In Acts 15, we learn about a great crisis that confronted the Christian Church in its early history. There was a difference of opinion concerning the requirements for salvation. Some taught that believers must observe the Old Testament rite of male circumcision in order to be saved. But Paul and Barnabas were receiving Gentiles into the Christian faith without insisting on this rite.
The question was not whether Gentiles could be saved. That question was settled as a result of Peter’s experience with Cornelius in Acts 10. Peter was criticized for having fellowship with Cornelius and his family, who were Gentiles. But when Peter explained to the brethren at Jerusalem what had happened, Acts 11:18 says, “they held their peace; and glorified God,” and said that God has also received these Gentiles and granted “repentance unto life.”
The question facing the Church was whether Gentiles could be saved without first becoming Jews and observing the regulations of the Mosaic Law. The apostles’ procedure for handling this crisis is discussed in Acts 15. We note four stages of development in this chapter:
- 1. The Dissension that Arose (15:1-5)
- 2. The Discussion that Followed (15:6-21)
- 3. The Decision that Was Made (15:22-35)
- 4. The Division that Later Occurred (15:36-41)
1. The Dissension that Arose (15:1-5)
The mother church at Jerusalem was composed of people having a Jewish background. Many of the Jewish Christians felt that membership in the church should be restricted to those who had conformed to the Jewish law, including circumcision for males.
The church which had been established at Antioch of Syria (north of the land of Israel) was now becoming an outstanding center of Gentile Christianity. It was from this church that each of Paul’s missionary journeys began (Acts 13:1-3; Acts 15:40-41; Acts 18:23). The closing verses of Acts 14 tell how Paul and Barnabas had just completed the first missionary journey and reported back to this church. They gathered the church together and rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how the door was opened to the Gentiles (Acts 14:27).
When the brethren down at Jerusalem heard that great multitudes of Gentiles were being converted to the Christian faith, some of them came to Antioch and claimed that they were official representatives of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:24). They told these Gentile believers that they could not be saved without being circumcised (Acts 15:1).
Teachers that insist on submitting to the Law of Moses are often called “Judaizers.” The early Church was plagued with these men. They not only disturbed the congregation at Antioch, they also visited the congregations over in Galatia and taught these things.
Paul was preaching that since Christ died, the ritual practiced in Old Testament times was no longer required. Salvation is entirely by grace. It’s a free gift. The practice of outward observances has a place, but heart-belief is the basic ingredient of a right relationship with God. It’s not something we earn by saying a certain number of prayers, or giving particular gifts, or participating in specific rituals a given number of times.
For the Jew, circumcision was a mark of distinction from non-Jews. Circumcision was a special mark of God’s covenant favor. Many Jews thought that acceptance with God was pretty much guaranteed by that rite.
After a great deal of discussion by the church at Antioch, it was finally decided that Paul and Barnabas should go to Jerusalem and get first hand teaching from the apostles and elders there. “When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them [the Judaizers], they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question” (Acts 15:2).
Jerusalem was the mother church. Christianity had originated there. Many of the believers there had personally known the Lord Jesus, and had the privilege of hearing His teachings from His own lips. Therefore, the Christians at Antioch decided to discuss the issue with the brethren at Jerusalem.
Verse 3 tells how certain brethren from the Antioch church accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their journey, and how they stopped briefly at some churches along the way. This was a journey of more than 300 miles and took perhaps two weeks or more. But when they arrived in Jerusalem, they were warmly received by the church and were treated with hospitality and kindness (verse 4).
The Antioch brethren gave a detailed report of their missionary activities, and told how God had blessed them. Once again, certain believing Pharisees insisted that Gentile converts were not truly saved unless they were circumcised and kept the Mosaic Law. Because the matter was vital to maintaining harmony in the Church, a special meeting was called to consider it carefully.
2. The Discussion that Followed (15:6-21)
Verse 6 seems to indicate that Paul and Barnabas first met with the apostles and elders to consider the matter. Then later, the whole church assembled and heard the issues (compare verse 6 with verses 12 and 22). This is the biblical reason why (among some groups of Brethren today) matters of concern are brought before an official board (ordained men) first. Then, if the board deems it wise, the entire church hears about the issue and has opportunity to voice an opinion.
Verse 7 says that when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up to speak. (We often connect the idea of heat and anger with the word “disputing.” But the Greek word simply means “to present an argument in a calm and deliberate way.”) After the discussion was carried on for a while, three speeches were given and recorded in Acts 15. One was given by Peter, one by Paul and Barnabas, and one by James.
