The Jerusalem Council: Threat of Legal Bondage Faced
The Threat that faced the Church at this time was legalism; the condition that one must be circumcised to be saved (v.1). This was an effort of the Judaizing teachers (false brethren) to bring Christians under the law. Furthermore, since the gospel had gone out the the Gentiles (ch.13-14), this issue threatened the unity of the Church. In this chapter, we see how the Spirit of God led the leaders of the Church to work together to uphold grace, and preserve the unity of the Spirit. A big part of the Paul’s epistles deal with this issue of legalism.
- The Judaizers Come to Antioch (vv.1-3)
- The Jerusalem Council (vv.4-21)
- A Letter Written from Jerusalem to Antioch & Elsewhere (vv.22-29)
- The Reception of the Letter at Antioch (vv.30-35)
The Judaizers Come to Antioch (vv.1-3)
1 And certain persons, having come down from Judaea, taught the brethren, If ye shall not have been circumcised according to the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved. v.1 These Judaizing teachers are called here “certain persons” because they were not “brethren”… they were “false brethren” (Gal. 2:4) that had come in “surreptitiously to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage”.
2 A commotion therefore having taken place, and no small discussion on the part of Paul and Barnabas against them, they arranged that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others from amongst them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question. v.2 Paul and Barnabas discussed the error with these false teachers. When someone comes with evil doctrine, we need to stand up against it. They did not go up to Jerusalem to get authority from the apostles to take action. This is clearly shown in Galatians 2, that Paul had sufficient authority himself to deal with the evil. Rather, they want up to preserve the unity of the Spirit, “lest in any way I run or had run in vain” (Gal. 2:2). The Spirit has been consistently showing through these transitional chapters (ch.8-12) that Jerusalem and “the twelve” were fading into the background; apostolic succession had been broken. The best way to handle a problem that comes up is to go to the source of the difficulty; in this case, Jerusalem… where the Judaizers had come from. J.N. Darby wrote:
“God had not allowed Paul and Barnabas to decide the question at Antioch: such a decision would not have ended the controversy; it would have made two assemblies. But the moment the Jewish Christians and the assembly at Jerusalem allowed liberty to the Gentiles, none could oppose themselves to their deliverance from the law.”– J.N. Darby, A Brief Exposition of the Epistle of James
In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas are asked by the brethren in Antioch to go to Jerusalem, but in Galatians 2 we find that Paul “went up by revelation”; i.e. he also had a special word from the Lord to go, whether directly as in Acts 16:9-10, or through a prophet as in Acts 21:10-11. This is how things ought to be in the local assembly. The servants of the Lord should have a word from the Lord to do this or that, and the Lord should also lay it on the hearts of the local brethren! It is wonderful when that is the case. It is not gossip to go the “source” assembly about a problem. If we are gathered on the ground of the one body, it is our business to see the difficulty cleared. To deny those from other assemblies who have questions for us is to behave independently.
3 They therefore, having been set on their way by the assembly, passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, relating the conversion of those of the nations. And they caused great joy to all the brethren. v.3 It is wonderful to see that as Paul and Barnabas traveled, they did not spread the news of the difficulty that had arisen from Jerusalem. The wisdom of God is to keep the matter to as small a circle as possible. Satan wants to throw dust in the air, and if we are not careful, we can aid his cause by getting on the rumor mill. Instead, they spread the good news of the results of the first missionary journey; “the conversion of those of the nations”. The result was “great joy among the brethren”. Am I known as one who spreads bad news, or good news? Does my travelling bring joy to the saints, or grief?
The Jerusalem Council (vv.4-21)
Preliminary Meetings: The Issue is Brought to the Surface (vv.4-5)
4 And being arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the assembly, and the apostles, and the elders, and related all that God had wrought with them. v.4 After arriving in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the whole assembly, as well as the apostles and elders (the oversight) in Jerusalem. They did not immediately launch into the difficulty with the Judaizers, but rather related the results of their missionary journey; i.e. that many of the Gentiles had been saved and brought into the Church. This is because they were in a general company; i.e. the assembly was present, not just the leading ones.
