Acts Lesson Thirty: Acts 15:1-21 – The Jerusalem Council

Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved!” But after Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, the church arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem concerning this controversy. When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, explaining in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they created great joy among all the brothers. 

When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses!” 

Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: “Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving  the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. He made no distinction between us and them,  cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.” 

12 Then the whole assembly fell silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul describing all the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they stopped speaking, James responded: “Brothers, listen to me! 14 Simeon has reported how God first intervened to take from the Gentiles a people for His name. 15 And the words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written: 

16 After these things I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. 

I will rebuild its ruins and set it up again, 

17 so the rest of humanity may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles 

who are called by My name, declares the Lord who does these things, 

18 known from long ago. 

19 Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but instead we should write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For since ancient times, Moses has had those who proclaim him in every city, and every Sabbath day he is read aloud in the synagogues.” (HCSB)

When we look back at the end of the previous lesson, we’ll remember that about a year had passed between the time that Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and the beginning of Acts 15. I’ll be dividing this lesson into two parts.

  • The Dispute in Antioch – verses 1-3.
  • The Jerusalem Council – verses 4-21.

In previous lessons, I’ve addressed an issue about the enemy always being active against successful ministry endeavors. Here, we see this issue playing out once again. Paul and Barnabas returned from a successful missionary trip and were now engaged in teaching and helping the church at Antioch grow spiritually. Now, the enemy sets out to disrupt their work and discredit them. The greatest weapon of the enemy is lies. We saw that at the beginning of Genesis where Satan used lies to cause Adam and Eve to eat the fruit that was forbidden. We see lies being used in this passage. When we look at the world today, lies are still a favorite weapon of the enemy. The lie of relevant truth; what is true to me is true. The lie is that we should do whatever feels right or good to us. The lie is that having more will make us happy. I could go on and on.

The Dispute in Antioch

Although only three verses long, let’s look at some facts from this passage.

  • The men who came down from Jerusalem were of the camp of the Judaizers, which meant that they were previously Pharisees who became Christians.
    • They believed that circumcision was a requirement for salvation.
    • Christians still needed to follow the Mosaic Law.
  • It is not difficult to understand why these Jewish believers were confused.
    • The Old Testament taught that Gentiles could only be saved through Israel.
    • The only Gentiles that the Jerusalem church had seen saved were those evangelized by Peter, and that was a special act of God in Acts 11:18.
    • News traveled slowly, and they weren’t aware of all that God had accomplished through Paul and Barnabas.
    • It is also possible that once they became aware of the large number of Gentiles who were converted, they were either jealous or fearful of transition from Mosaic Law tradition to the New Covenant.
  • Paul and Barnabas engaged the Judaizers in debate, with the result being that they would go to the church in Jerusalem to have the leadership there judge the matter.
    • This didn’t indicate any hierarchy; instead it was a voluntary decision to go there.
    • God commanded Paul to go to Jerusalem in Galatians 2:1-2.
    • Jerusalem was still the “mother church” of Christianity.
    • The Apostles were at Jerusalem.
  • The journey between Antioch and Jerusalem was over 250 miles, likely taking a month or so to complete.
    • They evangelized along the way.
    • It is likely that most of the congregations and believers they met along the way would be on the side of Paul and Barnabas, not wanting to burden Gentile believers with circumcision and the Mosaic Law.
    • The congregations along the way rejoiced at the news of the success among the Gentiles.

The Jerusalem Council

Once the group arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the elders and Apostles. There are a few points to note regarding the first verse in this section, implied here but clarified as the passage continues.

  • Paul represented the position against circumcision and the Mosaic Law being a requirement for Gentile believers.
  • Peter represented the Apostles.
  • Jame represented the elders.
  • The Judaizers represented those who believed any Christian should be circumcised and subject to the Mosaic Law.

From the context of this section, it also appears that at least four separate meetings took place during this time.

  • A public meeting during which the Jerusalem church welcomed Paul and those traveling with him.
  • A private meeting between Paul and the key leaders is referenced in Galatians 2:2.
  • A second public meeting where the Judaizers presented their case is found in Acts 15:5 and Galatians 2:3-5.
  • The formal council meeting where the final decision was made is referenced in Acts 15:6ff. We can read Paul’s report on the issue in Galatians 1-2.

Now, let’s take a deeper look at the last two meetings mentioned above.

Let’s consider some facts from the second public meeting.

