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The Book of Acts Series
Acts, Chapter 15
Acts 15 (New American Standard Bible)
Key events in Acts - Chapter 15
- Council at
Paul and Barnabas come to
Peter addresses the council
James addresses the council
2 - Men chosen to accompany Paul and Barnabas
Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas
- Letter to the brethren in
The essentials of the letter
- Silas remains in
5 - Second Missionary Journey
Paul and Barnabas disagree on John Mark
Paul and Barnabas Separate
Barnabas takes John Mark with him to
Paul takes Silas with him to
The Council at
1Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."
Chapter 15 with Luke and Barnabas in
In his Daily Study Bible study on Acts, William Barclay wrote, "The mental background of the Jew was founded on the fact that he belonged to the chosen people. In effect they believed that not only were the Jews the peculiar possession of God but also that God was the peculiar possession of the Jews."
In the mind of
these teachers form
experience with Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter came to understand that any
effort to distinguish between "clean" and "unclean"
people has no relevance as far as salvation is concerned. That was the base
of his vision and what he came to understand. This is also what he explained
This problem set the stage for a showdown between the Jews who believed that Jewish custom was as important as faith for conversion and Paul and Peter who believed that faith is what God wants from us in conversion.
2And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.
being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both
This belief by
the teachers who came to
This trip to
that the group from
5But some 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."
6The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.
This is the first time that Luke mentions that people who were Pharisees had been converted. Evidently it is these people who are calling for circumcision by all male converts. The Pharisees were strict observers of the law and any deviation would have been a problem with them and so they immediately insist that any new believers accept and follow the Law of Moses. Evidently there was considerable debate in the issue, because Luke uses the words "after much discussion".
At its base, the decision to be made concerns the question - should the church follow Mosaic Law (the Torah) literally in all of its details and in all cases? Another way to put the question would be to ask, are scripture and tradition a greater authority than the principle of faith in determining the basis who will be included in the people of God?
7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.
8"And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10"Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11"But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are."
Luke reports that after much debate, Peter stands to address those in attendance. He makes a strong case for admitting Gentiles into the church on the basis of faith alone, arguing that God established a precedent in the early days of the church of bringing Gentiles into the body of believers through faith. This reference goes back to the story of Cornelius and his family (Acts chapter 9).
Peter tells the attendees that, "God, who knows the heart,". He reminds them that God gave them the Holy Spirit, "just as He also did to us". In doing this, God showed that he accepted a Gentile even while he was uncircumcised.
Peter insisted that faith was more important to God than the ritual observance of circumcision in determining who would be considered a Christian.
In Peter's mind, conversion was Godís doing and not the work of either the preacher or the believer. People do not decide on their own to take a place among the people of God. God is the one who converts them, and he does it by giving his Spirit, not by requiring the person to practice certain rituals. What is important is that we hear the calling of God and accept his offer of salvation.
Peter calls the Pharisee's insistence to force the Gentiles to live as Jews as putting God to the test and as "a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear". †The yoke Peter refers to is the insistence on a long list of rules that earn us salvation by righteousness.
The word "yoke" (Greek, zygos) refers to a physical restraint - something a beast must carry. Peter uses the term to identify a burden of oppression the Pharisees were insisting the new believers carry.
In Peter's mind, the Law of Moses was both a physical burden and a form of religious oppression, even though well-meaning Jews were using it to keep themselves separate from the world. Peter understood as the Pharisees were using circumcision to separate themselves from other believers, they were failing to honor what God was doing as He brought the Jews and Gentiles together as one people in the church.
Jesus said "my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30). People burdened and weary with sin, guilt and religious duty can come to Christ and find rest in him. That is what Peter was saying. The Christian way of life should not be religiously burdensome. There are many things we do out of love and the desire to be like Christ, but our salvation is not dependent on those things.† That is a lesson all churches and religions need to learn.
Peter ends his speech by echoing the thought of Paul: "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are". In this statement, Peter sides with Paul and puts his stamp of approval on Paulís work, phrasing salvation in terms of grace.
Peter's Last Statement in Acts
With the end of Peter's speech, Luke makes no further mention of him anywhere in the book of Acts.
Barnabas and Paul speak (15:12)
12All the people 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.
