The progress of the Gospel has often been hindered by legalistic people who stand in front of open doors and block the way for others. In 1786, when William Carey had a burden of mission work in India, he met resistance from church leaders who said, ‘when God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine!” Those who desire to share the good news of Jesus will face opposition, and surprisingly from religious leaders.
Paul and his associates faced this same challenge at the Jerusalem Conference about twenty years after Pentecost. Courageously, they defended both the truth of the Gospel and the missionary outreach of the church. There were three stages in this event.
- The Disagreement (Acts 15:1-5)
It all started when some legalistic Jewish teachers came to Antioch and taught that the Gentiles, in order to be saved, had to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. These men were associated with the Jerusalem congregation but not authorized by it (Acts 15:24). Identified with the Pharisees (Acts 15:5), these teachers were “false” and wanted to “enslave us” and take away our freedom in Christ (Gal. 2:1-10).
It is not surprising that there were people in the Jerusalem church who were strong advocates of the Law of Moses but ignorant of the relationship between Law and grace. These people were Jews who had been trained to respect and obey the Law of Moses; and, after all, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews had not yet been written! There was a large group of priests in the Jerusalem assembly (Acts 6:7), as well as people who still followed some of the Old Testament practices (see Acts 21:20-26). It was a time of transition, and such times are always difficult.
What were these legalists actually doing and why were they so dangerous? They were attempting to mix Law and grace and to pour the new wine into the ancient brittle wineskins (Luke 5:36-39). They were stitching up the ripped temple veil (Luke 23:45) and blocking the new and living way to God that Jesus had opened when He died on the cross (Heb. 10:19-25). They were rebuilding the wall between Jews and Gentiles that Jesus had torn down on the cross (Eph. 2:14-16). They were putting the heavy Jewish yoke on Gentile shoulders, they were saying, “A Gentile must first become a Jew before he can become a Christian! It is not sufficient for them simply to trust Jesus Christ. They must also obey Moses!”
Another issue involved was the nature of the church’s missionary program. If these legalists (we call them “the Judaizers”) were correct, then Paul and Barnabas had been all wrong in their ministry. Along with preaching the Gospel, they should have been teaching the Gentiles how to live as good Jews. No wonder Paul and Barnabas debated and disputed with these false teachers! (Acts 15:2, 7) The Antioch believers were being “troubled” and “subverted” (Acts 15:24), and this same confusion and disruption would soon spread to the Gentile churches Paul and Barnabas had founded. This was a declaration of war that Paul and Barnabas could not ignore.
God gave Paul a revelation instructing him to take the whole matter to the Jerusalem church leaders (Gal. 2:2), and to this the Antioch assembly agreed (“they” in Acts 15:2). The gathering was not a “church council” in the denominational sense, but rather a meeting of the leaders who heard the various groups and then made their decision. Though the “mother church” in Jerusalem did have great influence, each local church was autonomous.
- The Discussion (Acts 15:6-18)
It appears that at least four different meetings were involved in this strategic conference: (1) a public welcome to Paul and his associates, Acts 15:4; (2) a private meeting of Paul and the key leaders, Galatians 2:2; (3) a second public meeting at which the Judaizers presented their case, Acts 15:5-6 and Galatians 2:3-5; and (4) the public discussion described in Acts 15:6. In this public discussion, four key leaders presented the case for keeping the doors of grace open to the lost Gentiles.
Peter reviewed the past (vv. 6-11). We get the impression that Peter sat patiently while the disputing (“questioning”) was going on, waiting for the Spirit to direct him. “He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him” (Prov. 18:13, NKJV). Peter reminded the church of four important ministries that God had performed for the Gentiles, ministries in which he had played an important part.
First, God made a choice that Peter should preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 15:7). Jesus had given the keys of the kingdom to Peter (Matt. 16:19), and he had used them to open the door of faith to the Jews (Acts 2), the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17), and the Gentiles (Acts 10). Note that Peter made it clear that Cornelius and his household were saved by hearing and believing, not by obeying the Law of Moses.
Second, God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles to bear witness that they truly were born again (Acts 15:8). Only God can see the human heart; so, if these people had not been saved, God would never have given them the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). But they did not receive the Spirit by keeping the Law, but by believing God’s Word (Acts 10:43-46. Peter’s message was “whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43, NKJV), not “whoever believes and obeys the Law of Moses.”
Ever since the work of Christ on Calvary, God has made no difference between Jews and Gentiles as far as sin (Rom. 3:9) or salvation (Rom. 10:9-13) are concerned. Sinners can have their hearts purified only by faith in Christ; salvation is not by keeping the Law (Acts 15:9). We would expect Peter to conclude his defense by saying, “They [the Gentiles] shall be saved even as we Jews,” but he said just the reverse! “We [Jews] shall be saved, even as they!”
God’s fourth ministry—and this was Peter’s strongest statement—was the removing of the yoke of the Law (Acts 15:10). The Law was indeed a yoke that burdened the Jewish nation, but that yoke has been taken away by Jesus Christ (see Matt. 11:28-30). After all, the Law was given to the Jewish nation to prepare them to bring the Messiah into the world. The Law cannot purify the sinner’s heart, impart the gift of the Holy Spirit, or give eternal life. What the Law could not do, God did through His own Son (Rom. 8:1-4). Those who have trusted Christ have the righteousness of God’s Law in their hearts and, through the Spirit, obey His will.
