By Diane Barstow
Please open your Bible to Acts chapter 15.
As we learned last week from chapter 14, Barnabas and Paul were experiencing an ‘open door’ for the gospel to the Gentiles and this highly offended the Jewish orthodoxy. And where there is a mighty, powerful work of the Lord, the ‘Enemy of All Mankind’ comes along attempting to foil His plan. ‘The whole mental background of the Jew was founded on the fact that he belonged to the chosen people (laos is the Greek word for God’s own people, whereas ethne was the word for the rest of humanity). In reality and in effect, they believe that not only were the Jews the peculiar possession of God, also that God was the peculiar possession of the Jews.’ William Barclay. You can see how this attitude plays out among the Jews that follow Paul from city to city, inflaming passion and ultimately getting him stoned to death (or near-death)! Interestingly enough, Jesus experienced this very issue (regarding Gentiles) early in His ministry, in His own hometown of Nazareth. In Luke 4, right after His baptism and temptation, “Jesus returned to Galilee, in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding districts. And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all.” Luke 4:14-15 He entered the synagogue on the sabbath and was handed a scroll of the Prophets to read. He opened to Isaiah 61 and read it to the assembly. When He closed the book, He sat down. With every eye fixed on Him He stated, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:21 They were shocked that ‘the son of Joseph’ dared to say such a thing. He proceeded to explain that 1) a prophet is unwelcome in His hometown, and that 2) during Elijah’s day many Jews were starving, and suffering from leprosy - but God sent him to Gentiles! They were so infuriated that they dragged Him to a precipice in order to throw Him off and kill Him! Paul finds himself in fine company!
Some men came down from Judea (unauthorized by the church as we will see later) and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ (read ARE NOT SAVED!) and when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the Church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.’
Some men came and caused quite a ruckus! I think Luke was being diplomatic here when he said some men came from Judea and didn't point the finger at the Brethren in Jerusalem in particular. The word dissension means taking a stand against something, and the word debate is seeking inquiry, a questioning, or a subject of questioning, debate over a matter of controversy. This is a very Jewish method of learning which may have upset the Gentile brethren, as perhaps Christians should not argue? This method is frequently answering a question with a question, arguing back and forth with spirited debate! But the Gentile believers were probably not used to that kind of interaction, so they decided as a churchto send Barnabas and Paul, directly to Jerusalem, along with others (1 of the ‘others’ we know to be Titus according to Galatians 2) to “those who were of some reputation” to receive official doctrinal instruction-clarification regarding this controversy. Paul was very keen to confirm his gospel message. ‘It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles; but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that somehow I might be running, or had run in vain.’ Galatians 2:2 Paul did not object to the act of circumcision in itself, but that anyone would add anything to the gospel of Jesus Christ for righteousness. We will talk more about these brothers a little late but remember that they knew the wickedness of the Gentile world, the idol worship, and they understood the debauchery and immorality of those religious practices and maybe they wanted these new brothers to live life in a different manner, the only manner they believed to be acceptable to God. Syrian Antioch was a center of Daphne worship which was accompanied by perverse sexual behavior, ritual animal sacrifice, and prostitution. Antioch was known to be a city of very low moral character, a pleasure resort. The term ‘Daphnic morals’ was a reflection of the city’s reputation. They (some of the Jews) wanted their Gentile brothers to be saved, but only as Jews, to be circumcised as to separate themselves from idolatry and identifythemselves with Judaism, and follow the dietary restrictions from the Law - a THIS IS THE WAYmoment? But you will recall in John 14:6 that Jesus said that He Himself IS the way!
The distance between Antioch and Jerusalem is about 400 miles, like walking from LA to SFO, a trip of about 3 weeks. They traveled along the Via Maris, a road that followed the coastline all the way to Egypt. As they traveled south, they stopped daily to rest and encourage the believers and I presume on the Sabbath spoke in their synagogue, sharing what was received as good news that the gospel has borne fruit among the Gentiles.
When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct themto observe the law of Moses. The Apostles and the Elders came together to look into this matter.’ Rather than dismiss their objections/request for instruction out-of-hand, the church met together to discuss the matter and eventually came to a compromise as we’ll see later. This is genesis of the idea that an instructive missive be sent, although not quite as they had intended!
And here comes our dear Peter - who argued with the Lord during a vision! Who had to be told 3 times “not to call unclean what I have cleansed!” (In Joppa at the time with Simon the tanner, 13 years prior Acts 10) After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days, (it's now about 50AD) God made a choice among you that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the Gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us, and He made no distinction between us and them cleansing their hearts by faith. By testify, Peter means that God endorsed the gospel, their acceptance of it, and their salvation by bestowing on the Gentiles the gift of the Holy Spirit. Observe the many signs and wonders, in the coming chapters, which accompany the reception of the gospel among the Gentiles! “ Now therefore, why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” Now, right here, something should come to mind that Jesus said in Matthew 11.28-30, He said, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke (not Moses’) upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I wonder if Peter didn’t remember those very words at this very moment! Jesus NEVER intended us to try to fulfill the Law because He did that for us!
