Jesus Fish 3

Acts: Chapter 15

Written By: Steve Shirley

     The focus of Acts Chapter 15 is on the “Jerusalem Council.” This was the first of a number of “Ecumenical Councils” (i.e. First Council of Nicaea – 325 A. D., First Council of Constantinople – 381 A.D.) (one source lists up to 21 “Councils”) that have been held throughout history to discuss and clarify doctrinal issues.

     Let’s begin by reading (Acts 15:1-5).

     (Verses 1-2) “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner (“custom”) of Moses, ye cannot be saved. (2) When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they (“the brothers” – NASB) determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.”

***Note: Remember that over and over in the Bible, people are described as “going up” to Jerusalem, or “coming down” from Jerusalem (i.e. see: Mt 20:17-18, Mk 3:22, Lk 2:42). This is because Jerusalem sits upon a hill, and all roads leading to it are “up.”

     The “certain men” here were the Judaizers, who came to Antioch from Jerusalem, and were “self-appointed guardians of legalism” (MacArthur). We learn in (verse 5) that they were “of the sect of the Pharisees.”

     Apparently, these Jewish men (Judaizers) had accepted the fact that Gentiles could now be saved, but they also determined that certain “works” had to be performed by them in order to be saved. These “works” involved keeping Jewish “Law” (the Law of Moses), with the ultimate act of obedience to the Law being circumcision.

     The “Life Application Bible” says these 4 things about the “Judaizers.”

1. These were devout, practicing Jews who found it difficult to set aside a tradition of gaining merit with God by keeping the law.

2. They thought grace was too easy for the Gentiles.

3. They were afraid of seeming too non-Jewish in their new faith – which could lead to death.

4. The demands on the Gentiles were a way of maintaining control and authority in the movement.

     Paul and Barnabas, who had just recently led many Gentiles (the “uncircumcision”) to the Lord during Paul’s “first missionary journey,” strongly opposed the Judaizers teaching that Gentiles could only be saved by “works” (keeping the “Law”), and not by grace alone. However, to settle this issue once and for all, the brethren decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to bring this question before the “apostles and elders” there. The “certain others” they sent with Paul and Barnabas are unknown. However, based upon (Gal 2:1), Titus was likely one.

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***Rabbit Trail!***

     At the end of Acts Chapter 13, I quoted from the “Life Application Bible,” which says: “Paul probably wrote his letter to the Galatians while he was staying in Antioch (A.D. 48 or 49) after completing his first missionary journey. Galatians was probably written before the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), because in the letter the question of whether Gentile believers should be required to follow Jewish law was not yet resolved. The Council met to solve that problem.”

     This view, held by a majority of scholars, is called the “South Galatian Theory.” The opposing view, called the “North Galatian Theory,” teaches that Paul wrote Galatians from either Ephesus or Macedonia between 53 – 56 A.D., during his third missionary journey.

     I am not going to get into all of the complicated arguments on each side of this debate here, but if you want more details, you can go to my “New Testament Survey on Galatians,” which can be found here: https://jesusalive.cc/new-testament-survey-galatians.

     I personally hold to the “South Galatian Theory,” and as such, I would like to turn to and read Galatians Chapter 2, which I believe adds detail to what we will be reading in Acts 15.

     We will refer to these verses several times in Acts 15, but three things apply to what we have already read in verses 1-2:

1. (Gal 2:1) Paul went to Jerusalem “again” for the “Jerusalem Council,” and it was “14 years” after the first time he had gone. 

*** Note: MacArthur adds this in his Study Bible: “Paul did visit Jerusalem during that 14-year period to deliver famine relief to the church there (Acts 11:27-30; 12:24,25), but he does not refer to that visit here since it had no bearing on his apostolic authority.”

2. (Gal 2:1) As we mentioned above, when Paul and Barnabas went to the “Jerusalem Council.” Titus went with them.

3. (Gal 2:2) While “the brothers” may have sent Paul to the “Jerusalem Council,” in reality Paul says that he was sent “by revelation” from God.

