Summary: The letter brought from Jerusalem by the delegation caused quite a stir at Antioch. When Barnabas and Silas read the letter and confirmed it personally a great cloud was lifted from the minds and hearts of the believers in Antioch...
December 7, 2014
Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles
By: Tom Lowe
Topic #IV. The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)
Subtopic B: The Jerusalem Council (15:1-35)
Lesson: IV.B.1: The Problem: Those from Syrian Antioch, Part 1 (15:1-5)
The Jerusalem Council (15:1-35)
Part 1 The Criticism from the circumcision Party (15:1-5)
Part 2 The Debate in Jerusalem (15:6-21)
Part 3 The Decision in Jerusalem (15:22-29)
Part 4 The Decision Reported to Antioch (15:30-35)
Scripture (Acts 15:1-5; KJV) Part 1
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.
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.
The stage is now set for Paul’s mission to the heart of the Greco-Roman world as the missionary to the Gentiles. There remained only one final hurdle, and that was the agreement of the whole church on the Gentile mission. There were still those among the Jewish Christians who had serious reservations about the way the outreach to the Gentiles had been conducted. These reservations and the final solution to them worked out in a major conference in Jerusalem are the subject of 15:1-35. There the whole church agreed on the mission. The way was now open for the mission of Paul, and that will be the subject of the rest of Acts. Hereafter the Jerusalem church fades into the background. When it does reappear, as in chapter 21, it will be entirely in connection with Paul’s Gentile ministry. The focus is entirely on him.
The debate in Jerusalem revolved around the issue of how Gentiles were to be accepted into the Christian fellowship. The more conservative Jewish Christians felt that they should be received on the same basis Jews had always received Gentiles into the covenant community—through proselyte initiation. This involved circumcision of the males and all proselytes taking upon themselves the total provisions of the Mosaic Law. For all intents and purposes, a Gentile proselyte to Judaism became a Jew, not only in religious conviction, but in life-style as well. That was the question the conservative group of Jewish Christians raised: Should not Gentiles be required to become Jews in order to share in the Christian community? It was a natural question. The first Christians were all Jews. Jesus was a Jew and the Jewish Messiah. God had only one covenant people—the Jews. Christianity was a Messianic movement within Judaism. Jews had always demanded of all Gentile converts the requirements of circumcision and rituals of the Torah. Why should that change?
Evidently the requirements had changed. There was no indication that Peter had laid such requirements on Cornelius, or the Antioch church on the Gentiles who became a part of their fellowship, or Paul and Barnabas on the Gentiles converted in their mission. This was a cause for serious concern from the more conservative elements. Not only was it a departure from normal proselyte procedure; it also raised serious problems of fellowship. How could law-abiding Jewish Christians who seriously observed all the ritual laws have interaction with Gentile Christians who did not observe those laws? The Jewish Christians would run the risk of defilement from the Gentiles. These were the two issues that were faced and resolved in Jerusalem: (1) whether Gentile converts should submit to Jewish proselyte requirements, especially to circumcision and (2) how fellowship could be maintained between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
Acts 15:1-35 falls into four natural parts. The first comprises an introduction and relates how the debate arose in Antioch and led to the conference in Jerusalem to attempt some resolution (vs. 1-5). The second part focuses on the debate in Jerusalem (vs. 6-21) and primarily centers on the witness of Peter (vs. 6-11) and of James (vs. 12-21). The third part deals with the final solution, which takes the form of an official letter sent to Antioch (vs. 22-29). The narrative concludes where it began—in Antioch—with the delivering of the letter by two delegates of the Jerusalem church (vs. 30-35).