The first 35 verses of Acts, chapter fifteen tell the story of the representatives of the Church of Antioch and representative of the Church at Jerusalem meeting to discuss the doctrine of soteriology. What brought about this meeting? Paul and Barnabas had been traveling throughout Galatia preaching the Gospel of grace:
And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region. (Acts 13:49 NASB)
Many Gentiles were coming to the Lord, and churches were being planted. But following Paul and Barnabas were some men from Jerusalem who were teaching that faith alone was not enough to save a man; they must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses:
And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." (Acts 15:1 NASB)
What did we say these men were called? Judaizers. To these "Judaizers" salvation meant identifying not only with Christ but with the nation Israel. It meant placing oneself under the Mosaic Covenant and keeping the Laws of Moses, as defined by Judaism. The issue at hand was whether Gentile converts had to become Jewish proselytes in order to be saved.
This is salvation by law, or by legalism, or ritual. And there are a lot of people today who are doing the same thing, it isn't Judaism anymore, but they are adding something to the doctrine of salvation besides faith: You have to be baptized, you have to live up to some standard or you cannot be saved. Let me give you another example. Dave Guzik writes in his commentary on Acts: "Therefore, the issue is settled here in the infancy of Christianity, and for all time: We are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any conformity to the law, and such obedience comes as a result of true faith, after the issue of salvation has been settled."
Notice what he says, "Such obedience comes as a result of true faith." So he is basically saying, "If you don't have obedience, you don't have true faith." So no matter how you slice it, to him obedience is necessary for salvation.
The clear teaching of the New Testament is that salvation is by grace through faith alone. But those who hold to the Lordship view have redefined saving faith so it's more than just taking God at His word. To them, saving faith involves surrender, commitment, submission, repentance, and sacrifice. These additions are both linguistically invalid and Biblically invalid. Faith is simply believing. Faith is the conviction of the truth of some proposition. What makes saving faith saving is not the uniqueness of the faith, but its object. Saving faith results instantly in eternal salvation, because it believes in the right object: the guarantee of life made by Jesus Christ to every believer.
Benjamin Warfield, the Presbyterian preacher said, "The saving power resides exclusively, not in the act of faith, or the attitude of faith, or the nature of faith, but in the object of faith."
The truth is, technically, we're not saved by faith but through faith:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; (Ephesians 2:8 NASB)
Faith is the instrumental means; grace is the efficient means of our salvation. We're saved by Jesus Christ. We're saved by His grace. We're saved through faith. You would know what I meant if I said to you "I put the fire out with the hose." Now hoses don't put out fires, but hoses are the channels for water that put the fire out. The hose is the instrumental means; the water is the efficient means. Faith is the instrumental means by which we are able to access our salvation through Jesus Christ.
Augustine, who lived from 354-430, wrote, "Faith is nothing else than to think with assent." John Calvin wrote, "For as regards justification, faith is something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God's favor but receiving from Christ what we lack."
So the issue of how a man is saved is still very relevant and very important to us today. That is why I continually go over this issue, it is of the utmost importance. We must be right about salvation, or we will be eternally wrong.
Back to Acts, The Antiochian Church seems to have been unable to settle this debate on Soteriology, and so they appealed to the church in Jerusalem. So the believers met in Jerusalem to discus and debate the issue of Soteriology (how is it that a person is saved?).
Is circumcision necessary for salvation? Before you can really answer that question, you must know what type of circumcision is being talked about:
"Behold, the days are coming," declares the LORD, "that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised (Jeremiah 9:25 NASB)
How can they be circumcised and yet uncircumcised? They were physically circumcised, but not spiritually circumcised. Notice what Isaiah says about who enters Zion:
Awake, awake,, Clothe yourself in your strength, O Zion; Clothe yourself in your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city. For the uncircumcised and the unclean Will no more come into you. (Isaiah 52:1 NASB)
The most common usage of Zion was to refer to the City of God in the New Age (Isa. 1:27; 33:5). Zion is the Kingdom of God, Zion is the Church of Jesus Christ.