5 And some of those who were of the sect of the Pharisees, who believed, rose up from among them, saying that they ought to circumcise them and enjoin them to keep the law of Moses. v.5 When those who were sympathetic to the Judaizers heard of Gentiles being saved, they immediately bring the issue to the surface. To be clear, these were not the “false brethren” that we read of in v.1. These were true believers (“who believed”) but who had natural prejudices because of their background, and had been listening to the false teachers. Now the issue was in plain sight for all to hear. The facts were established. This is another important step before problems in the assembly can be resolved. We need to be careful about acting on hearsay.
Galatians 2:1-10 provides some added detail about events that took place at this very time, but are not recorded in Acts 15. Paul also took Titus up to Jerusalem as an example of grace, and as a test case; an uncircumcised Gentile that had believed the gospel. What would they do? Deny that he was saved? The leaders – Peter, James, and John – were apparently unclear on the issues, (as we see later in Antioch when Peter waffled on this issue under peer-pressure), and therefore Paul took them aside privately and expounded to them “the glad tidings which I preach among the nations”, to ensure they were clear. These three Jerusalem leaders could “add nothing” to Paul’s gospel. W. Kelly suggests that this took place before the council. He did this privately, so that there would not be a public embarrassment of those in oversight. Later, in Antioch we see Paul publicly rebuking Peter, because of the seriousness of Peter’s error. We can take a good lesson from this; don’t try to embarrass others needlessly, or wound their pride. Yet Paul did not sidestep the issues; he “yielded in subjection not even for an hour”. These events most likely took place before the council began. The reason Paul gives for doing it privately was on account of the false Brethren brought in. To blast this out to the whole company before getting those of reputation (who were wavering and unclear) on the same page could have resulted in a tumult, and all Paul’s labors becoming a big waste. Furthermore, it was critical for the leaders to be clear and united on the issue before the council began.
The Council Begins: A Special Meeting (v.6)
6 And the apostles and the elders were gathered together to see about this matter. v.6 The issue having been brought to the surface, now the apostles and elders get together specifically “about this matter”. There are some issues that ought not to be discussed before the whole assembly, but should be taken up in a special meeting for those in oversight. Some discussion took place, which is appropriate in a “care meeting”. Those who are babes in Christ ought not to be privy to the machinations of the oversight. Why? Because they might be greatly disturbed by the serious issues discussed, and perhaps defiled by certain details. There is a need, however, for young brothers who are transitioning into a place of greater responsibility to attend without taking a place of leadership, that they might learn certain principles from their leaders.
Assembly Decisions? The council was used of God to determine a course of action, but from v.22 we see that they did not do so without the presence and concurrence of the assembly. Mr. Kelly remarks that it was not a mere formality to have the assembly’s concurrence. The Lord’s authority is connected with the assembly (Matt. 18:20), not merely with those in oversight.
Peter’s Part: God’s Mind in the Past (vv.7-11)
7 And much discussion having taken place, Peter, standing up, said to them, Brethren, “ye” know that from the earliest days God amongst you chose that the nations by my mouth should hear the word of the glad tidings and believe. v.7 The discussion did not get too far before Peter speaks up. This is helpful. Lesson: we can discuss issues ad nauseum, but progress will not be made until we get God’s perspective on things. This is the proper order for care meetings, that those who are in a place of oversight should give their guidance. Peter reminded the brethren of how God’s mind on this matter had been made clear in the past. We do not need a “fresh word” if God’s mind has already been made clear. He reminded the brethren of “the earliest days”, perhaps specifically the events at the house of Cornelius (ch.10-11). God used Peter to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, who believed it. God was so careful about this that not Paul, but Peter himself – the apostle to the circumcision (Gal. 2:8) – was chosen witness the conversion of Cornelius in the presence of no less than six brethren “of the circumcision” (Acts 10:45; 11:12) that accompanied him from Joppa. Notice, no women or children were present as this meeting; Peter says, literally translated, “men, brothers” [‘andres adelphoi’]. The same principles apply to the care meeting. Paul told Timothy regarding elders, “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6).
