December 14, 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.2: The Problem: Those from Syrian Antioch, Part 2 (15:6-21)

 

 

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 15:6-21; KJV) Part 2

 

6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.

7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.

8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;

9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.

10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.

12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.

13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:

14 Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.

15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,

16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:

17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.

18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.

19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:

20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.

21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

 

 

Introduction

 

This section of Acts 15:1-35 relates to the debate in Jerusalem over the circumcision issue.  There were two major witnesses, both in defense of the view that the Gentiles should not be burdened by circumcision and the law.  Peter spoke first (vs. 7-11), followed by James (vs. 13-21).  Both speeches are preceded by brief summary notices that set the larger context of the conference (vs. 6, 12).

 

 

Commentary

6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.

 

Verse six relates the gathering for the conference.  Since it mentions only the apostles and elders, many interpreters see this as a reference to the private conference Paul mentioned in Galatians 2:2 with “those who seemed to be the leaders.” If Luke mentioned Paul’s private conference at all, it would more likely be the initial meeting with the apostles and elders in verse 4.  On the other hand, verses 6-29 are a continuous narrative, and one would assume the whole group was gathered together for the discussion—the apostles and elders, other members of the Jerusalem church (including the Pharisaic Christians), Paul and Barnabas, and the other members of the Antioch delegation.  The apostles and elders were singled out as the leaders of the assembly.  They initiated the formal inquiry.

 

There can be no doubt that it was a fateful day for the future of Christianity.  Failure to reach the right decision would forever split the church or else reduce it to the status of a Jewish cult.  Although all of them at the same time were likely to be intimidated by the considerable and vocal segment of legalists in the church, the opinion of James would ultimately be crucial to the entire debate–and James was inclined to be a legalist.

 

 

7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.

 

The meeting began with a lively discussion.  Peter rose to speak.  No one in Jerusalem could speak with more authority.  He was acknowledged as the apostle to the circumcision (Galatians 2:7-8), so when Peter rose to his feet the legalist’s hopes were raised.  No doubt Peter would speak for the Jewish side of the question.  But Peter had learned his lesson.  Paul had already “withstood him to the face” (Galatians 2:11).  Peter did not speak at once.  He wisely waited for both sides to air their views.  We can well imagine that a great deal of feeling would be exhibited.  It would be no quiet debate.  Hot passions would be aroused on both sides of the issue.  After the various viewpoints had been aired, he began by reminding the assembly of his own experience in the household of Cornelius (v. 7b).  Even though it was “some time ago, possibly as much as 10 years before, the experience had made an indelible impression on Peter.  God had chosen him to witness to the Gentiles (see 10:5, 20, 32).  Peter could expect the Jerusalem Christians, including the circumcisers, to remember this because he had given them a full report following the incident (11:1-18).  What he had learned on that occasion was that God looks on the heart, not on external matters.  God is no respecter of persons (10: 34).

 

“God enlisted me for a very great task,” Peter began.  “God could have chosen anyone.  He chose me, the apostle of the circumcision. But He sent me to the Gentiles so that by me they might have the Gospel preached to them.”

 

 

8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;

 

God did not make the slightest difference between Jews and Gentiles in the giving of the Holy Ghost.  That was Peter’s point.  The undeniable sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit was given to the Gentiles as fully and as freely as it had been given to the Jews.  The Holy Spirit had thus baptized the Gentiles into the mystical body of Christ in the same way He had baptized Jews into our body. Surely if circumcision were that important, the Holy Spirit would have said so.  If God did not demand circumcision and Mosaic Law as appendages to Gentile’s salvation, then how dare anyone add them now?

 

God had proved his acceptance of Cornelius and the Hellenists at his home by granting them the gift of the Holy Spirit.  God only grants His spirit to those He has accepted (Numbers 10:44, 47; 11:17).

 

 

9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.

 

The fact that they had received the Spirit just as Peter and the Jewish Christians had was proof that God had accepted Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles on an equal footing.  He “purified their hearts” by faith.  Peter undoubtedly was thinking of his vision: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15).  For the Jew, circumcision was a mark of sanctity and purity, of belonging to God’s people and being accepted by Him but in Cornelius, God had shown Peter that true purity comes not by an external mark but by faith.  In the account of Cornelius in chapter 10, his faith is never explicitly mention but it is certainly evidenced in his following without question every direction God gave him.  Here Peter made explicit what was implicit there: Cornelius had been accepted by God on the basis of his faith.

