The book of Acts was skilfully constructed by Luke so that, at several points in the story, dramatic turning points are placed to move the account along. The events recorded in Acts 15—the so-called Jerusalem Council—comprise one such turning point. Harrison notes of this text:
The growth of the Gentile church at Antioch must have raised questions, but apparently it was the establishment of the Gentile churches in Asia Minor (chaps. 13—14) that stirred into action a certain segment of the Jerusalem church. . . . The meeting in the Holy City was a momentous gathering for the future of the Christian cause. . . . The believers were haunted by the spectre of two churches existing instead of one.1
It is essential that we understand the historical context that led to the events of chapter 15. As the church became increasingly Gentile, so opposition became more intense—particularly from those committed to Judaism. “From this time onward, the Christian mission within the nation—particularly in and around Jerusalem—faced very rough sledding.”2
The disagreement between Paul and the Judaisers was not merely academic. Stott explains exactly what was at stake.
Circumcision was the God-given sign of the covenant, and doubtless the Judaizers were stressing this; but they were going further and making it a condition of salvation. . . . In other words, they must let Moses complete what Jesus had begun, and let the law supplement the gospel. The issue was immense. The way of salvation was at stake. The gospel was in dispute. The very foundations of the Christian faith were being undermined.3
The issue was not whether God wanted to save Gentiles, but how they were to be saved. Could they enter the kingdom of God directly, without coming through the vestibule of Judaism? The Jerusalem church gathered to carefully consider this question.
A Serious Conversation
The first part of our passage (vv. 6-18) records the serious conversation that unfolded between the Paul and Barnabas and the Jerusalem church.
Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: ‘After this I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the LORD who does all these things.’
Known to God from eternity are all His works. Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Having been confronted with a serious threat to the unity of the church (vv. 1-2a), as well as to the entire Christian mission, the church at Antioch wisely made the decision to send the dynamic duo of Paul and Barnabas to the church at Jerusalem for clarification on this matter and to settle the question, hopefully, once for all (v. 2b).
On the way, they boasted in the gospel of Christ as the means to the salvation of the nations (v. 3). Having arrived in Jerusalem and assembled with the church, including the leadership (v. 4), they repeated their report of God’s grace to the Gentiles under their ministry.
But there were some believers who were deeply convinced that the Gentile converts needed to become Jewish if they would fully enter into the people of God (v. 5). As noted previously, a distinction needs to be drawn between the Judaisers (v. 1) and the genuine Jewish believers who were simply confused about the gospel in v. 5. The latter group was confused about the new covenant. Specifically, they were confused about issues of continuity and discontinuity when it came to the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant. The Judaisers were unsaved and promoted salvation by works; these in v. 5 were genuine believers, who affirmed salvation by grace alone, but believed that sanctification came through works of the law.
“To them,” notes MacArthur, “circumcision and keeping the law were not a means of salvation, but obedience required after salvation. They were still committed to the ceremonial law, which had been set aside in Christ. They were much like the weaker brothers of Romans 14:1-10.”4
These were what Larry Osborne calls “accidental Pharisees.” There are many such still around. They are in our own church, I am sure. In fact, there are times that I have been one of them!
We all tend, to some degree, to expect that all Christians will see things like we do, and that the expression of their Christianity will be like ours—at least if they are really saved! In fact, the history of missions reveals that it has suffered under this for far too long.
For this reason, among others, this chapter in Acts is so important for us to know. There is much that can be learned here about charity and conviction when it comes to the gospel. We need to learn the importance of entering into conversation with one another over differences. This is healthy for the church as it enables us to maintain harmony. It is also essential as stewards of the gospel.
Once Barnabas and Paul arrived, a meeting was convened to discuss this matter with the apostles and elders of the church.
In vv. 6-12, due consideration was given to the subject at hand. Luke tells us that “the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.” The Greek term translated “consider” speaks of certain knowledge. These men wanted to get the facts, and they were willing to listen and to question to ascertain those facts. They were given evidence, as we shall see, that God was saving Gentiles without them entering through the vestibule of Judaism.
