December 7, 2014

 

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

 

Topic #IV. The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)   

                    

Subtopic B: The Jerusalem Council (15:1-35)                                    

                          

                                                                            

           Lesson: IV.B.1: The Problem: Those from Syrian Antioch, Part 1 (15:1-5)

 

The Jerusalem Council (15:1-35)

Part 1 The Criticism from the circumcision Party (15:1-5)

Part 2 The Debate in Jerusalem (15:6-21)

Part 3 The Decision in Jerusalem (15:22-29)

Part 4 The Decision Reported to Antioch (15:30-35)

 

 

 

Scripture (Acts 15:1-5; KJV) Part 1

 

1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.

2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.

3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.

4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.

5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.

 

 

Introduction

The stage is now set for Paul’s mission to the heart of the Greco-Roman world as the missionary to the Gentiles. There remained only one final hurdle, and that was the agreement of the whole church on the Gentile mission. There were still those among the Jewish Christians who had serious reservations about the way the outreach to the Gentiles had been conducted. These reservations and the final solution to them worked out in a major conference in Jerusalem are the subject of 15:1-35. There the whole church agreed on the mission. The way was now open for the mission of Paul, and that will be the subject of the rest of Acts. Hereafter the Jerusalem church fades into the background. When it does reappear, as in chapter 21, it will be entirely in connection with Paul’s Gentile ministry. The focus is entirely on him.

 

The debate in Jerusalem revolved around the issue of how Gentiles were to be accepted into the Christian fellowship. The more conservative Jewish Christians felt that they should be received on the same basis Jews had always received Gentiles into the covenant community—through proselyte initiation. This involved circumcision of the males and all proselytes taking upon themselves the total provisions of the Mosaic Law. For all intents and purposes, a Gentile proselyte to Judaism became a Jew, not only in religious conviction, but in life-style as well. That was the question the conservative group of Jewish Christians raised: Should not Gentiles be required to become Jews in order to share in the Christian community? It was a natural question. The first Christians were all Jews. Jesus was a Jew and the Jewish Messiah. God had only one covenant people—the Jews. Christianity was a Messianic movement within Judaism. Jews had always demanded of all Gentile converts the requirements of circumcision and rituals of the Torah. Why should that change?

 

Evidently the requirements had changed. There was no indication that Peter had laid such requirements on Cornelius, or the Antioch church on the Gentiles who became a part of their fellowship, or Paul and Barnabas on the Gentiles converted in their mission. This was a cause for serious concern from the more conservative elements. Not only was it a departure from normal proselyte procedure; it also raised serious problems of fellowship. How could law-abiding Jewish Christians who seriously observed all the ritual laws have interaction with Gentile Christians who did not observe those laws? The Jewish Christians would run the risk of defilement from the Gentiles. These were the two issues that were faced and resolved in Jerusalem: (1) whether Gentile converts should submit to Jewish proselyte requirements, especially to circumcision and (2) how fellowship could be maintained between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

 

Acts 15:1-35 falls into four natural parts. The first comprises an introduction and relates how the debate arose in Antioch and led to the conference in Jerusalem to attempt some resolution (vs. 1-5). The second part focuses on the debate in Jerusalem (vs. 6-21) and primarily centers on the witness of Peter (vs. 6-11) and of James (vs. 12-21). The third part deals with the final solution, which takes the form of an official letter sent to Antioch (vs. 22-29). The narrative concludes where it began—in Antioch—with the delivering of the letter by two delegates of the Jerusalem church (vs. 30-35).

 

 

 

Commentary

1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.

 

It all started when some legalistic Jewish teachers (“certain men,” Judaizers; false teachers who were self-appointed guardians of Judaism; probably the same as those referred to in Galatians 2:12), teaching a doctrine of salvation by works) came to Antioch posing as representatives of James and others of the Jerusalem church: “I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain” (Gal. 2:2). They taught that the Gentiles, in order to be saved, had to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses; but they were ignorant of the relationship between Law and grace. They were attempting to mix Law and grace and to pour new wine into the ancient brittle wineskin (Luke 5:36-39). What they wanted to do was to block the new and living way to God that Jesus had opened when He died on the cross (Heb. 10:19-25). They were putting the heavy Jewish yoke on Gentile shoulders: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). These men were associated with the Jerusalem congregation but not authorized by it (Acts 15:24). Identified with the Pharisees (v. 5), these teachers were false brethren who wanted to rob both Jewish and Gentile believers of their liberty in Christ (Gal. 2:1-10; 5:1). When any religious leader says, “Unless you belong to our group, you cannot be saved!” or, “Unless you participate in our ceremonies and keep our rules, you cannot be saved!” he is adding to the Gospel and denying the finished work of Jesus Christ. When you do that, you no longer have the Gospel but you have a religion. You no longer have the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

These “men which came down from Judea” taught a doctrine that was not only wrong, but was a frontal attack on the Gospel of the grace of God. The true Gospel of grace teaches that Christ finished the work necessary for salvation on the cross. All a sinner has to do is receive him by faith. The moment human merit or works are introduced then it is no longer of grace. Under grace, all depends on God and not on men. If conditions are attached, then it is no longer a gift but a debt. And salvation is a gift; it is not earned or merited.