So I think you can see how the Judaizers may have thought that Isaiah said that when the kingdom is established, Jerusalem will be the center, and the uncircumcised will not enter this Jerusalem. So they taught that you must be circumcised to be saved. But the circumcision that was necessary was not a physical circumcision, but a spiritual one.
So we might ask, "Is physical circumcision necessary for salvation?" No, it is not. But, Is spiritual circumcision necessary for salvation? Yes, it is. And all who have trusted Christ, all believers, have all been spiritually circumcised. Paul, writing to the Colossian believers, said:
and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; (Colossians 2:10 NASB)
I think we all understand that we are complete in Christ, but notice what else he says:
and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; (Colossians 2:11 NASB)
The tense of "were" is past tense. God circumcised us at the point of our salvation. At that moment we entered into union with Christ. Another part of speech indicates that God placed us into union with Christ (passive voice). We did not earn or deserve that privilege; it is an act of God's unadulterated grace.
Paul says we have been given a circumcision, not of the flesh by the hands of men, but with the circumcision done by Christ. By this spiritual circumcision, the old man has been cut away or put off.
Alright, so the meeting at Jerusalem satisfactorily settled from Scripture that God had promised in the last days to call many Gentiles to Himself, and that, therefore, the calling of the Gentiles as Gentiles was Scriptural. Now James gives his own judgment:
"Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, (Acts 15:19 NASB)
There is an emphasis in the Greek on "my." Literally, he says, "I judge that...". James knew how important his view would be to those who were most likely not to approve of abandoning the need for circumcision. There is an authority here that does not appear in the speech of Peter; and this authority was felt and bowed to by all the council. James appears to be chairing the meeting.
The word "trouble" is an interesting Greek word, it means: "to put an obstacle in their path." Troubling the Gentiles meant: "imposing the requirements of Jewish proselytes on them, namely, circumcision and observance of the Mosaic Law."
The decision of the Jerusalem Council, then, was that the Gospel, for Jew or Gentile, was salvation as a gift of God's grace, through faith alone, faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the Messiah who bore one's sins and judgment so that they could be pronounced righteous in God's sight and have eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Those who taught otherwise did not have the approval of the church in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas were right, and those men who came to Antioch from Judea were wrong.
James, after having said we have freedom from the law, we don't have to be circumcised, either to become a member of the covenant company or to be saved, introduces a few things that these people should do when they are in the midst of people who believe some of those things:
but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. (Acts 15:20 NASB)
What in the world is James saying? There is much controversy and debate over exactly what is meant here. I don't think that we need to get into it all. I believe the point is this: All of those four issues--things offered to idols, things strangled, fornication, and blood--are connected to the worship of idols. Let me give you a quote here from Charles H. Savelle:
Concerning the nature of the prohibitions, the most likely explanation is that all four were associated to some degree with pagan religious practices. Since this association was highly offensive to Jews, Gentile believers were asked to avoid even the appearance of evil by avoiding such practices altogether. Thus the purposes of the decree and its prohibitions [cf. 15:29; 21:25] were to promote unity among believing Jews and believing Gentiles. Charles H. Savelle, "A Reexamination of the Prohibitions in Acts 15." Bibliotheca Sacra 161:644 [October-December 2004]).
I think he is right on. The issue here is fellowship. The word fornication means sexual sin, which is prohibited in the seventh commandment, "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14). But if James meant this in the most ordinary sense, it would be surprising to find it in this list. It is on this list and connected with the other three prohibitions because he doesn't mean it in the most general way. James was referring to the particular context of Gentile cities where there was always a temple for worshiping idols--the temple to Zeus, the temple to Athena, the temple to Artemis, the temple to Aphrodite. And in such settings ritual fornication had to do with priestesses who would have sex with individuals and call it prayer.
