Acts 15 - Outline of Acts (Book Notes menu page)
As we open our study in Acts ch.15, Paul and Barnabas have just returned from their first missionary journey (described in ch.13 - 14), during which they had planted churches in the lower regions of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Soon after their arrival in Antioch (of Syria) they gave a report, to the church which had sent them out as missionaries (Acts 14:26-28).
1. And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, [and said],
Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them,
they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them,
should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
...certain men (cp. Gal 2:11-13) -
These men were Jews who believed in Christ. But they caused division within the church, by teaching that circumcision was a prerequisite for salvation. (Such teachers are often referred to as "Judaizers" because they wanted to bring gentile believers under the Judaic Laws, into Judaism.)
...except ye be circumcised... ye cannot be saved.-
Note that this is not a question of preference. Circumcision is a mark of God's covenant with Israel. Without the ritual cutting away of the flesh, a man would be excluded from the congregation of God's people (Gen 17:12-14). Therefore, the Judaizers reasoned, Christians also must have this mark, they must become proselytes to Judaism before they can be included among God's people.
     In answer to the question "What must I do to be saved?" These teachers would say: 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and also fulfill the Law of Moses.'
     The facts of the Gospel were not in dispute (1Cor 15:1-6). Christ's death, burial and resurrection, were well attested by more than 500 witnesses. Obviously, faith in the facts of the Gospel is essential for salvation (1Cor 15:14-17,20). Both sides of the argument were in agreement on these facts.
     The issue was the interpretation of the Gospel facts. What effect does Christ's death and resurrection have upon the believer? Does Christ's death and resurrection finish the work of salvation, or does it begin a process which the believer must complete? Paul addresses these issues in Galatians (eg., Gal 2:15,16; 3:22-25). [In Acts ch. 15, this error, which arose in Jerusalem, had reached as far as Antioch. But it would not be long before it would travel far beyond, to Galatia, and other regions where the gospel had been preached among the Gentiles. Therefore, about a dozen years after the issue was raised in Antioch, Paul would need to address this error in his epistle to the Galatians.]
     On this occasion, there was "no small dissension." (Luke, the author of Acts, understates the heat and intensity of the argumentation.) Both sides were sincere in their positions. Both were holding nothing back, in defending their view. But what was the Truth? Being unable to reach agreement, the matter was referred to the elders in Jerusalem.
3 And being brought on their way by the church,
they passed through Phenice and Samaria,
declaring the conversion of the Gentiles:
and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.
4 And when they were come to Jerusalem,
they were received of the church, and [of] the apostles and elders,
and they declared all things that God had done with them.
5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed,
saying, That it was needful to circumcise them,
and to command [them] to keep the law of Moses.
6. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.
At every stop along the journey toward Jerusalem, believers rejoiced at the news, of Gentiles converting {turning} to God from idols, through faith in Christ.
When they reached their destination, the dispute was again raised in Jerusalem, by believers with background as Pharisees.
     These men had been educated in a strict view of scripture, with attention to legalistic detail. This had also been Paul's background. But he had come to understand that the things in which he had once trusted, to make him acceptable before God, were utterly worthless. The righteousness, which he had claimed on his own credentials and merit, was fit only for the dung hill. Therefore, he had forsaken any thought of earning righteousness through good works, in order to be included in the righteousness of Christ, through faith in Him alone (Php 3:1-10).
The question is raised (in v.5):
  Was it "needful" that Gentile believers be circumcised in order to be saved?
There are two closely related aspects to this question...
  1. Is faith in Christ alone sufficient?
    or, In addition to faith in Christ, must I earn merit by my own actions (eg., through fulfilling certain ritualistic requirements).
  2. Is the grace of Christ alone sufficient?
    or, In addition to what Christ has done, must an earthly religious system convey grace, to complete some lack in His sacrifice?
7 And when there had been much disputing,
Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men [and] brethren,
ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us,
that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness,
giving them the Holy Ghost, even as [he did] unto us;
9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
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?
11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
we shall be saved, even as they.
12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul,
declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.
When there had been much disputing, Peter rose up and said...-
No doubt, Peter had expressed himself previously. But here, he summarizes his personal conviction on the matter. The fact that Peter was an observant Jew, probably enabled the legalistic Jewish believers to receive his words favorably.
