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The Jerusalem Council’s Mandate—Acts 15:1-31
The Decision of the Jerusalem Council. Chapter 15 is the center of the book of Acts in both its position and its theology. The Jerusalem church acknowledges that God saves Gentiles by faith alone, apart from circumcision or keeping the Jewish law (i.e., apart from becoming Jews). The church does, however, encourage Gentile believers to follow certain stipulation in order to maintain peace and fellowship with their Jewish-Christian brothers and sisters.
The Council at Jerusalem
- The council at Jerusalem sought to resolve the fundamental question of whether Gentiles must first become Jews in order to be saved. The controversy pitted the Judaizers against Paul’s gospel of free grace and represented one of the earliest and most significant threats to the unity of the early church. Paul deals with this issue in his letter to the Galatians, probably written about this same time.
15 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”
- Certain people—“Judaizers,” conservative Jewish Christians who believed that Gentiles must first become Jews in order to be saved. Many Gentiles responded to the gospel in Antioch without being required to keep the law (11:19-26).
- Only the strictest minority of Jews limited salvation to full converts. Most Jewish people believed that righteous Gentiles would be saved (these were Gentiles who were sexually pure and did not worship idols—admittedly a very small proportion of Gentiles). Jewish people did not, however, believe that Gentiles could become members of God’s people without conversion (possibly the issue in Paul’s letter to the Galatians). From the reign of Agrippa I (AD 41-44) until Jerusalem’s fall nationalist attitudes had been growing.
- The question of whether Gentile believers should obey the law of Moses in order to be saved was extremely critical at this point in Christianity’s history and could have potentially split the early church if not handled carefully. The controversy had intensified with the success of the new Gentile churches. The Judaizers in the Jerusalem church were led by converted Pharisees who preferred a legalistic religion to one based on faith alone. If the Judaizers had won, the Gentiles would have been required to be circumcised and, in effect, converted to Judaism. This would have confined Christianity to simply being another sect within Judaism.
- There is something of a “Pharisee” in each one of us. We may unwittingly mistake upholding tradition, structure, and legal requirements for obeying God. Make sure the gospel brings freedom and life, not rules and ceremonies, to those you are trying to reach.
2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
- Local elders led Diaspora synagogues, but until AD 70 Jewish people in the Diaspora nevertheless respected the preeminence of the leaders in Jerusalem; the same principle was likely retained for Jerusalem’s role in the early Christian movement.
- Paul and Barnabas believed that the OT law was very important but was not a requirement for salvation. The law cannot save; only grace through faith in Jesus Christ can a person be saved. The council upheld the conviction expressed by Paul and Barnabas that following the Jewish laws, including being circumcised, was not essential for salvation.
- It is helpful to see how the churches in Antioch and Jerusalem resolved their conflict: (1) The church in Antioch sent a delegation to help seek a solution; (2) the delegates met with the church leaders to give their reports and set another date to continue the discussion; (3) Paul and Barnabas gave their report; (4) James summarized the reports and drew up the decision; (5) everyone agreed to abide by the decision; (6) the council sent a letter with delegates back to Antioch to report the decision.
- This is a wise way to handle conflicts within the church. Problems must be confronted, and all sides of the argument should be given a fair hearing. The discussion should be held in the presence of leaders who are spiritually mature and trustworthy to make wise decisions. Everyone should then abide by the decisions.
3 The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad.
- Tyre and Sidon (12:19) were among the major cities of Phoenicia.
4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
- The journey from Antioch in Syria to Jerusalem was about 250 miles and may have taken several weeks. Paul and Barnabas used the journey probably to share with believers along the way the good news about the Gentiles turning to God.
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
- It is not surprising that some Pharisees joined the new movement since, unlike their opponents the Sadducees, the Pharisees held in common with Christians certain basic beliefs: a coming Messiah, the afterlife, and the resurrection of the dead.
- Josephus similarly applied the term translated here “party” to Pharisees and other groups. After AD 70, the more liberal Hillelite faction prevailed among Pharisees, but the more conservative Shammaites dominated before 70. Hillel reportedly welcomed proselytes diplomatically, but Shammai reportedly insisted on them keeping the entire law from the moment of conversion.
