A Sharp Dispute over Doctrine

Acts 15:1-2

Not long after Paul and Barnabas finished their missionary journey and returned to Antioch, the church there was visited by some believers from Judea. They were evidently men of high reputation, because church leaders gave them the privilege of teaching the brethren. Exactly how many came from Judea, we do not know. All we know is that they came as a united delegation promoting the same beliefs. When they stood before the assembly, they began teaching a doctrine that the people in Antioch had never heard before. They said that a male gentile could not be saved unless he was circumcised. What they meant was that a gentile convert to faith in Christ had to become a Jew.

Pondering a Question

Did these teachers from Judea believe that the gentile Christian men in Antioch, despite their fervent love of Christ and their Spirit-filled work for Christ, were bound for hell just because they lacked circumcision?

That is exactly what they believed. They really thought that an uncircumcised man, even a good man who loved Christ, was hopelessly lost. Presumably, the women in the church at Antioch were saved, but their husbands were not. We see how absurd this new teaching was, but it was very convincing to many in the early church. The reason is that throughout the centuries before Christ, everyone on the face of the earth, whether Jew or gentile, was under the law of Moses. No one could walk in full obedience to God without submitting to all the requirements of the law. It was therefore impossible to live in complete harmony with God's will without becoming a Jew. For a man, one requirement was circumcision

Salvation was never by works, even in Old Testament times. But outward obedience to the law of God was a sign of genuine faith. Jesus Himself never set aside the law. Rather, He declared that not one jot or tittle of it would pass away so long as heaven and earth remained (Matt. 5:18). It is therefore not surprising that some Jewish believers, especially among those most zealous for the law before conversion, from the party of the Pharisees, were confused. They could not understand why obedience to the whole law was suddenly unnecessary—why circumcision was no longer incumbent on male converts to true religion.

Pondering a Question

Why did Jesus say that the law could not be broken if in fact circumcision is no longer necessary?

Jesus' statement that nothing in the law would pass away while heaven and earth remain comes from the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, His subject is restricted to the moral law, which is only one division of the legal code known as the law of Moses. The two other divisions, the ceremonial law and the civil law, are nowhere in view.

The ceremonial law prescribed a system of sacrifices that became obsolete when Christ died on the cross. The civil law presumed a form of society that did not survive into the Church Age. Therefore, the church retained neither the ceremonial law nor the civil law and recognized that binding force continues only in the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments.

When Jesus in Matthew 5:18 stresses the permanence of the law, He is therefore not referring to such aspects of the ceremonial law as circumcision and other rites of cleansing. He is saying simply that the moral law—the law defining true righteousness—is unchanging. It is unchanging because the character of God is unchanging.

The teaching that uncircumcised gentiles could not be saved caused a great stir. If the men from Judea were right, Paul and Barnabas in their recent work of evangelizing the gentiles had wasted their time, because they failed to demand circumcision of new converts. Therefore, Paul and Barnabas opposed the teaching vigorously. When the writer says that there was "no small dissension and disputation," he means that the debate threatened to tear the church apart.

Getting Practical

One reason the Book of Acts is a precious resource is that it informs us about all the main devices Satan uses to oppose the work of God. In fact, we find them all in the first fifteen chapters.

  1. His favorite device is persecution, because it is a direct attack upon God Himself. It wounds the heart of a loving Father to see His children suffer. Therefore, the first trouble that arose after Pentecost was the jailing of the apostles Peter and John (Acts 4). Later, Satan brought persecution upon the whole church (Acts 8). Yet in attacking the church, he did not limit himself to one weapon.
  2. In the incident involving Ananias and Sapphira, he introduced sin into the camp, knowing that it would extinguish God's blessing and bring the harvest of souls to a halt (Acts 5).
  3. Then, by arousing the Greeks to feel that their widows received unfair treatment, he tried to paralyze the church with bitter strife between fellow believers (Acts 6).
  4. Satan's next ploy was an attempt to corrupt the apostles, especially Peter. Through the sorcerer Simon, he tried to plant in Peter an impure desire for money and power (Acts 8).
  5. Now, he turned to a device that throughout history has proved to be one of his most effective. He seduced certain professing believers to teach false doctrine.

