatians 5:1-6, 11-16, NIV).
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)—12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22, NIV).
3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3, NIV).
11 In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. 16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. 19 He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. 20 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 2:11-23).
I find myself wanting to give these “Judaisers” the benefit of the doubt. I would like to believe they were sincerely trying to follow the Scriptures, as they understood them. Up until this time, when Gentiles were being saved in large numbers, there was no need to agonize about a few Gentiles (most of whom were God-fearers or Jewish proselytes) who came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. But now large numbers of heathen, pagan, Gentiles were being saved. How were these Gentiles believers to be taught? What, if anything, was to be required of them? The demand of these Pharisee Christians made it necessary for the church to more clearly define the gospel. And the strong conflict of Paul and Barnabas with these Judaisers made it necessary to declare one or the other (or neither) to be correct.
The Journey to Jerusalem
The Antiochian church seems to have been unable to settle this debate, and so they appealed to the church in Jerusalem. This, after all, was where the apostles would be found, or at least some of them, and this was the church from which (it would seem) the Judaisers had come. And since these Judaisers seem to have given the impression that they spoke for the apostles and the Jerusalem church, who better to confirm their teaching or to confront their error? And so it was decided that Paul and Barnabas and others (were any of the opposition included in this group?) were sent to Jerusalem for a decision from the apostles and the elders there.
Paul and Barnabas do not appear to have lost any of their confidence or zeal concerning their ministry to the Gentiles. Consequently, as they traveled up to Jerusalem through Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported, in detail, the conversion of the Gentiles which brought great joy to those who heard of God’s grace, manifested in this way (15:3).
When they arrived at Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed and received by the church there, including the apostles and the elders. In what may have been a kind of congregational gathering, they gave their report of the salvation of the Gentiles to the Jerusalem saints. This message was received differently, however. There is no report of any rejoicing, though I am sure that some must have done so. Others may have inwardly rejoiced, but not openly, knowing the reaction this would cause among some of the Pharisaical brethren. Here was the occasion for which the Pharisee party within the church, a party of true believers but ones who held fast to their Pharisaical traditions and theology, waited. These men grasped the moment and stood, insisting, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).
These words would hardly have come as a surprise to those saints in Jerusalem, for advocates of this Pharisaical view of salvation had come from Judea and had gone out as far as Antioch. But somehow, since Paul and Barnabas were a fair distance away and the Gentiles who were being converted were also far away, the issue was not addressed, and the error was not rebuked. It is evident that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem326 had not taken a position and had not dealt with this matter, because it is only at this time that they meet to determine what their position would be.
It would appear that another meeting was scheduled, for a later time, at which the apostles and the elders would be the ruling body but to which all who had something to say would be allowed to speak their mind. James may have been the moderator. The opponents seem to have spoken first, and Luke does not bother to include any of their arguments. Everyone who wanted spoke, and there was a great deal of heated discussion. The testimonies of Peter and Paul and Barnabas were saved until last, and then James, as it were, made a motion as to the action which this Council should take.
7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
Peter, who spoke first, had himself stood “on trial” by many of these same Jewish saints (Acts 11:1ff.). In that instance, Peter was called on the carpet by the “circumcised” who challenged the legitimacy of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles at all. When Peter had finished describing the events which led him to go to the house of Cornelius and the testimony which the Holy Spirit bore to the salvation of these Gentiles, the circumcised saints had to admit that God must have opened the door to Gentile evangelism. So that now, when Paul and Barnabas stand before this Council, the issue is not whether Gentiles can be saved, but how Gentiles are to be saved. Peter’s trial was over the issue of whether Gentiles should hear the gospel; now the issue was what that gospel must be. This Council was faced with the responsibility of defining the gospel that would be preached.