 

There were many Gentiles in the church at Antioch; “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20-21). There is no indication that they had been circumcised when they joined the Christian fellowship. This was disturbing to some Jewish Christians who came from Judea and insisted that circumcision in strict obedience to the Jewish law was necessary for salvation. Evidently they shared the views and perhaps were even some of the same persons as the “circumcision party,” who were identified in the Western text[1] as belonging to the sect of the Pharisees and who challenged Peter for having table fellowship with Cornelius: “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them." (11:2-3). The group evidently represented the strict Jewish viewpoint that there was no salvation apart from belonging to the covenant community, the people of Israel. To be a part of that community a Gentile must take on the physical sign of the covenant, the mark of circumcision, and live by the precepts of the Law of Moses, ritual as well as moral.         In the sharp debate that this demand provoked, Paul and Barnabas were the main opponents to this Judaizing perspective (v. 2). They had laid no such requirements on the Gentiles converted on their recent mission. It is all together likely that the large number of such converts in their successful mission had attracted the attention of this Judaizing group in the first place.

 

There was a large number of priests in the Jerusalem assembly (Acts 6:7), as well as people who still followed some of the Old Testament practices (see Acts 21:20-26). It was a time of transition, and such times are always difficult.

 

 

2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.

 

 “No small dissension” really means they had a real “battle royal!” It was a heated debate. Clashes always come when some newly experienced truth disturbs a privileged group. People generally get apprehensive when their traditional viewpoints are challenged, unless they are open to new understandings and competent to test new insight and courageous to cross new frontiers. The group soon realized that such a basic issue could not be settled in Antioch. It needed the attention of the whole church, since all Christians, Jew and Gentile, would be affected by its resolution. In Galatians 2:2 Paul says he went to Jerusalem by revelation. There is no contradiction of course. The Spirit of God revealed to Paul that he should go, and also revealed to the church in Antioch that the brethren should send him. God gave Paul a revelation instructing him to take the whole matter to the Jerusalem church leaders (Gal. 2:2), and to this the Antioch assembly agreed (v. 2). An “ecumenical conference” was arranged in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the “mother church.” The apostles were there. It was the suitable site to debate such an important issue. It is unclear who appointed Paul and Barnabas and certain other of them” to represent Antioch in Jerusalem. The Western text1 has the Judaizing group summoning Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem “to be judged.” More likely the Antioch church appointed them as its official delegates to the meeting. Paul mentioned that Titus accompanied him and Barnabas to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1), so he may have been one of the “others” mentioned in this verse. These “others” probably went along, as witnesses. These witnesses would probably protect Paul and Barnabas against being accused of distorting the facts.

 

We need to recognize here that it is really the Gospel that is under question at the council. The Epistle to the Galatians gives us a full explanation of the council.

 

 

3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.

 

The distance between Antioch and Jerusalem was in excess of 250 miles, and the apostles may well have spent a month or so on their journey. They used the opportunity to visit congregations along the way. It could also be described as a “campaign trip,” since most of these congregations would likely be sympathetic with their viewpoint that Gentiles should not be burdened with circumcision and the Torah. This would be especially true of the Christians of “Phoenicia and Samaria” whose congregations were likely established by the same Hellenists who reached out to the gentiles in Antioch (11:19-20). The congregations along their route rejoiced at the news of Paul and Barnabas’s success among the Gentiles. Evidently they did not share the misgivings of the Judaizing Christians.

 

“And being brought on their way by the church” suggests that they were escorted to Jerusalem by some members of the Antioch church.

 

 

4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.

 

When the Antioch delegation arrived in Jerusalem, they were well received by the “apostles and elders.” These would be the central groups in the deliberation. The gathering was not a “church council” in the denominational sense, but rather a meeting of the leaders who heard the various groups and then made their decision. Peter would be the spokesman for the apostles, and James would represent the elders. Just as Paul and Barnabas had reported the details of their mission to the sponsoring church at Antioch (14:27) and to the congregations on their way (15:3), so now they shared with the leaders in Jerusalem what God had done through them. They gave them a full account of the Gospel they had been preaching to the Gentiles, and the apostles and elders had to admit that it was the same Gospel they had been preaching to the Jews. The two missionaries told them, “We have preached the Gospel, and men and women, over in the Galatian country have trusted Christ. They know nothing about Mosaic Law. They trusted Christ and were saved.” No doubt they provided sufficient evidence to verify the genuineness of the Gentiles’ salvation (Acts 10:44-48; 11:17-18). The apostles’ mission of spreading the Gospel was the major reason the Holy Spirit empowered them. This small group of men, led by the Spirit, drastically altered world history, and the Gospel message eventually reached all parts of the earth (Matthew 28:19-20). Paul and Barnabas were among the first missionaries to the Gentiles who preached salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The emphasis on God’s blessing through Jesus was essential. That God’s leading was so evident in accepting the Gentiles apart from the Law would determine the final outcome of the conference.