Besides warning us of the attacks we should expect, the Book of Acts also shows us the correct response to each kind.

  1. When persecuted, the early church did not pull back its efforts. Rather, it preached the gospel more aggressively.
  2. When troubled by internal sin, the church promptly purged it away.
  3. Since the occasion of internal strife was an appearance of evil, the church restored harmony by means of a fair and creative solution.
  4. Peter answered Simon’s temptation with uncompromising rebuke.
  5. The purpose of the chapter we are now studying, Acts 15, shows how the church should deal with false doctrine. It should counter lies by appealing to the Word and the Spirit.

Pondering a Question

Were the teachers from Judea true believers?

Whether the teachers from Judea were saved, we do not know. But they were certainly Satan's tools. He gained control of them by working on their pride. Conviction based on confidence in God's Word is one thing. Conviction based on confidence in tradition, education, and lifelong habit is another. It is really self-confidence. And these Pharisees who wanted to circumcise the gentiles were simply asserting themselves. They felt they were God's chosen defenders of truth, although the Word of God does not even think them important enough to give us their names. They set themselves against such men as Paul and Barnabas, the real defenders of truth.

Getting Practical

The New Testament abounds in warnings against false doctrine. Four of its characteristics are illustrated in the dispute that arose at Antioch.

  1. It normally enters the church through leaders who look like real Christians (Matt. 7:15; 2 Pet. 2:1).
  2. Their motivation is never wholesome or benevolent. Rather, they are moved by wickedness, whether pride, greed, or lust (2 Pet. 2:2-3, 10, 13-14). Invariably they see doctrinal perversion as a path to more power (suiting their pride), more money (suiting their greed), or more women (suiting their lust).
  3. Eventually they draw people out of the church into a heretical cult (1 John 2:18-19). In Acts 15 we do not see anyone leave the church, but the false doctrine that first appears in this chapter later produced a schism. Even after the apostles declared that gentiles need not be circumcised, some Jewish believers persisted in teaching the opposite, and they aggressively spread their doctrine. They targeted churches established by Paul and tried to convince the converts that they needed to become full-fledged Jews. In church history they are known as Judaizers. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians was written to combat their influence. He was not in the least disposed to speak of them with kind forbearance. Not only did he pronounce a curse upon them, but he repeated it to show how dreadful their damnation would be (Gal. 1:6-9).
  4. As seen both in Antioch and in the later work of Judaizers, false doctrine preys upon new Christians (2 Pet. 2:18-22). Wherever missionaries take the gospel, they know that teachers of heresy will soon come along and try to siphon off converts into a cult. The Jehovah's Witnesses and others always follow the trail of the true gospel.

As the believers in Antioch heard the dispute between the men from Judea and their two chief opponents, Paul and Barnabas, they were uncertain who was right. But because they were desirous of discerning truth, God showed them what to do. He led them to send Paul and Barnabas along with others to consult with the apostles in Jerusalem.

A Triumphant Tour of the Churches

Acts 15:3-4

The delegation did not hurry straight to their destination. Instead, as they traveled through Phoenicia along the coast and then southward through Samaria, they stopped to visit all the churches along the way. Their purpose was to share the exciting news that many gentiles had received the gospel. These churches responded with "great joy." Peter's outreach to Cornelius had established that the gospel was meant for everyone, not just Jews, and opposition to evangelizing the gentiles had evaporated. No one, not even believers attached to the Pharisaical party, still questioned whether it was right to bring gentiles into the church.

Coming at last to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas again told of God's great blessing on their missionary journey.