There is an important principle here for us: We should always approach conflict as a student rather than a professor. You might be surprised what you learn when you do so!
As they discussed the matter at hand, there was “much dispute.” This doesn’t refer to bitter, argumentative division, but to healthy discussion, reasoning, questioning and debate. For some time, there was back and forth.
This is often necessary. We need to hear one another. We need to understand the issues. There was no heated argument. There was probably more light than heat because they all had the same goal: truth, the health of the church, clarity about their mission and, ultimately, the glory of God.
After much discussion they listened to some summary testimony offered by three witnesses (Peter, Paul/Barnabas, and James). Indeed, truth was established “by the mouth of two or three witnesses” (2 Corinthians 13:1).
The Testimony of Peter
Peter’s testimony was first up in vv. 7-11. As per his calling to leadership by Jesus (John 21:15-19; Luke 22:32), Peter rose up first to give some definite leadership (see also 1:15; 2:14; chapter 4; etc.).
It will be helpful to understand the chronology here. Paul had previously rebuked Peter concerning this very matter (Galatians 2:11ff), and so clearly the apostle had learned his lesson. He would not make the same mistake twice. He was well qualified to speak. In fact, his testimony was powerful largely because of his previous failure and the lessons learned.
Peter spoke of God’s calling him to Gentile ministry “a good while ago.” The time frame here is at least 7-10 years since the events of Acts 10 and 11:1-18. There, God first spoke corporately to the Gentiles “by [Peter’s] mouth.” He was used as God’s means to open the door of faith to the Gentiles. Paul would build on that foundation.
By Peter’s ministry, God “made no distinction” between Jew and Gentile but worked by “purifying their hearts by faith.” Since God had to purify Gentile hearts, and since He made no distinction between Jew and Gentile, the obvious implication is that Jewish hearts were as polluted as Gentile hearts. Whether Jew or Gentile, salvation could always only be by grace.
In light of this lack of distinction between Jew and Gentile, Peter posed a pressing question to his listeners: “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” Was there a hint of sanctified impatience here?
Interestingly, by requiring the circumcision of Gentile converts, the Jews were guilty of testing God. That is, they were seeking to correct God, to question His Word and will, to stand against Him, and thereby to try His patience. God had not called for Gentile circumcisions; did the Jews really have a better way than that which He had provided?
Circumcision was a “yoke” that the Jews themselves had proven unable to bear. Did they really think that the Gentiles would fare any better? After all, as Peter had already said, there was no distinction between the impurity of a Gentile heart and that of a Jewish heart.
Again, we glean an important principle here: We are all too often far harder on others than we are on ourselves. Jesus reserved His strongest rebukes for those who hypocritically decried behaviour in others that they practised themselves (cf. Matthew 23). The church needed to be careful of falling into the trap of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Peter’s words in v. 11 carry some bite: “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” The question before the court was whether the Gentiles needed to somehow match the qualities inherent in Judaism to be saved, but here Peter turned it around by effectively suggesting that the Jews needed to be saved in the same way as the Gentiles, and not vice versa! Rather than the Gentiles needing to learn from the Jews, the Jews needed to learn from the Gentiles! If God would marvellously save the Jews by grace alone, why would He not act with the Gentiles in “the same manner”? Whether Jew or Gentile, salvation was by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for God’s glory alone according to Scripture alone.
This simple truth is the most profound truth of which the church is called to be a steward (1 Timothy 3:15-16). The church must convene regularly to guard this. We do so when we gather on the Lord’s Day for corporate worship. Small group meetings during the week reinforce this. Interchurch conferences and fraternals aid this agenda.
The Testimony of Paul and Barnabas
Peter’s testimony was effective. When he finished talking, “all the multitude kept silent.” His eyewitness account had struck a chord. Paul and Barnabas took advantage of the silence to add their own thoughts to the mix (v. 12).