8 And the heart-knowing God bore them witness, giving them the Holy Spirit as to us also, 9 and put no difference between us and them, having purified their hearts by faith. vv.8-9 Not only did the Gentiles believe the gospel, but “God bore them witness” marking them out especially by “giving them the Holy Spirit” just as He had given to the Jews that had believed. There was now “no difference” between Jew and Gentile in the new dispensation. The Gentiles were considered “defiled” by the Jew in the Old Testament, but now God had “purified their hearts by faith”. Just as Peter was told in Acts 10:15, “what God hath cleansed, that call not thou common”, so believing Gentiles stood on the same ground as believing Jews. Notice how Peter refers to God as “the heart-knowing God”… if anyone knew the inner motives of Cornelius’s heart, it was God. He certainly would not have caused the Gentiles to receive the Spirit if they were unclean. Peter’s point here is that God had already spoken on the issue.
10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? v.10 Since there is now “no difference” between Jew and Gentiles in Christianity, how wrong to try to conform the Gentile believers to the demands of the law? To put the Gentiles under law is to “tempt God”, because to make a difference after God had removed the difference at the cross is to slight the work of the cross; “For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor” (Gal. 2:18). Furthermore, it would be a mistake to put the Gentiles under the law, because even the Jews could not keep it, as witnessed by Israel’s history in the Old Testament. The law is bondage to the believer; “a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear”. In Christianity the only yoke we have is that of following Christ. In fact, in Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus called to those who labored and were heavy laden under the law, and offered them rest, saying “Take my yoke upon you… and ye shall find rest…. for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
11 But we believe that we shall be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same manner as they also. v.11 In a striking conclusion to Peter’s message, he says “we” (the Jews) “shall be saved even as they” (the Gentiles). Salvation for the Jews was on the same basis as salvation for the Gentiles. Note that he does not say “they shall be saved even as we” but “we shall be saved even as they”. He puts the Gentiles on the ground of grace even more strongly than the Jews!
Barnabas and Paul’s Part: Recent Experience (v.12)
12 And all the multitude kept silence and listened to Barnabas and Paul relating all the signs and wonders which God had wrought among the nations by them. v.12 In Acts, ever since the changeover in ch.14, Paul is mentioned before Barnabas. But since they were in a care meeting, Barnabas is mentioned first in speaking, perhaps because he was older and more experienced. This is a helpful order even for care meetings today.
James’s Part: The Scriptures Brought to Bear (vv.13-21)
13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Brethren, listen to me: 14 Simon has related how God first visited to take out of the nations a people for his name. 15 And with this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written: 16 After these things I will return, and will rebuild the tabernacle of David which is fallen, and will rebuild its ruins, and will set it up, 17 so that the residue of men may seek out the Lord, and all the nations on whom my name is invoked, saith the Lord, who does these things 18 known from eternity. 19 Wherefore “I” judge, not to trouble those who from the nations turn to God; 20 but to write to them to abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses, from generations of old, has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath.
Note. For James, it would seem that the issue was only partially resolved. It was settled that the Gentiles didn’t need to become Jews, but he still thought the Jews should continue under law. This comes out later in Acts. When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, James and the elders said to him; “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law” (Acts 21:20). It illustrates the struggle than many Christians faced, including leaders, with the matter of the law.
A Letter Written from Jerusalem to Antioch & Elsewhere (vv.22-29)
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and to the elders, with the whole assembly, to send chosen men from among them with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, Judas called Barsabas and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 having by their hand written thus: The apostles, and the elders, and the brethren, to the brethren who are from among the nations at Antioch, and in Syria and Cilicia, greeting: 24 Inasmuch as we have heard that some who went out from amongst us have troubled you by words, upsetting your souls, saying that ye must be circumcised and keep the law; to whom we gave no commandment; 25 it seemed good to us, having arrived at a common judgment, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have given up their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves also will tell you by word of mouth the same things. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 to abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from fornication; keeping yourselves from which ye will do well. Farewell.
The Reception of the Letter at Antioch (vv.30-35)
30 They therefore, being let go, came to Antioch, and having gathered the multitude delivered to them the epistle. 31 And having read it, they rejoiced at the consolation. 32 And Judas and Silas, being themselves also prophets, exhorted the brethren with much discourse, and strengthened them. 33 And having passed some time there, they were let go in peace from the brethren to those who sent them. 34 And Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and announcing the glad tidings, with many others also, of the word of the Lord. 35 But after certain days Paul said to Barnabas, Let us return now and visit the brethren in every city where we have announced the word of the Lord, and see how they are getting on.