Further Wrangling

Acts 15:5-6

The reception of Paul and Barnabas in Jerusalem was less enthusiastic than in other churches, however. Jerusalem was a hotbed of Pharisaism, and the Pharisaical party was a strong presence in the church. It likely included many friends of the teachers that Paul and Barnabas opposed in Antioch. Therefore, when the members of this party understood what Paul and Barnabas had done—that they had preached Jesus to the gentiles but had failed to bring them under any obligation to Moses—they were upset. They loudly insisted that it was necessary for gentile converts to undergo circumcision and obey the law of Moses. Again, what they wanted of the gentiles was that they become Jews.

The dispute became so intense that church leaders decided to gather and hammer out an official position. This meeting of church leaders in Jerusalem is generally known as the Jerusalem Council.

Peter's Judgment

Acts 15:7-11

Even among the leaders there were differences of opinion. The dispute dragged on without coming to a resolution. Finally, Peter took the floor and rendered his judgment. He presented three arguments against requiring the gentiles to be circumcised.

  1. He reminded the church that God had sent him to share the gospel with the household of Cornelius the centurion, and when these gentiles responded in faith to Peter's message, the Lord gave them the Holy Spirit, just as He had given Him to believing Jews. Much of Peter's argument as it appears here in Luke's summary is implied rather than stated. We are expected to understand that the coming of the Holy Spirit to these gentiles was proof that God saved them. Yet how were they saved? To this question Peter gave a clear answer. They were saved by faith. How did this answer shed light on the debate over circumcision? Here again we are expected to supply a key point in Peter's argument. The point was this—that God saved Cornelius and his household before any of the men could have been circumcised. So, it was not a requirement before salvation. Nor was it was a requirement afterward, for when Peter preached to these gentiles, the Spirit did not lead him even to mention circumcision, much less insist upon it. Peter's reasoning suggested a conclusion having great force. If God saved the gentiles at Cornelius's house without circumcision, why should the church impose circumcision on anyone else?
  2. Peter reminded his hearers that the law of Moses had always been a great burden on the backs of the Jewish people. If they had never been able to bear it, how could they expect gentiles to bear it? We can thank the Lord that Peter's counsel prevailed, else the church would never have grown. Think what it would be like today if we insisted that converts be circumcised and observe the duties of the Mosaic law, including all the sacrifices and ritual cleansings. What a needless obstacle to the grace and mercy of God!
  3. Peter stated that Jews no less than gentiles are saved by grace. He meant that all men are saved by grace rather than works. No doubt he sensed the true motivation of the Pharisees. They assumed that their own salvation depended not on faith alone, but on faith plus works, including circumcision. They reasoned that if they themselves needed to keep the law in order to be saved, so must the gentiles. Peter contradicted them, agreeing with Paul's teaching throughout his ministry that salvation is solely by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). This third argument was the clincher, because it exposed the basic doctrinal error in the teaching of the Pharisees.

The Report of Paul and Barnabas

Acts 15:12

Peter held such respect that when he was done speaking, no one dared oppose him. Then rose Paul and Barnabas, who spoke of the miracles that God had enabled them to perform among the gentiles. These miracles were proof that their missionary endeavors had the backing and blessing of God. They might have cited Jesus as their authority. He taught that a tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 7:16–20). The good fruit issuing from the labors of Paul and Barnabas proved them to be men of God.

Moreover, their labors illustrated the grace of God that Peter had just been talking about. As an act of grace, God used the apostles to preach Christ to the gentiles so that they might believe on Him and be saved. Thus, they were saved by grace.

James's Judgment

Acts 15:13-21

Now stood the church leader whose voice carried the most weight with the Jews who were zealous for the law. He was James, the acknowledged leader of the church in Jerusalem.

Pondering a Question

Which James spoke to the council?

