Acts 15:1-35

Text Comment


A fuller report of this general development is apparently to be found in Galatians 2:11-14. There is a debate about the relationship between the material in Acts and that in Galatians, but all in all it seems that these two passages are describing the same time and the same events.

“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?'”

Peter had joined them in Antioch — note the “stayed there [i.e. Antioch] for a long time” in 14:28 — and was continuing the work with the Gentiles he had begun in Caesarea and had defended before the disciples in Jerusalem. But when certain men came from James [that is, the Just] — it does not say that James told them to do this — the unity of the Jewish and Gentile believers in Antioch was disrupted. These “judaizers” wanted to reestablish the priority of Jewish religious culture and to require Gentile converts to observe the most important regulations of Jewish life [no doubt, especially, circumcision, the Saturday Sabbath, and the dietary laws]. They were sufficiently bold to cow Peter, though probably he thought that he was preserving peace in the church with his capitulation to these men. After all, after his vision at Joppa, his experience with Cornelius, and the lessons that he himself had taught the church in Jerusalem, it is doubtful that he had any longer a theoretical objection to the acceptance of Gentiles as Gentiles in the Christian church. But for Paul, a great principle was at stake and he saw very clearly that one could insist on Gentile accommodation to Jewish religious culture only on a false principle that struck at the root of the gospel — that something more was necessary than faith in Christ working through love.


Clearly, there was in their minds but one church and thus there must be a general understanding that applies to all Christians everywhere.

All through this section we are given to believe that the elders of the church functioned in this assembly on an equal footing with the apostles. In the providence of God, their conclusion was reached not by apostolic fiat, as we might have expected — but by the deliberations of the church’s collected leadership, comparing their circumstances with Holy Scripture. This will be one of the features of this history that makes it so important to the church subsequently. We can well imagine someone there thinking or even saying, “Why are we having this discussion? We’ve got apostles here; let them tell us what the will of God is!”


Note that there were Christians who still identified with the party of the Pharisees. Since the Pharisees did believe in resurrection, which the Sadducees did not, they could become Christians with much of their theological system intact. But that meant that there was a great danger that they would carry their legalistic mindset with them into the new faith. Sure, Gentiles are welcome in the church; but only on the old basis, conformity to Moses. Paul saw clearly that one of the reasons why Gentiles had to be welcomed as Gentiles and not as practicing Jews was that only in that way could it be clear that justification was by faith and not by works.


The apostles did not monopolize the conversation. Now that would have been interesting to see. Elders standing up to argue their opinions while Peter, James, and Paul listened in their pews! But, when Peter gets up to speak it is clear that the issue has crystallized in his mind: whether or not salvation is, in fact, a gift, pure and simple.


Many have made the fateful error of supposing that the “yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear” was the law of Moses. But, clearly, that is not Peter’s meaning. Salvation by grace, as Paul will argue so strongly in Romans and elsewhere, is not opposed to the law, it is opposed to legalism — the principle of salvation by works, or merit. That is the yoke, not the religion of Moses, but the religion of the Jews, Moses denatured and turned into a legalistic system. That was what had created Pharisaism and that is what was threatening the new church, not the true religion of God’s covenant with Israel.

We have confirmation of this interpretation in the Lord’s remark in Matthew 23:4, where, condemning the Pharisees explicitly, he said: “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”


It is hard for us to understand why James the Just should occupy the climactic position in this debate — this is James the brother of the Lord — but, perhaps it was the combination of his already great authority and the fact that he was not yet identified with the pro-Gentile party in the mind of the Jerusalem church. But, take careful note, James does not say that the Lord told him what the conclusion should be. He argues a case from the Scripture.


