Acts 15 (ESV)✞: The Council at Jerusalem, The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers, Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas
Interestingly, there is a difference between the NIV and other versions for the first verse of this passage, where the NIV says, “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch,” while the ESV, KVJ, and NKVJ leave out the “to Antioch” part. I see no reason to think the NIV is doing something wrong, however, and the greater context makes it clear that’s where Paul and Barnabas are, I just find it’s an interesting deviation between the versions. Regardless, I’ve noticed that Paul and Barnabas have been spending a lot of time in Antioch; I know I’ve seen the name before1 but I wasn’t aware until this reading of Acts how prevalent it was.
So it shouldn’t be any surprise at all that Paul is feeling somewhat protective of the community at Antioch, and when some folks come there to start preaching things that don’t accord with the Spirit’s teachings—in this case, that Gentile believers have to be circumcised and obey the Jewish Law in order to be saved—he’s quick to act2. At first he and Barnabas spend time debating with them on the matter but when that doesn’t work Paul, Barnabas, and some others are appointed to go to Jerusalem to ask the Apostles about it.
When they arrive in Jerusalem they are welcomed and share what God has been doing through them, but almost immediately—at least, that’s how it’s presented in the text—a group from “the party of Pharisees” stand up and just state their case outright: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses” (verse 5 (ESV)✞).
At this point, knowing all I know about Paul, and the way he continually preached Grace in his letters, I’d expect him to stand up and offer a counter argument, but it’s actually Peter who does:
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 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. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 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.”
In one of Paul’s letters he’ll mention an argument he’s going to have with Peter about the way Peter eventually pulls away from the Gentiles, but let’s not read only that and ignore everything else about Peter. He’s an Apostle, and he is here standing up for the Gospel and all it teaches.
The assembly is then quiet again as Paul and Barnabas tell about all of the signs and wonders that have been performed among the Gentiles. (It seems that this is a different assembly of people from the assembly Paul and Barnabas first spoke at, but I’m guessing there’s a lot of overlap. I’m thinking Paul and Barnabas aren’t just repeating themselves, however, in this case they’re probably emphasizing specifically the work God has done through the Gentiles.)
After this James speaks up, and with so much authority that it seems to me that the others—even the other Apostles—consider him to be their leader:
13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
16 “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’
19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
A bit about the Scriptures James is quoting from :
Acts 15:16–18 James refers to “prophets” (v. 15), showing that he could appeal to more than one OT text to defend the inclusion of Gentiles by faith alone. See the allusion to Isa. 45:21 in Acts 15:18, and the context of the Isaiah prophecy. James concentrated on Amos 9:11–12, which looked to the time when God would restore the house of David. Luke provides the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the text, which speaks of the Gentiles (Gk. ethnē) seeking the Lord. But even the Masoretic (Hebrew) Text fits with what James argued, since it speaks of a people called by my name (Amos 9:12), and those called by God’s name are in a saving relationship with him. Amos looked to a time when God would claim a people for himself from among the Gentiles. James concurred with Peter that the time of Gentile inclusion in God’s people had now arrived.
ESV Study Bible
No disagreement to James’ suggestion is recorded, so they decide to write a letter to the people in Antioch, and have Paul and Barnabas bring it back to them, along with some of their own men (presumably to lend weight to the fact that it’s all of the Apostles in agreement on this issue, not just Paul and Barnabas):
23 … “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers 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 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.”
They deliver this letter and the men sent from Jerusalem spend some time with the folks in Antioch giving encouragement until they eventually return to Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas remain in Antioch, teaching and preaching the Word.
The chapter ends with something that feels to me like kind of a side note:
36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37 Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
When people think about the fact that early Christians had a lot to figure out as they transitioned from the Old Testament form of worship to the New Testament form of worship—which is not how they’d have thought of it, since the “New Testament” didn’t exist yet—this particular passage is one that often comes to mind. I mean… this is so early in Christian history that there are Christians who still consider themselves to be of the party of the Pharisees (verse 5 (ESV)✞)! I don’t even doubt that these were Christians—the passage gives no hint that these were Jews who just “snuck into” the Apostles’ debates—they were people who followed the Lord, but genuinely still believed that He wanted them to follow His Law, and, by extension, if He is saving Gentiles then He must want them to follow the Law too!
