Acts 15:1-35

Power that Replaces the Law

2000, J.W. Carter
Scripture quotes from KJV

Click the speaker icon to listen to this scripture passage:  speaker.gif (1006 bytes)


Chapter 14 saw the return of Saul and Barnabas from their first missionary journey. They were sent out by the Christian church in Antioch of Syria a couple of years after they established the church. They went first to the island of Cyprus where they preached in two cities, Salamis and Paphos. In the latter city, the governor of the island and his household was saved, encouraging the spread of Christianity throughout the island. From there they crossed over the Mediterranean Sea to the North, landing at Perga of Pamphilia where John Mark, who had traveled with them from Antioch left them and returned home. From there, Paul (who had changed his name from the Hebrew name, Saul to the Greek name, Paul) continued North into what is now Eastern Turkey to the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Churches were started in these cities among considerable controversy when the non-believing Jews tried to stop Paul’s preaching. Paul was stoned and left for dead in Iconium, but quickly recovered. After tracing their steps back to the Mediterranean, they sailed for Antioch, ending the missionary Journey. (Acts 13-14).

Acts 15:1.

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.

One consistent characteristic of the church is that it is made up of a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds, each bringing in their unique personality, gifts, and talents. Unfortunately, church members also bring in all of the unwashed laundry of unrepented sin. For example, one of the most destructive forces in the church is unrepented pride. Pride, expressed in any area of the church always serves to divide and stratify its members, quite the opposite of the unity that is prompted by the Holy Spirit. Pride is one of the sins that the scripture describes as "anathema" to God. Certainly, its destructive power in the lives of Christians is one reason. Though the example of church conflict that we are going to find in the first part of Acts, chapter 15 is not entirely one of pride, the expression of pride on the part of those creating the conflict is certainly a part.

As the church in Antioch grew, its need for more teachers and leaders is evident. As people start to fulfill these responsibilities, they must be careful to adhere to the truth of the gospel. All church leaders should be very cognizant of the imperative that is written by James:

James 3:1. My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

Those who take on the responsibility of teaching and leading other Christians also take on the responsibility of doing so in a spirit of Agape love, and in truth. They have the ability, because of their position, to influence other Christians. This influence can be to bring them closer to a knowledge and love of the Lord, or it can take them away from the truth of the Gospel. More often than not, when a leader is motivated by pride, they will lead people in the incorrect direction, and for that offense, they will be more strictly judged for their act. Why would a leader be more strictly judged? When the church selects a leader, it should be doing so because it is submitting itself in trust to that leader. Therefore the leader should know the truth, and because of that knowledge, is expected to adhere to it.

Some of the leaders in the church in Antioch were from Judea, the country surrounding Jerusalem. They started teaching the members that salvation by grace was not enough to be saved. In order to be right with God, they would also have to adhere to the Mosaic Law, a burden experienced by the Jews since Moses took them out of Egypt. In addition to the Law, the Jews had created a system of additional laws, rules, and regulations that guided every part of the Jewish life. These teachers were expecting that Christians should also adhere to these rules and regulations in order that they would be saved.

Why would the leaders teach such a thing? First, we should not be too hard on them since these rules and regulations were all that they ever knew. Second, Christianity was viewed by the Christian Jews as an extension, or completion, of Judaism. Many Jews did not think of Christians as being separate from Judaism, and therefore subject to its tenets.

Though we do not expect Christians to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law, the modern Christian church sometimes does add works of the flesh to the one work of the Holy Spirit in its definition of salvation. Salvation is by faith alone, and not of any works. (Eph. 2:9) The Ephesian imperative against works states that salvation denies works so that no person can boast about what they have done. However, we sometimes forget that salvation is by faith alone through God’s grace, and we add on some other requirements. What are some of these? Some denominations require sacraments, works that are required for salvation, such as baptism, attendance in ceremonies, and participation in the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper.) Still other churches establish additional rules and regulations, often identifiable as a list of "Do nots" such as "Do not drink," "Do not dance," etc. Some denominations take scriptural examples to deny people access to the body if they wear their hair the wrong way, wear the incorrect clothing, etc. The list goes on and on.

You can just imagine the response of the church when these Jewish believers demanded that all males be circumcised.  Considered a repugnant rite by the Gentiles, they were certainly resistant to the suggestion.  Furthermore, this is not what Paul and Barnabas was teaching, so they were most likely confused by the mixed messages they were receiving from their teachers.  Paul and Barnabas demonstrated and preached about the joy of grace.  These teachers were adding works that would be considered necessary for obedience; works that suggested neither joy nor grace.