 

It was faith, not works, that saved, said Peter, speaking out clearly and unmistakably on Paul’s side.  The Holy Spirit was in control of the meeting.  He was the one who was prompting Peter to speak as he did.

 

10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples,

which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

 

In verse 10 Peter gave his conclusion drawn from the experience with Cornelius.  It was an emphatic no to the question of Gentile circumcision and the “yoke” of the law.  God had accepted the gentiles at Cornelius’s house without either of these.  How can Jewish Christians demand anything more than the faith already shown?  To add conditions to God’s plan of salvation that God himself had not added was a serious matter. To demand more would be to put God to the test, to act against God’s declared will, to see if God really meant what He had already shown in accepting the Gentiles apart from the law.  Peter’s statement in verse 10 is strong but should not be misconstrued by speaking of the “yoke” of the law, he did not mean that the law was an intolerable burden that Jewish Christians should abandon.  Peter was using the common Jewish metaphor for the law that had the same positive meaning Jesus had given it in Matthew 11:29[1].  Peter did not urge Jewish Christians to abandon the law, nor did they cease to live by it.  Peter’s meaning was that the law was something the Jews had not been able to fulfill.  It had proven an inadequate basis of salvation for them.  Neither they nor their fathers had been able to fully keep the law and so win acceptance with God (Romans 2:17-24).  For the Jewish Christians the law would remain a mark of God’s covenant with them, a cherished heritage.  It could not save them.  Only one thing could—faith, believing in the saving grace of the Lord Jesus (v. 11).

 

Jesus had described the Pharisees traditions as “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne” (Matthew 23:4).  He had swept aside all rabbinical additions to the scriptures as worthless, but still they multiplied.  Even the 613 commandments of the law itself were more of a load than a man could carry.  The ritual law, with these hundreds of symbolic regulations, would have driven the Gentiles to distraction.

 

The Lord Jesus offered something better: “come unto me,” he said, “and I will give you rest.”  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).  Why would the church want to fasten on anyone’s shoulders the yoke of the law when Jesus had set them free from it, once and for all?

 

 

11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.

 

Peter began his speech by pointing out how God had accepted the Gentiles “just like he accepted us” (v. 8).  Now the issue was on the other foot.  The Gentiles had become the example for the Jews—“we are saved, just as they are” (v. 11).  God’s acceptance of the Gentiles had drawn a basic a lesson for the Jews as well.  There is only one way of salvation—-“through the grace of our Lord Jesus.” Peter’s ultimate point was that God is free to save whoever and however He pleases.

 

That was it!  Salvation was of grace, not of law.  Grace is unmerited favor; grace is getting something we don’t deserve.  Law said, “Do this and thou shalt live”; grace said, “Live!  And do this.” Law put the load on man; grace put the load on Christ.  Jesus had kept the law fully, in all its details and ramifications, in the spirit and to the letter.  In salvation, His life became our life; grace made it available to the believer.  Law and grace, as systems of salvation, were mutually incompatible.  We are either saved by law, which depends on our accumulating our own merits; or we are saved by grace, which depends upon our accepting His merits

 

 

12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.

At the end of Peter’s speech the entire assembly sat in silence.  Paul and Barnabas had already shared their missionary experience with the leaders (v. 4).  Now they gave their testimony before the entire congregation.  Their emphasis was again on God’s initiative in their mission, His work through them, the signs and wonders that had attested to His presence and affirmation of their ministry.  Barnabas told the story of the mission to Cyprus and Galatia, with Paul confirming the story and adding details.  The main arguments were offered by Peter and James, the leaders of the apostles and elders.  Paul and Barnabas evidently offered no defense of their position on the Gentile question other than the implicit argument that God had endorsed it. 