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question.
- Some ideal groups, such as the Essenes, tried to achieve consensus. Jewish sages debated and would settle on a clear majority opinion; consensus was ideal, though on controversial issues rarely achieved. In general, ancient society was heavily divided through political alliances and civic rivalries.
7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.
- Speakers often appealed to sources respected by those they needed to persuade; thus, e.g., a more conservative voice carried weight in support of a less conservative opinion, and so forth. The support of Peter and especially James (v. 13) thus carry much weight in the conservative Jerusalem church.
8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.
- The Holy Spirit was an end-time gift for God’s people (Isaiah 44L3; Ezekiel 36:27).
9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?
- Jewish teachers spoke favorably of the yoke of God’s kingdom and the yoke of his law. They believed that the law’s duties freed them from heavier burdens. Jeremiah, however, warned that Israel had failed to keep the law, a situation to be remedied by the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:32-33).
- If the law was a yoke that the Jews could not bear, how did having the law help them throughout their history? Paul wrote that the law was a guide that pointed out their sins so they could repent and return to God and right living (see Galatians 3:24-25). It was, and still us, impossible to obey the law completely.
11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me.
- James, Jesus’ half-brother and author of the Book of James (Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:10), has by this time assumed a leadership role in the Jerusalem church (12:17; 21:18). While Peter represents the apostles, James represents to elders, the church’s leadership council. It is he who pronounces the verdict: James affirms that (1) God, not any human being, chose the Gentiles for salvation and (2) the OT prophets predicted that God would save the Gentiles (citing Amos 9:11-12).
14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles.
- Given the wording, James probably already has in mind the Amos quotation that he will offer in v. 17.
15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16 “‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
- In Amos 9:11, quoted here, David’s house has become a “fallen tent,” (“shelter” in Amos) probably like the cut-off stump in Isaiah 11:1; but God would restore his people and the rule of a Davidic descendant over them. The Qumran scrolls also apply this passage to the promised Davidic king.
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—
- In Amos 9:12, quoted here, God’s people would “possess the remnant of Edom”; but Jewish teachers often made slight changes in the way they read the Hebrew text to get fuller meaning. The Septuagint read “Edom” as if it were “Adam,” i.e., “humanity,” and thus translated as “mankind,” as here. (Since his argument will be used by Diaspora Christians, it made sense for James to use the Septuagint, although Luke would have quoted the text in Greek in any case.) Since Edom was simply one example of the nations, the new wording captures the idea; the parallel line already spoke of “all the nations.”
- Although having God’s name over them could mean conquest, the phrase also applies to God’s people (Deuteronomy 28:10; Isaiah 63:19; Jeremiah 14:9; Daniel 9:19). The promised Davidic king would rule the nations (e.g., Isaiah 11:10; 19:25; 56:6).
18 things known from long ago.
- Might echo Isaiah 45:21.
- Despite the compelling experiences of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, James turned to God’s Word as the ultimate test of truth. This should be the way we evaluate events. We all have beliefs (some of them fervent), we all have experiences, and our tendency is to want to measure others by our yardstick. It is common for believers to think that their experiences and convictions are true and should be the norm. Different ideas are thought to be inferior or invalid. Ultimately what matters is what God’s Word says. The more we know God’s Word—the more we read it, study it, memorize it, and meditate on it—the better able we will be to discern what is right and best in times of controversy or doctrinal disagreement.
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.
- The four stipulations James sets out are not requirements for salvation, which for both Jews and Gentiles comes through grace by faith alone. Rather, they are guidelines that allow Jews and Gentiles to share table-fellowship.
