Acts 15:1-21

Paul and Barnabas had returned from their first evangelistic and church planting tour and had reported their amazing success to the church in Antioch, the church that had sent them on that tour. It is what missionaries do still today, come home to report on their work to the churches that support them. They had especially reported the enthusiastic response of Gentiles to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For several years now, Gentiles had been responding joyfully to the preaching of the good news and had been baptized and assimilated into the Christian church. The evangelization and assimilation of Gentiles was gathering momentum. No doubt at some point during this time the tipping point was reached, with Gentile Christians in Antioch, Cyprus, Galatia, and elsewhere now outnumbering Jewish Christians. Up to this point everyone seemed delighted at this historic development. God was doing it, after all! But now comes a problem. It turns out that not everyone was as enthusiastic about Gentiles entering the church as Luke’s narrative to this point has seemed to imply.

Text Comment

v.2       Though Antioch was north of Judea, it was lower in elevation. One always came down from Judea and up to Jerusalem.

Another report of this unhappy development is found in Galatians 2:11-14, where Paul famously recollects his having to rebuke Peter publicly for having caved to pressure being exerted by this Judaizing element in the Antioch church that had arrived from Jerusalem. The terms “Judaizing” and “Judaizer” are long established terms of art to describe a Jewish Christian party in the early church that, fiercely loyal to Jewish spiritual culture and not fully liberated from a rabbinic mind-set, demanded that salvation required of Gentiles that they become Jews. They were happy to have Gentiles become Christians, but they insisted that they become Jews in order to do so. In other words, to be a Christian one had to become a Jew; a Christian was, in the nature of the case, a Jewish follower of Jesus. For a Gentile to become a Jew meant circumcision and also the observance of the most important features of Jewish spiritual culture: the Saturday Sabbath and the laws of clean and unclean food. By this time Judaism had almost entirely lost the requirement of  blood sacrifice – with so many Jews living so far from Jerusalem – so it was these other acts of piety that were the definition of true Jewish identity. Peter, as he had learned in the case of Cornelius in chapter 10, and as we know from his own report of the event in Acts 11, knew that God was not requiring Gentiles to become Jews in order to be Christians, but peer pressure is a powerful thing and it undid that good man in this case. Even Barnabas, who had seen the Gentiles respond in great numbers, who had no doubt baptized them himself, was undone by the pressure applied by these men from Jerusalem who were claiming to speak for James.

In any case, it was Paul who saw most clearly that a fundamental principle was at stake; that to require something more and something other than faith in Jesus for salvation was to introduce into the economy of salvation a principle of human performance and so undermine the good news that salvation was a gift of God’s free grace and the accomplishment of Christ alone. Salvation, in that case, would then require not only what Christ had done for us, but what we must do ourselves in obedience to God’s law. Paul’s letter to the Galatians – who had been meantime confused by this same sort of teaching – was almost certainly written at this time.

Now that term “elders” is very important. Throughout the following narrative we will find the “elders,” “presbyters” in Greek, functioning alongside and together with the apostles in the leadership of the church.

v.4       In other words, the church, in those environs still mostly Jewish, was delighted to hear of the work of God among the Gentiles and quite ready to accept that Gentiles did not need to become Jews to be authentic Christians. The impression of the narrative confirms that the Judaizing element in the church was seeking to turn the clock back, not to preserve the status quo. Gentiles had already been assimilated into the church as Gentiles.

v.5       When you think of it, there is nothing surprising that there should have been Christians, and perhaps in large numbers, from the party of the Pharisees. Converts had come from all the various parties into which first century Judaism was divided. But the Pharisees were the people who believed most firmly in the resurrection of the body at the end of the age. So, almost certainly, more from the Pharisees would have become Christians than from the Sadducees, for whom the denial of the resurrection was a first principle of their theological outlook. Nor is it surprising that the Pharisaic mind-set – legalistic and moralistic – had not been thoroughly purged from these new believers. Christians often carry into their new life, even unbeknownst to themselves, prejudices from their old.

v.7       It is highly important to notice that the apostles did not monopolize the conversation as we might have expected them to do. Peter spoke only after many others had spoken before him. The apostles were, after all, the Lord’s hand-picked successors. No one had the authority that they had in the Christian church. We would have hardly been surprised if they had met in conclave and simply delivered their judgment as to what was to be done. But the elders contributed to the discussion and debate as well. When Peter stood up to speak, it becomes clear that, whatever his actions in Antioch might have suggested, the issue had crystallized in his mind: what was at stake was whether salvation is a gift, pure and simple, or if in any respect it must be earned.

