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Acts 15 Commentaries

Study Guide for Acts 15 - The Jerusalem Council

A. The dispute between the men from Judea and Paul and Barnabas.

  1. (Act 15:1) The men from Judea state their case.

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."

  1. Certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." These Jewish Christians (often called "Judaizers") taught that Gentiles may become Christians, but only after first becoming Jews, and submitting to all Jewish rituals, including circumcision.

    1. It was very difficult for some Jewish Christians to accept that Gentiles could be brought into the church as "equal partners" without first coming through the law of Moses. "It was one thing to accept the occasional God-fearer into the church, someone already in sympathy with Jewish ways; it was quite another to welcome large numbers of Gentiles who had no regard for the law and no intention of keeping it." (Williams)

  2. These Christians were from Judea, and were not content to keep their beliefs to themselves, but felt compelled to persuade other Christians. They taught the brethren, coming all the way to Antioch to preach this message.

    1. By their teaching, these certain men from Judea were passing a negative judgment on all of Paul and Barnabas' missionary endeavors. On their recent missionary journey, they had founded churches among the Gentiles without bringing them under the Law of Moses. These certain men from Judea said Paul and Barnabas were all wrong!

    2. When in the city of Antioch in Pisidia, Paul preached this message: And by Him [Jesus] everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses (Acts 13:39). These certain men ... down from Judea would have objected, saying "Jesus saves us, but only after we have done all we can do to keep the Law of Moses." But Paul taught a man could only be right with God on the basis of what Jesus had done!

  3. You cannot be saved: This was not a side issue; it had to do with salvation itself. This was not a matter where there could be disagreement among believers, with some believing you must be under the law, and some believing it wasn't important. This was an issue that went to the core of Christianity, and it had to be resolved.

    1. We can just imagine how Satan wanted to take advantage of this situation. First, he wanted the false doctrine of works righteousness to succeed. But even if it didn't, Satan wanted a costly, bitter doctrinal war to complete split and sour the church. This may be the greatest threat to the work of the gospel seen in the Book of Acts!

2. (Acts 15:2-4) Paul and Barnabas respond to the teaching of the men from Judea.

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, 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. 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.

  1. Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them: Their first response was to persuade. We can imagine there was no small dissension and dispute with them indeed. These two who had seen God work so powerfully through the Gentiles would not abandon that work easily.

    1. In this, Paul and Barnabas show the hearts of true shepherds: To confront and dispute with those who insist on promoting false doctrines in the church.

  2. They determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem: When persuasion did not end the issue, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to have the matter settled by the apostles and elders. They couldn't just agree to disagree on this issue, because it was at the core of what meant to be a follower of Jesus.

    1. Who are the they who determined that Paul and Barnabas should go to Jerusalem to determine this question? It seems to speak of the church collectively in Antioch, where this false doctrine was being promoted. This is indicated by the statement that they were sent on their way by the church.

  3. They caused great joy to all the brethren: As Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem, they found plenty of other Christians who rejoiced at what God had done among the Gentiles. This is in contrast to the certain men from Judea.

3. (Acts 15:5) The men from Judea re-state their teaching.

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."

  1. Some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up: We see that many of these Judaizers were Christians who had been Pharisees. The Pharisees were renowned for their high regard for the law, and their scrupulous observance of the law.

    1. If the Pharisees believed anything, they believed one could be justified before God by keeping the law. For a Pharisee to really be a Christian, it would take more than an acknowledgment that Jesus was Messiah; he would have to forsake his attempts to justify himself by the keeping of the law and accept the work of Jesus as the basis of his justification.

    2. In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas would not allow the pagans to merely "add" Jesus to their pantheon of Roman gods. The commanded that they had to turn from their vain gods to the true God (Acts 14:14-15). These Pharisees who had become Christians must do the same thing: Turn from their efforts to earn their way before God by keeping the law, and look to Jesus. You can't just "add" Jesus and now say "Jesus helps me to justify myself through keeping the law."

    3. Paul himself was a former Pharisee (Philippians 3:5) who became a Christian. But he knew that Jesus didn't help him do what a Pharisee did, only better. He knew that Jesus was his salvation, not the way to his salvation. Paul wrote: knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

  2. It is necessary or circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses: These former Pharisees were teaching two things. First, Gentile converts must be initiated into Judaism through circumcision. Second, that Gentile converts must live under the law of Moses if they are to be saved, and embraced into the Christian community.

