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Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
September 10, 2008
Theme: This passage describes how the doctrine of salvation by grace—apart from the law—became established in the early church.
The early church was in a period of tremendous transition. This transition was first hinted at when the church had to decide how to solve the problem of the Hellenistic Jewish widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1-7). It was further suggested in Acts 10:1-11:18, when Peter and the Jewish men with him witness Gentiles believing the gospel and becoming filled with the Holy Spirit. It was hinted at even further in the fact that the early church's missionary headquarters shifted from Jerusalem to Syrian Antioch (Acts 11:19-30). And it became intensified as Paul and Barnabas brought the gospel to the further reaches of the Gentile world through their missionary efforts. With all of these Gentiles becoming established in the church—which was, originally, thoroughly Jewish in character—what would the church now be? Would it be Jewish? Would it be Gentile? Could it be both? What would be required of these Gentile believers as they came to faith in the Jewish Messiah? How much of an embrace of Jewish law would be considered necessary for the salvation of non-Jews?
This question came to a serious head in chapter 15. It's hard to understate the importance of the controversy. Its outcome would affect things like how the doctrine of salvation would be understood in the church, what the nature of New Testament missions would be, and whether or not their would be a single church, or two "churches"—a Jewish church and a Gentile church.
Praise God! In His great providence, the controversy was resolved. This chapter tells us how it came to be—and why it is today that we are able to assert with Paul, in Romans 6:14, that we are "not under law but under grace".
I. THE QUESTION (vv. 1-5).
A. The context of the controversy was the completion of Barnabas' and Paul's first missionary journey into the Gentile regions of Pamphylia, Pisidia and Lycaonia (chapters 13-14). As the two missionaries were able to report in Syrian Antioch, many Gentiles were embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ. But it was then that "certain men" came to Antioch from Jerusalem and taught the Gentile Christians there that "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (v. 1).
B. The matter they were raising wasn't, by any means, a trivial one. Circumcision was established by God for the Jewish people through Abraham as a covenant sign of Abraham's decedents (Gen. 17:9-14). It was further ratified in the call of Moses (Exodus 4:24-26) and in the call of the Jewish people out of Egypt (Exodus 12:48; were even a non-Jew who sought to worship the God of Israel within the Jewish community was commanded to be circumcised). And the sign of was absolutely commanded in the law that God gave to the people through Moses (Leviticus 12:3-4). Circumcision was the sign that distinguished God's covenant people from the rest of the world; and if any Gentile were to enter into the covenant God had established with Israel, they needed to be circumcised. Note that the matter was of the utmost importance—the argument being made that, if they were not circumcised, they couldn't be saved.
C. Paul and Barnabas entered into strong debate with those who came from Jerusalem with this complaint. (You can pick-up on some of the passion that Paul probably expressed in his argument by studying his letter to the Galatians!) It finally came to be decided that the two missionaries—along with certain others—should go to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders about this question (v. 3). Along the way, they met with believers in the places where the gospel had already been established; and as they did so, they shared the joyful and remarkable news of how the Gentiles had been converted.
D. When the deputation from Antioch arrived in Jerusalem, they were greeted by the church, the apostles, and the elders. Since many of the things that had been happening in their missionary journey had not yet been told in detail to the church in Jerusalem, they reported all that had happened (v. 4). But it was then—perhaps in part because of this missionary report—that some from the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up and made the case that "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses" (v. 5). Note that the matter was not simply about circumcision. Circumcision was a covenant sign with respect to the whole law; but the keeping of the whole law was what was really at issue.
II. THE CONFERENCE (vv. 6-12).
A. The apostles and elders came together to consider this matter (v. 6); and what followed was "much disputing". Clearly this was a hot-button issue—one that, no doubt, had been simmering for some time. And after a while, Peter rose up to speak.
B. He gave his testimony of what had happened in the Caesarean home of Cornelius (Acts 10:1-11:18). Even then, the church—Jewish at that time—could not dispute that God had clearly granted to the Gentiles "repentance to life" (11:18); and as Peter affirmed, "So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us" (15:8). Peter's argument was that, if God made no distinction between the believing Jews and the Gentiles, ". . . why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (v. 10). Note that in this, Peter was affirming that the Gentiles were "disciples"; but also affirming that the law—while good—was not able to save anyone. It was a yoke no one could bear. Note also the statement he makes in verse 11—an astonishingly remarkable statement to be made by a Jew before Jews regarding Gentiles—"But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they" (v. 11, emphasis added).
C. The testimony of Peter was then followed by the testimony of the two missionaries Barnabas and Paul (v. 12). They made it clear that God had affirmed the spread of His grace to the non-Jewish world through "many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles". Note that all the multitude kept silent through their testimony. Clearly, the Spirit of God was affirming this remarkable transition to the hearts of His people.