Peter reminded them of how God saved the household of Cornelius (Acts ch.10, about 2 - 3 years before ch.15):
  • God had arranged that the Gentiles "should hear the word of the gospel, and believe." v.7
    • God had moved contrary to Peter's expectation, and beyond what he would have considered proper (as he had explained, when the assembly in Jerusalem had considered the conversion of Cornelius and other Gentiles, in Acts 11:1-18). It was God, not Peter, who had chosen to present the Gospel to the Gentiles.
    • The Gentiles had simply heard and believed the Gospel.
  • "God, who knoweth the hearts, bare them witness... giving them the Holy Ghost... purifying their hearts" (v.8,9; see Acts 10:44-48).
    God Himself had shown that those Gentiles were acceptable before Him. For He had given them His Spirit with visible manifestation (as a sign to the Jewish believers). They had heard the Gospel, and had believed. No more. No less. And God had confirmed that they were saved, and belonged to Him.
  • Summary statement: (v.10,11)
    • v.10a - "Why tempt {provoke} ye God..."- ie., by teachings contrary to God's demonstrated purpose.
    • v.10b - Servitude to the Law, which cannot save, produces unbearable bondage, which neither Jew nor Gentile can bear. Notice Peter's admission: "neither our fathers nor we" could keep the Law. It is not possible to be saved by keeping the Law, because no one can keep it. The Law of God condemns us as hopeless sinners worthy of His condemnation (Rom 3:20). The Law shows us that we are sinners in need of a Savior.
    • v.11 - "But we believe {'we,' ie., the apostles and the Jewish believers}..." The means of salvation, for Jew and Gentile alike, is by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ (not through works of righteousness which we have done). Titus 3:5-7
  • Response: "all the multitude kept silence..."- How can anyone argue against what God has spoken and made clear?
    Paul and Barnabas, then gave a report to the church in Jerusalem (v.12), concerning God's working among the Gentiles (as they had previously done in Antioch, in Acts 14:27).
13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying,
Men [and] brethren, hearken unto me:
14 Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles,
to take out of them a people for his name.
15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,
16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David,
which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:
17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord,
and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called,
saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.
18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.
19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them,
which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:
20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols,
and [from] fornication, and [from] things strangled, and [from] blood.
21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him,
being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
According to church tradition, this James was the author of the epistle of James, the brother of Jude, and a half brother to Jesus. He held a position of authority in the church in Jerusalem (Gal 1:18,19). (James the brother of John had previously been slain by Herod. Acts12:1-2,16-17)
James answered... wherefore my sentence {GK=krino, judgment, determination, opinion} is...-
  • The basis of his opinion:
    1. Precedent: As Peter had rehearsed, God had previously 'visited the Gentiles' {ie., He 'looked upon the Gentiles in order to meet their need.'} to take out of them a people for His name.
    2. Scripture: 'This agrees with {lit., is in harmony with} the words of the prophets.'
      In v.16-17, James quotes or alludes to at least two OT prophets. The first line ("After this I will return") is apparently from Jer 12:15. The largest excerpt is from Amos 9:11,12. Both passages foretell that following Israel's long dispersion, the nation will be restored in a future day.
         The primary focus, of Amos' message (c. 790 BC), was that God's judgment (by means of the Assyrian captivity) was about to fall upon the northern kingdom of Israel, because they had turned away from the Lord GOD to serve the false gods of the heathen nations. However, this judgment would also overflow to the whole "house of Jacob," resulting in the fall of the southern kingdom, which was ruled by king's descended from David. This was fulfilled by the Babylonian captivity (586 BC), which ushered in the 'Times of the Gentiles' with the fall of the house {'tabernacle'} of David. Israel's destruction would have been complete, except that God chose to sift {or, sort out} the Jewish people among the nations, and preserve those who were truly His (Amos 9:8-10).