    1. Basically, their teaching was: "Gentiles are free to come to Jesus. We welcome them and want them to come to Jesus. But they have to come through the Law of Moses in order to come to Jesus. Paul and Barnabas, among others, have been allowing Gentiles to come to Jesus without first coming through the Law of Moses."

  3. We can imagine how they would have even made a case from the Old Testament for this teaching. They might have said Israel has always been God's chosen people and that Gentiles must become part of Israel if they want to be part of God's people.

    1. Passages the Pharisees who believed might quote in defense of their position are Exodus 12:48-49 and Isaiah 56:6. These passages might be quoted to say that the covenant the Gentiles were invited to join was a covenant of circumcision.

B. The Jerusalem council-LESSON VERSES:

1. (Acts 15:6-11) In the midst of a great dispute, the apostle Peter speaks to the issue.

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will."

  1. Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. Here, we see the church coming together to decide the issue. They didn't just let the issue sit, nor leave it up to the conscience of each believer.

    1. The question raised by the Jerusalem council was immense: Are Christians saved by faith alone, or by a combination of faith and obedience of the Law of Moses? Is the work of Jesus by itself enough to save the one who trusts in Jesus, or must we add our work to Jesus' work in order to be saved?

    2. With significant doctrinal issues today, perhaps this sort of public "trial" of doctrine would be beneficial.

  2. And when there had been much dispute: This would have been amazing to see! Christians serious enough about the truth to dispute for it! In the midst of this, Peter, as one of the leading apostles, rose up to make his opinion known on the matter.

  3. Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago: Peter begins with a history lesson, recounting the work God had already done. He then makes the point that God had fully received the Gentiles apart from their being circumcised (God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us). If God had acknowledged these Gentiles as full partners in His work, they why shouldn't the church? If God received them, so should the church!

    1. In saying, "Made no distinction between us and them," Peter makes an important observation. It comes straight from his vision of the clean and unclean animals, from which God taught him this principle: God has shown to me that I should not call any man common or unclean (Acts 10:28). Those of the sect of the Pharisees who believed thought that the Gentiles were inherently "common" (in the sense of "unholy") or "unclean," and had to be made holy and clean by submitting to the Law of Moses.

  4. Purifying their hearts by faith. Peter shows how the heart is purified: by faith, not by keeping of the law. If they were purified by faith, then there was no need to be purified by submitted to ceremonies found in the Law of Moses. i. Christians are not only saved by faith; they are purified by faith also!

  5. 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? Peter wisely answers another objection. One might ask, "What is the harm in bringing Gentiles under the Law of Moses?" Peter was right on the mark when he observed that the law was a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.

    1. This is demonstrated by a brief look at Israel's history. At the birth of the nation at Mount Sinai, they broke the law by worshipping the golden calf. At the end of Old Testament history, they are still breaking the law by breaking the Sabbath and marrying pagan women (Nehemiah 13). From beginning to end, Israel could not bear the yoke of the law.

    2. Those of the sect of the Pharisees who believed were making a critical mistake. They were looking at Israel's history under the law with eyes of nostalgia, not truth. If they would have carefully and truthfully considered Israel's failure under the law, they would not have been so quick to put Gentiles under the law also.

    3. Paul makes the same argument in the book of Galatians 3:2-3. If the law does not save us, why would we return to it as the principle by which we live? In light of the finished work of Jesus, it is offensive to God to go back to the law. This is why Peter asked, "why do you test God?"

  6. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they. Peter concludes with the observation that it is through grace that all are saved - both Jew and Gentile - and not by obedience to the law. If we are saved by grace, then we are not saved by grace and law-keeping.

    1. Peter also insists there is only one way of salvation: We [Jews] shall be saved in the same manner as they [Gentiles]. Jewish Christians were not saved, even in part, by their law-keeping; they were saved the same way Gentiles were: Through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

2. Skipped--(Acts 15:12) Paul and Barnabas tell of their work among the Gentiles, supporting Peter's claim that God is doing a work among them.

12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

  1. Then all the multitude kept silent and listened: This shows that even though there had been much dispute, these men were all of an honorable heart. They were willing to listen, and to be persuaded if wrong.

  2. Declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles: Barnabas and Paul confirm Peter's previous point. Essentially, they are saying "God has accepted the Gentiles, should not we as well?"

3. Skipped--(Acts 15:13-21) James, the brother of Jesus, speaks to the issue, supporting what Peter and Paul.

And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, "Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: '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; 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.' Known to God from eternity are all His works. Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath."

