“What Do We Do with All These Gentile Converts?”
Must Gentile Christians Observe the Law of Moses?
This is one of the most important chapters in Acts and the whole Bible. All of Acts has been looking forward to this chapter and all of Acts flows from this chapter. For the Bible, this chapter is a key chapter to learn in order to know how your Bible is put together.
This chapter answers the question: Must Gentile Christians observe the law of Moses?
The Conflict (15:1-3)
The Discussion and Decision (15:4-29)
The Decision Distributed (15:30-35)
Paul and Barnabas Separate (15:36-41) [because the separation occurs here, you wonder if this wasn’t why Mark left in the first place, this Jew-Gentile issue]
The Decision Distributed (16:1-5)
The Dissension (15:1-3)
At issue is, verses one and five, whether Gentiles should keep the law of Moses for salvation.
Acts 15:1–3 1 And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. 3 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.
Conflict stated: Men from Judea taught that Gentile Christians who were not circumcised were not saved. Salvation and the gospel is at stake.
Paul has had great success converting Gentiles to an understanding of Christ. Up to this point, for any Gentile who wishes to worship Yahweh, he had to be circumcised. He had to become a proselyte to Judaism.
Exodus 12:48-49 48 And when a stranger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land. For no uncircumcised person shall eat it. 49 One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you.”
Why should this be different now?
Paul and Barnabas have a significant dispute with these men. So the groups involved here are the circumcision party and the apostles. These men are commissioned to go to Jerusalem to discuss the matter.
As they go, they describe the conversion of the Gentiles through Phoenicia and Samaria which causes great joy among all the brethren. Gospel progression brings joy!
Note: Receive the truth, guard the truth, be convinced from God’s word, hold fast to it!
1 Corinthians 15:1–2 1 Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
Note: We prone to have our opinion alone be the standard by which everything else is judged.
The Discussion and Decision (15:4-29)
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.”
They come to Jerusalem and were received by the church, the apostles and the elders, and they reported what God was doing with them.
No sooner had they gotten there that believing Pharisees proclaimed something similar that the men from Judea did.
Acts 15:6 6 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.
So, the apostles and elders have a secret meeting about the issue. It is difficult to determine the transitions in the text. This is because in verse 12 it speaks of all the multitude and verse 22 speaks of the whole church. I’m suggesting that verse six is a private session as to how to lead the church in the multitude forward into coming to the right conclusion. Verses 7-29 is the fruit of that discussion from verse 6 (Kent, Acts).
In verses 7-29 we have Peter, Barnabas and Paul, and James each giving their argumentation as to their resolution of the conflict.
Peter’s argument: God called me to preach to a Gentile, Cornelius. The baptism of the Holy Spirit proves salvation does not require keeping the Law of Moses.
Acts 15:7–11 7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”
Salvation is the issue. When Peter preached to Cornelius, uncircumcised Gentiles received the Holy Spirit just like Jewish believers did. This was demonstrated through tongues. Tongues confirmed salvation by faith for both Jew and Gentile alike apart from circumcision. Tongues was important to tell these early Christians that salvation was not by law-keeping!
Law keeping for salvation is a great burden, a yoke unable to bear. And Peter concludes by testifying that Jewish believers and Gentile believers are saved in the same manner which is through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Note v.8: God knows our hearts!
Note v.9: Whatever God says is the requirements for our fellowship, not our made up requirements.
Paul and Barnabas
Argument: There were miracles among the Gentiles, without any requirement of the Law.
Acts 15:12 12 Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles.
The miracles performed were not because these Gentiles practiced Moses’ Law. Salvation therefore does not require law keeping.
Argument: Amos 9 settles it; it predicted Gentile conversion. This is James the Lord’s brother, the author of the epistle of James.
