“On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:11)
In Acts Chapter 15, we read the debate of expectations regarding the Gentiles’ salvation. Certain individuals from Judea were teaching the brothers that unless the Gentiles were circumcised according to the custom of Moses, they could not be saved. “These Judean Christians (on their own initiative), insist on maintaining the clear teaching of the Bible that membership in the people of God, the community of faith and salvation, requires the mark of the covenant.”[i] So it is important to note that circumcision was the “mark of the covenant” for many Jewish believers. The debate became so divided that Paul and Barnabas were appointed to take the matter to the Jerusalem church for discussion with the Apostles and Elders (The Jerusalem Council). We consider the matter seriously. “Advocates of circumcision could quote the Bible that circumcision and the other rituals of the Mosaic Law were given by God forever and were not to be superseded by some later revelation.”[ii]
Paul and Barnabas began the journey to Jerusalem. On the way, they stopped by Phoenicia and Samaria, and reported the conversion of the Gentiles. There was great joy in hearing this report. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the Apostles and Elders. They reported all the good work that had been done. Believers from the Pharisees sect stood and said that it would be necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law (in order to be saved). “Advocates of law-free Gentile Christianity could respond that these laws were only given for Jews, that Gentiles were never expected to obey them. The response of the Judean Christians was that the laws were given to the Covenant community and whoever joins it, must keep the law, including aliens who are sojourning among Israel (Ex. 12:48).”[iii]
While meeting together to discuss the matter, Peter stood and gave an explanation regarding the early days of the covenant and how God chose him to open the way for the Gentiles to hear the message of the gospel. He further shared that God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to them. In cleansing the heart, God made no distinction between them (Jew and Gentile). Peter then asked why they were putting the yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither them nor their ancestors were able to bear? “According to Luke’s understanding, grace is the great equalizer. If salvation is based on merit, then there must be different classes of Christians, for there are different levels of achievement. But if salvation is indeed God’s gracious gift rather than human achievement, then the community of salvation is a community in which all are equal – see Romans 3:21-26 Rom. 10;12; Gal. 3:27-28).”[iv]
After this, the whole assembly kept silent. Paul and Barnabas began to tell of the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. James spoke, and there is a reference to Simeon speaking. They quoted the prophets agreeing that God would rebuild the walls of David, so that all other people may seek the Lord – even all the Gentiles, over whom my name has been called.”
The decision seems to have been made by James, with the consensus of the church (no vote). “While James has considered the discussion and the criteria, he is portrayed as making the decision himself, by which the church abides, somewhat in the style of later bishops.” In addition, Luke may have used an earlier source in which James early emerged as the primary leader of the mother church in Jerusalem. The decision was to “not trouble the gentiles who were turning to God.” However, there were some essentials that he wanted them to observe: to abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication, and whatever had been strangled by blood. He reminded them that Moses had those who proclaimed him, and that his words were read every sabbath in the synagogue.
Once the decision was made, the Apostles, Elders, and the whole church selected Judas and Silas to return with Paul and Barnabas to tell the believers with a gentile origin in Antioch and Syria, the things written in a letter, basically the essentials – that they abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, from what has been strangled, from blood, and from fornication.
The last section of the chapter focused on division in the Apostles’ leadership. Paul and Barnabas decided to revisit the cities where they had proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they were doing. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them. Paul decided he did not want to take John Mark because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. “Luke also does not mention that theological tensions had also developed between Paul and Barnabas (see Gal 2:11-12).” The disagreement resulted in them parting company. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed to Cyprus (his hometown). Paul chose Silas, set out, and went to Syria and Cilicia, with the believers commending them in the grace of the Lord. “Now that the kind of Gentile mission Paul has initiated has been approved by the Jerusalem church, the remainder of Acts is devoted to Paul’s mission work, which will finally bring him to Rome.”[v] We no longer hear from Peter, Barnabas, or John Mark in this chapter.
Prayer: Dear God: We are mindful that we are saved by grace through faith. We sometimes wonder if your grace is sufficient for us. With your grace, we have the freedom to make a commitment to have a relationship with you, to be your Disciples. There are things that we should practice as believers. While salvation is a free gift to us, it does require something of us: A heart surrendered to you. So help us to surrender our lives to you again, anew, every day. In Jesus name, Amen.
[i]Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The Peoples New Testament Commentary, pg. 417.
[iv] Ibid., pg. 418.
[v] Pg. 423.