  1. James answered, saying, "Men and brethren, listen to me." This James is not the apostle James, whose martyrdom is recorded in Acts 12:2. This is the one traditionally known as James the Just - the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:155), brother of Jude (Jude 1), and author of the book of James (James 1:1).

  2. God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people: James begins by insisting God had a people among the Gentiles. This would astound a religious Jew in that day!

    1. The Greek word for Gentiles (it could also be translated nations) is ethne. The Greek word for people in this passage is laos. The Jews considered themselves a laos of God, and never among the ethne. For them ethne and laos were contrasting words. So, it would be challenging for them to hear that God at the first visited the Gentiles (ethne)to take out of them a people (laos).

    2. "The paradox inherent in the contrast between Gentiles (or nations) and people is striking, since the latter term was often used of the Jews as the people of God in contrast to the Gentiles. Now it is being urged that God's people includes the Gentiles." (Marshall)

  3. With this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: James will judge this new work of God by the way any work of God should be judged. James will look to what is written.

    1. Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name: In this passage James quotes (Amos 9:11-12), it actually says that salvation will come to the Gentiles. This demonstrates that what God is doing among the Gentiles has a Biblical foundation.

    2. Today, many things are considered Biblical if they merely fail to contradict something in the Word, even though they may have no root in the Word of God whatsoever. An outside authority would settle this debate. The outside authority was God's Word.

    3. "Councils have no authority in the church unless it can be shown that their conclusions are in accord with Scripture." (Stott)

  4. I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down: When James quotes the prophecy in Amos 9:11-12 about rebuilding the fallen tabernacle of David, he remembers that the Judaism of his day had fallen down in the sense that it had rejected its Messiah. Now God wants to rebuild that work, focusing on a church made up of both Jew and Gentile.

    1. All the Gentiles who are called by My name: When God says there are Gentiles who are called by His name, He is saying they stay Gentiles. They are not Gentiles who have been made Jews. Therefore, Gentiles do not need to become Jews and under the law to be saved!

  5. Therefore I judge implies that James had a position of high authority in the church. He was probably respected as the "senior pastor" of the church at Jerusalem.

    1. The Greek presents it even more strongly as "I determine" or "I resolve" (Expositor's). In addition, when the decision of James was published, it was presented as the mutual decision of all present (Acts 15:25: It seemed good to us). Clearly, James' leadership was supported by all present.

    2. "The rest either argued on the subject, or gave their opinion; James alone pronounced the definitive sentence." (Clarke)

  6. What did James decide? We should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God. James essentially says, "Let them alone. They are turning to God, and we should not trouble them." At the bottom line, James decided that Peter, Barnabas, and Paul were correct, and that those of the sect of the Pharisees who believed were wrong.

  7. But that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood: James' decision that Gentile believers should not be under the Mosaic Law is also tempered by practical instruction. The idea was that it was important that Gentile believers not act in a way that would antagonize the Jewish community in every city and destroy the church's witness among Jews.

    1. If the decision is that one does not have to be Jewish to be a Christian, it must also be declared that one does not need to forsake the Law of Moses to be a Christian.

  8. To abstain from things polluted by idols ... from things strangled, and from blood: These three commands have to do with the eating habits of Gentile Christians. Though they were not bound under the Law of Moses, they were bound under the Law of Love. The Law of Love tells them, "don't unnecessarily antagonize your Jewish neighbors, both in and out of the church."

  9. To abstain from ... sexual immorality: When James declares that they forbid the Gentile Christians to abstain from ... sexual immorality, we shouldn't think that it means common sex outside of marriage, which all Christians (Jew or Gentile) recognized as wrong. Instead, James is directing these Gentiles living in such close fellowship with the Jewish believers to observe the specific marriage regulations required by Leviticus 18, which prohibited marriages between most family relations. This was something that Jews would abhor, but most Gentiles would think little of.

  10. Gentile Christians had the "right" to eat meat sacrificed to idols, to continue their marriage practices, and to eat food without a kosher bleeding, because these were aspects of the Mosaic law they definitely were not under. However, they are encouraged (demanded?) to law down their "rights" in these matters as a display of love to their Jewish brethren.

    1. "All four of the requested abstentions related to ceremonial laws laid down in Leviticus 17 and 18, and three of them concerned dietary matters which could inhibit Jewish-Gentile common meals." (Stott)

4. (Acts 15:22-29) A letter of decision is drafted-LESSON BEGINS v. 24.

22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: "The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers[a] who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you[b] with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them 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 themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell."

