Bible Study: Acts, Chapter Fifteen
Transcript: Today we are going to study Acts chapter 15 in depth. You can follow along in your own Bible if you like. I will be reading from the World English Bible because it is the only modern English translation that is copyright free, and I can read the entire Bible on video without any legal drama or breaking anyone’s rules. After the meeting today, or sometime this week, please take the matching quiz that I have prepared for you on the website. Thanks to everyone that has participated so far. Let’s get started:
First let’s set our location and do a brief catchup. In Acts chapter 14, Paul and his companions went on what is known as his first mission trip, beginning on the Island of Cyprus and ending in Galatia. They faced opposition in many cities, and at least once, Paul was stoned and left for dead. They established the first churches in the region of Galatia, and Paul later wrote the letter of Galatians to the churches there. Apparently Paul had become sick during the trip, possibly with malaria, as he wrote in Galatians 4:13 that it was because of an illness that he first preached there. John Mark, the young cousin of Barnabas, abandoned the group and returned home to Jerusalem about halfway through the trip. Despite all the hardships, it was a successful trip and it established small groups of believers in each town they visited. When the trip was complete, they returned to Syrian Antioch, their home church.
This is where we begin our story today.
Acts Chapter 15 beginning in verse 1, reading from the World English Bible: Some men came down from Judea and taught the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you can’t be saved.”
Paul and Barnabas had gone on a successful mission trip, and despite much opposition, they accomplished what the Holy Spirit had sent them to do. They faced down sorcerers, and when stoned and left for dead, they got back up and went back into town. They could not be dissuaded, intimidated, or bribed with praise. All of this upset the enemy and now he strikes back, working through religious people just as the Holy Spirit had.
Some Jewish Christians, often called Judaizers, came to Antioch and began teaching the Gentiles there that they were not really saved at all, unless they had been circumcised as required by the law of Moses. Basically they wanted the Gentiles to convert to Judaism, then become Christians. The circumcision mentioned here was just the first step, and they would not have been happy until the Christians were keeping the entire law of Moses like them. They were teaching a mix of Judaism and Christianity, a bit of both.
It was very difficult for some Jewish Christians to accept that Gentiles could be brought into the church as equal members, without first coming through the Law of Moses as they had. It was one thing to accept the occasional God-fearing Gentile into the church, someone already in sympathy with Jewish ways. It was quite another to welcome large numbers of Gentiles who had no regard for the law, and no intention of keeping it.
Good-bye, free grace! Good-bye, joy! Here comes legalism. These men did not deny salvation by grace. They simply said salvation came by “grace plus…”, specifically “grace plus circumcision.” The Jewish Christians did not know the joy of pure grace, which is God’s divine favor freely given. They felt they earned their salvation by keeping the law of Moses, and they wanted the new Gentile converts to do the same.
2 Therefore when Paul and Barnabas had no small discord and discussion with them, they appointed Paul and Barnabas, and some others of them, to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.
This was upsetting to the church at Antioch, to say the least. There was a passionate argument, perhaps even some shouting. On the recent mission trip, Paul and Barnabas had founded churches among the Gentiles and setup elders there without bringing them under the Law of Moses, without circumcising them. These men from Judea were now saying that they were wrong to do this and that those people weren’t saved at all.
No doubt the Judaizers claimed to have the support of the Apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas said those men had no such thing. The result was division among the church. This was tragic. It seemed that the only solution was to send Paul and Barnabas up to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders there, and get to the truth.
3 They, being sent on their way by the assembly, passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles. They caused great joy to all the brothers.
The dynamic duo set out for the Holy City. On the way they spread great joy to other believers as they shared what God had been doing among the Gentiles. However, when they got to Jerusalem, they found that the Judaizers were well entrenched there.