Paul and Barnabas reported on the present (v. 12). Peter’s witness made a great impact on the congregation because they sat in silence after he was finished. Then Paul and Barnabas stood up and told the group what God had done among the Gentiles through their witness. Dr. Luke devoted only one summary sentence to their report since he had already given it in detail in Acts 13-14. Paul and Barnabas were greatly respected by the church (and their testimony carried a great deal of weight.
Their emphasis was on the miracles that God had enabled them to perform among the Gentiles. These miracles were proof that God was working with them. They had preached grace, not Law; and God had honored this message.
Peter reviewed God’s ministries to the Gentiles in the past, and Paul and Barnabas reported on God’s work among the Gentiles in that present day. James was the final speaker and he focused on the future.
James related it all to the future (vv. 13-18). James was a brother to Jesus (Matt. 13:55; and the writer of the Epistle of James. He and his brethren were not believers in Christ until after the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7; Acts 1:14). James had strong leanings toward the Law (there are at least ten references to law in his epistle), so he was most acceptable to the legalistic party in the Jerusalem church.
The key idea in James’ speech is agreement. First, he expressed his full agreement with Peter that God was saving the Gentiles by grace. It must have startled the Judaizers when James called these saved Gentiles “a people for His [God’s] name.”
James stated that the prophets also agreed with this conclusion, and he cited Amos 9:11-12 to prove his point. Note that he did not state that what Peter, Paul, and Barnabas had said was a fulfillment of this prophecy. He said that what Amos wrote agreed with their testimony. A careful reading of Amos 9:8-15 reveals that the prophet is describing events in the end times, when God will regather His people Israel to their land and bless them abundantly.
The Decision (Acts 15:19-35)
The leaders and the whole church (Acts 15:22), directed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), made a twofold decision; a doctrinal decision about salvation, and a practical decision about how to live the Christian life.
The doctrinal decision we have already examined. The church concluded that Jews and Gentiles are all sinners before God and can be saved only by faith in Jesus Christ. But all doctrine must lead to duty. James emphasized this in his epistle (James 2:14-26), and so did Paul in his letters. It is not enough for us simply to accept a biblical truth; we must apply it personally in everyday life. Church problems are not solved by passing resolutions, but by practicing the revelations God gives us from His Word.
James advised the church to write to the Gentile believers and share the decisions of the conference. This letter asked for obedience to two commands and a willingness to agree to two personal concessions. The two commands were that the believers avoid idolatry and immorality, sins that were especially prevalent among the Gentiles (see 1 Cor. 8-10). The two concessions were that they willingly abstain from eating blood and meat from animals that had died by strangulation. The two commands do not create any special problems, for idolatry and immorality have always been wrong in God’s sight, both for Jews and Gentiles. But what about the two concessions concerning food?
Keep in mind that the early church did a great deal of eating together and practicing of hospitality. Most churches met in homes, and some assemblies held a “love feast” in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34). It was probably not much different from our own potluck dinners. If the Gentile believers ate food that the Jewish believers considered “unclean,” this would cause division in the church.
It is beautiful to see that this letter expressed the loving unity of people who had once been debating with each other and defending opposing views. The legalistic Jews willingly gave up insisting that the Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved, and the Gentiles willingly accepted a change in their eating habits. It was a loving compromise that did not in any way affect the truth of the Gospel. As every married person and parent knows, there are times in a home when compromise is wrong, but there are also times when compromise is right. The person who is always right, and who insists on having his or her own way, is difficult to live with happily.
What did this decision accomplish in a practical way? At least three things. First, it strengthened the unity of the church and kept it from splitting into two extreme “Law” and “grace” groups.
Second, this decision made it possible for the church to present a united witness to the lost Jews (Acts 15:21). For the most part, the church was still identified with the Jewish synagogue; and it is likely that in some cities, entire synagogue congregations believed on Jesus Christ—Jews, Gentile proselytes, and Gentile “God-fearers” together.
Third, this decision brought blessing as the letter was shared with the various Gentile congregations. Paul and Barnabas, along with Judas and Silas, took the good news to Antioch; and the church rejoiced and was encouraged because they did not have to carry the burdensome yoke of the Law (Acts 15:30-31). On his second missionary journey, Paul shared the letter with the churches he had founded on his first missionary journey. The result was a strengthening of the churches’ faith and an increase of their number.
We today can learn a great deal from this difficult experience of the early church. To begin with, problems and differences are opportunities for growth just as much as temptations for dissension and division. We need to work together and take time to listen, love, and learn. How many hurtful fights and splits could have been avoided if only some of God’s people had given the Spirit time to speak and to work.
Most divisions are caused by “followers” and “leaders.” A powerful leader gets a following, refuses to give in on even the smallest matter, and before long there is a split. Most church problems are not caused by doctrinal differences but by different viewpoints on practical matters. What color shall we paint the church kitchen? Can we change the order of the service? Should worship music by traditional or contemporary?
We all need to learn the art of loving compromise. We need to have our priorities in order so we know when to fight for what is really important in the church. It is sinful to follow some impressive member of the church who is fighting to get his or her way on some minor issue that is not worth fighting about?
As we deal with our differences, we must ask, “How will our decisions affect the united witness of the church to the lost?” Jesus prayed that His people might be united so that the world might believe on Him (John 17:20-21). Unity is not uniformity, for unity is based on love and not law. There is a great need in the church for diversity in unity (Eph. 4:1-17), for that is the only way the body can mature and do its work in the world.
God has opened a wonderful door of opportunity for us to take the Gospel of God’s grace to a condemned world. But there are forces in the church even today that want to close that door.
Help keep that door open—and lets reach as many as we can!
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Adapted from: Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary – New Testament, Volume 1, (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor, 2001), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 461-465.