This James was not James brother of John, who was martyred some time before. Nor was it James the less, another of the original twelve. Rather, it was James brother of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19), the same James who contributed an epistle to the New Testament. According to the Christian writer Hegesippus, he was greatly admired by the people of Jerusalem because of his great piety. He spent so much time in prayer that he developed calluses on his knees, earning him the affectionate epithet "camel-knees." The Jewish historian Josephus records that under circumstances we can place in about AD 61, he met a martyr's death similar to Stephen's. A Sanhedrin persuaded that he was a law-breaker dragged him out of the city and stoned him.

There are basically two ways of recognizing a work of God: either by its connection with supernatural events displaying God’s hand, or by its agreement with God’s Word. In the ministry of Paul and Barnabas, God provided both kinds of proof. Paul and Barnabas had told the council about the miracles that testified of God's approval on their efforts to evangelize the gentiles. Now James rose and showed that the salvation of the gentiles was predicted by the Old Testament.

He quoted Amos 9:11-12, which states God someday intended to bring men into the house of God from all over the world. The force of James’s argument rested on a surprising omission from the prophet’s words; namely, the utter lack of any suggestion that the salvation of these gentiles would be accomplished by making them members of Israel. That route to heaven was available even in Moses’ day. It did not belong to a future dispensation. The prophet himself explains how gentiles would be saved at the time he foresees. He says that God would rebuild the tabernacle of David. The meaning is that God would raise up a son of David to be the Messiah, whose work would qualify Him to be Savior of the world. Amos explains further that to receive salvation, the gentiles would only need to seek after "the Lord," another title of the Messiah. In other words, they would be saved not by becoming Jews, but by believing in the One sent to be their Savior.

Delving Deeper

James’s quotation of Amos differs strikingly from the original. The prophet says, "That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen, which are called by my name," but James says, "That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called." The reason for the difference is that James depends on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament widely used in the days of the early church.

Although the Septuagint often gives a very free translation of the Hebrew, it seldom introduces actual error. Here it preserves the essential meaning. The prophet was evidently using Edom as one example of all who were alien to the commonwealth of Israel, for he immediately attached the words "and of all the heathen." So, both in the original and in the Septuagint, the promise of salvation clearly reaches out to the whole gentile world.

The "they" who would possess the heathen evidently refers to the household of faith. In other words, the church would someday embrace all nations. The Septuagint views the same development from the perspective of the gentiles who would be saved. They would forsake their estrangement from God and seek after Him. Viewed either way, the passage predicts salvation of all gentiles elect by God ("upon whom my name is called").

Pondering a Question

Before quoting Amos, why did James identify his authority as more than one prophet—as "prophets"?

Future conversion of the gentiles is a frequent theme of Isaiah. See especially Isaiah 11:10 in the context of the whole chapter, which teaches that the gentiles would someday find spiritual rest through salvation provided by the Messiah, David’s son. Isaiah 2:4 and 25:6–7 are also relevant to James’s argument, for they reveal that after submitting to the Messiah, the gentiles would retain their national identities rather than become Jews.

James concluded by affirming that the converts won by the ministry of Paul and Barnabas had indeed turned to God. In these words he was declaring his support for the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas. Moreover, he sided with Peter’s judgment that to impose circumcision on the gentile converts would be wrong. It would merely trouble them and discourage them from continuing on the path of truth and righteousness.

He then presented a formal recommendation. He called it a "sentence," or "judgment," but it was essentially equivalent to what we in our tradition of representative government refer to as a motion. He entered a motion that the council send the gentiles a command to observe four rules: 1) that they abstain from pollutions of idols—in other words, that they refrain from eating meat previously dedicated to a pagan god, 2) that they abstain from fornication, 3) that they do not eat things strangled—in other words, animals from which the blood had not been properly drained, and 4) that they consume no blood. The fourth restriction enlarged the previous to include liquid blood, which some cultures have viewed as something to drink.

Conspicuously missing from these rules was any mention of circumcision. Also missing was any suggestion that the gentiles must keep the whole law of Moses. Yet missing as well was any reference to the Ten Commandments. Was he exempting the gentiles from the commandments against murder, stealing, etc. No, he was assuming that they understood their obligation to respect the basic rules of morality.