4 When they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the assembly and the apostles and the elders, and they reported everything that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
This may be the greatest threat to the work of the gospel yet seen in the Book of Acts. First, satan wanted to spread the false doctrine of righteousness by works, and if that failed he would at least cause a costly, bitter doctrinal war to split and sour the church.
Here we have an interesting scene playing out. Some Pharisees, who were one of the strictest branches of Judaism, had become Christians and now wanted to the tell the others how to be properly saved. They were not evil people, and if they had worn horns, it would have been so much easier. These men had genuinely come to know Christ, and their faith had cost them dearly in their social circles. Some of their parents, relatives, and friends considered them dead because they became Christians. They were sincere, but sincerely wrong. We all are influenced by our backgrounds and upbringing, and they were.
Basically, the Christian Pharisees were teaching: “Gentiles are free to come to Jesus. We welcome them and want them to come to Jesus. But they have to come through the Law of Moses in order to come to Jesus, just as we did. Paul and Barnabas, among others, have allowed these Gentiles to come to Jesus without first coming through the Law of Moses, and that is wrong.”
As in the last chapter, we see people wanting to add Jesus to their old ways, but making Jesus into something else, is idolatry. You can carve a statue out of a log, sit it on an altar and pray to it as your god. Then you can name your log Jesus, and feel better about praying to it…but in the end you are still praying to a log. You cannot add Christianity to an existing religious system, it is a complete replacement. We have to make a clean break from our past and leave it all behind.
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to see about this matter.
They gathered the Apostles and Elders of the church at Jerusalem together to decide the matter. It was an extremely important issue. The future of the church of Christ and the doctrine of the way of salvation were at stake. History and experience have proven that anything made a co-requirement with faith soon shoves faith aside and becomes the primary means of salvation. This process never ends, for satan is full of intriguing ideas, but it always begins with Jesus plus something else. Before long, Jesus gets gently moved to the background. If the apostles had let this go, there would soon have been a “Christian” doctrine of “salvation by circumcision” and “The First Church of the Circumcision” on the corner.
7 When there had been much discussion, Peter rose up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that a good while ago God made a choice among you that by my mouth the nations should hear the word of the Good News and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, testified about them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just like he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you tempt God, that you should put a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they are.”
By verses 6 and 7 the Council has convened, and there has been much debate. No doubt some of the hotter heads had said some things for which they were already sorry. Perhaps there were even times of chaos before Peter rose to speak. Knowing Peter, he probably could not sit still any longer. He got up up and shared his experience at Cornelius’ house when the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles and they all began speaking in tongues in Acts chapter 10. They had not been circumcised or taught the law of Moses, yet God accepted them just as they were. Peter said: “[God] made no distinction between us and them” then “we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they are.”
Most Pharisees believed that Gentiles were born common, unclean, unholy and that they had to be made holy and clean by submitting to the Law of Moses. Peter probably shared his vision of the clean and unclean animals, from which God taught him that he should not call any man common or unclean (Acts 10:28). They were all in the same sheet together.
12 All the multitude kept silence, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul reporting what signs and wonders God had done among the nations through them.
Now Barnabas and Paul shared about their recent mission trip through Galatia, telling the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. Crippled people were healed, sorcerers blinded, and new Spirit-filled churches were established. Though there had been much dispute among them, the multitude was willing to listen, which means they were honorable men and teachable.
13 After they were silent, James answered, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has reported how God first visited the nations to take out of them a people for his name. 15 This agrees with the words of the prophets. As it is written, 16 ‘After these things I will return. I will again build the tabernacle of David, which has fallen. I will again build its ruins. I will set it up 17 that the rest of men may seek after the Lord; all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who does all these things.’ 18 “All of God’s works are known to him from eternity. 19 Therefore my judgment is that we don’t trouble those from among the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from the pollution of idols, from sexual immorality, from what is strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses from generations of old has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
After some time Barnabas and Paul finished, and James stood up. If there had been silence before, there was absolute silence now, for James was the Lord Jesus’ earthly half-brother (Matthew 13:55). After the Resurrection, in 1 Corinthians 15:7 Jesus had visited him personally. He was called “James the Just” because of his piety. He was both ascetic and scrupulous. When he died, his knees were allegedly callused like those of a camel because of the many hours that he spent in prayer. James was a pillar of the early church (Galatians 1:19; 2:9) and the moderator of the assembly, now considering an all-important dispute. Some call him the first bishop of Jerusalem, and he wrote the book of James that we have in our Bible.