Regional economies were founded on these temples. In any given city, you would find that the meat sold in the market was meat that had first been offered to idols. You would find that the grain and bread and all the other foodstuffs had been blessed by some priest operating from the idolatrous temple. You would find all of the commerce of the place was connected to the blessing or the promotion of idolatrous worship.
So James was saying to the Gentiles, "Abstain." The Greek word "abstain" actually means: "to put at a distance." It's not that eating the meat that was once offered to an idol, or buying clothing from the tailor who bought his cloth in a place that had an idol's blessing, meant they were participating in idolatry.
But James was calling for them to back off from expressing their freedom thoughtlessly (This is also exactly the argument of Romans 14). There were Jews in the churches who loathed idolatry. They hated it because Israel's own history was filled with that sort of failure, and they suffered for it. Everything about idolatry made them ill. So James was saying, "Don't flaunt your freedom.
The issue here was not a question of whether these things were necessary for salvation. It was whether they were necessary for fellowship in common. Refraining from these things would greatly reduce the cultural tensions which existed between Jews and Gentiles.
To help us understand this, let me ask you a question; Are we as believers under Law? We are not under the Mosaic law--that is clear in the New Testament. So are we under any Law? Yes, we are! What is this law? Well, it's called by several titles, it's called: "The Law of Christ":
Bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2 NASB)
It is also called, "The Royal Law":
If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF," you are doing well. (James 2:8 NASB)
It is also called, "The perfect Law of Liberty":
But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does. (James 1:25 NASB)
All these laws are referring to the same thing, so what is the law of Christ? Notice what Paul says to the Corinthians:
to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. (1 Corinthians 9:21 NASB)
Paul is talking about his conduct as he seeks to evangelize, and he says, "To those who are without law"--this is a reference to the Gentiles who did not know or follow the Jewish law given by God. "As without law"--Paul lived as one who was free from the Mosaic Law when around Gentiles. But notice what he says next, "Though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ"--While Paul was free from the Law of Moses, he was subject to a new, inward principle which governed his life. Since Christ fulfilled the law for us, we are responsible not to the law ,but to Christ. The law of Christ is the law of love: love for God and our neighbor:
Bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2 NASB)
You know what the law of Christ is? It's get under a load when someone can't carry it, and help them. Every time you find in the Bible the law of Christ, the royal law, the perfect law of liberty, and the new commandment, it's always the same thing, love. The Christian life, beloved, boils down to one thing, and it's loving others, and that's it. Not circumcision, not ceremony, but love.
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13 NASB)
Though they were not bound under the Law of Moses, they were bound under the Law of Love. The Law of Love tells them, "Don't unnecessarily antagonize your Jewish neighbors, both in and out of the church."
The issues have changed, we don't worry about meat sacrificed to idols, but the principle is the same. We are not to hurt others with our liberty. The big controversy in Churchianity today is over alcohol. Is it okay for a believer to drink alcoho?. What does the Bible say? Drunkenness is a sin, and it also says:
Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. (Romans 15:1 NASB)
The problem in the Church is this: You've got the strong believers who are totally liberated, they understand their freedom in Christ and they're enjoying it. On the other hand, you have the weak who are still hung up on different things and don't understand these liberties. So the strong are tempted to look down on the weak as legalists-- weak people in bondage who hinder the strong from enjoying their liberty. The strong's reaction is to despise that person, to look down on them with the attitude, "Grow up, you baby."
The tendency on the part of the weak is to condemn the strong for doing what they feel is wrong. So you have the weak wanting to condemn the strong, and the strong wanting to despise the weak, and you end up with conflict, disunity, skisums.
So James is telling the Gentile believers, "Though you are not bound under the Law of Moses, you are bound under the Law of Love." The Law of Love tells them, "Don't unnecessarily antagonize your Jewish neighbors, both in and out of the Church."