  1. It pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church: Much credit goes to the certain men of Acts 15:1, who allowed themselves to be convinced by the evidence from the Scriptures and by the confirmation of the Holy Spirit. They all agreed!

    1. We can almost admire the certain men of Acts 15:1, because they boldly stated their convictions, even though their convictions were wrong. But even more admirable is the way they are willing to be taught and shown they are wrong. A teachable spirit is a precious thing!

  2. To send chosen men of their own company to Antioch: The Jerusalem council wisely sends two members of its own community (probably Jewish Christians themselves) with Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch, the place where the whole dispute arose.

  3. They wrote this letter by them: The letter gives the express decision of the Jerusalem council, that Gentiles should consider themselves under no obligation to the rituals of Judaism, except the sensitivity which love demands, so as to preserve the fellowship of Jewish and Gentile believers.

    1. To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: This letter is written specifically to these churches where Jews and Gentiles mixed together in this tension; it was not addressed to every Gentile congregation.

  4. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us: Who made the decision at the Jerusalem council? When the apostolic letter says it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, it makes it clear that it was the Holy Spirit who decided the matter. Significantly, the Holy Spirit made the decision through the decisive leadership of James (who declared, "Therefore I judge," Acts 15:19).

  5. Therefore, the issue is settled here in the infancy of Christianity, and for all time: We are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any conformity to the law, and such obedience comes as a result of true faith, after the issue of salvation has been settled.

C. Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch.

1. (Acts 15:30-31) A joyful reception among the Gentile Christians at the church of Antioch.

30 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.

  1. When they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter: We can imagine how these Gentile Christians felt, wondering how the decision might come forth. Would the council in Jerusalem decide that they really were not saved after all because they had not submitted to circumcision and the Law of Moses?

  2. When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement: How relieved they were to see that the principle of grace had been preserved! That heard that they were saved and right with God after all!

ACTS 15 INTRODUCTION: I see something similar taking place in our text. As a result of the first missionary journey, Gentiles had come to faith in large numbers. While unbelieving Jews resisted the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles, some Jewish believers were insisting that Gentile converts must be circumcised and keep the Old Testament Law of Moses. Gentile converts were truly grateful to be included in the salvation God brought about through the Jews. To some, grateful Gentile converts submitting to circumcision and to law keeping might not appear to be such a huge concession. But they did not understand the implications of circumcision. Paul did, and he, along with Barnabas, strongly opposed the teaching of these Judaizers - those who believed that Gentiles must enter into the faith by converting to Judaism. As a result, the first church council was called, and this is described in the text for this message. This decision is a watershed event, not only in the Book of Acts, but in the history of the church. Let us listen well to the words of our text, and let us seek to learn what the Jerusalem Council meant for those in that day, as well as for Christians today.

Summary 15:1-10: The ambivalence (hypocrisy) of apostles like Peter probably encouraged others who were even more radical in their views to press their demands publicly, as we read in Acts 15:

1 Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). 5 But some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said, "It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5).

We should note that these Judaizers who demanded circumcision and law keeping were not evangelists who were preaching their message to Gentile pagans. These were Jewish believers (those of the Pharisee party) who were targeting newly saved Gentiles. It is interesting how some are more than willing to let others do the evangelizing, only to prey upon these new converts with their distorted doctrines. At first glance, what these Judaizers were demanding may not have seemed that much to ask. They wanted Gentile converts to undergo circumcision. But the rite of circumcision, like baptism, was a symbol, and it implied much more. To the Jews, being circumcised was viewed as a commitment to live under the Law of Moses, as the Old Testament Israelites did. In our text, the implications of circumcision will be spelled out by Peter in just a few verses. But that would be getting ahead of our story. Paul strongly opposed this added requirement of circumcision as heresy; indeed, it was the introduction of another gospel:

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel - 7 not that there really is another gospel, but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we (or an angel from heaven) should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell! 9 As we have said before, and now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell! (Galatians 1:6-9)

Because of this, Paul goes on in his Epistle to the Galatians to describe how he rebuked Peter (Cephas) and other Jews (including Barnabas) for their hypocrisy when they separated themselves from Gentile believers at Antioch. 13 If the events of Galatians 2 took place before the Jerusalem Council (as I am inclined to think), then Paul's strong opposition to error among the saints (including men like Peter) played a crucial role in helping Peter (and the others who were present at the Jerusalem Council) to see this matter much more clearly. To get back to our text, the church at Antioch wisely determined that this debate had raised a vitally important theological question, one that the apostles in Jerusalem needed to answer. And so they sent Paul and Barnabas, along with others, to Jerusalem. On their way to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas reported the success of their ministry among the Gentiles to the saints in Phoenicia and Samaria, which was met with great rejoicing. (One would assume that those rejoicing were Gentiles.) When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the church, and they gave a similar report concerning the success of their first missionary journey. Some did not find this an occasion for rejoicing, but instead took this as an opportunity to press their demands that Gentile converts must be required to be circumcised and to keep the Law of Moses (see v.5, above):


6 Both the apostles and the elders met together to deliberate about this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are."