One reason James’s proposal gained ready acceptance is that his audience was already familiar with the four rules he presented. They are the same as the provisions in the law of Moses applicable to "strangers" in the land; that is, to people of foreign extraction who came to live in the land of Israel. All these provisions appear in Leviticus 17 and 18.

  1. The law forbade strangers to offer dead animals as sacrifices of worship to any god except the Lord or at any place except the house of the Lord (Lev. 17:7–9). From this prohibition, the Jews evidently drew the reasonable conclusion that any meat offered to idols was unclean and off-limits—that they should not consume it even though they had not participated in its unlawful sacrifice.
  2. The law forbade strangers to commit sexual immorality of any kind (Lev. 18:24–30), and it specifies four kinds of sexual relationships as unlawful: adultery (Lev. 18:20), incest (Lev. 18:6), bestiality (Lev. 18:23), and homosexuality (Lev. 18:22). It is important to see the compass of these restrictions in Leviticus because doubtless these were what James had in mind when he said that gentile believers should abstain from fornication. The word "fornication" just means sexual immorality.
  3. The law forbade strangers to consume any beast or fowl that had not been killed in a fashion assuring the drainage of blood from its carcase (Lev. 17:13–14). The Jews in ancient times as they do today viewed strangulation as unacceptable because it leaves the carcase contaminated with blood.
  4. The law forbade strangers to eat or drink blood (Lev. 17:10–12).

Under the leadership of James, the early church decided that the standards which Leviticus lays out for gentiles are timeless. They show us God’s view of right and wrong.

Some modern commentators think that in promulgating these four rules, the Jerusalem Council did not necessarily act in accordance with God’s will. In fact, their verdict was given authoritative backing by Christ Himself, when He, in John’s vision on the Isle of Patmos, rebuked two churches in Asia for tolerating the forbidden practices (Rev. 2:14, 20). Furthermore, God has never withdrawn these requirements.

Pondering a Question

In church history, numerous other gatherings of church leaders have also been known as a church council. Are we bound by their decisions?

No, although some have reached good decisions, they are entitled to command our obedience only to the extent that their decisions agree with the Word and the Spirit. Only the first council, the council in Jerusalem, was conducted under apostolic authority and recorded in Scripture.

Thus, the moral code that God wanted the church to impose on gentile converts to Christianity was no less stringent than He set for gentiles in Moses’ day. One consequence of surpassing importance is that all gentiles, both in the days of the early church and in our day, should accept how marriage is defined in the law of Moses.

Getting Practical

Two lessons emerge of foremost significance.

  1. God’s definition of incest does not correspond to its definition in many human legal systems. The only nation with a long history of conforming to Biblical guidelines is Scotland, which from 1567 until 1986 closely patterned its incest statutes after Leviticus 17. Its current law is more lenient. Among today’s national and state jurisdictions, a few have statutes that, by forbidding marriage between first cousins, are more stringent than Mosaic law, but the statutes of the majority are more lenient, and the drift toward leniency is gaining momentum. New Jersey now allows sexual relations between any two consenting adults, even between mother and son or father and daughter. Here is another moral battleground where righteousness is losing, yet news from the front lines seldom comes to our attention.
  2. We have seen from its basis in Mosaic law that the rule against fornication applies to homosexuality. We conclude that homosexual unions under any guise, even the guise of marriage, are still wrong. In obedience to the standards that God led the early church to impose on all believers in all ages, we must stand against so-called "gay marriage."

Pondering a Question

Why were the four Levitical laws listed in James’s proposal so important that the chief work God accomplished through the Jerusalem Council was to renew them?

The first two rules that James proposed curbed practices posing a serious threat to gentile converts. Eating meat dedicated to idols was a stumbling block especially to those gentiles who were still young in the faith. They felt in their conscience that to eat the meat of a pagan god was an act of disloyalty to their new Master, the God of the Bible. If they ignored conscience and ate the meat anyway, it was a step backward into their old life of idolatry.