Peter reminded his audience that God had ordained him to be the first apostle to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and by this the precedent had been established that the Gentiles were, by divine design and purpose, to hear the gospel and be saved. Peter’s argument rests on the testimony which God bore in the evangelization of those Gentiles at the home of Cornelius. God, he reminded these circumcised saints, cleansed their hearts by faith. They had not yet been baptized, and they were apparently never circumcised (unless they had undergone circumcision in the process of becoming proselytes), and yet the Holy Spirit came upon them, baptizing them in exactly the same way that He had at Pentecost. If God testified to their salvation, based solely upon their faith, how could this Council require anything more of Gentile Christians? Furthermore, God did not make any distinctions between these new Gentile saints and those who came to faith who were Jews. How could this Council make any distinctions in the gospel which was proclaimed to Gentiles?
If no distinctions were to be made, then Gentiles must be saved in exactly the same way as Jews. Who, among Peter’s audience, would dare to say that any Jew had ever been saved by law-keeping? If Jews were saved by grace, through faith, apart from law-keeping, why would they possibly insist that the Gentiles be put under this impossible burden? This argument, incidentally, is precisely that same argument which Paul used in rebuking Peter for separating himself from eating with Gentile saints, when circumcised saints came for Jerusalem to Antioch. It is my opinion that God had prepared Peter for this moment in time by using Paul in his life to underscore its truth.327
Peter’s argument was a persuasive one. God had clearly indicated that it was His purpose to save Gentiles. The way in which they were saved was no different than the way Jews were saved. God did not make any distinctions. If the salvation of those Gentiles in the home of Cornelius set not only a precedent but a pattern, then simple faith in Christ alone was all that was necessary for a Gentile to be saved.
And so it was for the Jew. This Council dare not make distinctions which God did not make.
The Testimony of Barnabas and Paul
12 And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
Peter’s words seem to have brought order to what had been a chaotic, heated exchange. This set the stage for Barnabas and Paul328 to tell of their ministry and their message. A hush had fallen over the group, and Barnabas and Paul told the story of their ministry and message. The thrust of their words, at least as summed up by Luke, was that God had accredited them and authenticated their gospel by the signs and wonders which He granted them, in addition to their words. These signs and wonders were God’s “Amen” to their message and ministry. Here is yet another testimony from God to the accuracy of the gospel they preached to the Gentiles.
There is one thing about the testimony of Barnabas and Paul which catches my attention—its brevity. It was, in large measure, the ministry of Paul and Barnabas which precipitated this Council. How was it then that they had so little to say? My answer is this: They had little to say because it was they who were on trial. On the theoretical side, the gospel must be defined, but on the personal level, the Council must decide between Paul and Barnabas and those circumcised teachers who claimed to have apostolic support and accreditation. In reality, it is not Paul and Barnabas but the Jerusalem church that is on the spot. This church may have sidestepped the issue until now, but now they are forced to take a stand. Thus, Luke focuses on their testimonies and verdict. Once Paul and Barnabas are accredited by the Jerusalem Council, it will be Paul who will do the definitive work on the subject of circumcision and the Law of Moses, as it relates to the Gentiles. But here, these two have little to say.
The Judgment of James
13 And after they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. 14 “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.329 15 “And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
16 ‘AFTER THESE THINGS I WILL RETURN, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH WAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, 17 IN ORDER THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME, 18 SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM OF OLD.’
19 “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
James, the half-brother of our Lord, begins where Peter left off, passing by the testimony of Barnabas and Paul. He now takes the lesson which Peter has drawn from his experience and puts it to the test of biblical revelation. Theology can be learned from our experience, but it ought not to be viewed as biblical doctrine until it has been tested by biblical revelation. James set out to test Peter’s theology by Old Testament revelation. He will say, in effect, that what Peter had just said had been prophesied in the Old Testament.330
Turning to the prophecy of Amos 9,331 James draws on this text which speaks of God’s judgment and destruction of Israel, which is not complete, and which is not permanent. He promised to return and to restore Israel, rebuilding it as in the days of old (Amos (9:11). But the restoration of the kingdom to Israel is not an exclusive blessing, only for the Jews. It will be, God promises through Amos, a restoration which will enable the Gentiles to seek the Lord and worship Him. In the context of the Jerusalem Council, James is pointing out from this text that both Jews and Gentiles will worship God when the kingdom is restored to Israel, and that they will do it as Jews and as Gentiles. In other words, Gentiles will be blessed as Gentiles, not as Jews. Thus, there would be no need for a different gospel, and there would be no need for the Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes. The very things which Paul and Barnabas have reported are thus consistent with the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets concerning the restoration of the kingdom.