It is not just the apostles who gather to decide on the issue of circumcision (verse 6). It is the apostles and the elders of the church at Jerusalem. Those who came to Antioch "from James" were undoubtedly not apostles, but they did give the impression that they spoke with apostolic approval. It is important that the decision reached in Jerusalem embrace all the leaders in the church. That way, anyone who taught differently would be recognized as a rogue, that is, as a false teacher, speaking only for themselves. This is one of the reasons a letter was written to the Gentile churches.

Luke makes it very clear to his readers that he is not reporting every conversation, nor is he elaborating on the viewpoint of those who are demanding circumcision. He gives a summary of the contribution of four individuals: Peter (Acts 15:7-11), Barnabas and Paul15 (Acts 15:12), and James (Acts 15:13-21). An abridged version of the participation of these four is recorded for us, but only after Luke has told us that there had already been "much debate" (Acts 15:7). I would understand this to mean that Luke purposely spared his readers from hearing a complete re-hash of the Judaisers' arguments. They were wrong, after all, and their error did not need to be publicized. (If these folks were genuinely convinced by the apostles, and fully endorsed the decision of the Council, they would not want their arguments to be aired publicly.)

Peter's argument is recorded first, and James seems to bring the closing word. Barnabas and Paul speak between Peter and James. Peter's argument is five verses long; James' argument is somewhat longer (nine verses). Luke grants Barnabas and Paul merely one verse in his account. Why would this be? Barnabas and Paul were the ones under attack. They already had their say with these Judaisers. The purpose of the Council was to hear where the Jerusalem leaders stood on this issue.   Peter's argument is simple and direct. In reality, it is merely a reminder of the events of Acts 10 and 11, and the conclusion which this same group reached. God directed Peter to go to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, and there to preach the gospel. While Peter was still speaking to them, the Holy Spirit fell upon these Gentiles, indicating that they were saved, having equal standing with the Jewish believers.

Peter seems to be saying something like this: "Haven't we already dealt with this issue and made our decision? Didn't we agree that God is saving Gentiles as well as Jews? Didn't we agree that these Gentile saints need only be baptized with water, and not circumcised? Can't we see that God did not distinguish between these Gentiles and us, because in both cases our hearts were cleansed by faith, and not by works? If, then, we are all saved by faith, and not by works, why are we insisting that Gentiles be burdened with law keeping when it did not save us, nor any of our ancestors?

Peter then makes a remarkable statement: "We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are." I am indebted to James Montgomery Boice 16 for pointing out that this is exactly the opposite of how some Jewish Christians were thinking. The Jews were used to thinking that anyone who wanted to be saved must be saved like they were. In fact, some still were. They were insisting that Gentiles can only participate in God's blessings to the seed of Abraham by doing what Abraham did - be circumcised. But Peter insists that the Law never saved anyone; it only condemned (compare Romans 3:19-20). He then states that Jews must be saved the same way Gentiles are saved, by faith, apart from law keeping.

In verses 13-21, James steps forward. One does not get the impression that Peter is the dominant leader here; instead, James seems to play that role. James does something that the three before him have not done - he cites Scripture. Thus, the decision that is reached is based both upon Scripture and on experience. James follows up on what Peter has said. God has revealed His purpose to save Gentiles as well as Jews. This is the fulfillment of what the Old Testament prophets had foretold. James turns to the words of Amos 9:11-12 to establish his point:

16 'After this I will return, and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David; I will rebuild its ruins and restore it,  17 so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord, namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be my own,'  says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from long ago


22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to send men chosen from among them, Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, leaders among the brothers, to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. 23 They sent this letter with them: From the apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, greetings! 24 Since we have heard that some have gone out from among us with no orders from us and have confused you, upsetting your minds by what they said, 25 we have unanimously decided to choose men to send to you along with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas who will tell you these things themselves in person. 28 For it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us not to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rules: 29 that you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well. Farewell.  30 So when they were dismissed, they went down to Antioch, and after gathering the entire group together, they delivered the letter. 31 When they read it aloud, the people rejoiced at its encouragement. 32 Both Judas and Silas, who were prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with a long speech. 33 After they had spent some time there, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them (Acts 15:22-33).

