But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
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. 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? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
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. After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from 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 I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
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 known from of old.’
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 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. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
Understanding And Applying the Text
The church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. You would think those in Antioch had a strong, sound doctrine. They could have. But that did not protect them from Satan’s assault. When Paul and Barnabas returned, they found false apostles had infiltrated the church. Men from Jerusalem came to “correct” Paul’s and Barnabas’ preaching
Reports of Paul’s and Barnabas’s active reached Jerusalem. When John Mark left them he returned home. No doubt there was interest in what he had been doing. Bringing Gentiles into the Christian community frightened some. They perceived their Jewish heritage threatened. They had to bring the converted Gentiles into Judaism. The gateway into Judaism was circumcision.
The men from Jerusalem did not oppose the Gospel. At least not in a direct sense. They were willing to say Jesus was the Messiah. The confessed the resurrection. They admitted salvation came through faith in Jesus Christ. But it did not come through faith alone. Salvation also required the works of the Law. God made salvation possible for the Gentiles. But the held salvation was not monergistic. That is, it was not something only God did. These men claimed salvation was synergistic. Salvation was the result of God and man working together. Both Jews and Gentile must follow the law.
These men’s lives revolved around the Mosaic Law. They only taught what they knew. Their teaching was sincere. They held no malice. But that did not keep them from being agents of Satan. Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. (2 Corinthians 11:14,) He usurps God’s holy name.
These men came with false authority They were from Judea. Jerusalem was revered. It was the seat of Christianity. These guys were from the center of Christianity. So, the Christians in Antioch held them in high esteem. They believed these men knew what they were talking about.
The men from Judea took full advantage of that false authority. They pretended they were apostles.
We can be sincere and sincerely wrong at the same time. When we teach error we teach a Satanic doctrine. This should scare all who teach. This does not apply only to pastors. If you teach a Sunday School class this thought should frighten you. We are all capable of error. And we all err. Study and prayer should be a constant in the life of all who teach. We need to avoid being too proud to change when someone or something points out our error. We need to allow God to teach us so we may teach.
Paul recognized two things. First, requiring circumcision might cause some to think salvation comes through works. (Gal. 2:15, 16). Second, Paul knew circumcision would hinder the extension of the Gospel. (1 Thess. 2:14–16).
Luke tells us this was not a calm theological discussion. I imagine the volume was quite loud. There was passion on both sides. Passion does not make you right. You can have
Paul and Barnabas were contending for truth. They considered truth, not tranquility, the highest virtue. They were willing to risk everything for the truth. After all, God is
Paul did this was no small matter. This was about the core of the Gospel. It was about men’s salvation. Christ freed men from the curse of the law, guilt, and death. There was no need to add to what Jesus had done. These men built barriers to the Gospel.
How was the debate settled? They appealed to apostolic authority. Paul was an apostle. That should have settled it. But he submitted to a council of all the apostles. After all, if God spoke through him, God would speak the same words through the other apostles.
Note, Paul was not submitting to a church council. He was submitting to apostolic authority. Church councils may and have erred. We should not ignore the wisdom of those who have gone before us. But we must not consider them inerrant. The church has contradicted itself. God never contradicts Himself.
How do we know the voice of God? How do we submit to apostolic authority? We read the scripture. It is not a gut reaction or a flutter of the heart. That could be the result of the burrito you ate. God speaks via the scriptures.
The church at Antioch appointed Paul, Barnabas, and others to go to Jerusalem for a ruling. On their way to Jerusalem, they told other churches about the conversion of the Gentiles. This brought joy to those who heard about it.
See the difference between godly men and people today. They were overjoyed to hear about the gentiles’ conversion. Even so, they relied on external authority. Today we say, “If it feels right it must be right.” We go with our internal subjective feelings. We follow our gut. But man’s heart is evil. (Mark 7:21 ) We should rely on God’s word.
When the group arrived in Jerusalem the entire church received them. Paul and Barnabas reported what God had done with them.
But some of the converted Pharisees still believed the law of Moses was in effect. The Pharisees were proud. They took great pride in how well they kept the Mosaic law. Pharisee means set-apart ones. Excepting unclean unwashed Gentiles was a threat. It meant they were no longer set apart. They were not special. They saw the Jews in general and themselves in particular as set apart. Allowing Gentiles into the church destroyed this separation. They saw their Jewishness slipping away. So, the Gentiles had to become Jews. The Gentiles needed to circumcision.
I have some sympathy for these Pharisees. I understand their reasoning. First, God gave Moses the law. God required the Jews to follow the law. God does not change. If God required the law yesterday, He requires it today. Second, God sets His people apart. God marks His people as His own. Circumcision is the mark God used. The conclusion was obvious. Circumcision was a requirement. This was not only a good idea it was a requirement.
They did not see Christ as having fulfilled the Law. They saw Christ as only having kept the Law.
Luke tells us the apostles and elders gather to consider the matter. This was not a general Church meeting. The meeting contained those who understood doctrine. Those who held an office competent to judge gathered for a determination. In spite of the best teachers in the church, there was no agreement on the Gentile question. Even learned godly men fall into an error.
In the middle of the discussion, Peter stood up and addressed them. He reminded them of how God told him to preach to Gentiles. He reminded them how they condemned him for entering and eating with Gentiles. Yet once they understood they rejoiced that God gave the Spirit to Gentiles also. God gave the Gentiles the same gifts He gave the Jews. That is, God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. God made no distinction between circumcision and uncircumcision.
Peter went on to say, this was God’s doing. To paraphrase Peter: “God Himself called the Gentiles. And you have the audacity to tell the God He can only call Gentiles if they are circumcised!” They had the audacity to tell God He could not save by faith alone. They were adding to the Gentiles a burden even they could not bear. God cleansed Gentiles’ hearts by faith, not by the Law. God called the Gentiles. And the Pharisees called foul.
Peter contrasted the Gospel and the Law. He compared hope in the grace of Christ, to the yoke of the law. Peter reminded them of the Christian faith. “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (v11) This is an interesting reversal of the argument. God saved the Jews by grace through faith. Why are the Gentiles save by the Law?
The whole assembly fell silent. They realized their error. Until this point, it was a heated debate. Now they listened to Barnabas and Paul. They were now ready to handle the question with the scriptures.
James, Jesus’ brother, spoke. He became a prominent leader of the Jerusalem church. (Gal. 2:9). James agreed with Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. They should not burden Gentile believers with keeping the Jewish Law. He drew from Old Testament Scriptures and their application to Gentile conversion.
James said God admitted the Gentiles. They must not drive them from the Church. Yet he gives certain things they must and must not do. What gives? First, he required nothing that was not required by brotherly love. Second, these were things that did offend Gentile consciences. But why? Why not say Christ set them free and leave it at that. They knew they were free before God. They knew other religions were false and perverse. The question is if they were free in Christ, why prohibit anything?
Theses instructions are to do only what brotherly love requires. Idols are, in themselves, indifferent. Yet from the beginning God prohibited His people associating with idols. They conflict with our external profession of faith. The Gentile came from idol worship. There may be a weaker brother who had not yet overcome their superstition. Associating with idols may case the weaker brother may not stumble. Also, Jews may think their worship of God was not pure.
About blood and that which was strangled. This Mosaic law prohibited it. (Deuteronomy 12:23;) But after the flood, God prohibited it for the whole world. (Genesis 9:4,)
James proposes that both Jews and Gentiles practice moderation. The Jewish Christians are to recognize that Gentiles were not bound by Jewish law. The Gentile believers must consider the Jewish scruples.