After persecution broke out in Jerusalem (Acts 7), most of the believers were scattered abroad and preached the gospel wherever they went. To the north of Jerusalem and all of the Jewish region is the major city of Asia-minor, Antioch. The gospel was well received in Antioch and many Gentiles turned to Jesus for salvation. Paul and Barnabas preached there and were sent out from Antioch in Syria to go on their first missionary journey through Cyprus, Paphos, Pamphylia, Iconium and Lycaonian. Check out a map in your bibles or online to see where these locations are.
Peter had also experienced God’s teaching on Gentiles being included in His salvation plan. He was taught by God that He does not show favouritism. Peter saw the Holy Spirit come upon the household of Cornelius and he baptised them into the Christian faith. Peter remained based in Jerusalem along with James, while Paul and Barnabas enjoyed the fellowship in Antioch.
- 1-4 Paul and Barnabas return to Jerusalem
- 5-6 The council’s issue
- 7-11 Peter’s opinion
- 12 Paul and Barnabas present evidence
- 13-21 James’ opinion
- 22-35 The Epistle to the Gentiles
- 36-41 The dream team have a Barny
1-4 Paul and Barnabas return to Jerusalem
“Certain people” They are not named, however, verse 24 tells us that they came from Jerusalem without the authorisation of the apostles there and verse 5 tells us that the Pharisees were somehow behind the thinking of these people (whether they were of the Pharisee group is unknown and unlikely but they were perhaps influenced by their teaching).
“Unless you…you cannot be saved” This is a classic gospel issue. Many can have opinions and practices of conscience which are practiced and adhered to quietly and be saved by grace. Examples of this are abstaining from alcohol; not working on a Sunday; or going to church in a specially made building for church. These practices, when they are personal decisions of faith while trusting only in the blood of Jesus for salvation, are disputable matters (Romans 14:1). But any time someone says something like, you must only worship in this building or else you cannot be saved – then we have a gospel issue. We are saved through Christ alone. There is no additions to this statement. Christ’s blood PLUS [insert something here] is a false gospel.
“Unless you are circumcised…” The Jews followed the custom of circumcision since the days of Abraham. It was a physical sign of faith and obedience to Yahweh. Of course, only the males did this, but it was a national ritual indication inclusion in the people of God. As the Old Testament explains, however, the issue of circumcision was an outward sign of an inward reality and God was more interested in the inward devotion to Him from the heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4). “Certain people” from Judah were convinced that if the Gentiles were to be included as the people of God, then they needed to be circumcised. It’s a forgivable mistake that they were making. In their minds, being the people of God meant that you were circumcised. Now that God is welcoming in the Gentiles, they ought to be circumcised to participate as the people of God. Missionaries encounter this type of problem all the time – how do you distinguish between our Christian culture and the raw gospel that we preach. What things do others need to adopt? To become a Christian, do you need to become like other Christians?
“…sharp dispute…” Paul and Barnabas had strong views on this issue and disagreed clearly with the people from Judah. The story in chapter 15 begins with a sharp dispute which finds a happy resolution before ending finally with another sharp disagreement – in the end it will be Paul and Barnabas who disagree with one another. The issue in the first place is a gospel issue and deserves stern, clear, precise argument. The issue in the end will be a matter of opinion and perhaps could have been resolved in a more godly manner.
“…as they traveled…they told how the Gentiles had been converted…” Paul and Barnabas had seen many Gentiles turn to Jesus and believe the good news. As they travelled to Jerusalem through many Jewish towns, they told people of what God was doing through them and many were encouraged and glad to hear it. By and large, the Jewish-Christian community were enjoying the news that God is loving the Gentiles too. Paul and Barnabas received the same welcome in Jerusalem. The church of Christ was growing strong.
5-6 The council’s issue
“The Gentiles must … keep the law of Moses.” The issue is a lot bigger than just circumcision now. It called in the whole law of Moses. The Pharisees were infamous for loving the law of Moses so much that they expounded on them and expanded their reach to include all sorts of minute detail. Jesus regularly sparred with the Pharisees over their hypocritical lives and love of the law over their love of God. To caricature the Pharisees, they saw the law that God gave to Moses but failed to see the character of God behind the law.
Paul wrote to the church in Galatia about these very matters and described the law of Moses like a guardian – like the parent of a child before the child is old enough to know better. He wrote, “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Galatians 3:23-25 (see also 3:26-4:7).
“The apostles and elders met to consider the question.” The organisation of the church now included apostles, elders and deacons. This simple structure allowed for the word of the Lord to be taught to the believers. The apostles and elders were trustworthy men of the faith, able to teach the word of God. The deacons were equally trustworthy men of faith but had the role of administering the funds to help widows and orphans and the needy in the church. The believers of Christ were not all growing in faith directly through the Holy Spirit and disconnected from one another – rather, they were a Christian community devoted to maturing in Jesus by sitting under the leadership of the apostles, elders and deacons. The Holy Spirit taught the church, through the word of God, using the gifts of people to teach and exhort and preach. Church structure began very early.
