Paul and Barnabas have been back in Antioch for many days at the point where Chapter 15 opens. If you have not read Acts 15:1-35 yet, please take the time to do so now.
As we study through the passage it will be important to keep track of who is speaking and who is being spoken to and of. As Miles Coverdale so aptly wrote over 500 years ago, “It shall greatly help ye to understand Scripture if thou mark not only what is spoken or wrytten, but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what cometh after.” Consequently we will note these things specifically in the passages we study.
Acts 15:1 — “And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
- Who is speaking? “some men”
- Where are they from? “Judea”
- Who are they speaking to? “the brethren”
- What is their intent? “teaching”
- With what words? “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”
- What has happened before? Paul and Barnabas have just finished their first missionary journey, where many were saved without the requirements of Moses’ Law.
As usual, Luke puts an awful lot of information into very few words. Let’s be good scholars and tread carefully now! Who were these people that came to Antioch with this message? The NASB translates the Greek word tines as “some men,” but a more literal translation would have been simply “men” or “some.” (“And some came down…” or “And men came down…”) The Greek word is the plural masculine indefinite pronoun, and as such Luke’s intent was to convey more the idea of a generic category and not any specific persons. Hence, the NASB’s translation, “some men,” is perfectly apt if not word-for-word literal.
What is perhaps more important is what Luke did not convey about them. They were not emissaries sent by the Jerusalem church, although they may have thought themselves to be so, as we shall soon discover. What we do know about them is their theology — they believed themselves to be at least partially still under Moses’ Law, and its rites were required for salvation.
Acts 15:2 — “And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.”
Again, much is revealed in Luke’s brevity. Paul and Barnabas knew this was not right, since they had seen Gentiles saved without any trappings of Moses’ Law. They stood up to these “somebodies” from Judea. The Antioch church decided that both parties should go to Jerusalem so that the Apostles there could settle the matter. In this decision we see that (1) the Antioch church considered itself to be under the authority of the Jerusalem church’s leadership, and (2) that this was a question they were unable to settle on their own.
The Antioch church was over a barrel on this question. If they rejected this teaching, it could be seen as a rejection of the leadership in Jerusalem. If they accepted it, it would invalidate all of what Paul and Barnabas had accomplished on their first missionary journey. This question went to the core of the Antioch church’s existence and mission. Antioch was, after all, the first place that those scattered under Herod’s persecution had preached directly to Gentiles (Acts 11:20). This verse speaks volumes about the relationship of the Antioch church to the Jerusalem church, the hierarchy of authority, and growing differences between the two churches’ directions (as we will see in more detail in the next posts).
Acts 15:3-4 — (please read for yourself) Luke describes their journey from Antioch to Jerusalem through Phoenicia and Samaria, visiting with believers all along the way and telling them about the missionary journey and how God had granted salvation to the Gentiles. The reaction they received was “great joy.” Once they had arrived at Jerusalem, they repeated the entire story in detail to the church, the apostles (the Twelve) and the elders.
Acts 15:5 — “But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
If there was any doubt about the origin of the tines who came to Antioch with this message, Luke has removed it now. This idea came from within the Jerusalem church from a subgroup of believing Pharisees! In a sense, those who went to Antioch were emissaries — emissaries of this particular group. Did they go to Antioch with the blessing of the Twelve? Or even their knowledge? Luke doesn’t say, but suffice it to note that this group was certainly allowed by the Twelve to persist within the Jerusalem church, with their full knowledge and approval. We have noted before the reluctance and difficulty with which Jewish believers give up their generations-old traditions. If nothing else, this chapter provides an amazing window on the makeup and theological positions of the Jersualem church and the Twelve who lead it — and how it differs from the Antioch church which has grasped the truth of salvation for Gentiles outside of the Law of Moses. This difference is what Paul would later describe repeatedly as “my gospel” to distinguish it from that of the Twelve. Chapter 15 is important because it marks the point at which Paul’s gospel receives official certification from the Jerusalem church. Interestingly, as we shall see, rather than join with Paul in his ministry, the Jerusalem church chooses to persist in its own direction — partly saved by Christ and partly by adherence to Moses’ Law. And this is not the only occasion on which this caused problems, as we will see in the next posts.