Paul now address the assembly, and "the whole assembly became
silent" (15:12). Luke indicates that Barnabas spoke first. He was a
respected member of the
Luke devotes only a single sentence to what Paul and Barnabas say at the conference. We donít know exactly what they say. However, we know from Acts and especially Paulís writings exactly where he stands on the matter of circumcision. In this case, they probably again report on their experiences. Hundreds of Gentiles are now converted and God is working miracles through Paul and Barnabas. The two missionaries appeal to such things, just as Peter had argued from his experience with Gentile conversions.
13After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, "Brethren, listen to me. 14"Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.
Barnabas and Paul speak, James (the half brother of Jesus) addresses the
assembly. He is the leader of the church in
Jamesí speech sums up the testimony already presented by Simon Peter It is interesting that he refers to the Apostle as Simon, but that may be simply a reference to his Hebrew name. James begins his comments before the assembly by summarizing Simon's speech. But he makes no reference to the comments of Paul and Barnabas. This may be because their teaching is the subject of the controversy.
The point of Jamesí speech is that God is taking the Gentiles as "a people for himself" (15:14). There is no disagreement on this. If nothing else, the experience of Cornelius (coming of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles) proves it.
In his speech, James emphasizes the presence of Godís hand in the work of the apostles (15:14). When he reminds the assembled of this he is echoing the thoughts of both Simon and Paul. Paul had referred to "everything God had done" (15:4) including his "wonders" (15:12). In his speech Simon said that "God made a choice" (15:7) and that "God... showed" (15:8). The three are making the same point: this outreach to the Gentiles is nothing that humans dreamed up. They are only fulfilling the purpose of God and serve as his tools for presenting His will to the gentiles.
this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
After James cites the experiences of the apostles as the fulfillment of Godís purpose, he refers to a text of Scripture relevant to the discussion. James says, "The words of the prophets are in agreement with this". "This" refers to the fact that God is calling Gentiles to his church, and that he does it through faith.
By quoting Amos
9:11-12, James is saying that the promised enlargement of "Davidís
fallen tabernacle" (
James' Judgment on the Gentiles and Circumcision:
19"Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21"For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath."
At the end of his address, James states his decision: "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God". In other words, no one should require Gentiles to be circumcised to be saved.
James does offer four things he believes are important even though circumcision should not be considered as a requirement for salvation. The things that are important to him concern living a Godly life and not as a requirement to be saved.†
With this in mind, James outlines four prohibitions that the Gentile Christians should observe. These practical considerations may have been shared to help keep peace in a church that includes people from two widely different cultures, Jewish and pagan. By stressing the observance of these regulations, James may have believed it will be easier for Christian Jews to accept Gentiles "as they are" and live in harmony with them.
Jamesí four regulations direct Christian Gentiles to "abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood" (15:20).
Three of the restrictions concern food.
Avoiding Food Sacrificed to Idols:
First, any food associated with idolatrous worship is to be avoidedóespecially meat offered to pagan deities in ritual sacrifices. Such meats were eaten in temple banquets, and the excess is sold in the meat markets.
In Gentile cities much of the meat for sale in shops or markets consisted of the carcasses of animals which had been used for sacrificial purposes in one or other of the pagan temples. In the process of sacrifice, they had been dedicated or offered to some pagan god. From the Jewish point of view, the eating of such meat condoned paganism and was an act of sacrilege.
Avoiding Meat from Strangled Slaughter:
The second prohibition concerns the flesh of animals that are improperly killed ( "strangled"), and from which the blood has not been properly drained, pointing back to the restrictions listed in Leviticus 17:10, 13. Jewish slaughter practices ensured that an animal killed for food had its blood drained. These are the slaughter practices followed by most meat processors today.
The third prohibition cautions Gentile Christians to avoid eating blood (Leviticus 3:17; 7:26; 17:10; 19:26; Deuteronomy 12:16, 23; 15:23). This is an extension of the restriction on eating improperly slaughtered animals.
Avoiding Sexual Immorality:
A fourth restriction James imposes had to do with sexual immorality. Th egreek word used here is "porneia". The New Testament condemns all forms of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18; 7:2; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Hebrews 13:4). So did the Jewish writings of the time. James reminds the assembled that restrictions against fornication, adultery and sexual immorality in general are forbidden either directly or in principle for all people, pagans, recently converted gentiles and Jews.
James then concludes by saying: "For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath" (15:22). †Wherever Moses is preached, the four prohibitions are part of the most fundamental beliefsóand determine life-style. James seems to be saying that the Christian Gentiles should therefore respect these Jewish beliefs, and practice them as well.
