The Book of ACTS
James J. Barker
THE COUNCIL AT JERUSALEM
- Acts 15 records the first major church council. It was held in Jerusalem. Peter, Paul, Barnabas and a "multitude" (15:12) of other believers were present.
- As more Gentiles were being saved and added to the churches, certain men which came down from Judaea (to Antioch) taught the brethren, and said, "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved" (15:1).
- At first the church in Jerusalem accepted Cornelius and the other Gentiles. However, as more and more Gentiles were converted to Christ, some Jewish believers started teaching that these Gentiles needed to be circumcised, just as Gentile proselytes to Judaism were circumcised.
- Acts 15:2 says there was "no small dissension and disputation" over this issue, and so a council was convened at Jerusalem. It was determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other men, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question (15:2).
- Paul and Barnabas "passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren" (15:3).
- They soon arrived in Jerusalem and "they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders" (15:4).
- In addition to Paul and Barnabas, Peter was also at this council, but it was our Lord's brother James who presided (15:13; cf. 12:17; 21:18).
- This would refute the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine that Peter was the first "pope." There were no popes in the apostolic church.
- Paul refers to James as "the Lord's brother" in Galatians 1:19. Paul also refers to James in I Corinthians 15:7 and Galatians 2:9 and 12.
- Jude refers to himself as James' brother in Jude 1.
- The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary remained a virgin her entire life but this is contrary to Scripture. Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 teach that Mary had several sons, including James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas (Jude).
- Matthew 13:56 and Mark 6:3 also says our Lord had sisters (half-sisters), though their names are not mentioned.
THE DISSENSION (15:1-6).
- This was much more than a matter of preference or fellowship, etc. For example, Acts 15:37 says Barnabas was determined to take John Mark with him and Paul for their second missionary journey. But Paul was opposed to that idea because John Mark departed from them at Pamphylia.
- This dissension between Paul and Barnabas was serious enough that they separated over it (15:39, 40).
- But this dissension was far more serious because it was doctrinal. The very message of the Gospel was at stake. The doctrine of salvation is of the utmost importance.
- Christians can disagree over certain teachings, but not over the doctrine of salvation. The Bible is very clear on this.
- We are saved by grace through faith alone, not by circumcision or other religious rites (15:1, 2, 11; cf. Eph. 2:8, 9).
- There are basically two religions in this world -- those that teach salvation by God's grace, and those that teach salvation by man's efforts (circumcision, baptism, good works, church membership, etc.).
- There can be no compromise on this doctrine (cf. Gal. 1:6-9; 2:21).
THE DISCUSSION (15:7-18).
- First, Paul and Barnabas "declared all things that God had done with them" on their first missionary journey (15:4).
- Then some believers with a Pharisee background rose up and said that it was needful to circumcise these Gentile converts, and to command them to keep the law of Moses (15:5).
- This was contrary to the Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith alone (cf. John 3:16).
- After "much disputing, Peter rose up" to speak (15:7). It was logical that Peter spoke at this time for he himself had held wrong views at one time until the Lord showed him he was wrong (cf. Acts 10, 11).
- Peter rehearsed what the Lord had done, and stressed that at the cross there was no difference between Jewish and Gentile believers (15:7-9).
- It is very important to note verse 8 -- "And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us."
- God would not have given them the Holy Ghost unless they were genuinely converted. To insist that they needed to be circumcised after receiving the Holy Ghost would be illogical and unscriptural.
- Peter said those who were promoting circumcision were guilty of "tempting God" (15:10), and reminded them that they themselves could not bear the yoke of the law (15:10).
- If they could not bear the yoke of the law, why "put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples" (15:10)?
- Jews and Gentiles are all saved the same way -- "through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ" (15:11).
- Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, who declared what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them (15:12).
- Next, James, the recognized leader of the church in Jerusalem, spoke (15:13).
- "Simeon" (that is, Simon Peter) had already "declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name" (15:14).
- James then referred to "the words of the prophets," and quoted Amos 9:11 and 12 (Acts 15:16, 17).
- The Scofield Study Bible says,
- Dispensationally, this is the most important passage in the N.T. It gives the divine purpose for this age, and for the beginning of the next.
- The taking out from among the Gentiles of a people for His name, the distinctive work of the present, or church-age. The church is the ecclesia --the "called-out assembly." Precisely this has been in progress since Pentecost. The Gospel has never anywhere converted all, but everywhere has called out some.
- "After this (viz. the out-calling) I will return." James quotes from Amos 9:11, 12. The verses which follow in Amos describe the final regathering of Israel, which the other prophets invariably connect with the fulfilment of the Davidic Covenant (e.g. Isaiah 11:1, 10-12; Jeremiah 23:5-8)
- "And will build again the tabernacle of David," i.e. re-establish the Davidic rule over Israel (II Samuel 7:8-17; Luke 1:31-33).
- "That the residue of men Israelites may seek after the Lord" (cf. Zechariah 12:7, 8; 13:1, 2).
- "And all the Gentiles," etc. (cf. Micah 4:2; Zechariah 8:21,22). This is also the order of Romans 11:24-27.
- Ryrie summarizes it this way: "The order is:
(1) God visits Gentiles;
(2) after this Christ will return;
(3) the millennial kingdom will be established and in it Gentiles will return to the Lord.
In other words God has not abandoned His plans for the kingdom of Israel. He will do it after Christ returns, but in the meantime He is calling out from among Gentiles a people for His name" (The Acts of the Apostles).
THE DECISION (15:19-35)
- James announced the decision in verse 19, "Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them..." To "trouble" them meant to force them to be circumcised and to put them under the law of Moses.
- At this important council, they affirmed the doctrine of salvation by God's grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
- In verse 20, James said they should "abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood."
- "Pollutions of idols" is explained in verse 29 as, "abstain from meats offered to idols." "Things strangled, and from blood" (vss. 20 and 29) also refer to meat and blood from idolatrous sacrifices.
- "Fornication" (vss. 20 and 29) is mentioned because there is a very close connection between idolatrous worship and fornication. These Gentile believers came from an idolatrous background.
- The decision was accepted by those in attendance, and it was put in writing and sent to the other churches. The letter is in verses 23-29.
- It is the first known Christian epistle, and it was written a couple of years before Paul's epistles to the Thessalonians.
- Scroggie said, "Its importance is out of all proportion to its length. Read it carefully, and mark the Salutation (vs. 23), the Repudiation (vs. 24), the Commendation (vss. 25-27), the Decrees (vss. 28, 29), and the Conclusion (vs. 29)" (The Acts of the Apostles).
- Paul, Barnabas, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas were delegated to deliver the letter (15:22-27).
- Their first stop was Antioch. When the Christians there read the letter, "they rejoiced for the consolation" (15:30, 31).
- Silas (referred to as a "prophet" in verse 32) decided to stay in Antioch (15:34), and he later accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey (15:40).
- There is a strong emphasis in the book of Acts on the leadership and administration of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord had told His disciples in John 16:7, "Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you."
- Cf. Acts 15:28.
- In Acts 15:25, the council said, "It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord..."
- But here in verse 28 we read, "For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us..."
- Over 100 years ago, A.T. Pierson wrote, "Even in these degenerate days, the Spirit of God may be found holding His seat in the midst of His people, recognized and obeyed and honored as the presiding Power, and working His wonders of conversion and consecration, enduement and service, somewhat as of old" (The Acts of the Holy Spirit).