Many churches today, including Protestant denominations, take the same direction as the Jerusalem church, failing to understand the distinction between Paul’s gospel and that of the Twelve, and consequently having a muddled idea of salvation by grace through faith alone. They mingle free salvation with all sorts of requirements — water baptism, denominational membership, communion, obedience to sundry rules and ordinances.
So now what stands before the Jerusalem church and the Twelve is a decision concerning the requirements for Gentile salvation. What will they decide?
Acts 15:6,12 — “and the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brethren…’”… And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.”
Why have I left out four and a half verses? Never fear, we’ll consider them in a moment. But for now I want to return to Miles Coverdale’s approach:
- Who came together to look into the matter? the Twelve and the elders of the Jerusalem church
- What happened before Peter spoke? much debate
- Who did Peter speak to? “them”, calling them Brethren. Does “them” refer to the apostles and elders of v6, the sect of the Pharisees of v5, or the church of v4? (IMHO, most likely the apostles and elders, of which Peter was certainly an equal)
- What was “the multitude” doing while Peter spoke? keeping silent and listening
- Who were they listening to? Paul and Barnabas
- What were Paul and Barnabas telling the multitude about? signs and wonders done among the Gentiles through them
Because Luke writes sequentially and the verses in our Bibles are numbered sequentially, I believe we tend to read this passage as if Paul and Barnabas described their ministry to the multitude after Peter spoke, and that everyone was in on it like at a modern public board meeting. But I believe the passage does not demand this interpretation, and if we can free our minds of artificial presuppositions, the passage actually leans more toward the apostles and elders meeting in closed session while Paul and Barnabas “entertained” the multitude. At some point following Peter’s advice, the apostles and elders rejoined the multitude to hear more of what had happened on Paul and Barnabas’ missionary journey (according to v13, apparently James waited until Paul and Barnabas were through speaking to the multitude before pronouncing judgement).
Before we move on, please take careful note of what specific events were described by Paul and Barnabas — signs and wonders! Why is this important? The issue at stake is whether or not God is really at work through Paul and Barnabas’ ministry directly to Gentiles. How do Jews (or former Jews) know when God is truly at work? They require a sign.
Acts 15:7-11 — Now let’s consider Peter’s speech to the Council. (Please read the verses for yourself now, even if you’ve read them before.)
v7 — “in the early days” suggests that this council is occurring several years after the events of Acts 10. A short three and a half chapters have elapsed since Peter’s visit to Cornelius household and his subsequent report to Jerusalem. Indeed, Luke’s narrative beginning at 11:19 goes all the way back to the first presentation of the Gospel in Antioch, Barnabas’ search for Saul (Paul), and their teaching in Antioch for an entire year. Peter had been imprisoned by Herod, rescued miraculously, and had spent time at Caesarea. Paul and Barnabas had delivered relief funds to Jerusalem, Peter had been imprisoned and miraculously released, had spent time in Caesarea, and Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch. Subsequently Paul and Barnabas had completed their first missionary journey, which included having spent “a long time” in Iconium before proceeding under duress to Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe. How long had all this taken? Peter’s choice of words is vague but appropriate — this should have been an old lesson!