"For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath." (Acts 15:21 NASB)
These requirements would be necessary because there would always be in every city those who proclaimed Moses, and there would therefore always be Jewish Christians who, having been brought up to these principles, would studiously attend on such teaching. James is saying, "The reason that the Gentile believers should abstain from these four behaviors is that almost every city has adherents to the Jewish faith."
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas-- Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 and they sent this letter by them, "The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. (Acts 15:22-23 NASB)
Why did they choose men from among them to send to Antioch? Did God tell them to do this? No, they did so because "it seemed good." We'll come back to this.
The first thing the Council did was to put their decision in writing and to appoint men to accompany Paul and Barnabas with the letter, to bear witness to the decision of the Council. This is the first example we have of one Christian group writing to another.
In order to give the letter extra solidity, two prominent prophets from the church at Jerusalem, who were considered to be "leading" men, were sent with them to add their backing to the letter. They recognized that the living voice would give greater emphasis to what was being said. Papias later tells us how much emphasis was placed on "the living voice" in the 1st century A.D.
Judas had a Jewish name so he may have been a Hebraic Jew, whereas Silas had a Greek name and probably was a Hellenistic Jew. These men represented both segments of the Jerusalem Church.
Note the stress on who were involved. It was from "the Apostles and the elders, with the whole church." They wanted Antioch to know that all were in agreement, and that the whole church of Jerusalem was involved, and was with them on the question.
Notice the last word, "Greeting"--this is an interesting word, it is only used one other place in the Bible, that being James 1:1, so it must have been a word that James used, and therefore, it is said that James probably wrote the letter, he penned it.
"Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, (Acts 15:24 NASB)
They first of all made clear that those men who had come among them in Antioch and had disturbed them had not been sent with any authority from them. They probably pretended to be representatives of the Apostles. James wants to make sure it's clear: Hey, we didn't send these guys. They weren't from us. They weren't approved by us. They weren't sanctioned from us. They were acting totally on their own.
"Have disturbed you with their words"--the word "disturbed" is the Greek word tarasso, which is a very strong word, it means: "to deeply upset, to deeply disturb, to perplex, to create fear." This same word is used in:
And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were frightened, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out for fear. (Matthew 14:26 NASB)
It involves a very severe kind of response. This word is also used in Luke 24:38 of the post resurrection appearance of Jesus Christ, which deeply troubled them. So it's used in the sense of physical troubling, or troubling circumstances.
Notice that our text says that they "disturbed you with words." This word "disturbed" is used in connection with false doctrine in two passages; Galatians 1:7 and 5:10. The false doctrine of salvation by works is very troubling to the believer to the point of: "Unsettling your souls." That word "unsettling" is used only here in the New Testament, but it is used outside the New Testament for several things. For one thing it is used to speak of going bankrupt. It is secondly used in a literal sense to speak of plundering a town, dismantling it, wiping it out.
Believers, these two words show us the danger of legalism. It is very destructive and needs to be condemned!
it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 15:25-26 NASB)
Notice again, "It seemed good to us." We'll get to this in a minute. Here we see a strong commendation of Barnabas and Paul. The church had been apprised of Paul's stoning at Lystra and of his and Barnabas's going back over hostile territory on that first missionary journey, thereby endangering their lives:
"Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. (Acts 15:27 NASB)
Not only will there be a written document, but two respected prophets (verse 32) to verify this verbally. It's a pretty good reminder in this world of e-mail, that letters and e-mail are easily misunderstood, and for the most part eyeball to eyeball communication is best to make sure we're clear on important matters:
"For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell." (Acts 15:28-29 NASB)
Again we see, "It seemed good." We'll get to this in a minute. He closes the letter with the word "Farewell," which is an old English form of expressing good wishes and good will.