         Amos went on to foretell the eventual restoration of Israel, and the Davidic Kingdom (in Amos 9:11-12, qouted by James), "in that day..." (ie., in 'the Day of the LORD,' in which He will judge all nations during the future Tribulation period). As that judgment is brought to completion, Christ will establish His millennial Kingdom, fulfilling the prophecy that David's house {or, tabernacle} will be re-established. Then, in that day, when Christ reigns from David's throne in Jerusalem, His Kingdom will include "the remnant" {'residue'} of believing Israelites, who had been scattered to Edom and beyond, and "all the heathen {the gentiles, the nations}, which are called by my name..."
         James' focus is on that last phrase "the gentiles, which are called by my name." These believing Gentiles are distinct from Israel. They have not become proselytes to Judaism. James argues, from scripture: 'Since it is God's stated prophetic purpose to call out gentiles unto His name, we ought to align ourselves with His purpose.'
         The way in which James quoted the verses from Amos, refines for us the order in which God will fulfill His purpose. Amos said David's Kingdom would be established, "In that day..." that is, at the conclusion of Israel's sifting, at the end of the Tribulation.
         However, James does not use the phrase "In that day..." Instead, he says that David's Kingdom will be established "After this..." (v.16a; quoting Jer 12:15).
         After what? After the long period of Israel's dispersion, which includes the present Church Age. Thus, as James said, after God has 'called out, from among the Gentiles, a people for His name' (v.14). The "church" {GK=ekklesia} is the "assembly of those called out" from among the world of unbelieving Jews and Gentiles, to belong to Christ.
         That "calling out," which began at Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit empowered preaching of the Gospel, will continue until the end of this present Church Age, which is the Age of Grace. After 'the calling out from among the Gentiles' is completed, the true church will be raptured (1The 4:14-18). Then, the Time of Jacob's Trouble (the Tribulation) will come, the nation of Israel will recognize and turn to their Messiah, and He 'will return' (Jer 12:15), defeat their enemies, and establish His Kingdom on earth (Zech 12:7-10; 13:1,2; Rom 11:25,26).
  • His recommendation for action:
    A letter, to the Gentile believers, with dual purpose...
    1. v.19 - To "trouble not those who are turned to God from the Gentiles." Salvation is by Christ's Grace alone, accessed by faith alone.
      Any other "gospel" troubles believers and is a perversion of the truth (Gal 1:6-8).
    2. v.20,21 - To encourage Gentile believers to show God's Grace to the Jews, by avoiding unnecessary offense toward Jewish sensitivities.
22. Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church,
to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas;
[namely], Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren:
23 And they wrote [letters] by them after this manner;
The apostles and elders and brethren [send] greeting unto the brethren
which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:
24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us
have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying,
[Ye must] be circumcised, and keep the law:
to whom we gave no [such] commandment:
25 It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord,
to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
26 Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas,
who shall also tell [you] the same things by mouth.
28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us,
to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;
29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols,
and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication:
from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
James' recommendation was accepted (v.22).
Note the democratic, congregational government. James made a well reasoned recommendation, not a decree. The other apostles and the whole church were "pleased" {ie., they "thought well" of the plan, they were in agreement with it}, and therefore, implemented the action suggested by James.
The letter composed (v.23-29)...
  • The purpose (v.24): to offset the confusion caused by troublesome legalistic teachings.
    These confusing teachings were "subverting... souls," ie., undoing the settled work which had been accomplished within them. cp. Gal 5:1-7
  • The authority of the letter (v.25a): The whole assembly, which included apostles, was in agreement.
  • The credentials of the messengers (v.25b-27):
    • Barnabas and Paul (to whom the gentiles needed no introduction). They were trustworthy messengers, being men who had "hazarded their lives for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." [What price are you bearing, or willing to bear, to be a witness for Him?]
    • Judas and Silas, who, as Jewish representatives of the assembly in Jerusalem, would confirm the determination of the elders in Jerusalem, lest some say that Paul and Barnabas were promoting their own erroneous viewpoint, without regard for the council in Jerusalem.
  • The instruction (v.28,29):
    1. Its essence: to live in a way that brings neither shame to the name of Christ, nor needless offense to their Jewish neighbors.
    2. Its Source: The instruction was from the Holy Spirit, with whom the elders were in agreement.
      We need to be careful not to reverse that order. We dare not act, in any matter, according to what seems good to us, before we know the mind of the Spirit, and are in agreement with Him. Congregational rule is only valid when each member is led by the Holy Spirit.
