Acts 15

Acts 15  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 9
FOURTEEN YEARS HAD passed since Paul’s first brief visit to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, as recorded in Acts 9:26-2926And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. 28And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem. 29And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. (Acts 9:26‑29), and in Gal. 1:1818Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. (Galatians 1:18). The whole of Gal. 2 furnishes us with remarkable insight to what was at stake in the discussion, which was started at Antioch and carried to its conclusion at Jerusalem; nothing short of the truth and liberty of the Gospel. We also discover that though in our chapter it says, “they determined” (ch. 15:2) that Paul and others should go to Jerusalem, Paul himself went up “by revelation;” that is, the Lord distinctly revealed to him that he was to go. Also we find that Paul was led to take a very firm line in the matter; giving place to those who opposed him, “by subjection, no, not for an hour;” taking Titus, who was a Greek, with him, and declining to have any compulsion laid upon him as to his being circumcised. The Galatian epistle clearly shows that Paul was fully assured what was the mind of God in this matter, but that it was revealed to him that he should consent to it being referred to Jerusalem for settlement there.
In this of course we see the wisdom and power of God. Had Paul attempted to settle the matter, and act on his own apostolic authority at Antioch, there might easily have been a breach between himself and the other Apostles. As it was, the decision in favor of liberty being accorded to the Gentile converts, was reached in the very place where, had not God controlled by His Spirit, the decision would have gone the other way. But in saying this we are anticipating.
On the journey to Jerusalem the tidings of God’s grace to the Gentiles caused great joy to the brethren, but in Jerusalem itself the issue was soon raised. Those who contended for the observance of the law by the converts from among the Gentiles, were believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees. For the present they retained their Phariseeism, though believers. This occasioned a formal coming together of the Apostles and elders to go into the question as before God.
There was much “disputing,” or “discussion,” and then Peter made a decisive pronouncement, by referring to the case of Cornelius, in which he had himself been involved. He pointed out that the heart-knowing God had borne witness to these Gentile converts by giving to them the Holy Spirit, just as He had given Him to themselves on the Day of Pentecost. These Gentiles had been cleansed, as the vision of the great sheet indicated, and God had wrought the purification in their hearts by faith, and not as a matter of mere ceremonial cleansing. The fact was that God had already decided the point in principle by what He did in the case of Cornelius. We can now understand why so much space is devoted to that case in the Acts; for this is the third time that we have it brought before us.
The law was a yoke, which God had placed upon the neck of the Jew, and both they and their fathers had found its weight to be crushing. To endeavor to impose it upon necks, that had never been subjected to it by God, would be to tempt God Himself. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ was the only hope of salvation, whether to Jew or Gentile. The way verse II reads is quite remarkable. It is not, “they, Gentiles, shall be saved even as we, Jews,” but, “we shall be saved even as they” (ch. 15:11). The salvation of the Gentiles could not be on any other ground than grace; and the Jew must come in on this ground too.
Let us not miss the lovely contrast between Matt. 11:2929Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matthew 11:29), and verse 10 of our chapter. The crushing yoke of the law is not to be laid upon our Gentile necks, but because of that we are not left yokeless. We take upon us the light and easy yoke of the blessed Jesus, who has become to us the Revealer of the Father.
From Peter’s words it is evident how thoroughly he had learned the lesson he was taught in connection with Cornelius. He pointed out how the thing had been settled there; and so the way was cleared for Barnabas and Paul to rehearse how God had worked in miraculous power among the Gentiles. Barnabas is now mentioned first, for evidently he, free, from any jealousy or envy, could speak more freely of the things done, mainly through Paul. Their testimony was that what God had done in practice through them agreed with what He established in principle through Peter.
Peter, Barnabas and Paul having had their say, James spoke. He seems to have had a place of special responsibility in Jerusalem, and Gal. 2:1212For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. (Galatians 2:12) indicates that he was noted as holding strict views as to the measure of association that was permissible in the church of God between Jews and Gentiles. Yet he endorsed Peter’s declaration, and then pointed out that Old Testament scripture supported it. Amos had predicted how days would come when the Name of God would be called upon Gentiles. If we turn to his prophecy we can see that he had millennial conditions in view, so James did not quote his words as though they were being fulfilled, but as being in agreement with what they had just heard.
