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Return to Syrian Antioch
Acts Chapter 14, verse 21b-22
Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.
It is interesting that Paul did not say we must surmount and triumph over many hardships. He said “we must go through” them. The life of a Christian is not one grand victory procession. It will look that way at the end, but the cross comes before the crown. These thoughts strengthened and encouraged the disciples. How? By reminding them, as they remind us, that hardships do not mean God has forsaken or forgotten us. They are a sign that we are entering his kingdom.
The kingdom of God does not mean only heaven and eternity. It is God’s gracious rule in our lives here on earth and hereafter in eternal life.
The apostles were retracing their steps. In spite of opposition and persecution at each of these cities, they returned to strengthen and encourage the disciples.
Acts Chapter 14, verse 23
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
So that the churches’ worship and work could continue in an orderly way, the apostles appointed men who were respected for their mature judgment. The elders’ responsibility in those churches almost certainly went further than that of the seven “deacons” in the Jerusalem church. The church always needs preaching and teaching.
Paul and Barnabas left those churches in the confidence that he who created faith in the disciples would preserve them in faith. We have read before (13:2,3) that the church’s leaders combined prayer and fasting. They were no longer under any Old Testament regulations, and Jesus had not commanded fasting. However, these Jewish believers knew from experience that fasting helped them concentrate when they prayed.
Acts Chapter 14, verse 24-26
After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.
From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed.
On this return trip Paul and Barnabas spent more time at Perga (13:13) and preached the Word there. Attalia was the main seaport of Pamphylia, and they sailed from there to Antioch in Syria. Antioch had committed them to God’s grace for this first mission tour in gentile lands. By his grace they had completed it and returned to their home base.
Acts Chapter Chapter 14, verses 27-28
On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.
The church is always interested in what its missionaries have done. Paul and Barnabas did not boast of their achievements but reported what God had done through them. They especially emphasized that Gentiles had entered the kingdom of God by faith in Jesus, without first becoming Jews.
“A long time” probably means several months. It may mean as much as a year.
The council at Jerusalem
Acts Chapter 15, verse 1
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”
These men were not representing the churches of Judea and Jerusalem. Their position was not that of the apostles. The question of whether Gentiles must conform with the Law of Moses had been settled in the case of Cornelius. The Holy Spirit had settled it by coming to the gentile centurion and his household just as he had come to the Jewish believers (11:15-18).
God had “opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27). These unnamed characters from Judea were trying to close that door and require the Gentiles to enter through the door of Judaism. For that reason they are usually referred to as Judaizers.
In effect these men were saying, “There is something you must do to be saved.” They did not deny that Jesus is Christ, that he died for all, and that God raised him from the dead. They believed that he was their Savior. But they did not understand that Christ’s salvation is received by faith alone. They did not realize that if there is something I must do to be saved, then my salvation is no longer accomplished by Christ alone.
Acts Chapter 15, verse 2
This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
This issue would divide the church if it were not resolved. Worse, it would cast doubt on the gospel of salvation that Paul and Barnabas had preached, to which the Holy Spirit had attested at the conversion of Cornelius. Worst of all, it directed people away from Christ’s work to a work of their own—circumcision.
The church at Antioch was not appealing to the leaders at Jerusalem for a ruling to which they would then submit. They knew the truth and knew that they were saved. They wanted to know the position of the church in Jerusalem, wanted to know that there was agreement in the gospel, and wanted to know whether what “some men” said was really being taught or tolerated in Judea.
They sent a delegation to consult with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Among the other believers was Titus, as we learn from Galatians 2:3. Verses 1 to 10 of Galatians chapter 2 are Paul’s account of the council that he and Barnabas, with others, attended.
Acts Chapter 15, verse 3
The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad.
We learned in 11:19 that some of the believers who were scattered by the first persecution settled in Phoenicia and witnessed there. Luke does not provide any details, but there were groups of believers who could rejoice with Paul and Barnabas over the successful mission among the Gentiles. The apostles told them in detail about the conversion of many heathen.
The Greek word for “sent them on their way” makes it clear that the church in Antioch helped its representatives with food, money, and travel arrangements for their trip to Jerusalem.
