Monday, September 20, 2010

Acts 15 – Legalism in the Church

Acts 15

Conflict over Circumcision

1 And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." 2 Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.

[So Antioch is a vibrant growing church of Christ followers both Jews and Gentiles being taught by the prophets and teachers including Barnabas and Saul as we saw at the beginning of Acts 13. But others came to Antioch from Judea and claimed that gentiles must follow the Law as a Jew including circumcision in order to be saved. Now these traveling teachers are not named, but I can only suspect that they were heard only because they came from Judea the province including Jerusalem. Because of the Jerusalem and Judean origin of the church, they would enjoy the halo effect of being associated with the original form and intent of Christianity.

The argument goes something like this: Jesus was a Jew who was circumcised and kept the Law his whole life. How can you claim to follow Jesus without keeping the Law, as he did? So being unable to dismiss this new teaching, they decided to take the question to the church at Jerusalem.]

3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. 4 And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses."

[I like that even when they had an urgent matter to handle in Jerusalem, they still took the time to encourage all the Christ followers in churches along the way. Finally in Jerusalem they tell the story to the church, of what dispute had occurred in Antioch or Syria, and even in Jerusalem some Pharisees who had trusted Jesus, were please with the idea of gentiles keeping the Law just the same as Jews in the church. It's interesting that at this time (around 50 AD) many still considered followers of the Way of Jesus, to be a sect within Judaism and not a separate religion, but that is mostly in the areas where the church consisted mostly of Jews.]

The Jerusalem Council

6 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. 7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore, 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? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they."

[Some have called this Jerusalem conference and "apostles council", but notice it says apostles and elders came together. This means that just as Jesus said; the apostles did not consider themselves lords over the church, but servants of Jesus and the church. Elders who were not apostles were given an equal voice in governing the church with the apostles. But after much debate, Peter makes these points:

  • God chose me to bring gentiles the gospel.
  • Believing gentiles were confirmed by the Holy Spirit
  • God makes no distinction in how faith is applied to the heart

I love how he concluded "we (the Jews) shall be saved just like them (the gentiles). Not they can be saved like us. But we can be saved like them. Here he gives the spirit of God, supremacy over the flesh of Abraham, and faith in Jesus, supremacy over the Law of Moses. (The Law has no power to save. - Romans 7&8, Galatians 2)]

12 Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles.

[Paul and Barnabas reinforce Peter's message, but giving examples of all the spiritual gifts, signs, wonders and miracles, they had seen God demonstrate through the gentiles who had trusted Jesus as savior.]

13 And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, "Men and brethren, listen to me: 14 Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:

16 ' After this I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up;

17 So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the LORD who does all these things.' (Amos 9:11, 12)

18 "Known to God from eternity are all His works. 19 Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath."

[You have to wonder here, if Peter is the Pope of the church, why is it James who had the last word? Most people hold that James was the pastor of the church at Jerusalem at this time, and he crafts the decision that all the apostles and elders will confirm. Here is James' argument.

  • God had Amos prophecy that he would make a people for himself from among the Gentiles, so this was always part of the plan.
  • God knew from the beginning, what he was going to do.

He concludes that believing gentiles were free from the circumcision and the Law, but they would give them some minimal requirements. Some say these requirements represent the Law of Noah from Genesis 9, others say this is confirming part of the Law from Leviticus 17-18. I don't think this is confirming either Law as a part of salvation (remember the Holy Spirit had already confirmed them), but rather calling for a Holy lifestyle making a distinction by separating them from the idolatry practiced by unbelieving gentiles.]

The Jerusalem Decree

22 Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas,[e] and Silas, leading men among the brethren.

23 They wrote this, letter by them:

The apostles, the elders, and the brethren,

To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:


24 Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, "You must be circumcised and keep the law"—to whom we gave no such commandment— 25 it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth.

[The decree was from the apostles, elders and brethren (the whole church), not just to Antioch but also the surrounding provinces. They rebuke the unnamed teachers from Judea (we gave no such commandment), and send Judas and Silas from Jerusalem in person (two witnesses) to confirm their decision.]

28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality (fornication). If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. - Farewell.

[Don't eat things sacrificed to idols, no blood (the life is in the blood), no strangled birds (cut their heads off and drain out the blood), and be sexually wholesome, these are the minimum standards for personal holiness of a believing gentile.]

Continuing Ministry in Syria

30 So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter. 31 When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement. 32 Now Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words. 33 And after they had stayed there for a time, they were sent back with greetings from the brethren to the apostles.

34 However, it seemed good to Silas to remain there. (some manuscripts omit 34) 35 Paul and Barnabas also remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

[Judas and Silas deliver the message, encourage the brothers, and stay for a while teaching and preaching. Judas leaves for Jerusalem with greetings, but Silas stays to continue the work.]

Division over John Mark

36 Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing." 37 Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. 39 Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

[Division is not always bad as one missionary team becomes two. Many think Mark was restored by Barnabas and later acknowledged by Paul – 2 Timothy 4:11]

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