Summary: Acts 15 is an important chapter. Once and for all, the Church, under the Holy Spirit's leadership, made it plain that Gentile believers were not to be under the Law of Moses. The chapter closes with a pair of departures.
Introduction: This chapter covers the first Church Council meeting in Jerusalem, and the decisions reached after all sides presented their statements. The result was a request for Gentile believers to stop doing four things which Jewish-background believers, and possibly unbelieving Jews, would find offensive. The last portion of this chapter describes briefly the split between Paul and Barnabas, and the two pathways each man took.
The Problem and the People:
Text: Acts 15:1-4, KJV: 1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. 3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. 4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.
--Although not stated openly, these “men from Judaea” could have been Pharisees (also, see verse 5). This group had existed since about 200 years before the time of Jesus, trying to live righteous lives, according to the Law—but also according to traditions.
--Part of their teaching (commands?) was that any believer—apparently either Jew or Gentile—had to be circumcised or else couldn’t be saved. Paul may have had this in mind when he wrote in Romans 4, at a later date, about the role of faith and the role of circumcision in Abraham’s own journey to faith in God.
--Circumcision was never intended to be a means of salvation. The first recorded instance of this was with Abraham and all the men in his household (see Genesis 17) but Abraham had “believed” God in chapter 15. Abraham was 75 when he left Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 12:4), 86 when Ishmael, son of Hagar, was born (Gen. 16:16) and 99 when he was circumcised, before Isaac, his son with Sarah, was born (Gen. 17:24), 24 years after he believed in the Lord. So then, circumcision had nothing to do with salvation.
--Paul and Barnabas, who had been preaching the grace of God and seen any number of Gentiles believing the Gospel, rightly took issue with this teaching. This contention, incredibly, became so strong that Paul, Barnabas, and some other believers as well, should go to Jerusalem for the apostles and elders to solve this problem or answer this question, once and for all.
--This group passed through Phenice and Samaria on their way to Jerusalem. Phenice was the same as Phoenicia, the land of Tyre, Sidon, and related territory, and some of the first set of missionaries (!) who had fled Jerusalem after Stephen’s execution seemed to have stayed there (see Acts 11:19). Samaria was the site of Philip’s ministry (Acts 8) and he led many of the Samaritans to faith in Jesus as well. As Paul, Barnabas, and the others described how so many Gentiles had believed, these rejoiced and “caused great joy unto all the brethren (verse 3)”.
--When the group from Antioch arrived in Jerusalem, the Church plus the apostles and elders received them. This is a good indication of genuine brotherhood among believers.
--Then they described (“declared”, KJV) all the things “God had done with them.” There were plenty of these things!
The Discussion and Debate:
Text, Acts 15:5-21, KJV: 5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. 6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. 7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. 8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; 9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. 12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. 13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: 14 Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. 15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: 17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. 18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. 19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.