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 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 Christians 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 a man, even a good man who loved Christ, was hopelessly lost if he failed to cut off a piece of skin. 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, every man 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, including circumcision. It was therefore impossible to live in complete harmony with God's will without becoming a Jew.

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 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, His monumental commentary on the Ten Commandments. In this sermon, His subject is restricted to the moral law. The ceremonial law, including circumcision and other rites of cleansing, are nowhere in view. When He stresses the permanence of the law, He is saying simply that 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. 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. Later, Satan brought persecution upon the whole church.

Yet in attacking the church, he did not limit himself to one weapon. 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. But the church promptly purged away the sin. 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. Yet the church resisted his efforts and continued to move forward. 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. Again, Satan failed.

Now, he turned to a device that has throughout history proved to be one of his most effective. He seduced certain professing believers to teach false doctrine.

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. Three 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).
  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 circumcised 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).

The Judaizers illustrate a fourth characteristic of false doctrine. Namely, it preys upon new Christians (2 Pet. 2:18-22). Wherever missionaries take the gospel, they know that false teachers 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 go straight to their destination. Instead of taking the direct route through Decapolis and along the Jordan River, they traveled in a roundabout fashion, first going westward to Phoenicia, along the coast. Afterward, they went through Samaria. Their purpose was to visit as many churches as possible and to share the exciting news that many gentiles had received the gospel. The 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 withered away. 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 first church 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 even though, when Peter preached to them, he did not demand circumcision, and even though, in all probability, none of the men were later circumcised. 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 on 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 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. Moreover, they illustrated the grace of God that Peter had just been talking about. As an act of grace, God showed Himself to the gentiles so that they might believe on Him. Thus, they were saved by grace and not by their own merit or works.

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: whether it is attended by supernatural events displaying God's hand, and whether it agrees with the Word of God. 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 that God's ultimate purpose is to bring men into the house of God from all over the world.

After reminding his hearers of the obvious—that no good work can happen outside God's plan—James declared 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 in the ways of God.

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 three 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, and 3) that they consume no blood, whether in liquid form or in meat from strangled animals. By "things strangled" he meant animals from which the blood had not been properly drained.

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. Surely he was not 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.

Pondering a Question

Why did James offer these particular three rules and not others?

The third rule 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 has never been rescinded. 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 elsewhere in Scripture, "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). The Hebrew word "life" in this text (nephesh) is frequently translated "soul." In other words, blood is the seat of an animal's soul.

The first two rules that James proposed would curb practices that posed the greatest 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 law against adultery? In Paul's letters we see that a first-century gentile Christian did not readily understand that fornication and adultery were in the same class of sins. 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.

Delving Deeper

We have said that an animal has a soul. Of course, the soul of an animal is not immortal, whereas man's soul is, because it is united with his immortal spirit.

An animal's possession of a soul is evident in abilities that require it. For example, even a mere beast has a consciousness of the external world. Likewise, it has feelings and memory. Yet it seemingly does not have self-consciousness. And undoubtedly it has no capacity for thought or language, nor any sense of right and wrong. These abilities require a spirit, which an animal lacks.

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 three rules proposed by James. It forbade eating meat offered to idols, the consumption of blood, and fornication. Some modern commentators think that in promulgating these rules, the Jerusalem council did not necessarily act in accordance with God's will. In fact, their rulings were 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).

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 three new 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 ruling of the first church council went straight to Antioch from Jerusalem and gathered the whole church. Its 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. Their message perhaps 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 rulings stated in the letter.

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 Saul and Barnabas. These last two continued for some time in Antioch before God led them to other places.