Scriptures

Acts 15

Introduction

“Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question”. Acts 15:1-2

The Council At Jerusalem

We left Paul and Barnabas in Antioch encouraging all the believers by telling them what God had done through them and how God had opened a door for them to preach to the Gentiles.

If there is one thing we know as Christians, is that there is and always will be questions which need answered. And when those questions come we need to go out of our way to answer them.

And that’s what Luke tells us happens next here. Luke tells us that certain men who were apparently Pharisees and were in close association with James, caused a great uproar in the Gentile churches.

And what they were teaching was, submission to the Law of Moses, as demonstrated by circumcision, was required for a person to be saved. They also taught that it was improper for a Jewish Christian to eat with Gentile Christians, especially those who had not been circumcised.

But their teaching didn’t go unnoticed, their teachings led to Paul and Barnabas raising some serious questions with each other. And now, the united church has split into two distinct camps, circumcised and uncircumcised. And it seems from the text that Barnabas was taking part in the Judaizers’ acts of hypocrisy, Galatians 2:12-13.

And so, commanded by the Lord and commissioned by the church in Antioch, Paul, Barnabas and some unnamed others went to Jerusalem to get answers for those questions.

Remember the church is still in its infancy and already we’re beginning to see a division within the Lord’s church between the circumcised and uncircumcised.

Notice a very important point in the very next verse.

“The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad.” Acts 15:3

When Paul and Barnabas were on their journey they didn’t stop everywhere and tell everyone they met about the problems the church in Antioch was having. Instead the group reported the conversions which had been occurring in the Gentile world because of the preaching of the Gospel.

Notice that they didn’t rejoice in the things which Paul and Barnabas had accomplished, they rejoiced because of the things that God had accomplished. Paul and Barnabas didn’t speak to anyone about the problems in Antioch until they got to the people they wanted to ask the questions too.

The point I’m trying to make is that what we talk to others about, is our choice. If all we focus on is problems, we’re going to miss out on the things which God is accomplishing in front of our eyes, Proverbs 10:19-21.

News travels fast these days especially with the internet and telephones, but it never ceases to amaze me how news travels fast during Biblical times.

“When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” Acts 15:4-5

Luke tells us that when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem, they again reported on the good which had been done among the Gentiles. The background to these vents are found in Galatians 2.

And it seems from Galatians 2 that Paul first reported to a small group of reputable men. Why did he do that? Why didn’t he gather everyone together? He didn’t want to cause even more division within the Lord’s church.

Paul spoke to a small group of men first because by doing that he could avoid a public confrontation between the apostles. Luke says that converts from among the Pharisees still pressed their point by saying that all Gentiles who wanted to go to heaven would have to submit to the Law of Moses.

This is a perfect example of a grace plus Gospel, where people say we need to obey the Gospel of Christ but we also need to be circumcised in the flesh to be saved. Legalism is nothing new, in fact, it’s still very popular within certain religious groups.

There are too many legalistic Christians in the world who are quick to condemn some people because of something they don’t agree with. Christians who make huge issues out of things like what translation of the Bible we all must use. We can only use the favourite hymns of the church hymnbook for singing. We can only worship in a building which doesn’t have a kitchen in it.

We don’t rely on anything we do for salvation but we totally rely on what Christ has done for our salvation. In other words we don’t try and be faithful to live the Christian life for our salvation, we try and live faithfully the Christian life because of our salvation.

We need to keep away from the Jesus plus, plan of salvation because all that does is create a legalistic attitude among the saints where some saints think they are better than others, 2 Corinthians 10:12-13.

Paul and Barnabas have some question from the saints in Antioch and these other circumcised believers in Jerusalem which need to be answered.

“The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are. The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.” Acts 15:6-12

Luke says that the questions which needed to be answered were placed before the apostles and elders and it seems as though quite a discussion followed. And I think that this too is an important point to raise here.

Luke says, ‘after much discussion’ Peter addressed the rest of them. A discussion involves more than one person and the reason I believe this is important is because we need to have many resources to get our answers.

We shouldn’t just settle for an answer from one person, look at our resources and ask as many people as we can. And that’s what these people did and then Peter addressed the rest of those gathered. Although Peter’s actions were not always commendable, as when he dissembled in Antioch, it is clear that the apostle knew the truth.

He insisted that God intended for the Gentiles to receive salvation through Jesus and such was the rule of authority for the church.  He reminded them that God had sent him to the house of Cornelius to preach the gospel and they were accepted on the basis of the same obedient faith demonstrated by the Jews on Pentecost.

He asked why they would burden them with a law which neither they, nor their fathers, had been able to keep? In fact, Peter said placing such a requirement on the Gentiles would tempt God. Instead of meriting salvation through perfect law keeping, all would be saved by the grace of God.