v.10     Many have made the terrible mistake of supposing that “the yoke” that neither they nor their fathers could bear was the Law of Moses itself. But as the entire NT makes clear, the Law of Moses was a friend of the gospel, not an enemy, certainly not a heavy yoke or an impossible burden. The law was not opposed to the gospel nor the gospel to the law.  The “yoke” was the oppressive result of the rabbinic misunderstanding and misuse of the law, particularly prominent among the Pharisees, the law corrupted and denatured by its being incorporated into a system of self-effort and meritorious obedience. We have confirmation of this understanding of Peter’s remark in Matthew 23:4, the verse you should put in the margin of your bible next to verse 10, where Jesus condemned the Pharisees for tying up “heavy loads and putting them on men’s shoulders while they themselves were unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The Pharisees did that, not Moses!

v.11     Clearly Peter saw the situation as Paul did: the question surfaced by the Judaizers’ demand was nothing less than whether salvation was the free gift of God’s grace. And what had been made clear by the action of God was that in the matter of salvation God was making no distinction between Jew and Gentile. He was giving his gift to the one as to the other.

v.12     In other words, the Lord himself had given his grace to the Gentiles without first requiring them to become Jews.

v.13     It strikes us as surprising that James the Just, the brother of the Lord, who was not one of the original Twelve, should deliver the decisive argument in this debate. Perhaps this is due simply to the great authority which, by this time, attached to the man, but perhaps also to the fact that he was not yet identified in everyone’s mind with the pro-Gentile freedom party. So when James spoke for Gentile freedom from Jewish ceremonial regulations it had a profound effect on everyone. Indeed, in Galatians 2 Paul says that the trouble-makers both in Antioch and Galatia had come “from James.” No doubt they thought they were giving James’ opinion, but we read later in this chapter, in v. 24, that, in fact, they had neither James’ authorization nor were faithfully representing James’ viewpoint.

In any case, take careful note of the fact that James did not say that the Lord had revealed to him what their conclusion should be; he argued his case from the Scriptures. The acts and decisions of councils have no authority apart from that derived from their agreement with the Word of God. That was true even when apostles were part of the council!

v.14     Simeon was Peter’s Aramaic name and the name by which he would have been known among the Jews.

v.18     Now there is a long standing problem here. If you look at Amos 9:11-12 in your Bibles, you will find a different text in v. 12 than you find here in the quotation of that same verse in Acts 15:17. In the one, Israel is to “possess the remnant of Edom”; in the other “the rest of mankind may seek the Lord.” Two very different statements! James is citing Amos 9:12 from the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT executed some 200 years before Christ, but that is also a form of the text found in Hebrew at Qumran. [Peterson, 431] As it happens there is good reason to think that the LXX has preserved the original text of Amos and that the Masoretic text, the official Hebrew text of Amos – used for all translations of the OT – is corrupt. For example, the words “possess” (MT) and “seek” (LXX) are, in Hebrew different in but one letter and the two letters are often confused (the daleth and the yodh can look quite alike). Further the words “Edom” and “man” are the same, differing only in the vowels, which, as you may remember, were not written in the Hebrew text until long after Amos’ day, indeed until long after the time of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, it is likely that James’ citation of Amos is, in fact, what Amos actually wrote. That means that what Amos was prophesying was the ingathering of the Gentiles – of the nations en masse as the divinely appointed means of restoring David’s fallen tent, or the nation and people of Israel. That is, as Paul will put it in Galatians 6, the prophets prophesied that a largely Gentile church would someday be the Israel of God.

To admit this, by the way, would destroy the dispensational system, based, as you may know, on the absolute distinction between Israel and the church. For dispensationalists, the “After this I will return…” must refer to the Second Coming, by which time the Gentile church – of which the OT is supposed to know nothing – will have been raptured and taken to heaven, and God will once again begin dealing in salvation with his ancient people the Jews. But that is obviously not what the text says nor the conclusion James draws from it. Jews and Gentiles are the church together as Amos said they would be! In other words, what James found in Amos 9:11-12 was a straightforward prophecy of the new era when Gentiles would take the place of Jews among the people of God. So Paul will say to an almost exclusively Gentile church in Philippi, “We are the circumcision,” or to the largely Gentile church in Corinth, “Our forefathers passed through the Red Sea…” Israel is first and foremost a spiritual, not a racial or ethnic community. The inclusion of Gentiles in the church had been foretold by the prophets!

v.21     We will attend to this next time, but for now, consider the counsel that was to be sent to the Gentile Christians as nothing more than amounting to asking them to abstain from practices that would be particularly offensive to their Jewish Christian brethren.