 

 

13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:

 

When Paul and Barnabas had completed their testimony, there was another silence, and then James rose to speak.  It was James the brother of Jesus.  Paul also mentioned James’s role at the Jerusalem conference (Galatians 2:9; 1:19) and called him one of the “pillars” of the church, along with Peter and John. James was a legalist with a reputation for strictness.  It was his name the false teachers had used at Antioch to lend authority to their Judaistic teachings. James had evidently become the leading elder of the Jerusalem congregation, and he was known for his scrupulous attention to all the requirements of Judaism.  His leadership of the church has already been indicated in Acts 12:17.  Upon Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem he appears to have been the sole leader of the congregation, and the apostles no longer seem to have been present in the city (21:18-25).  Here James continued the defense of Peter’s position that the Gentiles should not be required to be circumcised or embrace the Jewish law.  Peter’s argument had been based primarily on his personal experience, which had shown that God had accepted the Gentiles by sending His Spirit on them solely on the basis of their faith.  James furthered Peter’s position by giving it scriptural grounding (vs. 14-18).

 

 

14 Simeon[2] hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.

15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,

16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:

17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.

18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.

 

The tact of James became evident in his very first word—“Simeon,” Peter’s old Hebrew name.  He drew everyone’s attention back to the charismatic figure who loomed so large in Jerusalem, the man God had used to found the Jerusalem church.  That was tactful of him.

 

James began by referring to Peter’s just-completed witness to God’s acceptance of the Gentiles at Cornelius’s home and described it as God’s “taking from the Gentiles “a people for His name” (a people for Himself) (v.  14). James now showed how the coming of the Gentiles into the people of God was grounded in the Old Testament prophets.  Basically he quoted from the Septuagint text of Amos 9:11–12, with possible allusions from Jeremiah 12:15 and Isaiah 45:21.  In the Hebrew text of Amos 9:11-12, the prophet spoke of the coming restoration of Israel, which God would bring about.  The house of David would be rebuilt and the kingdom restored to its former Glory.  Edom and all the nations over which David ruled would once again be gathered into Israel.  The Greek text differs significantly and speaks of the remnant of humankind and all the nations seeking the Lord.  In both traditions there is the concept of “the nation’s which are called by my name,” which links directly with “a people for His name” (v. 14).  That is the very essence of the church.  It is a called-out assembly of believers.  That calling-out process began at Pentecost with the Jews.  It was extended by Peter, in the house of Cornelius, to the Gentiles.  Paul and Barnabas had just put before the church the record of how great and vast a work that calling-out promised to be among the Gentiles.  There is no more appropriate description of the church in the New Testament—it is essentially a company of called-out ones gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As such it is distinct from both Israel and the nations.  This is the main concept James wished to develop.  In the Gentiles, God was choosing a people for himself, a new restored people of God, Jew and Gentile in Christ, the true Israel. What they were now beginning to see, and what James saw foretold in Amos, was that these promises included the Gentiles.

 

God’s present purpose in the world is to call out from among all nations the church.  After that God will turn his attention to the falling fortunes of “the tabernacle of David.” Certainly God was now going to work more and more among the Gentiles.  Sure, he was now at work building the church.  But that did not mean He has forgotten His promises to the nation of Israel, and to David in particular.  God is going to restore the ruined tabernacle of David; He is yet going to reestablish Davidic rule over the nations.  But everything in its own order.  Davidic rule will indeed be reestablished over Israel, but in God’s time.  David’s rejected son is at God’s right hand, still bitterly rejected by the nation of Israel.

 

“The residue of men” refers to the Hebrew remnant still alive at the end of the Great Tribulation, those who will recognize in the returning Christ their long-awaited, long-rejected Messiah. At the second coming of Christ the Jewish believing remnant will go into the millennial kingdom along with a residue of believing Gentiles.

 

God was not taken by surprise by Jewish unbelief.  Although he could have responded to their faith by immediately restoring the kingdom, He foreknew their rejection of Christ and he used it to bring in the church.  The church age has superseded the kingdom age.  Kingdom prophecies will yet have a literal fulfillment.  But in the meantime, prophecies regarding the Gentiles coming into salvation blessing are now having an initial him partial fulfillment in the church.  “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world.”

 

 

19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:

 

Having established from Scripture the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God, James drew his conclusion to the question of requirements for Gentile membership.  Gentiles should not be given undue difficulties; no unnecessary obstacles should be placed in their way.  Though somewhat more restrained in expression, his conclusion was basically that of Peter (v. 10): Gentiles should not be burdened with the law and circumcision. The leading apostle and the leading elder were in agreement.  The issue was all but settled.  Resolving it, however, raised another problem.  If Gentiles were not being required to observe the Jewish ritual laws, how would Jewish Christians who maintain strict Torah observance be able to fellowship with them without running the risk of being ritually defiled themselves?  James saw the question coming and addressed it in his next remark (v.  20). Gentiles should be directed to abstain from four things: from food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood.