Luke tells us that the stage was now set for Paul and Barnabas’ dramatic report of the miracles God had worked through them among the Gentiles.

“When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “`After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’ that have been known for ages. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God”. Acts 15:13-19

Luke tells us that James, the Lord’s brother, asked the group to listen to him as he reminded them of Simon Peter’s work with Cornelius. And he went on to quote from Amos, which he saw as referring prophetically to the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s people, Amos 9:11-12.

James says this has always been God’s plan from the very beginning, that all those who weren’t Jews would be welcomed into God’s kingdom.

And so James said that he judged that they should not place legalistic requirements on the Gentiles which God had not placed on them, Galatians 1:7. All legalists do is throw us into confusion, but hey will pay the penalty for doing so, Galatians 5:10.

However, here, instead of the church in Antioch going into confusion, they went somewhere else for another opinion on the matter. And so James goes on to list four simple rules for the Gentile Christians to follow.

“Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” Acts 15:20-21

Basically, they were not to eat of things polluted by idol worship or participate in sexual immorality which was sometimes associated with idol worship. They also were not to eat meat from an animal that died by strangulation or the blood of animals.

These last two rules actually predated the Law of Moses. They were first essentially given to Noah just after the flood. Just after the flood God said to Noah, ‘But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it’, Genesis 9:4. But since the Law of Moses was still being read in the synagogues, this served as a good means of maintaining fellowship.

The Council’s Letter To Gentile Believers

“Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. With them they sent the following letter.” Acts 15:22-23

The group decided to send Paul and Barnabas back to the Gentiles along with some men closely associated with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Judas Barnabas and Silas were specially selected to go help deliver a letter which explained the thinking of the assembled group.

Why did the church choose these men to deliver the letter? No one is really sure, but one commentator suggests that these men might have been sent because they had not been associated with converting the Gentiles and would be ‘above suspicion and of undue partiality toward them’.

He went on to suggest that they ‘might use their influence with the Jewish brethren to encourage them to accept the teaching of the letter’.

The reason why they sent these men isn’t really vital to our understanding of this passage, what’s important is the content of the letter itself.

“The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. “We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul- men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.” Acts 15:24-29

Remember we’ve already established that this chapter demonstrates that the Law of Moses was not to be bound on Gentiles in order for their salvation. James’ final conclusion concerning those Gentiles who were turning to God was not to trouble them except to inform them to avoid the following four things.

1. Things polluted by idols, in other words things associated with the worship of idols, like various kinds of meats.

The apostle Paul made it clear that there was nothing sinful in eating meat which had been offered to idols, 1 Corinthians 8:1-6. However, some Christians with Jewish backgrounds at that time thought it was sinful to eat such meat, 1 Corinthians 8:7.

Remember that the Lord’s church is still in its infancy during this point but can you see the danger here? This was a barrier endangering the fellowship between these two groups in this infant stage of the church.

Therefore, the Christian thing to do was to avoid eating such meat if it would cause a brother to stumble, 1 Corinthians 8:9-13.

My point is James was saying that Christian love on the part of those Gentile converts should motivate them to avoid such things associated with the worship of idols. In fact, James says that it was ‘necessary’ to do that.

2. They were to avoid fornication.

3. They were to avoid the eating of things strangled. Why strangled food? Simply because the blood had not been drained from the animal.

4. They were to stay clear of was the eating of blood.

Now common sense tells us that other things were sinful and forbidden by God, whether one was of Gentile or Jewish background. But why were these four things specified by James?

It appears these four things were specified because they were sins which were very common among the Gentiles. In fact, these were things which most Gentiles did not think were sinful, and now we see why this special emphasis was needed.

These four things also caused a very large barrier to social and religious unity among the Christians with Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. But I also think it is important for us to note, these things were not just forbidden by the Law of Moses.

In other words, even Noah was told about the sinfulness of eating blood and that was ‘before’ God gave the Law through Moses, Genesis 9:3-4.

Do these restrictions still apply to Christians today?

Let us look at those four restrictions again.

First, things polluted by idols.

There is absolutely no doubt that any form of idolatry is forbidden by God, Galatians 5:20. However, the eating of meats offered to idols is acceptable as long as it does not wound the conscience of a beloved brother or sister in Christ, 1 Corinthians 8.

The second restriction is fornication.

Fornication is another work of the flesh which is sinful and will keep us from heaven if we do not repent of it, Galatians 5:19-21.

The third restriction was eating things strangled.

I believe that context of this chapter shows us that every effort was being made to accommodate the new Gentile converts by not placing unnecessary burdens upon them. They have been accepted by God on the basis of the death of Jesus.

However, since the church embraces both Gentiles and Jews, a courteous concession needs to be made on behalf of the Jewish believers.

Nothing must be done, by the Gentiles, to cause needless offense to Jewish brethren. The Gentiles, ‘out of a spirit of love’, must make some adjustments to their menu and to their moral behaviour.

