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Bible: What Does Acts 15 Teach Us About the Jerusalem Council?

Updated on September 15, 2016

The Apostle Paul




The Apostle Peter


Acts 15: The Jerusalem Council

Paul and Barnabas Travel to Jerusalem

A pivotal episode in the search for spiritual unity in the early Church, chapter fifteen encompasses a discussion of one particular aspect in Jewish-Gentile relations regarding the requirements for salvation: specifically, whether Gentiles must submit to circumcision in order for God to accept them (v. 1).

After Paul and Barnabas dispute with the Judean nationalists about this question but resolve nothing, the missionaries travel from Antioch to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders there (v. 2).

On the way, they bring joy to the churches in Phoenicia and Samaria, sharing with them the conversion of the Gentiles (v. 3).

[Paul reserved no doubt that the Gentiles were not truly saved; he knew that personal trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work on the Cross was all God required.

Nevertheless, he traveled to Jerusalem at the behest of the church].

The Church at Jerusalem

When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem, the “church and the apostles and the elders” receive them; the missionaries report how the Lord worked in and through them (v. 4).

[Interestingly, Luke (in his choice of words) seems to keep the leadership separate from the church proper.

Does he arrange the groups in terms of governing authority?]

As in Antioch, so in Jerusalem, ultra-Judaistic “brethren”—this faction belongs to the Pharisees—contend for the necessity of Gentile circumcision and their obedience toTorah (v. 5).

Thus, the table is set for vigorous debate about the substance of the gospel.

After both sides engage in “much dispute” before “the apostles and the elders” (vv. 6-7a), Peter addresses the assembly and relates how God chose him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles who, having believed in Christ, subsequently received the Holy Spirit (vv. 7b-8).

The apostle asserts that God purifies the hearts of both Jews and Gentiles when they exercise faith in the Lord (v. 9).

Turning to the Pharisees, he chides them for seeking to require Gentiles to keep theTorah—“a yoke . . . which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear”—, calling such a practice a testing of God (v. 10).

Peter acknowledges that the grace of Christ alone will save both Jews and Gentiles (v. 11).

[He mentions here the future aspect of salvation. Sola gratia.]

The Ten Commandments: Obedience Necessary for Salvation?

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James Speaks

Now, as the assembly remains quiet and thoughtful, Paul and Barnabas reiterate their testimony about how wonderfully God ministered to the Gentiles through them (v. 12).

Following closely upon their words, James—the “leader” of the Church at Jerusalem as well as the half-brother of Jesus—stands and addresses the “men and brethren” present with a message crucial to the resolution of the issue (vv. 13-21).

He relates that God first planned to save Gentiles (“visited . . . to take out of them a people for His name”) [v. 14].

Citing Amos 9:11-12 (LXX)—a passage representing other “words of the prophets” that proclaim the same idea—, James explains God’s management of current and future events.

The phrase “After this” means "after this period of worldwide Gentile conversion."

The Lord will then restore the Davidic dynasty to its former glory in the millennial reign of Christ, and cause it to "possess the remnant of Edom" and all the saved Gentiles of that time (vv. 15-18).

[The NKJV editors make verse seventeen longer than those who worked with the NASB; the latter combine the concluding part of verse seventeen with verse eighteen.]

Recommendations for Gentile Believers

After making this point, he issues his decision; namely, that the Jerusalem Church should draft a letter to Gentile churches, asking them to abstain from four practices: associating with things polluted by idols (cf. 1 Cor. 8: 4); marrying a too-close relative (Ryrie, New Testament Study Bible, 236); consuming strangled things (cf. Lev. 3:17); and eating blood.

Engaging in these activities would cause Jewish Christians to discontinue having fellowship with them (vv. 19-20).

Centuries have deeply ingrained these Mosaic customs in the Jewish lifestyle, so they should not have to erase them; Jerusalem asks the Gentiles to respect their ways (v. 21).

Again, all three strata of believers in Jerusalem—“the apostles and elders, with the whole church/the brethren” (vv. 22a, 23a)—jointly decide to send an appropriate correspondence to the Gentile churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (v. 23b).

Two of their own members—Judas Barsabbas (possibly a relative of the man who had been in the running to become the new twelfth apostle [cf. 1:23]) and Silas—would accompany Paul and Barnabas (v. 22).

The letter aims to correct the troubling, unofficial, and therefore non-authoritative message about circumcision and Law-keeping that ultra-Judaistic “believers” in Jerusalem demanded the Asian Gentile churches obey (v. 24).

Sent with the aforementioned couriers (vv. 25-27), it suggests—actually, the writer appends the name of the Holy Spirit to his own to give the recommendation the force of a divine commandment (which it had)—that they (the Gentile churches) should abstain from the four recently mentioned cultural taboos in order that they might prosper (vv. 28-29).

The apostles and “leading men among the brethren” (v. 22) travel to Antioch and deliver the letter to regional church leaders (v. 30).

After the Gentiles graciously receive this encouragement, Judas and Silas (whom Luke designates as prophets) give long-winded speeches, seeking to strengthen the new churches (vv. 31-32).

Shortly thereafter, the two brethren return to Jerusalem, while Paul and Barnabas engage in what looks like a Bible conference in that city (v. 35).

[For obvious reasons, verse 34 does not appear in either the NU or the M.

How could the church send Judas and Silas back to Jerusalem, and yet allow Silas to remain behind?]

John-Mark: Why Did He Desert?

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Paul and Barnabas Separate

While in Antioch, Paul decides to visit all of the churches that he had planted in Asia to check on their progress; the “son of encouragement” (Barnabas) responds, in essence, “That is a good idea—as long as we take John-Mark with us” (vv. 36-37).

The apostle, considerably less enthusiastic about the young “deserter,” sharply disagrees with his friend and fellow apostle, causing a major rift between them (vv. 38-39).

The latter, therefore, travels with his young relative to Cyprus (cf. 2 Tim. 4:11), and Paul returns to Syria and Cilicia with a new companion, Silas, being sent by the brethren (vv. 40-41).

[See Ryrie’s insightful note detailing proper reasons for separation as well as how God brought good out of the Paul-Barnabas schism (New Testament Study Bible 237).]

© 2013 glynch1


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