James then moves to a proposal which he put before the Council. The Gentiles who were turning to God should not be troubled by the Jewish saints and in particular by the decision of the Jerusalem Council. The things which were proposed as requirements were not requirements for salvation, but rather requirements for fellowship between Jewish and Gentile saints. These four prohibitions were the four most offensive things to a Jew:
(1) Partaking of foods contaminated by their involvement with idol worship
(2) Fornication—sexual practices contrary to God’s standards
(3) Eating those things which were strangled, not killed as God had instructed
(4) Eating blood
Refraining from these things would greatly reduce the cultural tensions which existed between Jews and Gentiles.
Doing this would in no way set aside the Old Testament law, as though it were evil or worthless. Indeed, the Gentiles had access to the synagogues, where the Law of Moses was taught each Sabbath. There was ample opportunity for the truths and principles of the Law to be taught to Gentiles. Studying the Law is a very different thing from placing oneself under the law, obliged to keep the whole law, without violating any part of it.
The decision of the Jerusalem Council then was that the gospel, for Jew or Gentile, was salvation as a gift of God’s grace, through faith alone, faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the Messiah who bore one’s sins and judgment, so that they could be pronounced righteous in God’s sight and have eternal life in the kingdom of God. Those who taught otherwise did not have the approval of church in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas were right, and those men who came to Antioch from Judea were wrong.
There is great wisdom evident in the way the Jerusalem church dealt with this issue. They gave ample opportunity for discussion and debate. They made their decision on the basis of human and divine testimony, which was in accordance with the teachings of the Old Testament. And now, having reached their definition of the gospel, they decide on the implementation of their decision.
The first thing the Council did was to put their decision in writing and to appoint men to accompany Paul and Barnabas with the letter, to bear witness to the decision of the Council. Were there “certain men” who came down to Antioch from Judea with “another gospel”? Then let the churches hear from this group of men, who came from Judea and who could attest to the decision the Council had made concerning the gospel and that which was to be required of Gentile converts. The two men who accompanied Paul and Barnabas were Judas and Silas, leading men among the saints, men whose word had clout among the Jewish saints. Judas is an unknown individual, but Silas will accompany Paul on his second journey.
The letter itself was not long nor was it extensive. Its emphasis was on men, disclaiming the men and the message of those who had come from Judea, insisting on the circumcision of the Gentiles, and on their obedience to the Law. Further, the letter commended Paul and Barnabas, as beloved brethren, who risked their lives for the sake of the gospel. With this condemnation of the false teachers and the commendation of Paul and Barnabas, the door was opened for Paul to write in much greater detail on the matters decided, in principle, at the Jerusalem Council. Paul’s epistles, as it were, had the forward written by the Jerusalem Council, and his views were formally approved as consistent with the gospel. The four prohibitions were laid down as those things which the saints would do well by observing. And with this, the letter ended, with a simple, “Farewell.”
The Return to Antioch
30 So, when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message. 33 And after they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out. 34 But it seemed good to Silas to remain there.332 35 But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching, with many others also, the word of the Lord.
The delegation, along with the letter they bore from the Jerusalem Council, made their way to Antioch where they formally delivered the letter. The response of the church was great rejoicing. Grace encourages, but legalism does not. Being a Christian did not mean being Jewish; they could be Gentile Christians. Judas and Silas ministered to the Antiochian congregation, with a lengthy message which encouraged and strengthened the saints. While we do not know the precise content of the message of these men, I think we can safely say the thrust of it was probably upon grace. As the writer to the Hebrews put it,
“Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited” (Hebrews 12:9).
Those sent to Antioch from Jerusalem returned home, except for Silas (who was to accompany Paul on his next journey). Paul and Barnabas remained on at Antioch for some time, preaching and teaching the saints there, along with others. And in God’s time and God’s ways, they would go out again, not together this time, but separately, as we shall soon see.