Acts 15:13–21 13 And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me: 14 Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: 16 ‘After this I will return And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, And I will set it up; 17 So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, Says the Lord who does all these things.’ 18 “Known to God from eternity are all His works. 19 Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. 21 [why this counsel? Because .. ] For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” [I.e, for the sake of the conscience of other Jewish brothers.]
James argues that what Peter experienced in his visitation of the Gentiles agrees with the prophets, for example Amos 9.
Now, simply, most of the quotation in Acts 15:16 is future. James is simply saying verse 15 that Amos “agrees” the rest of mankind will seek the Lord. In other words, Amos’ prophecy is in keeping with Gentile conversion. They ‘agree.’
There is coming a day in the future when the Gentiles will seek the Lord and the Gentiles as Gentiles will be called by the name of God, Yahweh.
James recommends that Gentile converts should not be troubled by the Mosaic law burden. But that they should, verse 20, abstain things polluted by idols, immorality, things strangled, and from blood because verse 21, Jewish conscience. Gentiles should not purposefully offend them.
Question: What parts of the Mosaic Law is James talking about?
Acts 15:21–29 21 For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” 22 Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. 23 They wrote this, letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment—25 it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.
Thus, salvation by grace, not law-keeping, is upheld.
Note: How do we resolve church conflict?
The Decision distributed (15:30-35)
Acts 15:30–35 30 So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter. 31 When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement. 32 Now Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words. 33 And after they had stayed there for a time, they were sent back with greetings from the brethren to the apostles. 34 However, it seemed good to Silas to remain there. 35 Paul and Barnabas also remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
The letter was well received. Judas and Silas exhorted and strengthened the brethren. They stayed there for a time and went back to the apostles. Except for Silas, who stayed there while Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch.
Paul and Barnabas separate (15:36-41)
Acts 15:36–41 36 Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” [follow up] 37 Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from [deserted] them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. 39 Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Remember Acts 13:13.
After this section, we have another story of the distribution of this Jer. Council decision. The present section sees Barnabas’ role ending and the next section sees Timothy’s role in Acts beginning.
Who was right? Was their sin? Perhaps through this they covered more ground; accomplished more work for the gospel. Cf. 1 Co. 13:5
So, we’ve had 2 church issues in chapter 15.
1. Preserve the truth: Follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. For them, it meant the gift of tongues. For us, we’re following the Word of God. We stand firm on the Scripture.
2. Preserve the fellowship: Make some concessions. Since Moses is widely read (vv.20-21), make certain requirements. Timothy is circumcised (Acts 16:3)
When attempting to preserve the truth, where can concessions be made?
Note v.36 In making disciples, have a heart for the brethren, not just lost people. Multiply yourself.
Note also v.37, 40. In making disciples, have to have the right people supporting you. Silas is a Roman citizen (Silvanus; 2 Cor. 1:19; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 1 Pet. 5:12). Don’t disciple without assistance from other godly people.
Note v.39. You got to hand it to them, they are passionate.
See map on where Paul and Barnabas went.
Acts 15:41 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. Acts 16 …1 Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region [appropriate in light of the Jer. Counsel, in light of not being an offense. Note: in ministry, you have to do some things you wouldn’t normally have to do for the sake of not being an offense to people], for they all knew that his father was Greek. 4 And as they [Paul, a Jew and Timothy, a Greek] went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. [this is the Jer. Counsel] 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.
3 things here.
1. They revisited the churches v. 41
2. Applied Jer. Counsel: 16:1-3. Timothy and circumcision. Jer. Counsel didn’t demand that they do this. Timothy a convert of Paul (1 Ti. 1:2).
3. Delivered Jer. Counsel decision.
Verse 41 strengthened, verse 5 strengthened. The decision of the Counsel strengthened the churches and led to furthering of the gospel message (salvation by faith), imparting harmony among the Jews and Gentiles in the churches.
Like Acts 6, problem, problem solved, word progresses/increased disciples/etc. But we should expect problems and properly handle them. If so, ‘strengthening’ and ‘increase’ are the result.