The question, no doubt, in a lot of minds was whether Peter’s experience with Cornelius and his household was unique, or whether all Gentiles were converted in the same manner. This testimony would go a long way toward answering such concerns. If God had worked the same way in saving Gentiles through the ministry of Paul and Barnabas as He had through the ministry of Peter, it was evident that that was the norm.
The testimony of miracles was another (circumstantial) evidence that was put forth. The missionaries recounted what God had done through them on their recent missions trip. Though some miracles are recorded (13:11; 14:8-10) many others probably occurred that are not recorded.
Doubtless, they also testified to circumstantial evidence in Antioch.
In vv. 13-18, James, evidently the chair of the council, summarises the doctrinal consideration. This was a different kind of evidence: less anecdotal and more doctrinal. This is instructive for us.
Before we consider James’ words, let us first note that the Spirit of God was certainly at work amongst these leaders. I sense this because of the opening words: “And after they had become silent.” I would assume that it was a holy hush created by the Spirit who was guiding them into truth.
In many ways the evidence was mounting up and producing a foregone conclusion. But something more was needed than merely circumstantial evidence: They needed conclusive proof—and this could only come by the Scriptures. They needed biblical doctrine to conclude the matter.
Peter, who would teach the doctrine of the analogy of faith (2 Peter 1), was perhaps strengthened here in this understanding by what he experienced—thanks to James, the pastor-teacher of the church at Jerusalem, who affirmed the circumstantial evidence doctrinally by quoting from Scripture (Amos 9:11-12).
James called to the church, “Listen to me.” They were to listen because he was about to explain Scripture. We should always listen when Scripture is the focus. We should listen to those who reason from the Scriptures and give them a fair hearing.
Note that, while James referred to Peter’s testimony, the ultimate call for them to submit was not because of what Peter had said, but because of what the prophets had written (vv. 14-15). Peter’s testimony was no doubt impressive, but the trustworthy prophetic Word (cf. 2 Peter 1:16-21) sealed the deal. Scripture stands as the final arbitrator in matters of controversy.
In vv. 16-17, James quotes from the prophet Amos. Applying this text in a way that is detrimental to a dispensational interpretation of Scripture, James claims that Amos’ words apply to his own generation. MacArthur believes that “the Amos passage speaks of the millennial kingdom,”5 but it is difficult to understand how he can say this and still teach that the millennium is a time period yet in our future. James clearly understood the passage to refer to his day, and if it must refer to the millennium, then the millennium evidently happened in James’ time. As Harrison correctly observes, “James seems to have been implying that the rebuilding and restoration of the tabernacle of David had occurred in the person and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, who was of the seed of David.”6
This passage is in line with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament, which identifies the new covenant church as “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16), “the circumcision” (Philippians 3:3), “the seed of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7, 29), “the Jerusalem from above” (Galatians 4:24-29), “the temple of God” (Ephesians 2:21), a “royal priesthood” and a “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9-10). In the light of the Amos passage and the others mentioned above, we know that promises to Israel apply to the church of the new covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Matthew 26:28).
We don’t want to be sidetracked by theological debates here. James did not quote this passage as a means to debate with owners of a Scofield Reference Bible. Nevertheless, he was facing a similar problem. The Pharisees (well-meaning, no doubt) were causing division by making an illegitimate distinction between Jew and Gentile. And, like many dispensationalists, they were undercutting salvation by grace with a subtle salvation by race.
This issue aside, we need to take great encouragement from this passage. The promise is that the new covenant people of God, the church, is the temple of God through which the Lord will extend His kingdom. There is much work to be done, and yet our expectation is that all mankind will seek Him. The nations will be discipled—by grace alone (see Isaiah 11:1-10).