“God made a choice among you” is an interesting phrase. (NASB) The NIV translates it exactly the same way. The Greek word is ekselekso, a form of eklektos from which we derive the English word “elect”. It implies a choice of one person over another. What Peter is saying is that God chose him personally out of all of them to accomplish what he is about to describe. It is interesting to me that both translation teams, one set on literal accuracy and the other on readability, did not translate it as “God selected me out of you all to be the one by whom the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.”
v8 — “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us.” Remember that when the members of Cornelius’ household believed, the Holy Spirit actually interrupted Peter’s message by falling visibly on them as He had on the disciples at Pentecost. This was the witness that their conversion was genuine.
v9– Peter notes that God saved them on the same basis, cleansing their hearts on the basis of their faith.
v10 — “Why do you put God to the test?” The seriousness and weight of Peter’s advice to the Council is apparent here, for he accuses them of violating the very words of Moses — “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah.” (Deuteronomy 6:16) Massah was the location where the Israelites complained about the lack of water in crossing the desert, not trusting God to provide it, and threatening Moses with rebellion. Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” God directed Moses to strike the rock of Horeb, causing water to come out of it. Moses named the place “Massah and Meribah” (“test and quarrel”) because they tested the Lord by saying “Is the Lord among us or not?” Christ quoted Moses during his temptation in the wilderness by using this reference as well, when Satan suggested He should throw Himself down from atop the highest pinnacle of the Temple and be rescued by the angels.
What exactly is this sin? The Israelites’ doubt of God’s presence induced them to want to return to Egypt. Here too, doubt introduced by well-meaning believing Pharisees seems to have infected the body and the Council with a desire to return to ceremonial elements of the Law which Christ had taken out of the way (Colossians 2:14).
“… by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” Peter clarifies his reference to the sin of putting God to the test. God has already shown that Gentiles and Jews are saved in the same way — by faith. Having been freed from the Law, their desire to go back under it is tantamount to wanting to return to Egypt, thus “putting God to the test.” What a shock this must have been to the other members of the Council!
v11 — Peter’s conclusion is inescapable. ”We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” Apparently Peter had the last word, for nothing more is said by the members of the Council until after Paul and Barnabas are finished speaking to the multitude.
Peter is firmly on the side of Paul and Barnabas, but this will not be the end of this evil influence in the Jerusalem church. As wise and steadfast as Peter appears to be now, even he will fall into the same sin so strongly as to carry Barnabas into it with him on the occasion of a visit to Antioch (Galatians 2:11-21). Paul scolded Peter publicly for it then, concluding his remarks with a verse many of us have memorized: “I do not frustrate the grace of God; for if righteousness comes by the Law then Christ has died in vain.”
Paul’s letter to the Galatians thus suggests that this doctrine of “grace plus works” was allowed to persist in the Jerusalem church indefinitely, and had its influence among even the highest in authority. While Peter speaks here in Acts 15 firmly on the side of equality in how Jews and Gentiles are saved, it is apparent that no one in the Jerusalem church carried this notion to its logical conclusion — that to require anything beyond faith for either Jew or Gentile effectively thwarted God’s grace and made Christ’s death worthless.
In any case, Peter’s statement under the influence of the Holy Spirit cleared the air at the moment and made way for the Council’s approval of Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles under God’s purpose.
Do not lose sight of the fact that Acts is a transitional book between Israel’s prophesied Kingdom and the Age of Grace. Signs and wonders are still required as certification of God’s handiwork, but now they are presented as historical anecdotes. The transition is not instantaneous, especially since God’s promises to Israel are still unfulfilled, both at this point in Luke’s narrative and yet today. While God has set Israel’s program aside for a time, He did not do so all at once. He did so in an orderly fashion, giving those in charge of Israel’s program ample time and justification for the transition and certifying it as required.
At this point in the narrative the Jerusalem church is still in authority over the Antioch church and all of Christendom, and is very much in business. But it’s also obvious that God has raised up an alternative in the face of Israel’s national unbelief. The apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church are about to place their “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” on Paul and Barnabas’ ministry to the Gentiles. From this point on, the Jerusalem church and the Twelve fade from the scene. Luke’s focus from here on will be the Gospel among the Gentiles, although remnants of trying to reach Jews first will persist in Paul’s ministry to the very end of Acts.
Next week — the Council’s decision!