Remember that immorality was viewed as a terrible sin by the Jews, whereas, the Gentiles would not have been as offended by such behaviour, even though it was wrong.

I don’t think that the decision of the council is applicable today. Why? Because they were dealing with a specific problem that does not confront us today at least in this country. Yes, the principle remains in force, but nothing more.

But the fourth restriction were eating the blood.

Can we eat meat with blood in it today? It is important to recognise that the law prohibiting the use of blood for food does not come from the Mosaic Law. It preceded the law and existed in the Patriarchal Age, Genesis 9. This is the first indication of the importance that God attached to blood.

The Covenant with Noah was after the flood had subsided and Noah and his family had emerged from the Ark that God spoke about the Covenant which was to be made, not merely with Noah but with ‘every living creature of all flesh’.

Notice the terms that God used in speaking about the covenant, because they are both important and significant, Genesis 9:9-17.

Notice what God says, He says in verse 9, ‘I establish My covenant with you and with your seed after you.’ He calls it, ‘My covenant’ in verse 11. He says that ‘the covenant is for all perpetual generations’ in verse 12. In verse 13 He says it’s ‘a covenant between Me and the earth.’

In verse 15 He says, ‘I will remember My covenant’. And in verse 16 he says it’s a ‘everlasting covenant between God and every living creature’. And finally, in verse 17, He says it’s a ‘covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.’

Remember that this law was not given to Hebrews, Israelites, or Jews alone, because the passage makes clear that the Covenant that God made, was made with all mankind, as a ‘everlasting covenant’ the sign of which remains with us even today, the Rainbow!

As so to answer the question, can we eat meat with blood in it today? Not according to what God said to Noah, yes, the Law of Moses isn’t binding anymore. But this isn’t dealing with the law of Moses, the issue of blood here is dealing with a covenant which is ongoing.

“The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers. After spending some time there, they were sent off by the brothers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.” Acts 15:30-35

Luke says that they got to Antioch, where a multitude of believers assembled to hear the letter from the apostles and elders. And after they heard they were to be accepted into the church without submitting to the Law of Moses, there was great rejoicing.

And further words of encouragement were delivered by Judas and Silas, who Luke says were prophets. The brethren told them they could return to Jerusalem after they had spent and unspecified amount of time with them. However, Silas apparently chose to remain in Antioch.

Instead of division there was love. Instead of using a spirit of anger, they used a spirit of love. Instead of getting into all the rights and wrong, they approached the matter sensitively and created great joy and peace within the Lord’s church, Matthew 5:11-12 / Romans 12:18.

Disagreement Between Paul And Barnabas

“Sometime later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches”. Acts 15:36-41

The apostle Paul knew the importance of continued teaching and encouragement for young churches. He understood what it was like to be a baby, and so to avoid leaving these young converts to look after themselves, Paul approached Barnabas about visiting the brethren in all the cities in which they had previously preached.

And if there is one lesson the church can learn from this, it’s this, young converts need teaching and encouragement. Jesus says teach them, baptise them and teach them again, Matthew 28:19-20. That’s one of the reasons why Paul wanted to go back to these young converts.

And it seems from our text that Barnabas had a strong desire to take his cousin, John Mark, on the journey but for some reason Paul did not want to go with John Mark.

Why that is, no one is sure, possibly because of what Luke told us earlier, that John Mark left Paul and his companions to return to Jerusalem, Acts 13:13.

But both Paul and Barnabas were so firm in their opinions, even to the point of being provoked to anger, and so that they had to separate.

We must note that though they had a big dispute, even though they couldn’t agree with one another, even though they separated under the cloud of anger. This did not stop them from focusing on the good things about each other.

Paul chose to remember the good about Barnabas. In fact Paul later used Barnabas as a good example of one who worked to support himself while preaching the Gospel, 1 Corinthians 9:6.

Paul also chose to remember the good about John Mark. He described John Mark as one who was useful in ministry, 2 Timothy 4:11.

The point is that despite of this early dispute between them all neither of them allowed the dispute to hinder the work of God.

Luke tells us that God used the disagreement between these two great men of faith to produce two teams to go in different directions with the Gospel. And so Barnabas went with John Mark to Cyprus which was his homeland, Acts 4:36.

It seems as though Paul took Silas, one of the leading men among the brethren at Jerusalem, with him. Acts 15:22. And it appears he had to return from Jerusalem, but Luke doesn’t give us the details of how he and Paul got together.

But as Barnabas and John Mark were heading off in one direction with the Gospel, Paul and Silas were moving in another direction. They went through Syria and Cilicia to southern Galatia and along the way they strengthened the churches.

And its whilst they are on this journey that we are introduced to a young man named Timothy in the next chapter.

Go To Acts 16

DAILY BIBLE VERSE

"Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

John 14:6

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