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The Book of Acts Series

Acts, Chapter 15

 

John Baugh

December, 2009

Acts 15 (New American Standard Bible)

Key events in Acts - Chapter 15

1 - Council at Jerusalem

Circumcision

Paul and Barnabas come to Jerusalem

Peter addresses the council

James addresses the council

2 - Men chosen to accompany Paul and Barnabas

Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas

3 - Letter to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia

The essentials of the letter

4 - Silas remains in Antioch

5 - Second Missionary Journey

Paul and Barnabas disagree on John Mark

Paul and Barnabas Separate

Barnabas takes John Mark with him to Cyprus

Paul takes Silas with him to Syria and Cilicia

 

The Council at Jerusalem:

 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."

Luke begins Chapter 15 with Luke and Barnabas in Antioch and some people coming from Judea teaching the gentiles that unless they are circumcised, they cannot be saved. Luke presents this as an objection that the new converts are not practicing the "custom (law) of Moses". These teachers from Judea are saying that unless a new believer converts to Judaism, they cannot be saved. Their view was that from the earliest time of God's relationship with Abraham, circumcision defined the believer's faith in God and made them one of God's people. These Jews from Judea want the Gentiles to become like Jews as a part of their lifestyle, as evidence of their conversion.

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 Judea, A gentile who was not circumcised was to be considered unclean.

During his 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 to the Jerusalem church.

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.

3Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.  4When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.

This belief by the teachers who came to Antioch from Judea caused a considerable problem with the Conservative Jews who believed in adherence to the full Law of Moses and Paul and Barnabas, who believed inclusion of everyone on the basis of faith. Luke writes that "great dissension and debate" arose over the issue, leading to the determination (by the church) that Paul and Barnabas "and some of them" should go back to Jerusalem to discuss their views with the apostles. Evidently the church in Antioch wanted to put the issue to rest and determine what would be the policy of the church for admitting new converts.

This trip to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders in the church there occurred in about 49 AD.

Luke reports that the group from Antioch traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria on its way to Jerusalem, preaching to the churches in those areas. As they explained the news of conversion of the gentiles, the news was received with "great joy" by the brethren in those areas.

When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the apostles and elders and reported the success of gentile conversion with them also.

 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?

Peter's Speech

 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.

Barnabas and 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 Jerusalem church, and its trusted representative to Antioch. Both he and Paul speak, telling the story of Gentile conversion as it happened. The two missionaries recount the miraculous signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through them. Once again, this underscores the fact that God is blessing their work, in line with his purpose with the Gentiles.

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.

James's Judgment

 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.

After Peter, Barnabas and Paul speak, James (the half brother of Jesus) addresses the assembly. He is the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 21:18). As a leader in the church, he has the respect of those in attendance.

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.

15"With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
16'AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, 17SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,' 18SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM LONG AGO.

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" (Israel) over Gentile nations is taking place in the church, the new Israel. The Gentile mission is the instrument by which Gentiles are becoming part of this new "tabernacle," the church.

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.

Avoiding Blood:

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 to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas--Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren,

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.

A letter regarding Jamesí decision is drafted and sent to the churches in Antioch, as well as the provinces of Syria and Cilicia. Two leading members of the Jerusalem congregation, Judas Barsabbas and Silas, are appointed to take the letter and read it to the various congregations. They are authorized to do more than carry the letter: They are to give personal witness that the letter is authentic, and as authorized representatives of the apostles, they are authorized to answer whatever questions arise.

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 Jerusalem church, lest anyone think that Paul was twisting the decision of the church.

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).

23and they sent this letter by them, "The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. 24"Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, 25it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27"Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth.

 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."

30So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.

 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 Antioch, the church that serves as a kind of headquarters for the Gentile mission. It is also addressed to the churches in the provinces of Syria and Cilicia.

The letter begins by acknowledging that those Jews who stirred up the controversy over circumcision came from Jerusalem, but what they said was "without our authorization" (15:24). Thus, the letter rebukes the Judaizers for overstepping their authority in laying down requirements Jerusalem had not agreed to.

Barnabas and 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 Jerusalem. In saying this, James, Peter and the Jerusalem church make it clear that they stand together with Paul and Barnabas in what they have been teaching and united in opposition to the excessive requirements placed on the gentiles for salvation..

The letter states "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." (15:28). The Holy Spirit is called the author of Jerusalemís decision. The council states that it reached its decision under the guidance of God through the Holy Spirit. It ends with a restatement of the four requirements.

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 Antioch, and their message is warmly received. After encouraging everyone in the church, Judas returns to Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas remain in Antioch, teaching the church and preaching the gospel.

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".

Paul apparently wants to deliver the Jerusalem decrees to these churches personally and see how they have progressed in the time after their acceptance of the way.

 

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 Cyprus.

Barnabas agrees that another trip through Galatia is in order. However, he wants to take Mark as an assistant. Paul refuses, and their disagreement over Mark is so bitter "that they parted company".

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.

Evidently, Paul believed Markís refusal to go with the missionaries into Galatia during the first missionary trip amounted to desertion (15:38). In Paul's mind, there is some defect in Mark that makes him unsuitable as a team member or so unreliable that he should be left behind.

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.

Barnabas has occupied a central part in Lukeís story as a trusted representative of the Jerusalem church (11:22-24). He has been vital to Paulís work and his relationship to the churchóas his associate on the first missionary tour (13:1-14:28); for intervening on his behalf with Jerusalem (9:27); in recruiting him for missionary work at Antioch (11:25-26); and in supporting his Gentile mission at the Jerusalem conference (15:12).

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.

Barnabas takes Mark and sails for Cyprus, presumably to visit the churches on that island (15:39). Luke doesnít tell us anything about this mission, probably because it isnít a trip that advances the gospel toward Rome.

Paul chooses Silas as his missionary partner and sets out on a tour of the churches in eastern Asia Minor. Silas (or Silvanus) is a good choice as an associate. He was a leader in the Jerusalem church, and can speak with authority on its behalf (15:12, 27). He is a prophet (15:32) and a Roman citizen (16:27). He is respected in the church as well as in the wider Roman society.

With Silas, Paul begins his trip by traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches in these provinces (15:41). But what begins as a pastoral visit turns into an extensive missionary journey through large parts of Asia Minor, as well as Macedonia and Greece. It is on this missionary tour that the gospel reaches the eastern frontier of Europe.

End of Chapter 15

 

 

 

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