Why did James bother to forbid fornication? Surely the gentiles understood that fornication violated God’s will. Why did they need a rule that seems redundant with the Seventh Commandment, the commandment against adultery? In Paul’s letters we see that a first-century gentile Christian did not readily understand that all sex outside marriage is equally bad. Fornication was commonplace because of the prostitution officially sponsored by pagan temples. A new convert to Christ may not have understood that relations with a temple prostitute were the same as stealing another man’s wife. Moreover, he may not have realized that such relations were greatly damaging to his own family. So, he was in need of Paul’s instruction that fornication of this kind was equivalent to marriage (1 Cor. 6:15–20). It was a particularly objectionable marriage because, involving a pagan votary, it adulterated not only the man’s relationship to his lawful wife, but also his relationship to Christ.

The third and fourth rules that James proposed alerted gentile believers that although they were free from circumcision and from the ceremonial law of Moses, they were still bound by the divine commandments given to Noah and his descendants. After the Flood, when God for the first time allowed man to take meat for food, He forbade the consumption of blood (Gen. 9:3–4). That prohibition remains to this day. All men, both Jews and gentiles, are still bound to abstain from blood. Why is blood a forbidden food? The question is a divine mystery, although the wording of the prohibition suggests that blood is somehow sacred, perhaps because it gives life. As stated in Leviticus 17, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul" (Lev. 17:11).

Delving Deeper

Paul devoted several passages in his letters to clarifying the restriction against eating meat offered to idols (Rom. 14:1–15:7; 1 Cor. 8:1–13; 10:14–33; 2 Cor. 6:16–17). Simply to eat meat is not wrong in itself, regardless of its source. What is wrong is to eat it when the result might be spiritual damage to yourself or to another—to yourself if eating it feels like a gesture of disloyalty to God, to another if he interprets your conduct as approval of offering meat to idols. A weaker brother might be tempted by your example to return to pagan practices.

Paul tells his readers exactly where to draw the line. When they buy meat in the marketplace (1 Cor. 10:25–26) or sit down as a guest to eat meat at someone else’s table (1 Cor. 10:27), they need not ask where the meat came from. If they do not know the source and others have no reason to think that they know the source, no harm is done. If they learn, however, that the meat was a pagan offering, they should refuse it (1 Cor. 10:28).

Delving Deeper

The prohibition against consuming blood has another dimension we would be wise to consider. As human beings, we are such callous, hard-hearted creatures that we have trouble comprehending a supreme Being who is tender-hearted in the fullest degree. We understand Him better when we study the other provisions in the Mosaic law. One especially yields great insight into God’s character (Deut. 14:21). Like many other commands in the books of Moses, this one is without parallel in any other law code, whether ancient or modern. Secular scholars, finding it extremely puzzling, have exercised themselves at great length to discover a pagan source, but without success. It is unique to the law code of Israel.

This provision is not in the least puzzling, however, if we grant that the source is a Being with divine sensitivity to what is appropriate. He created mother’s milk to give life to little ones. When He sees a mother’s milk being used to boil her little one, He finds it revolting, disgusting. Now perhaps we can better appreciate His command not to consume blood. He created blood to make life possible for all His marvelous creatures. When He sees the life’s blood of one creature being devoured by another, turning all the potential of further life into mere food for the present moment, He finds it revolting, disgusting.

By the way, if someone offered you a glass of blood to drink, how would you feel? Your natural reluctance to drink it was instilled in you by your Creator.

Our feeble attempt here to show how deeply God is offended by the perverse use of things He created sheds light on why He has absolutely forbidden homosexuality.

James concluded his motion by stating that the new rules would not lead to neglect of the Old Testament. The writings of Moses would continue to be read and revered wherever there were Jews. But James did not anticipate what has actually happened. As it turns out, the church has been God's main instrument for preserving the Old Testament.