So, when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. (Acts 15:30 NASB)
So Barnabas and Paul along with Judas and Silas head back to Antioch. This doesn't appear to be a regular meeting of the Church. When the men arrived from Jerusalem, they gathered the congregation to hear their words:
And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. (Acts 15:31 NASB)
They were rejoicing in the fact that salvation was by grace through faith, and they did not need to become Jews:
And Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message. (Acts 15:32 NASB)
I like this, they preached "a lengthy massage." It has been said that Sermonetts are for Christianettes who smoke cigarettes.
And after they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out. (Acts 15:33 NASB)
In view of verse 40 it may be that "they" here means a Jerusalem party who had come along with the two, and that Silas remained behind. But there is no hint of that, and there is really no reason why Silas should not have returned with Judas in order to report back to Jerusalem and then later have returned to Antioch.
Now you may be thinking: Well the next verse says Silas remains there:
But it seemed good to Silas to remain there. (Acts 15:34 NASB)
This verse is missing from a great number of manuscripts (ABEG, besides, with the Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Slavonic, Vulgate, and some of the fathers). It does not appear to have been originally in the text.
But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching, with many others also, the word of the Lord. (Acts 15:35 NASB)
The Church in Antioch is back to normal, the controversy is settled, salvation is by grace through faith alone. We see here that the spreading of the word continues to be the central theme, and all else is built into it.
Before we close this morning, let me say something here about Christians discerning the will of God. How do you know what the will of God is? Or we could ask, "On what basis is the believer to make his decisions in nonmoral areas?" How do we decide what school to go to, what church to go to, who to marry, where to work? If you listen to Christians talk, you may hear something like: "I believe that God wants me to marry Bill," or, "God has lead me to this job," or "God wants me to go to this church."
This kind of terminology reflects the idea that the key to making the "right" decision is discernment of God's ideal plan that we must somehow mysteriously discover. But we don't see this kind of language in the New Testament. Notice again what they said:
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas-- Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, (Acts 15:22 NASB)
it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, (Acts 15:25 NASB)
"For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: (Acts 15:28 NASB)
Three time in this section we see the phrase, "It seemed good." Notice that in verse 28 it says, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us"--does this mean that the conclusions of the council were supernaturally dictated by God? God certainly did that on other occasions in Acts. But the idea here could be that the Holy Spirit had already given His guidance before the council ever met. He did this by working through Peter to bring salvation to the Gentiles apart from circumcision. An angel appears to Cornelius and tells him to go get Peter because:
and he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.' (Acts 11:14 NASB)
So Peter comes and preaches a message to these Gentiles, and he says nothing about circumcision, nothing about baptism, nothing about works or repentance or comitment. He simply tells them that all who believe receive forgiveness of sins:
"Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." (Acts 10:43 NASB)
Now look at what happens next:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. (Acts 10:44 NASB)
God saved these Gentiles apart from anything but faith. And not only that, but He also
miraculously confirmed the Gospel ministry of Paul and Barnabas among the Gentiles. And He has also inspired the writers of Scripture to foretell of Gentile salvation. This is why the church leaders said, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us." God had already revealed His will on this matter, and the church leaders lined up with it.
If you want to know God's will, learn God's Word. And in non-moral areas just use wisdom. And when you do make a decision, instead of saying, "God led me to do this," which sounds super spiritual and authoritative, it would be much more Biblical to say, "It seemed good to me to do this or that."
To sum up, we may say that two types of "necessary" questions were raised at the Jerusalem Council. The first had to do with the theological necessity of circumcision and the Jewish law for salvation, and that was rejected. Salvation is by grace through faith alone--no circumcision, no communion, no baptism, no religious work, no religious ritual. It's purely a gift of God's grace. Christians can disagree on many subjects, but they cannot differ on the Gospel. In that we must always stand firm and united.
The second had to do with the practical necessity of Gentile Christians abstaining from certain practices for the sake of Jewish-Gentile fellowship within the Church and for the sake of the Jewish Christian mission throughout the Diaspora, and that was approved.
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