It should be noted that all of this was according to plan. God’s dealing with a multi-ethnic church was not an afterthought. “Known to God from eternity are all His works” (v. 18). The new covenant church was not an afterthought, but was foreordained by God. We live in a prophesied, planned and purposeful dispensation. We live in the best of times.
We live in a time in which many Christians maximise Jewishness and in doing so minimise the church. Be careful of cultural distinctions and division within the church. This can be subtle, but schismatic in the end. We should recognise cultural diversity in expression of the Christian faith.
In our text, the Jewish expression of Christianity was not necessarily superior to the Gentile expression of the same faith. And our expression of Christianity is not necessarily better than those who express their Christianity differently. Some Christians and churches deliberately celebrate Christmas; others do not. Some churches have Good Friday services; others do not. I have been to churches in other countries in which not a single cross decorates a wall anywhere in the building. This is not because they are any less gospel-centred, but because there is a very real danger in those cultures of the cross becoming simply another idol. We share one God and one faith, but the expression of that faith can and does differ from place to place and person to person.
A Strategic Conclusion
In vv. 19-29 James offered a conclusion to the matter that was well received by the council. It was an important conclusion and a helpful course of action. While being faithful to the gospel message, it at the same time guarded the unity of the faith in the bond of peace. And because of this we can conclude that this was a strategic conclusion inspired by the Spirit.
“Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment—it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.
Note three elements of this conclusion.
A Strong Conclusion
James took the leadership in this conclusion: “Therefore I judge.” He had heard enough and had been ultimately convinced by Scripture. The result was leadership with conviction. “James . . . took charge rather than throwing the meeting open for further discussion. He sensed that the time had come for action.”7
There is a time for discussion and there is a time for action. Good leadership knows what time it is.
James cautioned his hearers to not “trouble” the Gentile believers. The word literally means “to annoy” or “to crowd.” They were in danger of crowding out the grace of God, and thereby confusing their Gentile brothers. It was difficult enough for the Gentiles to turn from idols to serve the living God; there was no need for the Jewish Christians to make it any more difficult. Clearly, James was a man with a pastor’s heart!
Whenever we add to grace we end up confusing people about the gospel, and such confusion results in needless trouble and a lack of gospel joy and productivity.
A Sensitive Conclusion
Verses 20-21 reveals that James was sensitive enough to understand the cultural issues. Himself a Jew, he understood the sensitivities of his fellow Hebrews. He knew the sociological lie of the land and so he offered some clearheaded, sober and sensitive advice, suggesting “that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
There was no need to cause unnecessary trouble to either culture. This is one of the earliest examples of Christian liberty—and Christian liberty is an expression of Christian charity.
Four areas were addressed here: idols, sexual immorality, things strangled, and blood. It has been argued by some that these are lifted straight from Leviticus 17—18. Since these chapters deal with order, it is small wonder that James would appeal to them, for this is precisely what the church of that time required.
First, they were to abstain from things offered to (or polluted by) idols. This particular exhortation is interesting in the light of 1 Corinthians 8—10 and Romans 14, where Paul specifically says that eating things offered to idols is neither here nor there. However, at this critical juncture so early in the history of the new covenant church, James deemed it necessary to exhort the Gentiles not to offend their Jewish brothers by eating things offered to idols. Christian liberty can be exercised without it being flaunted.
Second, they were to abstain from sexual immorality. This is quite possibly a reference to the marital boundaries established in Leviticus 18.
Third, they were to abstain from things strangled and therefore not kosher.
Fourth, they were to abstain from blood. Again, blood was not kosher, as defined by Leviticus 17.
Verse 21 highlights the reason for these exhortations: The current culture had been very sensitised by the law of Moses (and rightly so), and Gentile converts needed to be sensitive to this.