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     (Verses 3-5)(NKJV) “So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. (4) And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. (5) But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” “

     On their way to Jerusalem, they passed through various places in Phoenicia and Samaria, and when they spoke about how Gentiles were being saved, it brought “great joy” to the “brethren.” Remembering back to (Acts 11:19), Phoenicia was one of the places where “believers scattered” to after the persecution of the church, which followed Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 8:1-4). We have also discussed the “Samaritans” previously. Do you remember what made them distinct?

 

     After arriving in Jerusalem, we can see that Paul and Barnabas (and the “certain others”) went directly to “the church and the apostles and elders” (before the “Jerusalem Council” had convened) to share what “God had done with (through) them” (specifically regarding the salvation of the Gentiles). 

     When they arrived in Jerusalem, we are told that the church “received” them. The Greek word for “received” here is “apodechomai,” which is defined by Strong’s as: “to welcome, to accept gladly, to receive without reserve.” It seems likely that this greeting would have been a relief to them, as they were probably uncertain how they would be “received.”

     However, just as had happened in Antioch, Judaizers (“of the sect of the Pharisees”) rose up to oppose them, teaching that Gentiles could only be saved by performing “works” (keeping Jewish Law, and more specifically by being circumcised).

     While certain “individual” Pharisees had become “believers” prior to this: i.e. Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-2)(Jn 7:47-52)(Jn 19:39), Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:43)(Lk 23:50-51)(Jn 19:38), and Paul (Acts 26:5)(Phil 3:5-6), this is the first time that a “group” of Pharisees are said to be “believers.”

***Note: As “believers,” most of these “Pharisees” likely believed that Jesus was indeed the prophesied Messiah, but that He had come only for the Jews. Therefore, Gentiles were excluded from becoming fellow “believers,” unless they converted to Judaism.

 

     THE JERUSALEM COUNCIL

     Next, let’s read (Acts 15:6-12).

     (Verses 6-9) “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.

     The “Jerusalem Council” then convened to make a final, binding decision on the matter of what the Gentiles needed to do to be saved.

     After “much disputing” amongst members of the Council, Peter finally “rose up” to speak.

     Verse 7 is referring back to Acts Chapter 10, when Cornelius, and those with him, became the first Gentile Christians. In (Acts 10:9-16), God “chose” Peter to be the one who would (“by his mouth”) lead the first Gentiles to salvation.

     The “proof” that they were saved is that they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:44-48), which the Bible tells us is the sign from God (it “bares witness”) that we are indeed saved (Eph 1:13-14)(Eph 4:30)(2 Cor 1:22)(2 Cor 5:5)(2 Th 2:13). This same “sign from God” of receiving the Holy Spirit was given to the Jews (“even as He did unto us”) as well at Pentecost (Acts Ch. 2 ). (Also see: Acts 11:15-18)

***Note: Other verses saying God “knows the hearts” of all men: (1 Sam 16:7)(1 Chr 28:9)(1 Kin 8:39)(Acts 1:24).

     Proofs for verse 9 can be found all over the New Testament. God no longer shows “partiality” between Jews and Gentiles (“no difference between them and us”) in regards to salvation i.e. (Gal 3:28)(Rom 10:12)(Col 3:11)(1 Cor 12:13). All “hearts” are now “purified by faith.”

     Let’s turn to and read (Rom 3:9-31), where Paul clearly lays this out.

 

     (Verses 10-11)(NASB) “Since this is the case, why are you putting God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our forefathers nor we have been able to bear? (11) But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” “

***Note: Verse 11 contains the last words of Peter in Acts.

     In other words, looking back at Acts ch. 10, the first Gentile converts were not saved by “keeping Jewish law,” nor were they “circumcised.” They were “saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” by faith. Saying that the Gentiles needed to keep the “Law” in order to be saved was “placing a yoke upon their neck” (that even the Jews could not “bear”), and it was “putting God to the test”.

***Note: From “Easton’s Bible Dictionary” in regards to the word “yoke” – “In Jer. 27:2; 28:10,12 the word in the Authorized Version rendered “yoke” is motah, which properly means a “staff,” or as in the Revised Version, “bar.” These words in the Hebrew are both used figuratively of severe bondage, or affliction, or subjection (Lev. 26:13; 1 Kings 12:4; Isa. 47:6; Lam. 1:14; 3:27). In the New Testament the word “yoke” is also used to denote servitude (Matt. 11:29-30; Acts 15:10; Gal. 5:1; [1 Tim 6:1 – my add]).”

