A Sharp Dispute over Doctrine
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
- 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?
- 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!
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
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
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 awhile 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
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.
Start of a New Journey
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.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.