Erdman summarises James’ counsel with these words:
The decision, suggested by James, and accepted by the council, included three points: (1) Liberty (ch. 15:19); the law of Moses need not be kept, and could not be a ground of salvation. This decision was the “Magna Charta” of Christian liberty (Gal. 2:15-21). (2) Purity (ch. 15:20); liberty is not license, but a life of holiness, by faith in Christ (Gal. 5:13-26). (3) Charity; in matters of indifference let us not needlessly offend those who prefer to observe certain forms and ceremonies (Gal. 6:2).8
This was sound counsel, which respected the needs and sensibilities of all in the church. Such sensible sensitivity is required no less in our day and in our own church; we simply need to fill in the relevant blanks.
A Spiritual Conclusion
The closing verses of this particular section of our text (vv. 22-29) reveal that this was a spiritual conclusion. That is, having heard James, the church conceded that he was correct and gave their support to the counsel. “The apostles and elders, with the whole church,” made the decision to send a delegation to the Gentile churches (primarily in Antioch) to communicate this decree.
The church sent Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas—“leading men” (v. 22)—to Antioch to communicate the conclusion of the council. They sent multiple men, no doubt in conjunction with the Old Testament case laws, which said that judicial conclusions needed to be verified in the presence of two or three witnesses. It was important that the Gentile believers understand that this was a united decision whose goal was unity.
The loving message was communicated by means of an apostolic letter (vv. 23-29).
The letter opened with a gracious salutation expressing unity in Christ. In it, the Jewish church referred to the Gentile believers as “brethren” (v. 23). This was no longer a unique Jewish concept; Gentile believers were now also the Israel of God.
Sending their greetings to the Gentile brothers, they expressed their concern about those who sought to disrupt the Gentiles’ faith. They wanted to be clear that they had played no part in this, and so they stated quite forthrightly that they “gave no such commandment” for such disruption to take place. Instead, those who disrupted the faith of the Gentiles “went out” from them. This terminology is interesting in the light of 1 John 2:19, where similar language is used to describe apostasy.
It is significant that the Jerusalem church opted to include “Barnabas and Paul” in the official delegation that they sent back to Antioch (vv. 25-26). This was a means of communicating to the Gentile believers that the church in Jerusalem had great respect for their missionary pastors. They were all in this together.
Note in v. 28 that following Christ does entail carrying a burden (cf. Matthew 11:28-30). It may be a comparatively light burden, but it a burden nonetheless, and we should therefore avoid making it any more difficult than it already is by adding to God’s Word. All the Jerusalem council asked was for adherence to principles already laid out in God’s Word (v. 29). If the Gentiles obeyed, they would prosper in their relationship with the Lord and with other believers. That was Jerusalem’s desire for them.
A Strengthened Congregation
Verses 30-35 record a wonderful scene:
So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter. When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement. Now Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words. And after they had stayed there for a time, they were sent back with greetings from the brethren to the apostles.
However, it seemed good to Silas to remain there. Paul and Barnabas also remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
Upon receiving the communication from the delegation, the church in Antioch “rejoiced over its encouragement.” They saw the wisdom of the decision and obviously were quite happy to submit to it. This was a work of the Spirit. Such unity always is (Ephesians 4:1).
It is a wonderful mark of the work of the Spirit when a local church submits to what is best for the greater cause. These believers did not argue for their rights but were glad to be a part of the body of Christ. They were happy to do whatever helped other believers.
Being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-21) is vital if a multicultural church will thrive in unified joy. The Holy Spirit reminds us of the grace of the Triune God and our relationships and rejoicing are strengthened by this.
The passage and the account closes with the information that the four men sent from Jerusalem continued in Antioch, prophesying and teaching God’s Word. The result was that the local church’s faith, which had been troubled, was now strengthened. We would imagine that the same could be said of their unity.
We are also told that “many others also” taught the Word of God. This local church was maturing in Christ with the result that more and more were being equipped to teach the wonderful truth of salvation by grace alone. When a congregation is growing in this understanding then it will be growing in grace to the glory of God. May this be so for our local churches.
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 241, 43. ↩
- Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:450. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 242-43. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 2:64. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 2:69. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 248. ↩
- Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 247. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 125. ↩