Acts Chapter 15, verses 4-5
When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”
The delegation was cordially received, and the missionaries gave a full report on the journey to Cyprus and Asia Minor. They were careful to give all glory to God.
Then the Judaizers raised the issue that had made this meeting necessary. These men were Pharisees, known for their strict adherence to all the details of the Law of Moses and to the traditions that surrounded it. They believed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior. Unfortunately, they also believed that the Gentiles must convert to Judaism in order to be saved. In Paul’s account of what happened at this council, he writes: “Some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves” (Galatians 2:4).
The Judaizers in the Jerusalem church were consistent. They not only demanded circumcision; they demanded compliance with the entire Law of Moses. Now the matter must be discussed and the issue resolved.
Acts Chapter 15, verse 6
The apostles and elders met to consider this question.
While the whole church was still assembled, the leaders held a caucus. We do not know how many of the apostles were present. They came and went in their work of evangelizing and were not always in the city. That is why the church had its resident elders to take care of the day-to-day work of the congregation.
Acts Chaptere 15, verses 7-9
After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showedthat he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.
Peter reminded his hearers of the conversion of Cornelius (chapters 10,11). The vision at Joppa and the baptism of Cornelius and his household had occurred about ten years ago. Peter reminded them that at that time God decided the issue of how Gentiles were to come into the church. God settled the matter and set the church’s policy by giving the Gentiles the Holy Spirit, just as he had given the Jewish believers the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
God knew the hearts of the centurion and his household. That is, he knew they were believers. He himself had made them believers. He accepted them and demonstrated that by giving them his Spirit.
What had God done? He had accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit. He had purified their hearts. He had done this by giving them faith. These were not separate events, extended over a period of time while Cornelius and the others completed some requirements like being circumcised or fulfilling the requirements of the ceremonial law. All these things occurred simultaneously in one great and gracious act of God.
What did that prove? It proved that God made no distinction between gentile believers in Christ and Jewish believers in Christ. God had not required the Gentiles to do something before they could be saved. He had declared them clean, and the Judaizers must not regard them as unclean.
Acts Chapter 15, verse 10
Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?
The Pharisees with their demands were going against God’s revealed will. They were second-guessing him. Whether they realized it or not, they were trying God’s patience and provoking his anger, “testing” him.
Yokes are placed on beasts of burden so that they can pull a load. Peter was saying: “Our Israelite forefathers could not pull the load of the law. We have not been able to pull such a load ourselves.” Peter realized that, if the Gentiles submitted to circumcision and the other demands of the Pharisees, they would be subjecting themselves to the entire law with all its demands and restrictions. Not long after this, Paul wrote to the Christians of Galatia: “I declare
to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law” (Galatians 5:3).
No man, except the God-man Jesus, ever fulfilled the law. That was true of the ceremonial law and of the moral law with its demand of perfect love for God and man. More than anything else, the law was there to show people that they needed a Savior.
Acts Chapter 15, verse 11
No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Let us not make such demands of others when we ourselves have not lived up to them.
To whom does the word “they” refer? It may refer to the Gentiles, and then Peter was saying what he said in verse 9: “He made no distinction between us and them.” It may, however, refer to “our fathers.” Then Peter would be making the point that Old Testament believers were also saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, for whom they waited in hope. It is like the thought expressed by Jesus: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). See the great list of Old Testament believers in Hebrews chapter 11 who lived by faith in the one to come.
Again, it is possible to translate this verse in this way: “No! Through the grace of our Lord Jesus we believe that we are saved, just as they are [or “were,” if it refers to the forefathers].” That would remind Peter’s listeners and us that even our faith is God’s gracious gift and not something we have generated or accomplished. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).
Acts Chapter 15, verse 12
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.
Now, as part of the discussion and in opposition to the Judaizers, Barnabas and Paul reported what God had done among the Gentiles on the mission field. If God had done these things for the Gentiles without their being circumcised, how could the Judaizers demand that they be circumcised?
Here Luke mentions Barnabas before Paul. The church in Jerusalem had known Barnabas for a long time, and they had only good memories of him. It is likely that he did more talking as the mission journey was described, because so much of what had happened had happened through Paul. It could have been embarrassing for Paul to relate the story.