 

“And when they were come to Jerusalem” it marked Paul’s third visit after his conversion, and what occurred on this occasion is related in Galatians 2:1-10.

 

 

5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.

 

The reception was somewhat cooler from a group of believers who belonged to the “sect of the Pharisees.” It was perhaps some of their group who had first stirred up the controversy in Antioch. They at least shared the same viewpoint: Gentiles who become Christians must undergo Jewish proselyte procedure. They must be circumcised. They must live by the entire Jewish Law. It was not the moral aspects of the law that presented the problem but its ritual provisions. The moral law, such as embodied in the Ten Commandments, was never in question. Paul, for instance, constantly reminded his churches of God’s moral standards in his letters. The ritual aspects of the Law presented a problem. These were the provisions that marked Jews off from other people—circumcision, the food laws, scrupulous ritual purity. They were what made the Jews Jews and seemed strange and arbitrary to most Gentiles. To have required these of Gentiles would in essence have made them into Jews and cut them off from the rest of the Gentiles. It would have severely restricted, perhaps even killed, any effective Gentile mission. The stakes were high in the Jerusalem Conference.

 

There was nothing to prevent a Pharisee from accepting Jesus as Messiah while retaining the distinctive Pharisaic tenants, but they tended to be legally minded Christians. (Paul, of course, was the great exception to this tendency.) Therefore it should come as no surprise that some of the Pharisees had become Christians. Pharisees believed in resurrection, life after death, and the coming Messiah. They shared the basic convictions of the Christians. Because of this they are sometimes in Acts found defending the Christians against the Sadducees[2], who had much less in common with Christian views: “Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail” (Acts 5:17-18). A major barrier between Christians and Pharisees was the extensive use of oral tradition[3] by the Pharisees, which Jesus and Paul both rejected as human tradition. It is not surprising that some Pharisees came to embrace Christ as the Messiah in whom they had hoped. For all their emphasis on Law, it is also not surprising that they would be reticent to receive anyone into the fellowship in a manner not in accordance with tradition. That tradition was well-established for proselytes—circumcision and the whole yoke of the Law. Pharisees were generally members of the “circumcision party.” They feared that the Gentile Christians were always in danger of reverting to their former sinful manner of life and that the whole Christian community might be dragged down to the level of Gentile immorality.

 

The only approach that you can make to Jesus Christ is by faith. We must all come to Him by faith. He won’t let us come any other way. Jesus said, “. . . I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). God is saying, “My Son died for you. What will you do with Him?” The answer to that question will determine your eternal destiny. This is the issue being discussed in the council at Jerusalem. This is really exciting.


[1] Western text—the main characteristic of the Western text is a love of paraphrase: "Words and even clauses are changed, omitted, and inserted with surprising freedom, wherever it seemed that the meaning could be brought out with greater force and definiteness." One possible source of glossing (commenting) is the desire to harmonize and to complete; more peculiar to the Western text is the readiness to adopt alterations or additions from sources extraneous to the Scriptures.

[2] The Sadducees were a sect or group of Jews that were active in Judea during the Second Temple period, starting from the second century BC through the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. The sect was identified by Josephus with the upper social and economic echelon of Judean society. As a whole, the sect fulfilled various political, social, and religious roles, including maintaining the Temple. The Sadducees are often compared to other contemporaneous sects, including the Pharisees and the Essenes. Their sect is believed to have become extinct sometime after the destruction of Herod's Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Sadducees rejected the Oral Law as proposed by the Pharisees. Rather, they saw the Torah as the sole source of divine authority. [10] The written law, in its depiction of the priesthood, corroborated the power and enforced the supremacy of the Sadducees in Judean society.

According to Josephus, the Sadducees believed that:

There is no fate

God does not commit evil

Man has free will; “man has the free choice of good or evil”

The soul is not immortal; there is no afterlife, and

There are no rewards or penalties after death

The Sadducees rejected the belief in resurrection of the dead, which was a central tenet believed by Pharisees and by Early Christians. The Sadducees supposedly believed in the traditional Jewish concept of Sheol (hell) for those who had died.

[3] Oral tradition and oral lore is cultural material and tradition transmitted orally from one generation to another. The messages or testimony are verbally transmitted in speech or song and may take the form, for example, of folktales, sayings, ballads, songs, or chants. In this way, it is possible for a society to transmit oral history, oral literature, oral law and other knowledges across generations without a writing system.

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