The first (and rather amazing) thing we should notice is that the decision reached by the Jerusalem Council was unanimous. This decision was reached by the apostles, the elders, and the whole church. This doctrine of justification by faith, apart from works, is so fundamental that one cannot differ with it and be considered a Christian. Since some had gone out teaching "another gospel" (salvation by faith plus works), claiming the approval of the Jerusalem leaders, it was important to distinguish these false teachers from those who were committed to the truth. The letter was the first step in this process. It disavowed those teachers who had gone out, claiming the approval and authority of their teaching by the Jerusalem leaders. They were not authorized to teach what they did, and their teaching only served to create confusion. In general terms, the Jerusalem leaders renounced the teaching of those who had gone out without authorization. These false teachers are not named, but the Gentile saints would know who they were. Four teachers are designated by the Jerusalem leaders as authorized to speak with their authority: "Judas called Barsabbas and Silas" (two men from Jerusalem), and Barnabas and Paul, who are called their "dear friends." Paul and Barnabas are identified as men who have risked their lives for the sake of the gospel. These are men who are proven, and who are approved by Jerusalem's leaders.

The more I have thought about this letter, the less specific it is. Circumcision is not mentioned and neither is the Law. Only the four prohibitions are itemized as being necessary rules. Actually, this makes sense to me. We know that "much debate" occurred before the Council reached its decision. Why would we suppose that one brief letter could adequately clarify all the issues that needed to be addressed? Think of all the Old Testament passages that needed to be cited. Think of all the exposition of Scripture that was required. The purpose of the letter was primarily to identify those who were authorized to speak for the Jerusalem leaders - and, who were not. This is why the four men were sent to these churches. They spent considerable time in these cities:

Conclusion: In many ways, Acts 15 is a watershed chapter. Peter virtually disappears after this chapter, and the church in Jerusalem fades to relative insignificance. But Gentile evangelism virtually explodes. This is because the theological basis for Gentile evangelism has now been established. It is no wonder that from here on, Gentile converts are in the majority. Think of how things might have gone had God not superintended here. The case of Roe v. Wade opened the floodgates for the slaughter of millions of innocent and helpless human beings (I have chosen my words carefully here). Had the Jerusalem Council ruled in favor of the Judaisers, the Great Commission would have been frustrated, rather than fulfilled.22Spiritually speaking, the Jerusalem Council is the Gentiles' Declaration of Independence. Gentile believers are not dependent upon Judaism for their salvation, even in part; they are dependent only upon Jesus Christ and His work at Calvary. The threat which the Judaisers posed to Christianity in the first century is no isolated danger. We have seen it all through history. When God delivered the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, there were those who longingly looked back to their time in Egypt. More than once, there were those who sought to convince the Israelites that they should return to Egypt.


Acts 15:6

And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.

And the apostles and elders ... - They came together in accordance with the authority in Matthew 18:19-20. It would seem, also, that the whole church was convened on this occasion, and that the church concurred, at least, in the judgment expressed in this case. See Acts 15:12, Acts 15:22-23.

For to consider of this matter - Not to decide it arbitrarily, or even by authority, without deliberation; but to compare their views, and to express the result of the whole to the church at Antioch. It was a grave and difficult question, deeply affecting the entire constitution of the Christian church, and they therefore solemnly engaged in deliberation on the subject.

Acts 15:7

And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.

Much disputing - Or rather, much inquiry or deliberation. With our word disputing we commonly connect the idea of heat and anger. This is not necessarily implied in the word used here. It might have been calm, solemn, deliberate inquiry; and there is no evidence that it was conducted with undue warmth or anger.

Peter rose up and said - Peter was probably the most aged, and was most accustomed to speak, Acts 2:14, etc.; Acts 3:6, Acts 3:12. Besides, there was a particular reason for his speaking here, as he had been engaged in similar scenes, and understood the case, and had had evidence that God had converted sinners without the Mosaic rites, and knew that it would have been inexpedient to have imposed these rites on those who had thus been converted.

A good while ago - See Acts 10:Some time since. So long since that there had been opportunity to ascertain whether it was necessary to observe the laws of Moses in order to the edification of the church.

God made choice ... - That is, of all the apostles, he designated me to engage in this work. Compare the notes on Matthew 16:18, with Acts 10.