 

So that was that.  Paul had won, and the Gentiles were free.  The Holy Spirit had worked His will.  Man had fought and prayed and struggled and differed, and the Holy Spirit had overruled it all to bring about His own sovereign, perfect will.  Jews and Gentiles were one in Christ.  The way of salvation was the same for all—faith in Christ. 

 

 

20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.

 

When looked at closely, all four of these belong to the ritual sphere. Meat offered to idols was an abomination to Jews, who avoided any and everything associated with idolatry.  Pollution would be caused by eating unclean food.  Much of the meat for sale in Gentile markets had been ritually offered to idols.  Eating such meat, in Jewish eyes, would be the same as participating in idolatry. Second, there was “Strangled meat” which was a prohibition against eating animals that had been slaughtered in a manner that left the blood in it.  Third, there was the “blood” itself. It was considered sacred to the Jews, and all meat was to be drained of blood before consuming it.  Meat in which blood remained was forbidden on the ground that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” and the blood belonged on God’s altar (see Leviticus 17:10-13. Again, this prohibition was warranted in order to make fellowship easier between Jews and Gentiles. These three requirements were thus all ritual, dealing with matters of clean and unclean foods.  The fourth category seems somewhat less ritual and more moral: sexual immorality.  It is possible that this category was also originally intended in a mainly ritual sense, referring to those “defiling” sexual relationships the Old Testament condemns, such as incest, marriage outside the covenant community, marriage with a close relative, bestiality, homosexuality, and the like.  And the Gentile sexual mores were lax compared to Jewish standards, and it was one of the areas where Jews saw themselves most radically different from Gentiles. A Jew would find it difficult indeed to consort with a Gentile who did not live by his own standards of sexual morality.

 

The four requirements suggested by James were often referred to as “the apostolic decrees,” they belong to a period in the life of the church when there was close contact between Jewish and Gentile Christians, when table fellowship especially was common between them.  In a later day, by the end of the first century, Jewish Christianity became isolated into small sects and separated from Gentile Christianity.  There no longer existed any real fellowship between them. There are thus four moral prohibitions: no idolatry, no sexual immorality, no murder (“blood” now viewed as the shedding—not consuming—of blood), and “do not do to another what you wouldn’t wish done to yourself.”

 

 

21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

 

The moral rules, such as the Ten Commandments, we’re already assumed.  All Christians, Jew and Gentile, lived by them.  The Gentiles needed no reminder of such basic marks of Christian behavior.  Morality was not the issue at the Jerusalem conference.  Fellowship was, and the decrees were a sort of minimum requirement placed on the Gentile Christians in deference to the scruples of their Jewish Brothers and sisters in Christ.  In fact, all four of the apostolic decrees are found in Leviticus 17 and 18 as requirements expected of resident aliens: abstinence from pagan sacrifices (17:8), blood (17:10-14), strangled meet (17:13), and illicit sexual relationships (18:6-23).  Perhaps this is what James meant in his rather obscure concluding remark: the Law of Moses is read in every synagogue everywhere; so these requirements should come as no shock to the Gentiles.  They are in the Old Testament and had been required of Gentiles associating with Jews from the earliest times.  This last statement was probably intended to calm down the Pharisees in the Jerusalem church. 

 

The Torah was especially important in their eyes.  It was important to them that Moses, whom they revered, should be preached to all those who were inquiring after God.  Any attempt to diminish the authority of Moses would be suspect in their eyes.  Throughout the Gospels we see them opposing Christ with Moses.  James’s remark could also be taken in another sense, which would fit the context well: there are Jews in every city who cherish the Torah.  Gentile Christians should be sensitive to their scruples and not give them offense in these ritual matters, for they too may be reached with the Gospel.

 

With the conclusion of this speech by James, all outward opposition collapsed.  It only remained to put the decision of the counsel into operation.

 

 

 

 


[1] The rabbis saw the Torah not as an instrument of enslavement but as a yoke that bound them to God’s will.  It was a gift of his mercy. 

[2] James referred to Peter as “Simeon,” an Aramaizing word used for Peter in only one other place in the New Testament. Clearly James is referring to David’s speech.

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