What is it called when Christians add works to the simplicity of faith? It is called Legalism. Legalism is simply the establishment of a set of rules that are added to God’s grace as a requirement for acceptance into the fellowship. Judaic culture was the epitome of legalism. There were rules and regulations for every facet of life. It was these rules that the Judaizers attempted to require of the new Christian converts. What was the response of Paul and Barnabas to their teaching?

Acts 15:2a.

When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them

The scripture gives no details of the discussions that took place between Paul, Barnabas and the Judaizers, but it is clear that the dispute was acute. We see an example of considerable conflict in the body of believers. Certainly, the Holy Spirit leads us to maintain unity in the body of believers, and that unity should be firmly defended, protected, and promoted. There is only one occasion when we should take a stand on an issue that could divide the church, and this is an example. When should we take such a stand? Truth should never be compromised in order to maintain unity. The Truth of God’s word is paramount to the health of the church body, and when that truth is being compromised, Christians must step forward and deal with the conflict, as Paul and Barnabas did here. However, we should be very careful to limit such actions to errors in truth, and not include in the list of offenses anything that is simply our own opinion or desire. That is when pride enters the situation and creates greater dissention and destruction. Before starting any action that could disrupt the unity of the body, Christians should be very sure that the action is intended to correct basic doctrinal error. Usually such conflicts do not involve doctrinal error, they involve dogma and tradition of the church, or the personal opinions of those involved in the conflict.

The example in the Antioch church is one of basic doctrinal error: salvation is by grace alone, and does not require any additional works.

Acts 15:2b.

...they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.

How did the church go about resolving this conflict? First, they responded to the conflict quickly.  Dealing with persecution from outside the church could be borne in joy.  Conflict that arises within the church can not be borne so easily.  Many times churches refuse to deal with conflict hoping that it will simply go away.   Usually in such a situation, the conflict escalates into a division in the body.   In the case of the Antioch church, they had what they perceived to be a higher authority to whom they could go for a resolution. Note that Paul and Barnabas did not simply over-shout their opponents into submission. They willingly submitted themselves to the decisions of the body to send them and others to the Jerusalem church for guidance. Actually, this would be quite advantageous to the gospel, since the influence of Judaizers was not limited to the church in Antioch. The church in Jerusalem tended to be very legalistic since many of its members were also practicing Jews. Those Jews who maintained their legalistic practices were also expecting the same from other members of the church. Actually, this desire by Jewish Christians to subjugate Gentile Christians under the Mosaic Law and Jewish tradition was one that would continue to create conflict throughout the entire century. Since the apostles were in Jerusalem, the church sent Paul and Barnabas to them to seek a resolution to the doctrinal impasse.

Acts 15:3-4.

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. 4And 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.

The trip to Jerusalem took several days, and took the disciples through Phoenicia and Samaria. As they went, they continued to share the gospel with those whom they met. The scripture also implies that there were "brothers" to whom the news of what God was doing was being shared, implying the presence of Christian churches throughout the region. They then arrived in Jerusalem where they were warmly received, and to whom they gave an account of what had taken place since their last visit. This would have included the experiences of the first missionary journey as well as the account of the conflict in the Antioch church.  It is notable that they were welcomed by the believers in Jerusalem, but the welcome seemed rather cool.  There is no indication of the embraces, the joy that is often described in such meetings.  They were still unsure of Paul's sincerity, though Barnabas was less of a threat.  Their welcome would be considered in our culture as "politically correct."

Acts 15:5-6.

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. 6And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.

What did they find when they started discussing the conflict in Antioch? The same conflict was present in the Jerusalem church. Apparently the conflict was under control in that body, as the leadership was united around the doctrine of grace.  However, there is now evidence of an undercurrent of disagreement among the Judaizers.  The Judaizers are referred to in verse 5 as "the party of the Pharisees." What did the sect of the Pharisees require? They, like the Judaizers in Antioch, said that it is necessary that Gentiles be circumcised and follow Jewish law (which for them included both the law of Moses and the rules and regulations of the Pharisees that are recorded in the thousands of pages of the Talmud and Mispah.

It is apparent that the heated discussion that arose in Antioch had not been experienced by the Jerusalem church. This implies that its leaders were united in their agreement on doctrine, and the Judaizers did not have the power to divide the church. Their opinion was tolerated as long as they did not teach the requirement to other believers. Consequently, when this very important question arose, they were able to come together and discuss the matter.

Acts 15:7-11.