 

      (Verse 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.”

     Following Peter, Barnabas and Paul backed up what Peter had spoken about the Gentiles by declaring what had happened with the Gentiles during Paul’s first missionary trip.

     Can you remember some of the “miracles (signs) and wonders” God performed through Paul and Barnabas as they ministered “among the Gentiles” (Acts Ch. 13 & 14)?

 

     Next, let’s read (Acts 15:13-21). 

     (Verse 13)(NASB) “After they stopped speaking, James responded, saying, “Brothers, listen to me.”

     Finally, James follows, by giving the third and final speech. 

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***Biography of James***

     This James was Jesus’ half-brother (Mt 13:55)(Mk 6:3)(Gal 1:19) (same mother as Jesus: Mary / different father: Joseph vs God). He was likely the 2nd oldest child of Mary since he is listed first in the names of Jesus’ brothers.

     We can see from (Jn 7:3-5) that James apparently was not a believer in Jesus during His life on Earth. This is likely why Jesus turned the care of His mother Mary over to John in His dying words on the cross (Jn 19:25-27). However, Jesus appeared to James during one of His post-resurrection appearances (1 Cor 15:7), at which time James became a believer, and an apostle (one who had seen the risen Christ).

     After Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to him, we find James at Jerusalem in the “upper room” during Pentecost, praying with the disciples, his brothers (who also became believers: 1 Cor 9:5), and his mother Mary (Acts 1:14). (His younger brother Jude later wrote the Epistle of Jude: Jude 1:1.)

     Here, we see James presiding over the church at Jerusalem (probably for the rest of his life). Paul called him, along with Peter and John, “pillars of the church” (Gal 2:9), and it appears that he was revered by both Christians and Jews, including Peter and Paul (see: Acts 12:17, Acts 21:18, Gal 1:19, Gal 2:9 – Paul listed James’s name before Peter and John, Gal 2:12). In fact, when you compare the book of James (likely the 1st NT book written) with 1st Peter, you can see that Peter paraphrased a number of passages from James when he wrote 1st Peter: i.e. (James 1:2) / (1 Pet 1:6, 4:12-15), (James 1:11) / (1 Pet 1:24).

     The New Testament is silent about the later years of James, the Lord’s brother, and apart from the references above, the Bible tells us nothing else about him. However, tradition tells us a few more things:

1. He was called “old camel knees” (his knees were hard like a camel’s) because he spent so much time on his knees in prayer.

2. He was called a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” because of his faithful observance of all the ritual regulations of the Jewish faith.
(While he did not require Gentile Christians to obey these regulations [as per the decision made here at the “Council at Jerusalem”], he did continue to teach their observance to Jewish Christians [see: Acts 21:18-25].)

3. Josephus tells us that James was martyred (about 62 A.D.) when Ananias the High Priest ordered that he be stoned to death. (Because James was so popular, a revolt occurred and Ananias was deposed after only a 3 month rule.) However, Hegesippus said that James was thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple, stoned because he was not killed in the fall, and finally was beaten over the head with a fuller’s club.

     Because of the controversy surrounding the Epistle of James (i.e. the emphasis on works), it was not made a part of the Canon until the 4th century. Therefore, it was not quoted by any church father until Origen in the 3rd century, followed by Eusebius.

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     (Verses 14-18) “Simeon (Peter) 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 (rest) 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.”

     Previously, we have seen both Peter and Paul / Barnabas share what God had done through them in regards to salvation for the Gentiles. Now, we see James going to Scripture to show that salvation for the Gentiles was prophesied in the Old Testament. The Scripture James quotes from in (verses 16-17) is (Amos 9:11-12). 

     The “MacArthur Study Bible” says this, “James quotes Amos’ prophecy (9:11,12) of the millennial kingdom to prove that Gentile salvation was not contrary to God’s plan for Israel. In fact, in the kingdom God’s messengers will announce salvation to the Gentiles (Zech. 8:20-23). James’ point is that Amos makes no mention of Gentiles becoming Jewish proselytes. If Gentiles can be saved without becoming Jews in the kingdom, there is no need for Gentiles to become proselytes in the present age.”