The words in which James summarized Peter’s testimony are worthy of special note. “God... did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for His Name” (ch. 15:14). This is God’s program for the present dispensation. The Gospel is not sent forth among the nations with the object of converting them as nations, and so making the earth a fit place for Christ to return to, but to convert individuals, who thereby are taken out from the nations to be His special possession—“a people for His Name” (ch. 4:17). This is a fact of a most fundamental nature. If we are wrong on this point we shall be wrong as to the whole character of the dispensation in which we live. The nations will only be subdued when God’s judgments are in the earth, as Isa. 26:99With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early: for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness. (Isaiah 26:9) so plainly says. The Gospel goes forth in the earth in order that an election from both Jews and Gentiles may be called out; and that election is the church of God.
Having stated this, James gave what he judged to be the mind of God as to the question at issue. His “sentence,” or “judgment,” was that the yoke of the law should not be placed on the neck of Gentile Christians, but that they should merely be told to observe certain restrictions in matters as to which they had been notoriously careless. Idolatry and fornication were known as evil, even before the law was given, and so too was the eating of blood, as Gen. 9:44But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. (Genesis 9:4) shows. God knows from the outset all that He will develop as time goes on. The calling and election from the Gentiles was new to them, but not to God. It was theirs to move on with God; and as for Moses, his words were well to the fore in every synagogue every Sabbath day.
The judgment that James expressed carried the whole council with it. They had had before them first, Peter’s testimony as to what God had done in connection with Cornelius: second, through Barnabas and Paul an account of God’s actings during their missionary journey: third, the voice of Scripture, as quoted by James. What God had said agreed with what God had done. They had come together to seek His mind, and by His word and His actions they plainly discerned it; and all were of one accord. Thus a difficult question, which might have divided the whole church, was settled, and ended by drawing them together, When Barnabas and Paul went up to Jerusalem, it was as men whose service was open to challenge and suspicion. When they left they were bearers of a letter in which they were spoken of as “our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (ch. 15:25).
They were also spoken of as “men that have hazarded [or delivered up) their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To hazard one’s life is to risk it, as a gambler risks his money on a throw of the dice: to deliver up one’s life is to accept death as a certainty rather than a risk. Anyone who delivers up his life in this fashion should be esteemed as beloved in the church of God. This letter from Jewish believers to Gentile believers breathes throughout a spirit of love and fellowship and unity. They were able to say, “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us;” (ch. 15:28) so sure were they that the Holy Spirit had governed their decision. To put the Gentiles under the law would have had the effect of “subverting” their souls.
All this is very much to the point for us today. The same kind of trouble cropped up amongst the Galatians a little later, and the attempt to mix law and grace is often seen in our day. It cannot be done without destroying the fullness of grace and subverting the souls of those who imbibe such teaching. Verses 30-33 of our chapter show how the vindication of grace and the liberty that it brings, contributed to the establishment and joy of the Gentile believers at Antioch. Also Judas and Silas, the delegates from Jerusalem, exercised their prophetic ministry and strengthened the brethren. This shows how freely those who had gift were permitted to exercise it in any place, and in the presence of men whose gift might be in many ways superior to their own—for Paul and Barnabas were now back in Antioch.
Shortly after, Paul proposed to Barnabas that they take another journey with pastoral work in view. The words of verse 36 breathe the spirit of a true pastor, who desires to see how the believers are getting on. The welfare of their souls is the great point before him. The sad thing was that this excellent proposal became the occasion of a breach between these two devoted servants of the Lord. Barnabas proposed that Mark, his nephew, should again accompany them. Paul, remembering his early defection, was against it, and this difference of judgment generated such warm feeling that they parted company, as unable any longer to work together. Barnabas went to Cyprus, where their first journey had started, and Paul towards Asia Minor, where that journey had extended. Paul found a new companion in Silas, and left after the brethren had committed them to the grace of God. It looks as if Barnabas left hurriedly, before the brethren had time to pray for him.
It ill becomes us to judge these eminent servants of our Lord, but the record certainly seems to infer that Barnabas was too much influenced by natural relationship, and that the sympathy of the brethren lay with Paul. Still the warm feeling and contention lay between them, and the Spirit of God does not hide it. We are not to conceive of Paul as other than a man of like passions to ourselves. He was not perfect, as was his Lord.
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