From a historical (and thus Luke’s) point of view, the gospel has been officially defined and defended at the Jerusalem Council. It was not until the gospel was challenged and corrupted by false teaching that this was viewed as a matter of urgency. The men who first corrupted the gospel were seemingly true believers, but men who brought much of their past baggage with them. It appears that the Jerusalem Council not only silenced these men, but changed their definition of the gospel. At least I would like to believe that these men were teachable. If these men were convinced and changed their teaching, there would be many others who would quickly take their place and would seek to corrupt the gospel. As time went on, these men would be looked upon as unbelievers and not as true saints at all (cf. Galatians 2:4). Much of the error which is confronted in the epistles has a distinctly “Jewish” flavor. The attack on Christianity from without (by opposition and persecution) would also come from within. And so the New Testament indicates.
The Jerusalem Council is a kind of “watershed” decision, for in the immediately preceding chapters (13-14) of Acts, Gentile evangelism had begun as a conscious program, led by Paul and Barnabas. As a result of the conversion of many Gentiles, it became necessary to more carefully define the gospel, and the heathen culture of the Gentiles began to collide with the self-righteous culture of Judaism. Having defined the gospel and defended the authority of Paul and Barnabas, the program of evangelizing the Gentiles could continue on, with the blessings of the Jerusalem church. And so the subsequent campaigns will now be described by Luke as Paul heads from Jerusalem, bound ultimately for Rome. And so also would come the destruction of Jerusalem, not many years hence, to free the Gentile from the pressure of Judaism. With the exception of one more visit of Paul to Jerusalem, we are at this time saying farewell to Jerusalem and to the church there. We are rapidly coming to the age of the Gentiles.
I cannot help but marvel at the wisdom of God, who raised up a man like Paul, independently of the church in Jerusalem and the apostles (cf. Galatians 1 and 2), who became a catalyst in the definition of the gospel. Here was Paul, a former Pharisee, and now a saint, opposing Pharisee-Christians and their “gospel.” How was it that
Paul, a former Pharisee, could so strongly oppose fellow-Pharisees who were genuine believers?
As I have thought about the differences between Paul and this “circumcision party,” made up of Pharisees, the best explanation for Paul’s unique stance is to be found in his view of his past religion—Pharisaism. The Pharisees sought to bring their Pharisaism with them into Christianity; Paul left his Pharisaism behind. The Pharisees took pride in their Pharisaism; Paul counted it as “dung,” boasting only in Christ. Paul saw his Pharisaism as a works system, in which a man could take pride in his spirituality, and he utterly renounced it when he came to faith in Jesus as his Messiah. The Pharisees seemed to add faith in Christ to their religion, rather than to exchange their religion for Christ. Rather than seeing that they were saved in spite of their religion, they tended to think their religion helped them along.
How easy it is to cling to those things which give us, in human terms, status. And yet this only produces pride, rather than humility, and self-sufficiency, rather than dependence upon God. How much of our baggage have we tried to bring along with us when we came to faith? Paul looked upon his past religious achievements and counted them not only as worthless, but as offensive. And that is precisely what religion is to God. God does not want religious people; He wants “sinners” who will confess their sins and trust in Christ. Leave the religious baggage behind. When you see how offensive it is to God, that will make it easier to forsake.
How quickly Christianity becomes confused with culture. Some Jews, it seems, wanted to impose their culture on the Gentiles, in the name of Christianity. The gospel could not be defined in terms of the Jewish culture, and thus the Council separated the culture of Judaism from the gospel. And thus, when Peter will write to the dispersed saints in his epistles, he will speak of holiness in terms of their culture, rather than in terms of the imitation of a Jewish culture.
This passage informs us that there is a time to fight. There are many times to avoid conflict, as we can see from other passages of Scripture, but here, it is the gospel itself which is under attack. Men, intentionally or not, were striving to adapt the gospel to their own liking, and it cannot be done. Paul’s strong words in the Book of Galatians are proof that there is to be no toleration of any error which would corrupt the gospel. Christians can disagree on many subjects, but they cannot differ on the gospel. In that we must always stand firm and united.