The norms set down by Moses have value for the Christian life, whether Jewish or Gentile. As Moses taught, observing these prohibitions are the basic essentials of Christian observance in such matters as food and sex.
22Then it seemed good to the apostles
and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send
Jamesí proposal is accepted by the apostles, the elders and all others present "the whole church" (15:22). Here, Luke points out that almost everyone is on the same page regarding the matter of Jewish beliefs and practices.
Luke also tells us that Paul and Barnabas' mission is now publicly legitimated in the church. A formal agreement by the leading apostles gives comfort to both Jews and Gentiles that the path the church is choosing is within Godís will.
regarding Jamesí decision is drafted and sent to the churches in
Luke writes that
Judas and Silas are "some of their own men" and are prophets. The
two men represent the agreement of the apostles and the
We know nothing of Judas Barsabbas, but Silas plays a key role as Paulís future partner in missionary work (15:40-41; 16:19, 25, 29; 17:4, 10; 14-15; 18:5). Like Paul, he is a Roman citizen (16:37). He is also a valued co-worker mentioned by Paul several times in his letters (2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1). In his epistle, Peter also mentions a Silas, who may be the same individual (1 Peter 5:12).
sent this letter by them, "The apostles and the brethren who are elders,
to the brethren in
28"For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell."
they were sent away, they went down to
32Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message.
33After they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out.
34[But it seemed good to Silas to remain there.]
35But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching with many others also, the word of the Lord.
Luke records the
elements of the letter crafted by the council regarding circumcision. It is
addressed to the Gentile Christians in
begins by acknowledging that those Jews who stirred up the controversy over
circumcision came from
Paul (the letter mentions Paul in second place) are called "our dear
friends" (15:25) and "men who have risked their lives" for the
gospel (15:26). Th men are held in the warmest regards by
The letter states
"It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." (15:28). The Holy
Spirit is called the author of
The final statement in Jamesí letter tells the gentile Christians: "You will do well to avoid these things" (15:29). The wording does not say that people must avoid these things in order to be saved; it just says that it is good to avoid these things.
Judas and Silas
read the decision in
Second Missionary Journey
36After some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are."
After the Jerusalem Council, Luke begins to narrate Paulís second major journey. Paulís original objective on this trip seems to be more pastoral than missionary. Paul says to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing".
wants to deliver the
The Controversy Regarding John Mark:
37Barnabas wanted to take John,
called Mark, along with them also. 38But Paul kept insisting that
they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not
gone with them to the work. 39And there occurred such a sharp
disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark
with him and sailed away to
that another trip through
The story of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas does not make pleasant reading, but Lukeís realism in recording it helps us to remember that the two men, as they themselves said to the people of Lystra, were Ďhuman beings with feelings likeí any other. Sadly we see ourselves in this recounting of the frail humanity expressed by Paul and Barnabas.
believed Markís refusal to go with the missionaries into
Evidently, Barnabas, the "Son of Encouragement," saw promising qualities in Mark and wanted to give him experience and training. Mark was Barnabas' cousin, and it may be that Barnabas knew the family traits, or wanted him along because of family loyalty. I need to remind everyone, who sides with Paul in this consideration to remember that John Mark is the person who eventually writes the Gospel of Mark, and that we all consider the millions who owe their salvation to the work of the Holy Spirit through reading John Mark's gospel.
Considering this, Mark proved Barnabas right in the end, and perhaps Paul was being too hard-nosed (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 23). Years later, Paul would write to Timothy of the young man he had once rejected: "Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry" (2 Timothy 4:11).
It may be that both Paul and Barnabas were correct: It could have been that Mark would do poorly under Paulís leadership, but would grow while helping Barnabas. Such is the work of the Holy Spirit - placing us with the people we need to be with.
occupied a central part in Lukeís story as a trusted representative of the
But after separating from Paul, Barnabas is not again mentioned in Acts. Lukeís story throughout the rest of Acts is about Paul, not anyone else. Barnabas is referred to in only three other places in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 2:1, 9, 13; Colossians 4:10). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of his and Barnabasí need to get jobs in order to provide support while doing missionary work. Since this epistle was written after the split between the two men, it might indicate that they worked together again, or at least had buried their differences.
The beauty of Like's story about the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas is in the eventual outcome of their disagreement. The sadness is in how much like the less desirable parts of Paul's character we can be.
† 40But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. 41And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Mark and sails for
Silas as his missionary partner and sets out on a tour of the churches in
With Silas, Paul
begins his trip by traveling through
End of Chapter 15
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