“But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way as they also are.” I believe this is the foundational statement of the united church of Jesus Christ moving forward! Notice that Peter said that we (Jews)are saved in the same way as they (Gentiles) are! What a profound declaration! What unity! This meeting, and this statement in particular was one of the most pivotal events of the whole book of Acts, in the whole history of the church! The Holy Spirit absolutely inspired Peter, James, Barnabas and Paul as they spoke so they would come to the CORRECT CONCLUSION - that God fulfilled through Jesus Christ the promise He made to Abraham in Genesis 12, “And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” (Romans 4:13) “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that all the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, (As it is written, a father of many nations have I made you) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” Romans 4:16-17 This was the very end of Judaism as the introduction to God, and the beginning of Christianity.
All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were, relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. I like to imagine the faces of the people in the room as Paul described being stoned to death (or near death), reviving, and walking back into the city! You'll notice the use of the word brethren in these addresses. The difference between these priests and Pharisees and the Jews that followed Paul around was that these men, here in Jerusalem, most were Christians (Acts 6:7). They were persuaded to silence by what Peter had to say! Not all of the Pharisees of course, but many were persuaded. Now it was not the end of Judaizers following Paul around and trying to persuade Gentiles to be circumcised - but it was the end of it for the church. “They (the Judiazers) were quite willing that the Gentiles should come into the church on the condition that first they became Jews and accepted the Law, in fact on condition that first they became Jews. If this attitude had prevailed, inevitably, Christianity would have become nothing other than a sect of Judaism.” William Barclay. It's as if they believed the Law was perfective of natural religion, now what did Jesus say? “Then the disciples of John came to Him asking, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them and they will fast. But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. For the patch pulls away from the garment and a worse tear result. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined. But they will put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both will be preserved.’” (Matthew 9:14-17) Here Jesus is talking about the new covenant, a new way of relation between God and man - through His blood, that the old ways of doing things aren’t applicable. So, the old covenant was made obsolete, unfortunately some of the Pharisees were never able to enter fully into this new covenant and continued to try to pour the new wine into the old wineskin. As Paul pointed out, can you complete in the flesh what has begun in the Spirit? Can you ADD to Jesus’ propitiation by ANYTHING you can do - or was it finished on the cross?
After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren listened to me, Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. With this, the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the Tabernacle of David which has fallen. And I will rebuild its ruins. And I will restore it so that the rest of Mankind may seek the Lord and all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.’ Therefore, it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” Perhaps he was saying that they can be instructed in God’smoral law(a law which is unchanging) by hearing Moses read in the synagogue?
Does anyone else wonder how James came to be the spokesperson for the church? I feel like this dispels any urban legend or tradition of Peter being the first Pope. James here is quoting from Amos. James stated that the prophets also agreed with his conclusion, and he cited Amos 9:11-12 to prove his point. Amos prophesied that the fallen house (tent) of David would be raised up and God would fulfill His covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:25- 29) that a king would sit on his throne. This future king, of course is Jesus Christ the Son of David Who will reign over Israel during the Kingdom age, God will rebuild the tabernacle in Jesus! This quote is an example of fruit from the Apostles’ decision way back in Acts 6 to ‘not wait on tables but devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.’
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders with the whole church to choose men from among them, to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, leading men among the brethren and they sent this letter by them.
‘The Apostles and the brethren who are elders to the brethren (adelphos in Greek) in Antioch, and Syria and Cilicia, who are from the Gentiles greetings. (That which bespeaks their respect to the churches they wrote to, they send to them greeting, wish them health and happiness and joy, and call them brethren of the Gentiles, thereby owning their admission into the church and giving him the right hand of fellowship. You are our brethren though Gentiles: for we meet in Christ the first born among many brethren, and God our common Father. Now that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and of the same body, they are to be countenanced and encouraged, and called brethren.) Since we have heard that some of our number, to whom we gave no instruction, have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Therefore, we have sent Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication. If you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” Remember that where the Holy Spirit inspires - His love results in unity!
In those days one did not just drop a letter in a mailbox as we can today. We can imagine the Church in Jerusalem sending a delegation of trusted brothers with this important document. Again, they either traveled on foot or by ship, an arduous journey by any standard.
Another thing to notice in this letter is that idol worship and the things that accompany it are part of the instructions. As George is always encouraging us to have fellowship one with another, it would be difficult for Jewish believers to have intimate fellowship with Gentile believers if they were not secure in the knowledge that the carne asada had not previously been sacrificed to an idol! The purpose again, is fellowship, not adherence to strict dietary restrictions! Paul takes this a step further in First Corinthians 10 and encourages the believers to just purchase the meat without asking. If it had been previously a sacrifice., I guess then if the host is asked, he can honestly reply, ‘I don’t know!’ Keeping yourself from sexual immorality is effective for self-control, better physical health, and a clear conscience!
So, when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. (Being men - I can imagine their relief at not being required to be circumcised as an adult!) Judas and Silas, also being Prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message. And after they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out. [But it seemed good to Silas to remain there] But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch teaching and preaching, with many others also the word of the Lord.
Next week, you’ll learn more of the story, and exactly why I’m stopping here! What a lovely thought that the Church in Jerusalem would send godly prophets to teach, instruct, and encourage the Gentile believers, exactly as they had taught and instructed and encouraged Jewish believers. And that they stayed with them for some time! And that God continued to use Silas, in particular, far beyond his imagination and expectation, I expect!