And so, as I close, I must ask you this question, my friend. Do you understand the gospel? Is it the simple message that all men are sinners, incapable of saving themselves and doomed for eternal torment? Salvation has been provided by Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son, and God’s Messiah (Savior). He died for your sins on the cross of Calvary. He was buried and was raised to newness of life. All you need do is to believe in Him, to admit you are a sinner, and to trust in His death as the payment for your sins. His resurrection is the promise of your own, and the basis for the power of God to work in your life. I pray that you will not only understand the gospel, but that you will accept it as your own.
322 The marginal note in the NASB indicates that some manuscripts include this verse, although the editors of the NASB chose to omit it. I have chosen to let the verse stand as a part of the text.
323 Cf. Galatians 1 for Paul’s strong reaction to this gospel of faith and works.
324 The Jerusalem Council was careful to indicate that they had neither sent these men out nor did they hold to their definition of the gospel (cf. 15:24).
325 That a spiritual circumcision was necessary for salvation, rather than a physical one, should have been obvious to any Israelite who thought about it very long. Only men could be circumcised. If only men were circumcised, and circumcision were necessary for salvation, what was to become of the women? Circumcision, then, like baptism, was a physical symbol of an inward, spiritual activity, and that activity was performed by God, through the faith of the individual.
326 Notice the gradual change that is taking place in Acts, moving from a leadership exclusively by the twelve apostles to one shared by the apostles and the elders of the church. And note too the shift from Peter’s dominant role to that of James, who was not one of the twelve apostles, but was apparently an elder. Could it be that Peter had lost some of his standing in the eyes of this church because of his mission to the Gentiles (Acts 10 and 11)? Regardless, James is emerging as a most prominent leader in the Jerusalem church.
327 If this is not so, and Paul’s rebuke of Peter as described in Galatians 2 came after the Jerusalem Council, then Paul simply reminded Peter at that time of what he had already said at the Jerusalem Council.
There are some interesting parallels between the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and the events of Galatians 2. There are also some critical differences between the two accounts. Consequently, Bible students are not agreed as to whether Acts 15 and Galatians 2 describe the same event or different incidents. Either way, each passage sheds some helpful insight into the other.
328 The order of the names of Paul and Barnabas is reversed, for the second time, here. I think this can be explained by the fact that Barnabas was the better known of the two, and perhaps the more popular. Paul was confident and dogmatic in his view of the gospel, and he may have offended some of these saints. Compare Jerusalem’s view of Paul as described in Acts 21:17-25.
329 “The English translation of the words, ‘God first visited the Gentiles to take from them a people for his name,’ scarcely bring out the paradoxical force of the Greek. In the Old Testament the ‘nations’ or ‘Gentiles’ . . . stand in contrast to the ‘people’ . . ., that is to say, Israel. When Moses says to the Israelites in Deut. 14:2, ‘Yahweh has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the nations that are on the face of the earth,’ the Greek version uses laos for ‘people’ over against thene for ‘nations’; the two terms are opposed the one to the other. But when James uses the same two terms here, he does not speak of ‘God’s taking a people in contrast to the Gentiles, but of his taking a people consisting of Gentiles--an ‘outstanding paradox,’ as Bengel says. The Scofield Reference Bible, in its note on this text, had a point in calling it ‘dispensationally, . . . the most important passage in the NT.’ What James states concisely here is implied throughout the New Testament: one example is 1 Pet. 2:9, where God’s description of the returning exiles of Judah, ‘the people whom I formed for myself, that they might declare my praise’ (Isa. 43:21), is applied to Gentile converts to Christianity. Cf. also Tit. 2:14.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 293.
330 Peter does not use the singular, prophet, but the plural, prophets. Thus, he cites Amos 9:11-12, not as his sole text but as a sample text, which could be buttressed by the writings of other prophets.
331 It has been noted that James’ quotation of Amos 9:11-12 seems to have been from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, rather than from the original Hebrew (Massoretic) text. While this poses a few problems, it does not nullify the point which James was making. For a discussion of this textual matter, cf. Bruce, pp. 293-294.
332 The marginal note in the NASB indicates that some manuscripts include this verse, although the editors of the NASB chose to omit it. I have chosen to let the verse stand as a part of the text.
Related Topics: Law