    3. Three practical points regarding the gentile believer's way of life:
      1. ...abstain from meats offered to idols...- This is the subject of 1Cor 8 (and is also touched upon in other epistles).
        Much of the meat available in the markets, of the gentile world, had previously been sacrificed to idols, who were thought to consume the spiritual essence. The meat, which the idols had left behind, was sold to support their priests and temples. Many Christians, recognizing that an idol was nothing, and that the one true God was the real source of all good things, had no problem with eating this meat. But, the Jews had been taught not to eat meat offered to idols. Therefore, to avoid offense to them, the Christians should avoid such meat also.
      2. ...abstain from blood and things strangled...- (see Lev 17:10,11)
        The Jewish means of slaughter was to drain out the blood, which was not to be eaten, in reverence for the life poured out. The bodies of animals, which are slaughtered by strangling, retain the blood. Thus eating their meat involves eating blood. Christians were to avoid offending their Jewish neighbors in this matter also.
      3. ...abstain from fornication...- Fornication {GK=porneia, illicit sexual activity}.
        The gentiles lived in a culture of sexual perversion. Many of the new believers had formerly worshipped idols, whose temples were places of religious prostitution. In such a culture, loose living and adultery were common (eg. 1Cor 5:1,2). Gentile believers needed to understand that Christ had called them out of this kind of life into purity and sanctification, for His glory (eg. 1Cor 6:13-20).
30 So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch:
and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle:
31 [Which] when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.
32 And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves,
exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed [them].
33 And after they had tarried [there] a space,
they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles.
34 Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still.
35 Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch,
teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
The letter delivered...
The message of consolation {paraklesis: comfort, coming alongside to encourage} caused great joy.
The message was amplified and confirmed by the representatives from Jerusalem (Judas and Silas).
The messengers continued ministering in Antioch.
In Gal 2:1-10, Paul summarizes his visit to Jerusalem which involved dealing with the question of whether circumcision and observance of the Law, were requirements for salvation. This matter was resolved as described in the present chapter (Acts ch.15).
     In Gal 2:11-21, Paul reviews an event, relative to this issue, which took place in Antioch. But it is uncertain whether that event occurred before or after the council in Jerusalem.
  • After? - In the flow of Galatians ch. 2, this event appears to follow the council. If so, it may have occurred during the extended ministry of Judas and Silas (v.30-35). Although Peter is not mentioned by name, it is possible that he was present and enjoying fellowship with the gentile believers. But later, when a new group of legalistic Jewish believers came from Jerusalem, Peter "dissembled" {ie., acted hypocritically along with others}, and separated himself from the gentiles. At that time, Paul's rebuke of Peter would have served to re-emphasize the council's doctrinal decision and the practical implications of salvation by Grace through faith, in regard to the fellowship of believers from different backgrounds.
  • Before? - It seems more probable that the incident of Paul's rebuke to Peter's dissembling, occurred prior to the council in Jerusalem, thus spurring the events of this chapter (Acts ch.15). (Note that in both books, the trouble started with the arrival of "certain men." Acts 15:1; Gal 2:12) [For further discussion of the the timing of these events, see the Book Notes on Galatians ch.2.]
Although the heresy of the Judaizers had been dealt a sound blow, and should have been laid to rest, it continued to spread into the Gentile world. Therefore, a dozen years after the council in Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Galatians, who were being troubled by legalistic false teachers who had, by that time, reached them also.
Perhaps you also have been troubled by the miss-representation of the Gospel of Christ.
There are many churches, religious organizations and cults, which proclaim "another gospel: which is not another." The way of salvation that they offer subverts the souls of those who trust them... because their 'way' cannot save anyone, since it depends on the works of sinful human beings.
You dare not trust in...
  • ...your own good works... -
    No matter how much good you do, it is impossible to meet God's standard of sinless perfection.
       The Lord Jesus Christ lived that sinless life which always pleased the Father. He fulfilled the Law perfectly, not merely outwardly as observed by men, but within His heart as known by God. To be accepted before God, you need the righteousness of Christ... the righteouseness which is available to you through simple faith in who He is and what He has done for you.