  • From the context of the passage, it appears that this meeting went on for a considerable period of time.
  • Sensing that not much progress was being made, Peter decides to intervene and stands to present his position on the debate. 
    • Peter endorses Paul on two occasions in Scripture.
      • Peter’s final act in Acts was to endorse Paul and his ministry.
      • Peter’s last written words, found in 2 Peter 3:15-16, also endorsed Paul and his ministry.
    • Peter reminds them that God allowed him to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles – Acts 10-11.
    • God had accepted the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as the Holy Spirit was given to the Jews at Pentecost.
    • They were saved by faith and grace.
    • Verse 11 is key.
      • “We believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.”
      • The Law was no longer applicable to the Jews. Therefore, it was also no longer applicable to the Gentiles.
      • Salvation is “by grace, through faith” and not “obey Moses and be circumcised.”
  • Paul and his companions were the next to speak.
    • The church greatly respected Paul and Barnabas, and their words carried a great deal of weight.
    • They described God’s work among the Gentiles.
    • They emphasized the miracles that were done among the Gentiles. The miracles were proof that God was involved in the work among the Gentiles.
      • Mark 16:20 – And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the accompanying signs.
      • Romans 15:18-19 – For I would not dare say anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to make the Gentiles obedient by word and deed, 19 by the power of miraculous signs and wonders, and by the power of God’s Spirit. As a result, I have fully proclaimed the good news about the Messiah from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum. 
    • Their astounding report of numerous successes of evangelizing the Gentile locations was evidence that couldn’t be refuted.
    • The opponents were effectively silenced.

The transition from the second public meeting to the formal council decision occurs between Paul’s address and James giving them the final decision.

  • James is the brother of Jesus and had become the leader of the church in Jerusalem in place of Peter.
  • He didn’t become a believer until after Jesus’ resurrection.
  • James had a strong leaning towards the Law. There are at least ten references to the Law in his epistle. This would have made him acceptable to the Judaizers in the Jerusalem church.
  • The key theme in James’ address is agreement.
    • He agreed with Peter that God was saving Gentiles by grace.
    • It must have startled the Judaizers when James said the Gentiles were “a people for His name.”
      • The Jews believed they were the people for God’s name, not Gentiles.
      • The New Testament church is a church for all people.
      • The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means a “called out assembly.”
      • If the Gentiles are called out, then their salvation is from grace and not through the keeping of the Law.
      • The Judaizers didn’t understand how the Jews and Gentiles related to each other in the church or how the church fit into God’s promise to establish a kingdom for Israel.
        • They were jealous for both the future glory of Israel as well as the past glory of Moses and the Law.
        • To them, accepting the Gentiles as spiritual equals jeopardized the future of Israel.
    • The prophets also agreed with this conclusion.
      • James cites Amos 9:11-12 to back up this point.
      • Amos’ prophecy agreed with the testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas.
      • Amos also prophesied that the fallen tent of David would be raised up again. We know that is fulfilled through Jesus.
    • The future Israel is the restored Jews and Gentiles who have placed their faith in Jesus.
    • What they were witnessing was the beginning of the promises foretold in Amos. The promise included the Gentiles.

The decision.

James advised the church to write to the Gentile Christians and inform them of the decision of the conference. The decision addressed four items.

  • Two were commands.
    • Don’t be involved in idolatry.
    • Don’t engage in sexual immorality.
    • Neither presented any particular problem as they have always been wrong in God’s view.
  • Two were concessions.
    • Abstain from eating blood.
    • Abstain from eating meat from animals that have died by strangulation.
  • The two concessions revolved around the fact that the early church often met together and shared meals. Most of the churches met in homes, and some likely held pot luck dinners in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper. If the Gentiles ate food that was considered “unclean,” it would cause division within the church.
    • God gave the prohibition against blood before the Law in Genesis 9:4. Moses repeated it in Leviticus 17:11-14 and Deuteronomy 12:23.
    • The prohibition against eating an animal that has been strangled is because some of the blood will remain in the body and make it unfit for a Jew to eat. 
    • Kosher meat comes from a clean animal that has been properly killed and all the blood drained from the body.
  • What we see in the decision is a position of unity between two groups of people who are debating and defending their position.
    • The Judaizers gave up their insistence on circumcision.
    • The Gentiles accepted a change in their eating habits.
    • It was a compromise that didn’t affect the truth of the Gospel.
    • Not all compromise is good, but this was a situation where compromise brought two disagreeing sides to a middle ground.
  • The seemingly out-of-place reference to Moses is probably a reference to the requirements outlined in the law to avoid eating blood and should be no shock to the Gentile believers who would have heard the passages read in the synagogues. It is also possible that the Gentile believers should be sensitive to their Jewish counterparts and not offend them in this manner so that the lost Jews could also be reached with the Gospel.

Applications

  • If you encounter people teaching a false Gospel or a Gospel with “extra” requirements, make sure you challenge them, but do it in a Christian manner. If the false teachers are members of your church and they won’t stop the false teaching, you should bring it to the attention of your church leadership. If your church leaders are engaged in false teaching, they should be confronted. If they won’t stop, you should find a new church. Also, make sure that those who received the false teaching know what portions were false.
  • Don’t miss an opportunity to share the Gospel, even in your travels. In Acts 15, we see Paul and Barnabas taking advantage of their journey from Antioch to Jerusalem to share along the way. It would have been easier for them to travel quickly so that the matter under dispute could be solved. Instead, they turned their trip into an evangelism event.
  • Any theological debate should be done in an orderly manner and with sufficient witnesses. It helps to have all sides represented so that any decision will be acceptable to all parties. 
  • Unless your church leaders are false teachers, you should always respect their decision. God has placed them in that position for a reason, and you should honor God by honoring those He has chosen.

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