This text is of immense importance for a variety of reasons. The lengthy remarks I made as I read it to you are some indication of how many issues of biblical interpretation and Christian practice congregate in these few verses. Historically, as more than one commentator has pointed out, Acts 15 is the “centerpiece” or “watershed” of the book of Acts, since Luke, a Gentile himself, is clearly interested in the establishment of a church chock full of Gentiles who remain Gentiles, even as they become Christians. For this reason, Peter makes his final appearance in Acts here in chapter 15. From now on the focus of the history is Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. It was the decision of the Jerusalem synod or assembly or council that set the gospel free to become the Lord’s gracious invitation to all mankind. [Stott, 241] 

This text has also been said to be, in the original notes of the influential Schofield Reference Bible, “dispensationally the most important passage in the New Testament.” Take it the way I suggested it be taken and the dispensational system crumbles to nothing, no matter its influence upon generations of American Christians. But this text is also the proof-text for Presbyterian church government. Perhaps you thought that Presbyterians would look to 1 Timothy 3 and its account of elders and deacons or 1 Corinthians 12 or Romans 12 with their enumeration of the gifts of the Holy Spirit where we find the gifts of teaching, of ruling, and of serving. But much more important than those is and has long been Acts 15.

Here we find 1) a local church appealing to the larger church concerning a matter of doctrine and practice. Antioch was not independent of Jerusalem. They belonged together to the same church and the judgments reached by the assembly of elders applied to all the churches. The church is one, one spiritually and one organizationally. Historically, this is the most important principle of Presbyterianism, though one it shares with episcopal forms of church government. Obviously, nowadays we can only practice this unity to the extent that others agree with us to do so, but in the PCA we do this by being a congregation – not in Antioch but in Tacoma, WA – that belongs to a presbytery, a regional church, that itself belongs to the larger Church, our general assembly.

To be sure, the world of the church is very different today than it was in those long lost early days. The proliferation of denominations has made a mockery of the unity of the church. But Presbyterians have always insisted on that principle of church unity. Indeed, in its early days, this was, perhaps, the distinguishing feature of Presbyterianism, its commitment to the unity of the church. It was this commitment that led our fathers to accept Roman Catholic baptism as true Christian baptism, Roman Catholic ordination as true Christian ordination, even Roman Catholic discipline as true discipline, so long as the discipline was not exercised to perpetuate the corruptions against which the Reformation had protested. Much as they rejected Roman Catholic theology, much as they had suffered from Roman Catholic persecution, they refused to unchurch the Roman Catholics. The early Presbyterians were determined to maintain that the church was one and that it was therefore an obligation for Christians to practice that unity as much as was possible. Still today, the most powerful argument that Roman Catholics deploy against Protestants is that we have destroyed the unity of the church, chopping it up into all these little bits and pieces of denominations and independent congregations. That is not fair, of course, since the Protestants didn’t so much leave the medieval church as they were driven out. As Paul said, there must sometimes be divisions to prove who are, in fact, the true people of God. But take note of the wonderful advantage the early church had and what strength it derived from its unity. If sectarianism is unavoidable, as it seems to be, let us at least be on our mettle to moderate its effects as much as possible and in all things be committed to the one, holy, catholic church.

But we also find here 2) the church’s leaders acting in concert to govern the people of God. The most striking feature of this history is that in this Jerusalem assembly of church leaders, the apostles were considered peers. They shared in the debate, they did not simply utter deliverances from heaven. Note the emphasis on this point here in verses 4, 6, 22, and 23, where we read of “apostles and elders” together at work. There is no pope here; not even a bishop or bishops exercising authority over the other leaders. What we find in Acts 15 is a community of leadership, men examining the Word of God together, debating the implications of its teaching, and coming to a united decision. We are not told, of course, whether the vote, if vote there were, was unanimous. We learn elsewhere in the New Testament that the issue was not settled here in everyone’s mind. Judaizing continued to agitate the church for some time. But the church had spoken with united voice on the question and no doubt that made a great difference as the years passed.

You see now why Presbyterians have since the beginning appealed to Acts 15 as the demonstration of the biblical foundation of their church government. Indeed, there are great Episcopalian biblical scholars who have admitted that the earliest church was Presbyterian in its church government. No one less than the great 19th century Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar, J.B. Lightfoot, was willing to concede that. They did not think that fact meant that we should be Presbyterians today, but they admitted that the government of the church encountered in the New Testament was Presbyterian.