  • ...the merit conveyed by a priest or church... for a price, or through some ritual. -
    How do you know they have merit to convey? It is easy for a priest to say 'Your sins are forgiven.' It is impossible for him to cure a heart that is bound by sin, to enable you to love the things that God loves, and to live the way that pleases Him. Only the Lord Jesus has such power (Mat 9:2-7; Rom 3:20-30; 10:1-13).
       Those who place their trust in 'Christ alone' for salvation, stand before God in His merit. Jesus paid the entirety of your debt, when He poured out His life in your stead. At His death, He declared, for you to hear: "It is finished." There is nothing more to add. Nothing more to do. Nor could anything be added to what He has done for you. Won't you place your full trust in Him today?
36. And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas,
Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city
where we have preached the word of the Lord, [and see] how they do.
37 And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.
38 But Paul thought not good to take him with them,
who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.
39 And the contention was so sharp between them,
that they departed asunder one from the other:
and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;
40 And Paul chose Silas, and departed,
being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.
41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.
Most of Acts ch. 15 dealt with a strong conflict within the early church over an important doctrinal question, which was decided by the council in Jerusalem, based on the precedent of God's acceptance of Gentiles by faith in Christ alone (v.7-11), and on the testimony of the scriptures which reveal that God's purposes include Gentile believers (v.14-17).
In the closing verses of this chapter, we encounter another strong conflict, which was a matter for which there was no direct scriptural instruction.
...the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder {GK=apochorizo, separated} one from the other...-
Because of their 'sharp contention' {GK=paroxusmos, paroxysm} on this matter, these former partners in ministry parted ways. These two servants of God determined that they would not be able to work together, due to their conflicting opinions, not concerning doctrine (on which they agreed perfectly), but concerning a practical matter.
The cause of the disagreement...
The history:
  • John Mark had accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:4,5). He had been exposed to some very minor opposition early in the journey, at Paphos (on the island of Cyprus). He had also witnessed the Lord's miraculous intervention on that occasion. Yet, not long after the team reached the mainland, John Mark had turned back from the work at Pamphylia (Acts 13:13). Perhaps he was just too young and soft. Perhaps he was homesick. Perhaps the ship travel had been an adventure, but the long dusty road which lay ahead looked too hard and uncomfortable. In any case, rather than completing the missionary journey with the apostles, he had returned to Jerusalem.
The differing viewpoints:
  • Paul had lost confidence in John as a co-laborer in ministry. To Paul, John had not simply returned home, he had 'departed' {In v.38, GK=aphistemi, 'deserted'} from the work. Why should he be entrusted with the work of ministry? Paul might have made his argument from scripture. For example:
    • Prov 25:19 "Confidence in an unfaithful man in time of trouble is like a broken tooth, and a foot out of joint."
      Neither is helpful. Either saps the strength of the laborer.
    • Hadn't Jesus, Himself, said: "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luk 9:62)?
  • But Barnabas, whose name means "son of consolation," was determined to mentor his nephew, Mark, and give him another chance to prove himself (Col 4:10).
Barnabas took Mark and departed unto Cyprus...
This had been the first stop on the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. It was also the home country of Barnabas. So, he and Mark went to encourage and strengthen the believers there. Barnabas took Mark back to Cyprus, where he had previously had his first taste of opposition. Barnabas is not mentioned in scripture after this. However, the fruit of his investment in John Mark will become evident many years later. In time, Paul would recognize Mark as profitable to him for the ministry (2Tim 4:11). But at the moment, he was unable to foresee that outcome.
     In fact, God had allowed this disagreement and division between brothers, for His purposes, which included... the growth and preparation of Mark as a servant of Christ... and the doubling of missionary efforts, as two teams went out in different directions.
Paul took Silas and went through Syria and Cilicia...
Paul and Silas were again commissioned by the church at Antioch.
As Barnabas and Mark sailed west to Cyprus, Paul and Silas traveled overland, north from Antioch, through Syria, and then turning west, continued through Cilicia, and into Galatia, where they strengthened the churches which were established during Paul's previous missionary journey. We will follow him there in the next chapter.

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