Summary: Whether your dispute is with another believer or with a whole church, there are vital lessons to handling conflict contained in Acts 15. Learn how to find God’s will, keep your integrity, and still be a family.
Raise your hand if you have ever had a dispute with another Christian. Hopefully we all raised our hands because if we have never had a dispute then we are not really actively plugged into the body life in Jesus. Disputes occur for a number of reasons, some good, some bad. Often disputes come from pride or jealousy. But as we will see in this chapter, disputes can also help us discover the will of God, and discover differences between us that need to be addressed.
This is really the first instance where the enemy attempts to put constraints around the gospel by moving it subtly back under the Law. From here on out, and even to today, this controversy has affected the church as a whole and Christians individually. It is a ploy of the enemy to get us back into pleasing God through our own efforts, focusing on the self and our accomplishments, and not on God and what He has done for us.
1 – 2
These become known as the “Judaizers”. They were promoting a similar doctrine in Galatia. They may have been invited to Antioch by John Mark. They apparently felt on good theological grounds, but Paul talks about them in Galatians that they sought “a good impression outwardly…to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.” (Gal 6:12). In other words, let’s jettison part of the gospel because some find it offensive.
But the key is important to remember—we want people to come to faith in Christ. If by forcing Gentiles to be Jews, people will not come to faith, and so we shouldn’t do that. Also, if we force Jews to eat pork (because we have that freedom) and that offends them so much that they won’t have faith in Christ, then we shouldn’t do that either.
Paul deals with this extensively to the Corinthian church, summing it up by saying:
1 Corinthians 9:12 Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ
3 – 5
Paul and Barnabas were expecting this, of course. It’s interesting that these are Christians who came from the same political party as Saul, now Paul. Back at Antioch it was circumcision, now it is circumcision and obedience to the law of Moses.
6 – 11
Here is the first real distinction—grace vs obedience. Peter says “God told me the Gentiles were to be accepted.” It was evidenced by the giving of the Holy Spirit in chapter 10. But he adds a crucial element, that “we couldn’t obey the Law, why should we demand that the Gentiles obey it?” Peter found out first hand how difficult it was to really be like God in his failures following Jesus. The saving comes through grace, unmerited favor, not by obedience.
12 – 21
After listening to what God had done (maybe they weren’t even open to it before?) James adds to Peter’s present day revelation to the support of Scripture. Quoting from Amos 9:11-12. James changes the verse slightly to add the “that the remnant of all mankind and the nations who are called by my name may seek the Lord.” We don’t know why he changed the verse (even from the Septuagint) but he obviously knew how to interpret it so that’s okay.
David’s tent had fallen—Judaism was in ruins, to be rebuilt upon Jesus Christ.
James was Jesus’ younger brother who was very much an unbeliever before the resurrection. He was in charge of the Jerusalem council and a strict keeper of the law. The Judaizers would have looked to him for support. They don’t get it.
James goes on to mention four things that would help bridge this growing gap between Jew and Christian.
Abstaining from things polluted by idols: It was a common practice among the Gentiles to offer meat to an idol, then sell it in the butcher shop. Paul deals with this in 1 Corinthians 8, 10). This would have bothered the Jews a great deal and would cause difficulties in fellowshipping.
Sexual Immorality probably refers to marriage to close relatives and homosexuality but could also refer to sexual practices related to idol worship. (Lev 18:6)
Strangled & blood The Jews believe the life was in the blood and if you strangled an animal the blood would remain in the animal. (Lev 17:10)
The bottom line is as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:1 “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” Jews needed patience with the Gentiles and Gentiles need patience with the Jews.
22 – 29
Notice some things here 1) vs 24 “we gave them no instructions.” It was not an official group that went out from Jerusalem originally. 2) vs 29 “if you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” They didn’t say “you will be saved.”