The hopes of the Pharisees probably rocketed when James stood up and they thought that he would set Paul and Barnabas straight. Instead, he began by saying that it was scriptural for the Gentiles to seek the Lord. It was written in Amos chapter 9. James was saying that according to the Old Testament prophets, God’s people would consist of two concentric groups. At the core would be Israel, represented by the tabernacle of David, and gathered around them would be the Gentiles, who would share in the Messiah’s blessings, without becoming Jewish converts. As James saw it, everything that was happening was just as the Scriptures prophesied.
James had some advice for both groups. To the pharisaical Jewish believers he said, “Lay off these new Gentile Christians—do not trouble them.” To the Gentile believers, he gave three restrictions:
1. Stay away from anything that has to do with idols. There was to be no idolatry because there is only one true God, and only He is to be worshiped. We are to put nothing, and no one else before our relationship with Him. Today this is revealed in our lives when we make illicit relationships or material things more important than obeying His voice. A prime example is the love of money: We can easily love our money more than Him, and when He tells us to give someone something, we can push it away like we didn’t hear Him. The root cause will lead back to idolatry, that we cared more about our money than listening to Him. You don’t have to be rich to have the love of money, or better said, for it to have you.
In Colossians 3:5, Paul calls greed idolatry. In Matthew 6:24 Jesus said: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Mammon is an aramaic word for wealth, money, and property.
2. Avoid fornication. The word fornication here is the Greek word “Porneia”, and is where the English word pornography comes from. It is an umbrella word that covers a large group of sexual sins in the New Testament. Adultery can be defined as a single thing: “A married person having sex with someone that is not their spouse.”, while fornication covers many things. So all adultery is fornication, but not all fornication is adultery. Its general meaning refers to every kind of sexual activity except between a husband and wife. It also includes things like: adultery, incest, prostitution, rape, pornography, homosexuality, and a long list of other sexual sins.
Jesus’ list of the defiling sins that proceed out of a person’s heart includes “fornication” and “adultery” (Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:21). Paul’s list of those sinners who will not inherit the kingdom of God also contains both fornicators and adulterers (1 Corinthians 6:9). The good news is that no matter what you have done in the past, you can be forgiven and have a fresh start by simply praying for it, and it’s free.
3. Do not partake of meat that has been strangled or has blood in it. Why the third restriction? James followed that sentence with: “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (v. 21). In other words, Jewish communities existed in nearly every city, and the Gentile converts were not to do anything that would offend the Jews there when they could easily avoid it.
James gives us two principles for grace-filled living:
First: We are not to make non-Biblical requirements of others—specifically, those that come from our traditions. In that day this meant not pushing a Jewish lifestyle on Gentiles. Today this means we are not to make areas of our lifestyle that are not spelled out in Scripture, the normal for others if they are to be “good” Christians. For example, how we dress, how much makeup is ok, personal tastes, musical preferences including during a worship service, etc. If we push any of these personal preferences on others as necessary to live a life of grace, then we repeat the sin of these Christian Pharisees. If it is not clearly laid out in the Bible, don’t make it part of your doctrine and teach it to others.
Second: The law of love. Because we are under grace, we gladly restrict our freedom for the sake of others. There was not anything intrinsically wrong with eating a rare steak, but James said to eat it well-done for the sake of fellowship with the Jews, or they would not eat dinner with you. Don’t offend them. Don’t use your freedom in grace to be a jerk. Paul states the same principle in 1 Corinthians 9:19–21 NKJV:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
James’s magnificent speech carried the day. Who could take issue with the most scrupulous of all the Hebrew Christians, a man whose piety was admired by all, a man whose life was an example of self-denial.