Acts Chapter 15, verses 13-18
When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
“‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’
that have been known for ages.
The speaker was James the Lord’s brother, the presiding officer of the church in Jerusalem and the chairman of this council.
James acknowledged that what Peter had described was accurate and that it was to the point. God’s people no longer consisted of Jews only. Now his people came from all nations. God had taken heathens and made them his people.
To what God had been doing, James added the authority of what God had prophesied many years before
through Amos (9:11,12). The quotation adapts the Greek translation of the Old Testament text.
The first part of the prophecy was fulfilled in the Jewish Christians. They were the restored Tent of Meeting (tabernacle) of David. They were the rebuilt house of God.
The second part of the prophecy confirms the point that Peter and the delegates from Antioch were making. Gentiles were bearing the name of the Lord. That is, they were becoming his people. It was the Lord who was doing these things.
Verse 18 is James’ comment and not part of the quotation. He was saying: “These are not new ideas. The Lord announced them through the prophets long ago.”
Acts Chapter 15, verses 19-20
It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.
Nothing should be required that would hinder the Gentiles’ conversion. James was not rendering this judgment on his own authority. The Holy Spirit had made it clear that the Gentiles did not have to Judaize. He had done so in the case of Cornelius. The success that he gave to the mission in Asia Minor also testified to this fact. The apostles and elders and the whole church could only concur with God’s decision. James proposed that they do so.
The message that James proposed be sent to Antioch and to Gentiles everywhere would not attach any conditions to their salvation. It would not place any obstacles in the way of their becoming full fledged members of God’s family. It was intended, rather, to encourage them to avoid things that would make it difficult for Jews to share a meal with them or express full fellowship with them in other ways.
Leviticus 17:1-9 prohibited the sacrifice of animals to “goat idols,” or demons. James and the Jerusalem church were not afraid that gentile believers would perform those sacrifices. But they knew that in the gentile world the meat sacrificed to idols was sold in the market. For gentile believers to eat such meat would make it difficult for Jewish Christians to have table fellowship with them.
Leviticus 17:10-14 prescribed the way in which the Jews were to slaughter animals for food. It was to be done in such a way that all blood was drained from the animal. To wring the neck of a chicken, for example, would not be a proper way to kill a bird for food. When the congregation gathered for a common meal before celebrating the Lord’s Supper, Jews would want to know that the meat that was served was kosher.
In proposing that they tell the Gentiles to abstain from sexual immorality, James was not saying that the Jerusalem believers tell them not to commit adultery and fornication. The apostles always spent time teaching their converts and certainly taught them the moral law. Leviticus chapter 18 dealt with particular kinds of sexual relationships. The Gentiles were to avoid sexual relationships and marriages that their laws and customs might permit, but which the Law of Moses forbade. Such conduct would gravely endanger the fellowship between Jewish and gentile believers.
James proposed that with regard to these things that were especially offensive to Jews and of which some Gentiles might be ignorant, they should tell the Gentiles: “You do well to avoid these things.” As to the demand concerning circumcision, the answer was “No.” Paul writes in Galatians 2:3, “Not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.”
Acts Chapter 15, verse 21
For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
James’ point here was that many Gentiles were already familiar with these Jewish laws and others could learn them. For the sake of maintaining the fellowship with Jewish Christians, Gentiles ought to observe them. This was not a compromise that would require that some law other than circumcision be observed. It was an injunction not to jeopardize the bond, the fellowship between believers of Jewish upbringing and those of gentile background.
Acts Chapter 15, verse 22
Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers.
James’ judgment was the judgment of the whole church. We must assume that the Judaizers also agreed with it after Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James had presented their arguments.
Representatives of the Jerusalem church would accompany Paul and Barnabas to present a joint report on the findings of the council to the church at Antioch. Judas may have been a brother of Joseph Barsabbas, who had been a candidate to replace Judas Iscariot (1:23). More likely, his second name meant that he was born on a Saturday: “son of the Sabbath.” We will hear more of Silas, who became one of Paul’s coworkers in the gentile mission.