vv. 16-18 pose a problem. If you look at Amos 9:11-12 in your Bibles, you will find a very different text in v. 12, which is Acts 15:17. James is citing Amos 9:12 from the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible done about 200 years before Christ). As it happens, however, there is good reason to believe that, in this case, it is the LXX that has preserved the original text and that it is the Hebrew text used for the English translations of the Bible that is corrupt. [The words “possess” (MT) and “seek” are, in Hebrew, different in but one letter that is often confused. [ “to see”; “to possess” for those of you who know a bit of Hebrew. The daleth and the yodh can look quite alike.] Further the words for Edom and Man are the same, only the vowel points differ, which, as you may know, were added only much later to the Hebrew text, long after Amos’ day. Finally, there is a grammatical feature of the text in Amos as it stands in the Hebrew Bible that suggests there is something wrong [lack of double sign of the accusative.] So, in other words, it is quite likely that what James cites here from the LXX is, in fact, the text of Amos. And so, what Amos is prophesying is in fact the ingathering of the Gentiles as a means of restoring David’s fallen tent! That is, Gentiles — as Gentiles, now making up the Israel of God. (That is James’ point with the text and he, of course, in Jerusalem was not reading a Greek translation of the OT, but the Hebrew!)

[Read Amos 9:11-12: 1) LXX the usual text of OT used in Greek NT; 2) Often minor differences, usually insignificant; sometimes adjusted; 3) but sometimes LXX is true reading.]

You can see why, then, the original Scofield Bible declared that this text was “dispensationally the most important passage in the NT.” [That statement not found in the New Scofield Bible, though the interpretation is the same.] As you may remember, the definitive theological principle of the dispensational system is the distinction between Israel and the church. On this the entire scheme depends: that there are two separate and distinct peoples embraced in God’s plan of salvation and that these peoples do not mix in salvation history. In a way that takes too long to explain, that requires them also to hold that the church, the Gentile church is unrecognized in OT prophecy and that Israel and her fortunes as the prophets speak of them always means ethnic Israel and cannot refer to a spiritual company of Jews and Gentiles together. So, for them, “I will return” cannot refer to the work of ingathering Gentiles into the previously all-jewish Israel, but must refer to the second coming and to God’s later work among Jews at the end of time (the millennium). James cites the text, on their thinking, only to draw out a deduction for the present from what will be true at the end of time.

There are many difficulties with that way of taking this text but we will say only that it does not seem to take the words in their plain sense and further, taken that way, does not seem to provide the unanswerable and clinching argument for Gentile admission into the church that James obviously thought he had.

So, what we have here is a straightforward prophesy of the new era when Gentiles will take the place of Jews in the Israel of God. So Paul in Galatians 6: “Peace be on the Israel of God” to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles.” Or, to a mostly Gentile church in Philippi: “We are the circumcision.” Or to mostly Gentiles in Corinth, “Our forefathers passed through the Red Sea…” Israel is first and foremost a spiritual not a racial company.


James’ suggestion amounts to this. 1) The OT laws which were particularly applicable to that epoch do not bind the Gentiles now entering the church; 2) the Gentile believers should not rub their Jewish brethren’s noses in their liberty, and particularly avoid those activities that would be particularly offensive to Jews but which do not require Gentiles, in effect, to practice the Jewish ceremonial law; and 3) finally, to practice sexual purity, concerning which there was so little conscience in the Gentile world that Gentile Christians needed to make a major adjustment very quickly in this respect, in part because there were believers in the church who knew better and would be hard pressed to believe someone a Christian who was a sexual libertine.


This is not pious advice. This is a deliverance of church law, a decree, which was to be the rule for the church’s life

Now, many of you may be aware that this is the proof text for Presbyterian Church government in the NT. J.H. Thornwell once gave this definition of Presbyterianism:

“The government of the church by… assemblies composed of two classes of elders and elders only, and so arranged as to realize the visible unity of the whole church. This is Presbyterianism.”

Now there are three basic forms of church government.

Episcopal: All authority is clerical; that authority arranged in a hierarchy: Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, Methodist, some charismatic/Pentecostal churches, etc.

Independent/Congregational: authority divided between laity and clergy; no hierarchical government (in general, though in practice within churches there often is); autonomy of the local church: Baptist; Independent; Congregational; Bible Churches; etc.

Presbyterian: share with congregational system a division of authority between laity and clergy and the rejection of hierarchicalism; share with the episcopal system the denial of local autonomy and the insistence upon the manifestation in the church’s government of the visible unity of the church.