- Animals that were strangled still had blood in them—and one law given to Noah was the prohibition of eating meat with blood in it (Genesis 9:4). These rules applied to foreigners living in Israel in Leviticus 17-18:16; widespread Jewish tradition applied them to righteous Gentiles who would be saved (what in later rabbinic tradition became known as the Noahide laws, the rules given to all of Noah’s descendants). The list given here maintains a compromise position: Gentile Christians would be treated as righteous Gentiles if they kept these few rules (some of which Biblical morals would demand anyway). The compromise does not address the theological issue on which Paul and many Jerusalem believers would not agree—whether Gentile Christians could be treated as part of God’s people without physical circumcision.
- If Gentile Christians would abstain from these practices, they would please God and get along better with their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. Of course, other actions were inappropriate for believers, but Jews were especially concerned with these four. This compromise helped the church grow uninhibited by the cultural differences of Jews and Gentiles. When we share our message across cultural and economic boundaries, we must be sure that the requirements for faith we set up are God’s, not people’s.
- The early church experiences the difficulty of bringing together diverse peoples. Jews and Gentiles had so little in common! Different histories, traditions, practices, customs, cultures, languages. How do you possibly take such dissimilar groups and make them one? One solution is to decide not to—to decide that it is impossible to accomplish. So you segregate, isolate, and study each other with suspicion. This response profoundly affects Christianity’s effectiveness and attractiveness. When there is snobbery or a judgmental atmosphere, the church betrays the teachings of Christ and loses all appeal.
- The other solution is to submit our prejudices and presuppositions to the greater purposes of God. When we imitate him (Ephesians 5:1), we become tolerant, understanding, and accepting. However, such tolerance is not meant to include sinful lifestyles. James mentioned a few laws that the Gentile believers should keep, with an understanding that basic morality and living for God would cover the rest. When believers of different races, ethnic backgrounds, and social strata come together in love and worship of the Savior, nothing gives greater glory to God or provides a more compelling witness.
21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
- The Jewish Diaspora meant that there were synagogues in most important cities, which could be hyperbolically described as “all.” Gentiles could learn about the law in the synagogues if they wished.
- This puzzling statement may mean that (1) Jews are present in every city (these practices offend Jews) or (2) these stipulations should not be surprising to Gentile God-fearers, who hear them regularly in the synagogue.
The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers
- The council’s letter repeats James’ stipulations. It will be delivered not only to the church in Antioch but also to the mission churches started on Paul’s first missionary journey.
22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers.
- Judas may have been the brother of Joseph Barsabbas (1:23).
- Silas, of course, would join Paul on his second missionary journey.
23 With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
- Ancient historians often included letters and decrees in their histories; this letter is of average length. This letter, delivered to many churches, would be well known in the early church.
- Antioch was the largest city in the massive Roman province of Syria; in this period Syria’s governor also governed Cilicia (whose chief city was Tarsus).
- Greetings—the standard opening in many ancient letters.
24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said.
- The Jerusalem leaders honor their Diaspora audience by composing sophisticated Greek (the opening Greek sentence in vv. 24-26 is a Greek “period,” a particularly eloquent Greek literary structure). Ancient writers often denounced those who sowed division.
25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Officials or councils sometimes sent important representatives to bear decrees and/or circular letters to regions.
27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:
- It seemed good—Often appears in resolutions from councils or senates and in decrees from emperors.
- James recognizes that the Holy Spirit had led them in their decision, just as the Holy Spirit confirmed that God had accepted the Gentiles (v. 8).
29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
- On these prohibitions, see v. 20.
- Farewell—the standard close of letters.
- This letter answered their questions and brought great joy to the Gentile Christians in Antioch. Beautifully written, it appeals to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and explains what is to be done as though the readers already knew it. Believers should be careful not only in what they say but also in how they say it. We may be correct in our content, but we can lose our audience by our tone of voice or by our attitude.
30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter.
- Would include a public reading of the letter; even in urban areas, most people could not read very well.
31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.
The debate over circumcision could have split the church, but Paul, Barnabas, and the Jews in Antioch made the right decision—they sought counsel from the church leaders and from God’s Word. Our differences should be settled the same way—by seeking wise counsel and abiding by the decisions. Don’t let disagreements divide you from other believers.
 Acts 15:18 Some manuscripts things’— / 18 the Lord’s work is known to him from long ago
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