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole assembly, to choose men out of their company, and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas: Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, chief men among the brothers.
The Christian Pharisees of Acts 15 boldly stated their convictions, though their convictions were wrong. It is admirable and says a lot about their character that they were willing to be taught and shown that they were wrong. A teachable spirit is a precious thing.
The Jerusalem council wisely sent two members of its own community, who were probably Jewish Christians themselves, along with Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch, where the whole dispute began. They left no room for doubt, and also sent a letter along with them from the council of elders.
23 They wrote these things by their hand: “The apostles, the elders, and the brothers, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: greetings. 24 Because 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 commandment; 25 it seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose out men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves will also tell you the same things by word of mouth.
The letter they carried back gave the express decision of the Jerusalem council, that Gentiles should consider themselves under no obligation to the rituals of Judaism, except the law of love and sensitivity to others who believe differently. This was to preserve the fellowship of Jewish and Gentile believers.
It is worth noting that this letter was written to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in “Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia”. It was written specifically to these churches where Jews and Gentiles were mixed together, with the potential of tension and conflict. The letter was not addressed to every Gentile congregation like those in Galatia, though it is a good guideline for all.
28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay no greater burden on you than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality, from which if you keep yourselves, it will be well with you. Farewell.”
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us..” says so much about their attitude. They boldly treat the Holy Spirit as one of their council members—a fellow counselor, to be consulted. The Spirit of God sat with them during their deliberations and I find it beautiful that they were sensitive to what seemed good to Him.
30 So, when they were sent off, they came to Antioch. Having gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter. 31 When they had read it, they rejoiced over the encouragement.
The letter was delivered to Syrian Antioch and they rejoiced. The very important issue of salvation is settled here in the infancy of Christianity, and for all time: We are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, by what He did for us. We are not saved by any conformity to the law; any such obedience comes as a result of our true faith, after the issue of salvation has been settled. We love God and we want to please Him, so we choose to live right. Our good works are because of our faith, not for our salvation. Example: We tithe because we love Him, not because He will put us in hell if we do not.
The Council’s proclamation has been called one of the most courageous documents in history because its authors declared the truth even though they knew it would fully antagonize the Jewish establishment in the city. From this time on, Christian work in Jerusalem became very difficult. While still trying to carry on a ministry to the Jewish nation, the apostles heroically refused to do or say anything to impede the progress of the gospel among the Gentiles. These were brave men that stood their ground when faced with difficult decisions.
What does this mean to us today?
First, we must preach grace alone. (Ephesians 2:8–9 NKJV) “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Second, like James the Just, we must tolerate nothing less. Grace is risky and can be abused, but must not be rejected. Giving our kids the car keys is always a risk, but because we love them we do it and we hope they will do the right thing. God allows us to choose our path also, even wrongly. It is His continuing grace that sustains and empowers us daily.
32 Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged the brothers with many words and strengthened them. 33 After they had spent some time there, they were dismissed in peace from the brothers to the apostles. 34 § 35 But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
Paul and Barnabas returned home victoriously from the Council of Jerusalem, bringing with them the wonderful news that Gentile believers did not have to be circumcised or adopt a Jewish lifestyle to be saved. If the decision had gone the other way, evangelism of the Gentiles would have ended. Now, the great apostle Paul could not wait to get going again.
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s return now and visit our brothers in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, to see how they are doing.”
Paul’s plan was to retrace the memorable steps of his first missionary journey—from Antioch to the island of Cyprus, then sailing to Asia Minor, and traveling up into Galatia. These were worthy plans, and he and Barnabas were a great team. They expected to follow up on the new believers, to correct false doctrine, teach more about God’s grace, share the results of the Jerusalem Council, and build up the leadership in each church. A mistake so often made in modern-day evangelism is allowing new converts to go their own way without follow-up. They usually fall away from the faith. Paul and Barnabas wanted to check up on them.