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. 8And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; 9And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.

After much discussion, Peter rose up. What was Peter’s position in this congregation? He was certainly the most influential and respected member of the church. Furthermore, as the one closest to Jesus during His ministry, Peter was able to speak with authority and truth. Peter’s response to this issue would be authoritative and final. Only those closest to Peter would, by this time, challenge him on his doctrine. Some argue that Peter was the pastor of the church in Jerusalem, and others argue that James held this position. Peter was the pastor according to the dogma of a few Christian church denominations. The scriptural description of the church from the time that Peter was imprisoned by Herod seems to lean towards James as the pastor. This segment of scripture would do the same.

What was Peter’s opinion of the doctrine of the Judaizers? Peter had to remember his introduction to and conversion of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion. Peter saw Gentiles coming to the Lord, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being saved without any benefit of the Mosaic Law. In fact, the Law and Jewish traditions played no part at all in the salvation experience of any believer, be he Jew or Gentile. How did Peter describe the Jewish Law and traditions? They were a "yoke of bondage" that even the Jews could not bear. Likewise, legalism, when expressed in the Christian church is a "yoke of bondage." That is not related to either the experience or maintenance of salvation. Paul would later write in his letter to the Galatians a complete argument against the expression of legalism in the church. It was a tool of Satan that Paul would find everywhere he looked as he visited and heard from the churches. Paul was adamant that the purpose of the Law was to expose the sin that Jesus Christ died on the cross to account for. The Law performs this purpose on all those who have not accepted Christ, but for the believer, the Law is no longer a burden. When the Holy Spirit enters the heart of a believer, God’s Word, His Law, enters their heart also. Christians know, by listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, what they should and should not do. It is no longer necessary to memorize and adhere to traditional law to do so.

We can spend eternity digging into Peter's words, and by so doing we can come up with no other plan of salvation.  Salvation is by grace alone, through faith in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, expressing God’s agape love for all mankind. All people can come to Christ without regard to their creed, culture, sinful acts, or any other act of man. God will take you where you are, give you the gift of His Holy Spirit, who will then live in you and lead you to righteousness without any requirement of written or cultural law.

Acts 15:12-14.

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. 13And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: 14Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.

After Peter speaks, Barnabas and Paul both shared their testimonies of the might works that God had done among the Gentiles. The congregation showed respect for them by their silence. Most likely, they were quite astonished by their descriptions of what was taking place among the Gentiles. The church in Jerusalem did not share the missionary/evangelistic fervor that was characterized in the Antioch church. This church was made up primarily of Jews who brought into the church their prejudices against Gentiles. Though they were understanding that the gospel was also for the Gentiles, it was very difficult for them to overcome their prejudices, so the Jerusalem church, and the disciples and apostles who served in it were not as effective in taking the gospel outside Judaism as were Paul, Barnabas, and the other missionaries who would later be sent out of the Antioch church.

When they had shared their stories of how God was working in the Gentile community, James spoke. James was the half-brother of Christ who was saved after the resurrection. Peter tended to be the preacher, and James tended to be the pastor with his practical approach to the ministry as is evident in the epistle of James. What was James’ position? As Peter spoke for the apostles, James spoke for the disciples and agreed with Peter’s statement, a position that supported the doctrine of Paul and Barnabas.

Acts 15:15-18.

And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 16After 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: 17That the residue 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. 18Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.

James quotes the words of the prophet, Amos 9:11-12. Amos speaks of David’s fallen tent. When Jesus spoke of this event, He referred to it as the destruction of the Temple. However, Jesus said that He would restore the Temple in three days. After Jesus was resurrected and the Holy Spirit came to live in the hearts of the believer, the Christian became the "Temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 6:19.) Amos spoke of the destruction of the ways of Judaism when he spoke of the remnant of the Jews and the Gentiles who would bear the Name of the Lord. This is a very profound prophesy that bears understanding. The prophet clearly stated that Judaism would come to an end, and the church of God would be rebuilt with a remnant of Jews and with the Gentiles, exactly what had happened within the experience of this church in Jerusalem. They had seen the prophesy fulfilled in their own lifetimes. Furthermore, Amos states that this event was part of God’s plan all along.

As a Christian attempts to communicate the gospel to the Jewish community, this prophesy of Amos can be very helpful in pointing to Jesus as the Messiah, and inviting those in the Jewish Community to be part of the remnant that Amos speaks of. Put this verse in your tool box.

Acts 15:19-21.

Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

James then gives some instruction, and by doing so, exposes a little bit of the authority that he holds in the church. What does James suggest that the church should do in regards to the Gentiles? First, he states that the burden of the law should not be placed upon the Gentiles. Then he gives them a list of things that they should abstain from, a small list of items, rather than a huge tome that is the Mizpah and the Talmud. James lists four things:

    1. Abstain from food that comes from animals that have been sacrificed to idols.
    2. Abstain from sexual immorality,
    3. Abstain from eating the meat of animals who have been strangled,
    4. Abstain from eating blood.

Are these four things that James stated to be laws that the Gentile Christians must adhere to? We will find from the subsequent text that there is no intent of legalism stated in these words. It is a suggestion of behavior that would be expedient as they portend to be Godly people. Many Christians abstain from behaviors specifically because it would damage their testimony among those outside the body of Christ who would not understand. Paul addresses these issues in his letter to the Romans (Chapter 12) among other places. The key here is the word, "abstain." Rather than being a written law, it is a call for abstinence.

Acts 15:22.

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:

With this, the event referred to by most Bible students as the "Jerusalem Conference" ended. They gave their ascent to Paul and Barnabas to return to Antioch with the news of the "official position" taken by the Jerusalem church. Furthermore, they sent with them two emissaries, who by their presence, would validate the news. They called two of their leaders, Judas Barsabbas (Judas son of Sabbas) and Silas, who were leaders in the Jerusalem. This visit to Antioch was intended to be a simple chaperone assignment for Judas and Silas. However, once they arrive in Antioch, they will find themselves amazed by the power of the Spirit of God in that church, and their lives would never be the same again.

Acts 15:23-29.

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: 24Forasmuch 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: 25It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. 28For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.

The church in Jerusalem did something the modern church seems rarely willing to do. They placed their decision in writing and sent it out among the other churches that had been formed. In it they simply validated the presence of Judas and Silas, commended Paul and Barnabas, and repeated the requests of James for abstinence in the four areas. Again, in the letter it is clearly stated that "you will do well to avoid these things." They are something to be avoided, not something that will cause them to lose their salvation. If this were the case, the argument would have been clearly stated as such. With the testimony of Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James clearly favoring salvation by faith alone, such a requirement would never have been considered.

What are some of the things that Christians should abstain from, even though we are "no longer under the Law?" Many feel that abstinence from alcohol is expedient, as being under the influence of alcohol reduces our dependency or testimony to the Holy Spirit. Abstinence is also an indication of self-control in one’s life, a fruit of the Holy Spirit. However, as with all behavior even abstinence or any other work can go beyond expediency and place one under the bondage of legalism, so as with all we do, we should always be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as we make decisions as to what we do and how those decisions and actions affect other people, both within the church and without.

Acts 15:30-35.

So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: 31Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation. 32And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them. 33And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. 34Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. 35Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch from their mission of peace, bringing with them Judas and Silas. The latter two met the Antioch congregation and shared greetings from the Jerusalem church and shared the contents of the letter. The people were glad for the encouraging news that would, at least for now, resolve the conflicting teaching. This may very well have been gladly received by the Antioch Judaizers, since they would no longer feel like spiritual policemen going around accusing the Gentile Christians of an incomplete faith. Furthermore, their own bondage to the Law might have been released. The scripture says that the contingent from Jerusalem returned, but we will find in the next few verses that Silas stayed behind.

Acts, Chapter 15 is the complete account of the Jerusalem Conference. That conference was necessary in order to dispel a false teaching that added works to the requirement for salvation by grace. The position of the leadership in the church, led of the Holy Spirit, was clear. Salvation is by grace, and by grace alone. Any other requirements that are placed on people by the church are works, a burden, and a sin. We can take this as an opportunity to examine our expectations of one another as we seek to be obedient to Christ. Salvation is clearly by grace, and grace alone. However, there is a level of integrity that is expected by God that is inspired by the Holy Spirit and is realized through the expression of the fruit of the spirit in our lives. This will cause us to love one another to the point that we will refrain from doing things that might insult or confuse other Christians or, most importantly, unbelievers. Our temperance, or self-control, can control our temper and control our natural impulses so that we can be a positive testimony to the Spirit of Christ in our lives. As we seek to become more and more like Jesus, we will see a change in our lives that will be evident to others, and we will be shaped and controlled by the Power of the Holy Spirit, rather than shaped by a set of rules and regulations that we cannot possible keep. Legalism is destructive to the freedom we have in Christ. We can replace legalism with obedience to the Holy Spirit and be able to live a life that honors God and is filled with both peace and joy.