     Many verses from the Old Testament prophesied God’s plan of salvation for the Gentiles. Let’s turn to (Rom 15:7-13) to look at 4 of these. 

     Some other verses OT verses can be found in: (Gen 12:2-3)(Ps 22:27)(Isa 42:6)(Isa 49:6)(Isa 56:3-8)(Isa 60:1-3)(Jer 16:19-21)(Zech 2:11). (Also see: Jn 10:16)

     The “Liberty Bible Commentary” adds this: “The turning point came when James, the brother of the Lord, spoke decisively in regard to this matter. While all of the apostles appeared to be actively involved in this discussion, it seems clear from this passage that James, the pastor of the church at Jerusalem, was the ultimate leader and his decision was accepted by others. Rather than Peter or Paul being in the leadership role at this point, James alone assumes that responsibility. This incident gives great understanding of the authority of the pastor’s leadership in the church.”

 

     (Verses 19-21)(NASB) “Therefore, it is my judgment that we do not cause trouble for those from the Gentiles who are turning to God, (20) but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols, from acts of sexual immorality, from what has been strangled, and from blood. (21) For from ancient generations Moses has those who preach him in every city, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.””

     The Greek word “parenochleo” is used for “trouble” in verse 19, and it is defined by Strong’s as “annoy.” (This Greek word is used nowhere else in the NT.) It was the “judgment” of James that the Gentiles should not be required to keep the “Law of Moses,” nor the rituals associated with it (i.e. circumcision). However, he determined that they should avoid (“abstain from”) 4 different things:

1. Things contaminated (“polluted” – KJV) by idols

2. Acts of sexual immorality (“fornication” – KJV)

3. What has been strangled

4. From blood

     From the “Zondervan NIV Study Bible” – “These were in areas where the Gentiles had particular weaknesses and where the Jews were particularly repulsed by Gentile violations. It would help both the individual and the relationship between Gentile and Jew if these requirements were observed. They involved divine directives that the Jews believed were given before the Mosaic laws.”

     #’s 1,3,4, all have to do with the eating of meat. Paul addresses this issue in later books (Rom 14:1-23)(1 Cor 8:1-13)(1 Cor 10:23-33). He goes into great detail about how Christians have liberty to do certain things that aren’t necessarily sinful, but we should not do them anyway, simply because someone else might believe it is wrong and it will cause them to stumble in their walk. When we do this, (1 Cor 8:12) says, “But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, YE SIN AGAINST CHRIST” (caps emphasis mine).

     Using the example of eating meat that was sacrificed to idols, Paul says that while mature Christians knew there were no other gods, and there was nothing wrong with eating meat that had been sacrificed to them, there “were” people who believed it to be wrong. Therefore, Paul says in (1 Cor 8:13), “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”

     The term for this is called, being a “stumbling block” (Rom 14:13). In what ways can we be a “stumbling block” to others today?

 

***Note: I speak much more in-depth on this subject here: https://jesusalive.cc/stumbling-block-to-others

***Note: “Sexual immorality” (#2.) is a “moral law,” as opposed to #’s 1,2,4, which were  “ceremonial laws.” Why is a “moral law” mixed in with “ceremonial laws?” That is a subject of much debate.

 

     Next, let’s read (Acts 15:22-35).

     (Verse 22) “Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas and Silas, chief men among the brethren:”

     “Judas surnamed Barsabas” – “Judas” was his Greek name “Barsabas”…. We know nothing about this man other than he was considered a leader among the “brethren” (a “chief man”), and he was a “prophet” (verse 32).

     “Silas” (meaning – “a person of the woods”) – “Silas” is mentioned by name 17 times in the New Testament (called “Silvanus” in 4 of the 17 in some Bible versions). He was a prophet (verse 32), and a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37). He accompanied Paul on his “2nd missionary journey” (Acts 15:39 – 18:22). He is called “faithful” in (1 Pet 5:12), and based upon that verse, it is believed by some that he may have recorded the words of Peter in 1st Peter, and may also have delivered the letter to its recipients (Christians in the 5 provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia [see: 1 Pet 1:1]).


     (Verses 23-26) And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. (24) Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: (25) It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, (26) Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

     And they, 

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