37 Barnabas planned to take John, who was called Mark, with them also. 38 But Paul didn’t think that it was a good idea to take with them someone who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and didn’t go with them to do the work.
Ever since Barnabas had retrieved Paul from Tarsus to help with the new ministry in Antioch, their teamwork had been blessed with grace. Barnabas was called the “Son of Encouragement” and had a gift for building people up. Paul had mastery of the Law and a brilliant intellect. Together they made an amazing team.
The experiences of that first missionary trip had produced a profound bond between these men of God. Paul was stoned and left for dead. They had been driven out of towns, but also shared in incredible miracles and victories together. They were soul brothers. To be sure, they had disagreements and even occasionally disappointed one another, but never ever did they dream of being separated, except perhaps by death. Certainly the two missionaries did not expect what was about to happen.
39 Then the contention grew so sharp that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and went out, being commended by the brothers to the grace of God. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the assemblies.
We cannot be sure why John Mark originally left them in Acts 13:13. Most likely it was a combination of things—the realities of missionary life with its ongoing conflicts and discomforts, sickness, Paul’s growing ascendancy over Barnabas, a pampered upbringing, homesickness. Whatever the reason, Paul considered him a deserter. Barnabas, who was John Mark’s cousin according to Colossians 4:10, saw the situation much differently. He saw a change in John Mark, who obviously wanted another chance, and Barnabas resented Paul’s rejection of the young man. The result was what verse 39 translates as “a sharp disagreement.” The Greek word here, paraxusmos, is the word from which we derive our English word paroxysm, which denotes sudden violent action or emotion. This was not a mild gentlemen’s disagreement, but a sudden intense and passionate conflict.
Paul and Barnabas had a heated disagreement which shows us that they were not angels—they were men. The truth is, even the best Christians do not always agree. Sometimes good Christians intensely disagree. All Christians walk with limps, and we all rely on the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. So the unthinkable happened, and Paul and Barnabas agreed to disagree and went their separate ways of ministry for Christ.
As to who was to blame, that is not an easy question. Scholars have had “paroxysms” over it themselves. Perhaps they were both right. No one can rightly blame Barnabas for wanting to give his cousin a second chance, nor can we fault Paul for fearing to trust him again. Our judgment goes with Paul, but our hearts go with Barnabas. According to verse 40, the church sided with Paul when he was commended by the brothers at Antioch and sent out, and perhaps that is where we should leave it.
Barnabas sailed away with John Mark to his homeland of Cyprus, and out of history. This is the last glimpse that Luke gives us of Barnabas, one of the noblest figures in the New Testament. In leaving Paul, Barnabas separated himself from perhaps one of the greatest servants of Christ of all time. Paul was losing the man to whom he owed more than any other human being.
The point here, however, is that the relationship between two great men of God had failed. Nowhere in the account does it say that the two prayed and that it seemed good to them and the Holy Spirit for Mark to remain, or for the two of them to double their ministry by going in different directions. The lack of harmony in resolving this indicates the undeniable failure of two of the greatest souls the church has ever known.
Still God brings out the best in all things, and though Barnabas was a great loss, Silas was a great gain. Silas brought to Paul’s ministry some things that Barnabas did not have. He was a Roman citizen (16:37). He was a prophet (15:32). He probably spoke Greek (compare 15:22, 32), and he served as Paul’s writer (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Peter 5:12).
Later, Paul came to minister with John Mark and to value his contributions to the work of God. He mentions him in Colossians 4:10, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. We don’t know who changed, if it was Mark, or if it was Paul. God probably had to work on both of them.
That concludes our Bible study on Acts Chapter 15. Thank you for watching and being a part of Refreshing Hope!
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