To the modern Christian it feels both antiquated but also strangely current and relevant at the same time. No, circumcision isn’t really a thing we think about—ever—but, at the same time, even modern, 21st Century Christians sometimes finds themselves reading through the Old Testament and thinking, “Maybe we should be obeying the Law. I mean… things are different now, and Jesus’ sacrifice is what really saves us, but would obedience to the Law on top of that be such a bad thing? What if we just skip the parts about circumcision and the dietary regulations (since the New Testament tells us those aren’t relevant anymore), and just keep the rest?”
And let’s be clear: when you read the Old Testament there is a lot of emphasis on the Law, on the disobedience of God’s people, and on how they’re failing to meet its standards. It’s counter-intuitive to suddenly say, yeah, actually, that doesn’t matter anymore. But, as I kept talking about in the Old Testament passages I now say again in the New Testament: that’s an inaccurate characterization of the Law in the Old Testament. As Peter says in verse 10 (ESV)✞, “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?”
The Law was the ruler by which God measured His people in the Old Testament, to demonstrate to them how unholy they were, but the point is not the Law itself, the point is the unholiness: God’s people never obeyed Him. Ever. The closest they came was to sometimes be mostly in obedience, and it only seems “holy” because it’s more than usually so, but it’s never perfect or “sufficient” to be in the presence of their God. Arguing about individual laws is like… well, it’s like straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:23–24 (ESV)✞). It misses the point.
And yet, and yet, the decision the Apostles come to is not, “therefore you can forget about the rules and regulations.” They still go back to the Gentile Christians with… well, with some rules!
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.”
The way it’s worded makes it sound much more like advice than new “commandments” for God’s people to be following—that’s how I’m reading it, anyway—but it’s also striking that the Apostles’ reassurance to the Gentile believers that they’re to be Christians, not Jews, still comes with some guidelines they should be following. In the “Graces vs. Works” debate we sometimes fall too hard on one side or the other, feeling we need to earn our salvation (though we’d never articulate it that way) or that we can live any way we want because of Grace (though we’d never articulate it that way), but, in my mind, thinking of it as a debate between Grace and Works is already problematic in the first place. It’s not either/or. We’re saved through Grace—not through our own works, lest anyone should boast—and then, once we’re saved, we have a desire to live for God, to be more like Him, and to live lives that are pleasing to Him. Our lives should look different from others’.
There’s something to be said here about the fact that I think we sometimes want rules to follow because it’s easier to follow rules than it is to actually be Holy, which is a nebulous concept and one that always makes us feel we’re not living up to His standards. Because we’re not.
So yes, I think a lot of us are fascinated by this passage because it does feel relevant. It’s easy to scoff (as I did, as a teenager), at people calling themselves Christians and debating something as simple as circumcision3, but the heart of what they’re debating is the question of how one lives for God, in an age in which we know we’ve been saved from our sin by Jesus’ work on the cross. That will never cease to be relevant until He returns.
The Law Evolves
Perhaps I might get in trouble for this one, but this passage is also showing that the Law of God evolves over time. We think of the Law as something that should be the same yesterday, today, and forever—like God Himself—but the rules/suggestions handed down by the Apostles to the Gentiles are different from what’s in the Old Testament. They’re rules that apply to that people in that time and place. If Jesus had come back in 2000C.E., instead of the 1st Century, and the Apostles had been having this debate, what they would have told the Gentiles would have been much different. If God had chosen a people for Himself in 2000C.E. instead of 3000B.C.E., again, the Law would have looked different. But the underlying point would have been the same: “Be Holy, as I Am Holy.”
There Were Still Apostles!
It’s also interesting to me that this debate was taking place at a time when there were still Apostles who could be there to provide answers to such questions. This is not true today, we don’t have a set of people appointed by God to answer difficult questions. We do, however, have the same Holy Spirit, as well as the completed Word.
Speaking of the Apostles, James, in particular, seems to have a lot of authority and respect from the other Apostles. The ESV Study Bible notes also point out something interesting:
Acts 15:13 James was noted for his scrupulous keeping of the Jewish law (cf. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23).
ESV Study Bible
One would think that, of anyone, James would be pushing for more obedience of the Law instead of less, but he understands the Gospel and the Law’s place in it.
- I’m positive there was a Christian press or publishing house or something with the name “Antioch,” though when I went searching for it through my old books I didn’t see it. ↩
- No pun intended ↩
- It was especially stupid of me to be scoffing at these early Christians for arguing about something that we already understand because we only understand it because of this early Christian debate… This episode from early Christian history is what allowed me to feel so foolishly superior. ↩