That the Gentiles - Cornelius, and those who were assembled with him at Caesarea. This was the first case that had occurred, and therefore it was important to appeal to it.

Acts 15:8

And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he didunto us;

And God, which knoweth the hearts - Acts 1:24. God thus knew whether they were true converts or not, and gave a demonstration that he acknowledged them as his.

Giving them the Holy Ghost ... - Acts 10:45-46.

Acts 15:9

And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.

And put no difference ... - Though they had not been circumcised, and though they did not conform to the Law of Moses. Thus, God showed that the observance of these rites was not necessary in order to the true conversion of people, and to acceptance with him. He did not give us, who are Jews, any advantage over them, but justified and purified all in the same manner.

Purifying their hearts - Thus, giving the best evidence that he had renewed them, and admitted them to favor with him.

By faith - By believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. This demonstrated that the plan on which God was now about to show favor to people was not by external rites and ceremonies, but by a scheme which required faith as the only condition of acceptance. It is further implied here that there is no true faith which does not purify the heart.

Acts 15:10

Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

Why tempt ye God? - Why provoke him to displeasure? Why, since he has shown his determination to accept them without such rites, do you provoke him by attempting to impose on his own people rites without his authority, and a against his manifest will? The argument is, that God had already accepted them. To attempt to impose these rites would be to provoke him to anger; to introduce observances which he had shown it was his purpose should now be abolished.

To put a yoke - That which would be burdensome and oppressive, or which would infringe on their just freedom as the children of God. It is called in Galatians 5:1, "a yoke of bondage." Compare the notes on Matthew 23:4. A "yoke" is an emblem of slavery or bondage 1 Timothy 6:1; or of affliction Lamentations 3:27; or of punishment Lamentations 1:14; or of oppressive and burdensome ceremonies, as in this place, or of the restraints of Christianity, Matthew 11:29-30. In this place those rites are called a yoke, because:

(1) They were burdensome and oppressive; and,

(2) Because they would be an infringement of Christian freedom. One design of the gospel was to set people free from such rites and ceremonies.

Which neither our fathers ... - Which have been found burdensome at all times. They were expensive, and painful, and oppressive; and as they had been found to be so, it was not proper to impose them on the Gentile converts, but should rather rejoice at any evidence that the people of God might be delivered from them.

Were able to bear - Which are found to be oppressive and burdensome. They were attended with great inconvenience and many transgressions, as the consequence.

Acts 15:11

But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.

But we believe - We apostles, who have been with them, and have seen the evidences of their acceptance with God.

Through the grace ... - By the grace or mercy of Christ alone, without any of the rites and ceremonies of the Jews.

We shall be saved, even as they - In the same manner, by the mere grace of Christ. So far from being necessary to their salvation, they are really of no use in ours. We are to be saved, not by these ceremonies, but by the mere mercy of God in the Redeemer. They should not, therefore, be imposed on others.

Acts 15:24

Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no suchcommandment:

Forasmuch - Since we have heard.

That certain - That some, Acts 15:1.

Have troubled you with words - With doctrines. They have disturbed your minds, and produced contentions.

Subverting your souls - The word used here occurs nowhere else in the New Testament ἀνασκευάζοντες anaskeuazontes. It properly means "to collect together the vessels used in a house the household furniture - for the purpose of removing it." It is applied to marauders, robbers, and enemies who remove and bear off property, thus producing distress, confusion, and disorder. It is thus used in the sense of disturbing or destroying, and here denotes that they "unsettled their minds" - that they produced anxiety, disturbance, and distress by these doctrines about Moses.

To whom we gave no such commandment - They went, therefore, without authority. Self-constituted and self-sent teachers not infrequently produce disturbance and distress. Had the apostles been consulted on this subject, the difficulty would have been avoided. By thus saying that they had not given them a command to teach these things, they practically assured the Gentile converts that they did not approve of the course which those who went from Judea had taken.

Acts 15:25

It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,

Acts 15:26

Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Men that have hazarded their lives ... - See Acts 14:This was a noble testimony to the character of Barnabas and Paul. It was a commendation of them to the confidence of the churches, and an implied expression that they wished their authority to be regarded in the establishment and organization of the church.

For the name - In the cause of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 15:27

We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.

The same things - The same things that we wrote to you They will confirm all by their own statements.

Acts 15:28

For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;

For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost - This is a strong and undoubted claim to inspiration. It was with special reference to the organization of the church that the Holy Spirit had been promised to them by the Lord Jesus, Matthew 18:18-20; John 14:26.