7-11 Peter’s opinion
“God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.” Peter made a case against this statement by showing what God has decided to do among them. Peter was instructed to go and preach to the house of Cornelius the gospel of grace. Peter witnessed that household be saved. Peter has seen first hand that the gospel is for the Gentiles as much as it is for the Jews.
“He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.” He had witnessed the Holy Spirit come upon them and believed that God had affirmed their faith right then and there. Peter is arguing that the Gentiles are not lesser than the Jews but are equal before God.
“No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Here is a simple statement of faith and notice the order that Peter states – this is how ‘we’ are saved – just as ‘they’ are. He is not only arguing that the Gentiles need not take up the law of Moses, but that the Jews also are freed from such a ‘yoke that neither [they] nor [their] ancestors have been able to bear’ (v10). The gospel is freedom to serve God outside of the law.
12 Paul and Barnabas present evidence
“The whole assembly became silent…” I wonder how Peter might have felt when Paul and Barnabas follow his one story and involvement in ministry to the Gentiles with their many stories of God’s grace being spread across the known world! The church in Jerusalem may have been mildly excited by the idea of God’s word going to the Gentiles when Peter had one experience of it – now they are gobsmacked to hear how fast the gospel is moving.
13-21 James’ opinion
“Simon has described to us…” James, the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:19), was a chief pillar in the Christian church. He firstly affirms that Simon Peter had experienced the hand of God saving the first people from the Gentiles in a significant way.
“The words of the prophets are in agreement…” James confirms that what is happening fits with what the scriptures have said. He tests the experiences of Peter and Paul against the word of God. This is a great illustration of decision making and discerning the will of God. Things can look beneficial and promising but not everything is in line with the word of God.
“as it is written…” James quotes from Amos 9:11-12 but he is quoting from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.
“It is my judgement, therefore…” James’s conclusion is to agree with Peter. He doesn’t see why they should make things difficult when God has not imposed this on them. Rather than making things harder, we ought to encourage our new brothers!
“…telling them to abstain…” Rather than rules and rituals to overload them, they send advise and recommendation to help them live holy lives. They are three areas which emphasise separation from previous life of ignorance on to their new life of truth. 1) Remove yourselves from the idol worshiping practices by abstaining from the food offered to idols. 2) Sexual immorality was closely linked to idol worship also. It is the first thing to go when people take their eyes off God and his grace. As Paul reflects in 1 Cor 10:6-8, the Israelites sinned as soon as they left Egypt by revelling in sexual immorality. 3) The meat of strangled animals and from blood – another element of idol worship. 4) The law of Moses has been preached in every city – this could be added as enticement to continue to learn from the law of Moses. Just because we are not wanting to burden people with rules and regulations, it is still good and excellent that the word of God be known as it has been for centuries, near and far.
22-35 The Epistle to the Gentiles
“…the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch…with the following letter…” Another wonderful moment in the history of the church – unity, approval, action, encouragement and gospel thinking. It would be wonderful to continually see the activities we take part in as participating in the mission of the gospel rather than in keeping things afloat and salvaging old ways and traditions and practices. And in seeing the church across the planet as one church under God.
“The apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile believers in Antioch…” This short letter follows the same formula as most of the letters in the New Testament and is possibly the shortest epistle that we have access to! It’s lovely that they are greeting the Gentiles in Antioch and so on as brothers!
“You will do well to avoid these things.” A gentle encouragement to avoid these things for their benefit – that’s the language of love and care. There have been no mandates or consequences described. There is only the advice from one brother to another.
36-41 The dream team have a Barny
“…sharp disagreement…” The beautiful conclusion to this chapter is soured by the “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas. The language of verse 2 in the Greek is much harsher than the language of verse 39. Although Paul and Barnabas held different opinions here, it seems that they were so separate in their thinking that they couldn’t resolve the issue. So, they parted ways. Paul went on the mission that he had proposed but took Silas with him, while Barnabas took Mark and went on a different mission. By the grace of God, this expanded the mission teams and enlarged the area being covered for mission.
Unity in the gospel comes through putting the mission and vision of God before our own. For the church to grow as one body, it must function together with the word of God at the head.
- The Anglican Church exists in order to preserve a common way of thinking about church life. It contains a list of 39 articles to describe what we all hold commonly together. What are the pros and cons of denominations such as the Anglican Church?
- The Clark family are doing God’s work in Germany and Karen Darda is serving the Lord in Japan. How can we encourage them and the churches that they are ministering to?
- Romans 14:1 contains instructions on avoiding quarrels over disputable matters. Discuss what you know about such things and how that applies to this passage.
- What advice would you give to a young Christian in the faith? What would you recommend as beneficial to them?