  1. Here in Acts 15 a local church not only appeals to the wider church, but the church devises a ruling that it then imposes on others: that is, Antioch and Jerusalem and the Galatian churches were not independent of one another, nor autonomous in their ruling of themselves. They have the right of appeal, but also the duty of submission to the larger body of Christ. Or, to put it otherwise, the same submission which the local church is to require of its members, the larger church requires of its member congregations.
  1. In our day and situation, of course, we can practice this visible unity of the church only to the extent that other Christians agree that this is what ought to be done. But in the PCA we do this as a congregation that belongs to a Presbytery and a Presbytery that belongs to a General Assembly.
  1. But, further, the government to which we are subject is not a bishop acting alone, but an assembly of ministers and elders. A point dramatically enforced here in Acts 15 when the apostles themselves function in this assembly as merely peers of the lay elders. Note the emphasis on this point: “apostles and elders” in vv. 4,6,22,23.

    Some will say that we cannot make anything of this because it is a unique situation and an apostolic situation. But then the apostles do not function here as archbishops but as elders (arguing from Scripture and circumstances), and, what is more, Luke obviously intends to teach us the pattern of church government (we have only the one reference to deacons as well!).

    It is true, we are not told here to have such an assembly three times a year, or that they are to handle such matters as the PCA General Assembly regularly handles. That is our way of applying general principles. They could be applied and have been applied differently elsewhere and at other times. The Bible does not forbid this, it seems rather to encourage it! Lots of flexibility is the rule in the Bible’s teaching of church government.

  1. What is so important, for us today, is the emphasis placed here on the unity and universality of the church. We think of Presbyterianism as chiefly a system of rule by elders or as an anti-hierarchical system. But it is not primarily distinguished in this way. Its foremost characteristic is its insistence upon the unity of the church under a single government.

Nowadays, of course, we can bring such a situation to pass only to the extent that others are willing to join us in it. But our principles require us to work for this and to consider it of the highest importance.

Many Presbyterians today, for example, I am sure are unaware of how vital the unity of the church was to our founding fathers in Presbyterianism. It led them to accept Roman Catholic baptism as true baptism, their ordination as true ordination, even their acts of discipline — so long as the discipline was not exercised so as to perpetuate the corruptions against which the Reformation had protested. Our Scottish fathers thought it a basic requirement of their Presbyterianism to recognize with a thoroughly generous spirit the unity of the Church. [MacPherson, p. 101] As strongly as they rejected the Roman Catholic church’s doctrine and practice in many particulars, they were decidedly unwilling to judge it no longer a Christian church in these other ways. They were always quick to recognize that there were and always had been in its number true followers of Christ and to recognize that there were in their own number those who were not.

We are not in a position, sadly, to have but one government for the Christian church in Tacoma, nor can we make decisions that bind local bodies that belong to other denominations: the Episcopalians or Methodists or Baptists, e.g. But it is essential that we care to remember and always to act in conformity with this principle of the unity of the church. It prevents parochialism — so much a problem in the churches in which I was raised — and a loss of the greater vision for the church — which virtually did not exist in the church’s of my upbringing. A great loss I now know. I do not belong to the Presbyterian Church, except instrumentally. I belong to the Christian church, Christ’s body, and to any and every true Christian. Their church is my church and vice versa and the more we remember that the more we will act in keeping with it — whether in terms of treasuring the church’s past, or working with believers across denominational lines today, or seeking greater measure of unity in the future. [The Holy Spirit teaches us this: Revival in Dundee in Smellie, McCheyne, 116, top para.]

[I know a Scottish publishing house, conservative Presbyterians mostly, who will not publish material that is complimentary of St. Francis or Pascal for their Romanism. A great loss and, in my judgment, contrary to the spirit of Acts 15 and the one, holy, catholic church we confess in our creed. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. And I can say that without in any way minimizing the importance of separation from serious doctrinal error. This synod was called to deal and refute doctrinal error and to require churches to conform to true teaching!]

What a wonderful advantage the early church had and what strength it derived from its unity (all too soon shattered in various ways!). The most powerful argument still of Roman Catholic vs. Protestantism is that we destroyed the unitas ecclesiae! Well, we say, and rightly, that they destroyed it not we. They kicked the reformers out, the men didn’t leave! If sectarianism is unavoidable, at least we ought to reduce its effects as much as possible. A wide interest in the church of God, cultivated in every direction possible is a good beginning. The Church of God is a far greater thing than this huge bunch of isolated sects appears to be. It takes faith to know it, but it is true and truth worth our commitment.