No greater burden - To impose no greater restraints to enjoin no other observances. See the notes on Acts 15:10.

Than these necessary things - Necessary:

(1) In order to preserve the peace of the church.

(2) to conciliate the minds of the Jewish converts, Acts 15:21.

(3) in their circumstances particularly, because the crime which is specified - licentiousness was one to which all early converts were especially exposed. See the notes on Acts 15:20.

Acts 15:29

That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.

From meats offered to idols - This explains what is meant by "pollutions of idols," Acts 15:20.

Ye shall do well - You will do what ought to be done in regard to the subjects of dispute.

Acts 15:30

So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle:

Acts 15:31

Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.

They rejoiced for the consolation - They acquiesced in the decision of the apostles and elders, and rejoiced that they were not to be subjected to the burdensome rites and ceremonies of the Jewish religion. This closes the account of the first Christian council. It was conducted throughout on Christian principles; in a mild, kind, conciliatory spirit, and is a model for all similar assemblages. It came together, not to promote, but to silence disputation; not to persecute the people of God, but to promote their peace; not to be a scene of harsh and angry recrimination, but to be an example of all that was mild, and tender, and kind. Those who composed it came together, not to carry a point, not to overreach their adversaries, not to be party people, but to mingle their sober counsels, to inquire what was right, and to express, in a Christian manner, what was proper to be done. Great and important principles were to be established in regard to the Christian church, and they engaged in their work evidently with a deep sense of their responsibility, and with a just view of their dependence on the aid of the Holy Spirit. How happy Would it have been if this spirit had been possessed by all professedly Christian councils; if all had really sought the peace and harmony of the churches; if none had ever been convened to kindle the fires of persecution, or to rend and destroy the church of God!

This council has been usually appealed to as the authority for councils in the church as a permanent arrangement, and especially as an authority for courts of appeal and control. But it establishes neither, and should be brought as authority for neither. For:

(1) It was not a court of appeal in any intelligible sense. It was an assembly convened for a special purpose; designed to settle an inquiry which arose in a particular part of the church, and which required the collected wisdom of the apostles and elders.

(2) it had none of the marks or appendages of a court. The term "court," or judicature, is nowhere applied to it, nor to any assembly of Christian people in the New Testament. Nor should these terms be used now in the churches. courts of judicature imply a degree of authority which cannot be proved from the New Testament to have been conceded to any ecclesiastical body of people.

(3) there is not the slightest intimation that anything like permanency was to be attached to this council, or that it would be periodically or regularly repeated. It proves, indeed, that, when cases of difficulty occur - when Christians are perplexed and embarrassed, or when contentions arise - it is proper to refer to Christian people for advice and direction. Such was the case here, and such a course is obviously proper. If it should be maintained that it is well that Christian ministers and laymen should assemble periodically, at stated intervals, on the supposition that such cases may arise, this is conceded; but the example of the apostles and elders should not be pleaded as making such assemblies of divine right and authority, or as being essential to the existence of a church of God. Such an arrangement has been deemed to be so desirable by Christians, that it has been adopted by Episcopalians in their regular annual and triennial Conventions; by Methodists in their conferences; by Presbyterians in their General Assembly; by Friends in their Yearly Meetings; by Baptists and congregationalists in their Associations, etc.; but the example of the council summoned on a special emergency at Jerusalem should not be pleaded as giving divine authority to these periodical assemblages. They are wise and prudent arrangements, contributing to the peace of the church, and the example of the council at Jerusalem can be adduced as furnishing as reach divine authority for one as for another; that is, it does not make all or either of them of divine authority, or obligatory on the church of God.

(4) it should be added that a degree of authority (compare Acts 16:4) would, of course, be attached to the decision of the apostles and elders at that time which cannot be to any body of ministers and laymen now. Besides, it should never be forgotten - what, alas! it seems to have been the pleasure and the interest of ecclesiastics to forget that neither the apostles nor elders asserted any jurisdiction over the churches of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia; that they did not claim a right to have these cases referred to them; that they did not attempt to "lord it" over their faith or their consciences. The case was a single, specific, definite question referred to them, and they decided it as such. They asserted no abstract right of such jurisdiction; they sought not to intermeddle With the case; they enjoined no future reference of such cases to them, to their successors, or to any ecclesiastical tribunal. They evidently regarded the churches as blessed with the most ample freedom, and contemplated no arrangement of a permanent character asserting a right to legislate on articles of faith, or to make laws for the direction of the Lord's freemen.