III. THE DECISION (vv. 13-21).
A. It was time for a decree to be officially made. It's worth noting that James, the half- brother of our Lord, held a place of esteemed prominence and leadership in this gathering (v. 13; see also Acts 12:17). James first affirms that the testimony of Peter accords with the Scriptures (vv. 14-17). He cited Amos 9:11-12; and showed that God's restorative work toward the house of David included not only His mercy to the Jews, but also to the "rest of mankind—even all the Gentiles" (see Micah 4:2-5 and Zechariah 9:20-23). Verse 18 seems to be James' summary statement—very similar in thrust to Paul's words in Romans 11:25-36.
B. This being a clear work of God that was in full accord with the Scriptures, God's work among the Gentiles must be fully accepted as it is. There was no direct statement from James about circumcision; but that circumcision isn't necessary is clearly implied by the fact that the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit while uncircumcised. Thus, the official decision of the early church was that conformity to the Old Testament ceremonial law (including and most clearly identified by circumcision) should not be imposed on the Gentiles (v. 19). "Therefore," he said, "I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God . . ." (v. 19).
C. James does, however, call upon the Gentiles to abstain from certain things that would be offensive to their Jewish brethren; and thus, he called for actions that would help advance the cause of peace in the church. "For Moses", he said, "has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath" (v. 21). He calls the believing Gentiles to do four things vv. 20):
a. They should abstain from things polluted by idols. Because the Jewish people found foods offered to idols to be particularly offensive (Dan. 1:8; Mal. 1:7), the Gentiles could best serve their Jewish brethren by avoiding such things (1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14:1-15:6).
b. They should avoid "sexual immorality". This is probably speaking of the form of sexual immorality that would have come from entering into marriage relationships with near relatives; as was forbidden in the Old Testament law (Leviticus 18:6-18).
c. They should avoid eating animals that had been strangled. This would be because the blood of the animal had not been drained (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:10-14).
d. Similar to the above, they should avoid eating blood.
IV. THE COMMUNICATION (vv. 22-29).
A. The decision pleased the apostles and elders, and the whole church. They even recognized that the Holy Spirit had put His seal of endorsement on this action (v. 28). They were able therefore, with good conscience, to send Barnabas and Paul to Antioch with this decision—along with "chosen men of their own company". The selection of these two men was probably particularly strategic; because Judas was a Hebrew name; and Silas was a Greek name. Thus, both sides of the discussion were officially represented. Both of these men were "leading men among the brethren" (v. 22). Note that Silas will later figure large in Paul's future missionary journeys (beginning in 15:40).
B. The report of this decision would be given by word of mouth. But it would also be given by official letter (vv. 23-29). This letter could not only be read to those in Antioch; but could also be circulated to other places.
V. THE RESPONSE (vv. 30-35).
A. The letter was brought to Antioch, read by those who were authoritatively sent (see this as a contrast to verse 1 along with verse 24). And the response was one of great rejoicing for its "encouragement".
B. The decision was further established in the lives of those who heard it by Judas and Silas, who were recognized as 'prophets' (see Acts 4:36; 13:1 and 1 Corinthians 14:3). They exhorted the brethren and confirmed these things to them.
C. These two brethren eventually returned to Jerusalem—no doubt reporting the good response of the believers in Antioch to the decision in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas, however, remained, with others, to continue their ministry of teaching and preaching the word of the Lord (v. 35). Some manuscripts have it that Silas remained with Paul and Barnabas (v. 34).
* * * * * * * * * *
Everett F. Harrison, in his commentary Interpreting Acts ([Grand Rapids: Zondervon Publishing House, 1986], p. 254) suggests the significant things that this "decision" accomplished:
1. The Gospel of divine grace was reaffirmed.
2. The unity of the church was safeguarded.
3. The evangelization of the Gentiles could proceed without hindrance. Most of Paul's churches were founded after the Council, and they were Gentile churches.
4. The Gentile churches that had already been established were given encouragement (cf. 16:4-5).
5. The future of the church as a whole was guaranteed. In a few years its Jewish-Christian wing was destined to fade into virtual oblivion because of persecution and the Jewish war against Rome (A.D. 66-70) or to shrivel because of heretical tendencies (Ebionitism1). But before all this happened, Christianity among the Gentiles had grown strong.
And in all of this, we respond by affirming Paul's instruction to the saints; "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage" (Galatians 5:1).
1"Ebionitism" refers to a sect among the ancient Jewish people that embraced poverty as a way of life, accepted Jesus only as a human prophet, and rejected Paul's epistles in favor of Jewish law.
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