Peter spoke first. He gave a simple and stirring testimony, rehearsing what God had already done. Peter then reminded the assembly that the problem they were discussing had already been decided nearly ten years before—when the Lord had led him to the house of Cornelius (verse 7b). In verses 8-9 Peter pointed out that God bestowed grace upon that Gentile household, and that He showed His acceptance of these Gentiles by sending the Holy Spirit upon them, just like the Holy Spirit had come upon the first Christians at Pentecost. And God did all this without asking them to observe circumcision and the other regulations of the Mosaic Law.
Peter concluded (in verses 10-11) by asking in essence, “Why then should we impose these regulations on the Gentiles, and make demands on them, which God himself doesn’t make?” He said that even Jews are not saved by circumcision nor by observance of the Law; all who experience salvation are saved by the grace (the undeserved favor) of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When Peter sat down, Paul and Barnabas gave their testimonies. We are not told exactly what Paul and Barnabas said. Verse 12 simply says that they declared “what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.”
I suppose that if they would have put the issue to a vote at this point, there would have been an overwhelming majority in favor of the case for the Gentiles. But these brethren were not interested primarily in a majority vote. They had assembled together to find the mind of the Lord. One question still remained to be answered: “What do the Scriptures say?”
At this point James spoke. In verses 13-14 he rehearsed what Peter and the others had said. Then in verse 15 he said, “to this agree the words of the prophets.” Following this he quoted from Amos 9:11-12. The primary reason James quoted the words of the prophet Amos was to point out that Gentiles would be saved right along with the Jews. This Scripture has been only partially fulfilled (up to this point); the complete fulfillment still lies in the future.
This message presented by James gives an outline of God’s program for the church age:
a. God visits the nations and calls out of them a people for His name (verse 14). Specifically, God took from among the Gentiles a chosen people for Himself. This had taken place in Caesarea at the hands of Peter and during the missionary journey of Barnabas and Paul who were sent out from Antioch. But these experiences were not enough to convince the Jews. James gave proof from Scripture that this was God’s purpose.
b. The Scriptures say, “After this I will return, and build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down” (verse 16). This speaks of the Church as “a spiritual house,” and members of the Church as “stones” in that building (see 1 Peter 2:5). All of us need to keep in mind that one of these days the last stone will be placed in that building, the last person will be saved, and the Bridegroom will come!
c. In God’s program, the great millennial kingdom will be established, the tabernacle of David will be built up again, and Jesus Christ will reign here on earth in Person. Read Micah 4:2-3 and Zechariah 8:21-22. We don’t know all the details of this future government here on earth, but one thing is certain: the prayer that we pray over and over again, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven,” will finally be answered!
James concluded his speech by making a recommendation to the assembly. In light of the fact that God sent His Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and in light of the fact that the Scriptures foretold all this, James wisely and rightly suggested that they not impose Jewish regulations on Gentile converts, but that they would send a message to the Gentiles asking them to abstain from certain abominations.
3. The Decision that Was Made (15:22-35)
The apostles and elders (and the whole Jerusalem church) agreed that the way of salvation was by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, and that circumcision was not a necessary requirement for salvation. The Council further agreed to write a letter to the Gentile believers, telling them of the decision and reminding them to abstain from several abominations. The point is that just because we are saved on the basis of what God has done for us (and not on the basis of what we have done), does not mean that we are free to live just as we please. When this suggestion was submitted to the assembly, it was adopted unanimously.
a. The believers were reminded to abstain from “pollutions of idols” (verse 20). That is, they were to make a clean-cut separation from idols and idol-worship. Verse 29 indicates that this included eating meat that had been previously offered to idols.
b. They were reminded also to abstain from fornication. Sexual immorality was (and is) a common practice among all levels of society. Pagan temples were filled with prostitutes who used the money received from having sex with lustful men for the upkeep of the temple. Certainly it was good to remind the new converts that they must keep themselves pure.
c. The believers were further instructed to abstain from the practice of “strangling” their animals. Rather, they were to let the blood drain out of the animals when they were killed, so the meat would not be saturated with blood. The reference to “things strangled” refers to animals that were killed without draining the blood. The use of blood was common among the Gentiles. They drank it often at their sacrifices and when making covenants or compacts.
d. The final admonition was to abstain from blood. Along with the obvious meaning of the blood of humans or animals, this word (in the Greek) implies bloodshed. The Romans tended to be a violent people. The Roman Empire started through violence and depended on ruthless force. This prohibition was to abstain from murder, manslaughter, and other acts of violence.