Letter to the Churches

Acts 15:22-29

The party of the Pharisees probably counted on James's support. He was well known to be scrupulous in his own observance of the law. His own habits suggested that he regarded the law as still binding on believers. So when he declined to make the gentiles obey Moses, the opposition to Paul and Barnabas collapsed. The "whole church," presumably including the Pharisees, gave their assent to James's motion.

The leaders then drafted a letter to be circulated among all gentile believers contaminated by the false teaching that surfaced at Antioch. The source was identified as "the apostles and elders and brethren:" by implication, the entire church in Jerusalem.

The letter condemned in strong language the teaching that gentiles were subject to circumcision and the other requirements of Mosaic law. It stated that any such teaching subverted their souls, and it dismissed the teachers of this doctrine as trouble-makers. At the same time, the letter gave Paul and Barnabas the highest commendation, bidding respect for them as men who risked their lives for the sake of Christ. The question that might well have occurred to any reader of the letter was this: at what risk did the false teachers spread their doctrine? The answer? None, for they were seeking praise and prestige and material gain, not the salvation of souls.

While liberating the gentiles from any obligation to Moses, the letter laid down as binding the four rules proposed by James. It forbade eating meat offered to idols, the consumption of blood, the consumption of things strangled, and fornication. Lest gentile readers view the letter as human opinion, the writers stated clearly that they were issuing commandments. Moreover, they named the Holy Spirit as the author. In other words, it was by His authority that the council set down the four rules.

After the letter was written, four men were chosen to carry it throughout the churches of Syria and Cilicia. Two were Paul and Barnabas. The others were Judas (surnamed Barsabas) and Silas, both leaders of the church in Jerusalem.

Joy in Antioch

Acts 15:30-35

Although the letter was written to all the churches, the place where the controversy began was Antioch. Therefore, the four men chosen to disseminate the verdict of the Jerusalem Council went straight to Antioch from Jerusalem and gathered the entire local body of believers. Church membership was now so large that it could only be described as a multitude. The first order of business was to read the letter. When the multitude heard it, they all, both gentiles and Jews, responded with great rejoicing. They glorified God for releasing the gentiles from circumcision and all the other difficult requirements of the ceremonial law.

Then Judas and Silas stood and exhorted them with many words. We are not told what they said, but perhaps their message revolved about three themes: that God loves the whole world and desires all men everywhere to be saved; that we obtain salvation not by our works but by accepting it as a free gift of God; and that once saved, we must nevertheless lead a life outstanding for righteousness. Such themes would have provided a clear doctrinal context for the letter they had just read.

The two ambassadors from Jerusalem remained for a while in Antioch so that they might continue the work of strengthening believers. No doubt the church was thrilled at receiving the prolonged attention of two leading figures from the mother church in Jerusalem. No doubt also they protested whenever Judas and Silas expressed a desire to return home. After all, the believers in Antioch rightly felt that they needed to hear as much from two spokesman for the truth as they had previously heard from the Judaizers. But at last, they were willing to let the teachers from Jerusalem depart, and Judas departed with their blessing. Silas, however, elected to remain. His love for the believers in Antioch was so strong that he decided to become part of their church family and make Antioch his new home.

Perhaps no church besides the first church in Jerusalem has ever enjoyed such good preaching as the believers in Antioch were privileged to hear week after week. To the roster of great pulpiteers given in Acts 13:1 was now added the name of Silas, joining such names as Paul and Barnabas. These last two continued for some time in Antioch before God led them to other places.

A Sharp Dispute over a Helper

Acts 15:36-40

When Paul returned to Antioch from the Jerusalem council, he could look back on two major triumphs. He had successfully completed his first missionary tour creating new churches among the gentiles, and the council had upheld his position that gentile converts need not be circumcised. He might have rested on his laurels. He might have taken a vacation, as it were, to savor his accomplishments. But he was not a man who stood still in the work of God. He was eager to get back on the front lines.