But that is still not the great significance of Acts 15. It’s first and foremost importance is not the disproof of dispensationalism or the establishment of Presbyterian church government. These are important, but they pale in importance to the issue for which the assembly in Jerusalem was convened in the first place. No one thinks that the great message of the Bible concerns church government or even the history of divine revelation. The great issue was and has always been and is today the salvation of sinners. When Paul summarizes his message as “the word of the cross,” he is telling us what is and must remain of first importance for Christians. John Bradford, the English reformer and martyr, wrote on the inside front cover of a friend’s New Testament “This book is called sermo crucis…” that is, the word of the cross. The whole book, Bradford was saying, is first and foremost the record of the accomplishment of salvation by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and of the proclamation of that salvation as a free gift received by faith. Surely, the principal cause of the disunity of the church over the centuries since the days of the New Testament has been a failure on the part of Christians to remember what is of first importance, what matters most, what is most essential to our life as Christians and to our message to the world: “that God sent his son into the world to save sinners…”

We must never forget this, never lose touch with the realization that it is this before and above anything else that is the touchstone of our faith as Christians and the sum of the message it is our privilege to proclaim to the world: “For by grace are you saved by faith in Jesus Christ.” Even Peter once lost sight of this; how much more you and I must be susceptible to the same mistake! Years ago now, I came across this quotation of Prof. Max Mueller of Oxford University, speaking in 1901 to the British and Foreign Bible Society.

“In the discharge of my duties for forty years as professor of Sanskrit in the University of Oxford I have devoted as much time as any man living to the study of the sacred books of the East, and I have found the one key-note, the one diapason, so to speak, of all these so-called sacred books,…the one refrain through all – salvation by works. They all say that salvation must be purchased, must be bought with a price, and that the sole price, the sole purchase-money, must be our works and our deservings. Our own Holy Bible, our sacred Book of the East, is from beginning to end a protest against this doctrine. Good works are indeed enjoined upon us in that sacred Book of the East; but they are only the outcome of a grateful heart; they are only a thank-offering, the fruits of our faith. They are never the ransom-money of the true disciples of Christ. Let us not shut our eyes to what is excellent and true and of good report in these sacred books; but let us teach Hindus and Buddhists, and [Muslims] that there is only one sacred Book of the East that can be their mainstay in that awful hour when they pass all alone into the unseen world. It is the sacred Book which contains that faithful saying, worthy to be received of all men, women, and children, and not merely of us Christians, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” [Bavinck, GD, iii, 553n; translated in J.T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics, 5-6]

It was precisely that conviction that the Jews had lost in Jesus’ day, precisely that conviction that this party of Pharisaic Christians were in danger of undermining in the church that fateful day in Jerusalem when the apostles and elders met to discuss precisely how and in what way Gentiles might belong to the Israel of God, and it was precisely that conviction that was preserved in the judgment of that synod, through the arguments of Peter and James and, perhaps above all, by the accounts from Paul and Barnabas of what the Holy Spirit himself had been doing among the Gentiles.

Everyone who, from the heart, confesses that salvation is from the Lord and not to any degree of my own doing, everyone who looks to Jesus on the cross alone for his peace with God, everyone who understands that what faith does is nothing more nor less than laying hold of a gift that the triune God has placed in his or her hand – I say, that person, and every such person, is a Christian and so my brother or sister, whatever may be our disagreements otherwise. That is why the church is one and why we ought to act and operate according to that unity as these ancient men did when they attended history’s first presbytery meeting.

As the Scot John Duncan tartly put it: “I defy man or angel to free themselves from guilt without an atonement, and to free themselves from depravity without regeneration.” [Just a Talker, 163] But both of those acts – atonement and regeneration – are uniquely and necessarily divine acts, absolutely impossible for men; possible only for God. And so it is that the first principle of salvation is that it is a gift, unearned, undeserved, unmerited, even unsought. God planned it before we were made; he made it before we were born, God gave it to us before we knew we needed it; and he put it into our hearts and our hand before we would ever have thought of it or desired to grasp it for ourselves.

A wise man once wrote, “The main thing in life is to keep the main thing in life the main thing in life.” But how hard it is for us to that. How easily the main thing gets lost among all the other things and how soon other things can seem more important to us than that one thing without which nothing else means anything at all.

We wish we could today overhear the debate as it went on, no doubt for hours, in that room in Jerusalem. How close did those men come to muddying the waters forever and to making unclear to the world for the ages to follow the one thing that must be luminously clear to men and women without distinction: that Christ and Christ alone can save them from their sin and grant them entrance into eternal life? The Lord preserved his gospel and his Word in that Jerusalem meeting on that fateful day. To him be love and praise forever and ever for having done so!