The Gentiles from a pagan background were not accustomed to high standards of morality, and therefore these special instructions were definitely in order.
The Council delegated Paul and Barnabas, along with two brethren from the Jerusalem church, to take the message up to the church at Antioch, and to help spread the news about the decision to other churches. The content of the letter is given in verses 23-29.
In the section which follows, we are told that Judas and Silas exhorted the Christians at Antioch for a time. Then, later, they returned to Jerusalem (though it seems that Silas lingered since he appears again in verse 40). Paul and Barnabas stayed on at Antioch, teaching and preaching the Word of the Lord (verse 35).
4. The Division that Later Occurred (15:36-41)
In the closing verses of Acts 15, we have the record of a painful incident: the separation of Paul and Barnabas. After they had labored for a time at Antioch, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they revisit the cities where they had established churches, and find out how the believers were doing. Barnabas agreed, and suggested that Mark should go with them again, as he did on the first journey. The word “determined” (verse 37) is better translated “minded.” Barnabas was minded to take Mark along with them. But Paul felt this was not justified, because Mark had deserted them the first time he was along. Traveling with Paul was not an easy experience. It involved severe testing and hard work, and Paul didn’t want to take anyone along who was unwilling to endure hardship.
Verse 39 says that the contention was “sharp” between these two church leaders. (The word “sharp” does not mean that they used ugly words with each other, but that the difference was so great that they just could not be reconciled.) So Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas, and they traveled over land to Syria and Cilicia—and thus began the second missionary journey.
There are several conclusions about the difference between Barnabas and Paul:
a. There was no ultimate and final breach between the two men. Paul favorably mentions Barnabas later on (1 Corinthians 9:6). From this we conclude that Paul recognized Barnabas as a fellow laborer in the work of the gospel.
b. These men were not perfect; they were human. But God overruled (even their imperfect humanity) for good. Instead of just one missionary expedition, now there were two sets of missionaries going out.
c. Mark remained faithful, for even Paul later called for Mark to come to his aid. He said that Mark was “useful” for ministry (2 Timothy 4:11).
The Bible never tries to hide the faults of God’s servants. This is evidence that the Bible is the Word of God. From this account of the contention between Paul and Barnabas, we can see that even genuine Christian men sometimes disagree on what they regard as significant issues, but they can still maintain grace and charity toward each other. Perhaps they remained as brethren because they both understood that their disagreement was not over “basic principles.”
We might ask, “What does this church council experience of long ago have to say to us today?”
a. God’s people are free from the bondage of the Mosaic Law. Salvation is the gift of God’s grace, and it is to be received by repenting of sin and by exercising faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Many people are hoping that by good deeds, practicing ceremonies, and engaging in lots of church activities, they will attain a right standing with God. But the Bible says that we are not saved “by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5). No person will ever be able to stand up and say, “I’ve done thus and so, and therefore God owes me salvation.” Good deeds are important in the life of a Christian, but they will never atone for our sins!
b. In this chapter, God revealed His will in an assembly where the voice of the church could be heard and summarized in a simple decision. But when various factions gather simply to win over their point of view, the Spirit will be grieved and the church will be troubled with carnal contentions that will hinder their testimony to the world about them.
c. Church difficulties and points of real difference not only test our spiritual condition, but actually can be a mark of our attitude toward established authority. Church problems should be faced frankly, discussed fully, decided agreeably, and accepted heartily.
However, there is a word of caution that needs to be mentioned. If a church authority (a local church council, the wider church conference, a bishop or elder, or other authority) makes a decision which is definitely contrary to the clear teachings of the New Testament, it should not be followed.
Elder D. L. Miller, one time editor of the Church of the Brethren Gospel Messenger, said, “No commandment given us in the New Testament Scriptures, is to be set aside as being non-essential . . . the law enacted in the council chamber of heaven and revealed to us in the New Testament is to control the church of God. Conferences have a place only in devising means to carry out the principles embodied in heaven’s laws, and for the unification of God’s people. When [the conferences] go beyond this, they usurp authority and must not be followed.” (The Eternal Verities, Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1902)
Sometimes we forget that the Bible talks about imperfect people. The first century Church had problems just as we do today. We should be thankful that the New Testament tells us how the early Church worked through their problems. The same Holy Spirit Who guided those in the early Church is available to guide us today in our decisions (John 14:26). Are we earnestly seeking Him?