After spending some time in Antioch, Paul approached Barnabas and suggested that they go back to Asia Minor and revisit the churches they had founded. Barnabas agreed and began to make arrangements. As he considered who might accompany them, he thought of his nephew Mark, the same Mark who had forsaken them on their first missionary journey. Mark's failure to persevere had no doubt grieved his uncle. So now Barnabas wanted to give Mark another chance. Perhaps he spoke with Mark and secured his promise not to forsake them again.

But when Barnabas announced to Paul his desire to use Mark, Paul objected. He did not think Mark was trustworthy. The battle for souls required a soldier who did not run away when hard pressed by the enemy. Whatever potential Barnabas saw in his nephew, Paul did not see it. Paul probably thought that family loyalty was clouding his partner's better judgment.

In this incident, we see the true character of each apostle. Paul was a fighter with such natural strength and self-discipline that he had a hard time accepting weaknesses in others. Although Barnabas was no weakling, his outstanding trait was mercy. He was always ready to help someone who was struggling to succeed. Among those he helped was Paul himself. When Paul came to Jerusalem after his conversion, Barnabas took his side and urged the church leaders to receive him despite his past record of persecuting the church.

These two great apostles, both of whom were men of God living in close fellowship with God, could not agree. Each was sure he was right—Paul in rejecting Mark as a helper and Barnabas in promoting Mark. Therefore, neither was willing to yield. The account says that at last the dispute became so sharp that they decided to separate. Instead of making one journey together, they made different journeys.

Barnabas sailed to Cyprus with Mark, and Paul departed for Asia Minor with a new helper, Silas, the same Silas that the church in Jerusalem had sent as their spokesman to the gentiles in Antioch. His ministry in Antioch had shown Silas how much the gentile world needed the gospel and had given him a burden to reach gentiles in other places. As a result, he welcomed the chance to accompany Paul.

Pondering a Question

How could two spiritual men, two apostles, fail to agree on a question of great importance to the work of God?

Both Paul and Barnabas were under the control of the Holy Spirit. That each was a spiritual man is evident in their willingness to undertake another missionary journey bringing them into peril of persecution and death. Yet they were not infallible. On the issue that divided them, both had a strong conviction that he was right—Paul in resisting Mark as a helper and Barnabas in his resolve to use Mark—and the conviction in both cases was truly from the Lord. But each made the same mistake, a mistake that was the simple consequence of human pride. As we are all prone to do, each assumed that because he was right, the other was wrong. Neither grasped what was really happening. The Lord was leading them in different directions. They planned one missionary journey, but the Lord planned two. Barnabas wanted to use Mark and Paul wanted to use Silas, but the Lord wanted to use both. Neither apostle's vision of what could be done was as large as God's.

If we ask who was right—Paul or Barnabas—the answer is simply, they were both right and they were both wrong. Eventually Paul must have realized that his evaluation of Mark had been too harsh, for in later years he commended Mark as a worthy man in the work of God (2 Tim. 4:11).

Getting Practical

As a servant of God I must be careful about judging another man's leading when it does not agree with my own. I must not assume that the right direction for me is the right direction for him. God may not intend for us to walk together. It may seem to me that my success depends on his help. Therefore, if he refuses to assist me, I may in my flesh resent his decision. But God may see a larger dividend for eternity if we walk separately. Therefore, unless the other man proposes to engage in sin, I must be slow to conclude that he is resisting the will of God just because he takes a different path.

It often happens that God calls someone out of one ministry and places him in another even though in the first ministry he seems indispensable. Yet his fellow workers must not make him feel that by leaving, he is deserting or betraying them.

Start of a New Journey

Acts 15:41

Paul reached the churches in Asia Minor by taking an overland route through Syria and Cilicia. His choice had two advantages. He avoided the perils of sailing, and he was able to visit other churches along the way. At every stop, he confirmed the believers. That is, he strengthened them with sound teaching.