In our study of the book of Acts we have seen the birth of the Church on Pentecost at the Jewish Temple. The Church grew and flourished but stayed in Jerusalem until the martyrdom of Stephen. Following the martyrdom of Stephen, the Church spread to Phoenicia, Samaria, Cyprus, and then to Antioch. The Christians who arrived in Antioch at first shared the Gospel with the Jews only, but then some of them began to preach also to the Gentiles in the city. Many of them came to faith as a result, and thus the church at Antioch became the mother church of the Gentiles. This was the church to which Barnabas brought Paul to become part of the teaching staff, as it were, before they both departed on the first missionary journey, which is covered in Acts 13 and 14.
At the end of chapter 14 Paul and Barnabas have just returned from the first missionary journey and then, having met with the church in Antioch, shared with them the things that God had done among the Gentiles. The grand reunion at Antioch continues for some time (14:28). But then some from Judea come and begin to teach "another Gospel":
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)
Antioch had visitors from Jerusalem before:
Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. (Acts 11:27 NASB)
These prophets had told of a coming famine, which led to Saul taking a love offering to Jerusalem from the Gentiles. But this time the visitors from Jerusalem were bringing a message that was not from God.
These men may have acclaimed themselves to be Prophets, but if so, Luke refuses to recognize them as such. Notice that Luke does not say that they came "from Jerusalem." That may have conferred on them an authority that they did not have, so he says that they were vaguely "from Judaea," stressing the fact that they did not have the authority of the church of Jerusalem behind them.
Notice that Luke says, "They 'Came down from Judea'"--it doesn't matter where in the world you are, be it North, South, East, or West of Jerusalem, according to Scripture, you are always going UP to Jerusalem, and DOWN from Jerusalem, which is the mount upon which the Lord resides. So, despite the fact that Antioch is north of Jerusalem, Luke says they "came down from Judea" to this city, as every Jew would have understood this expression.
The word "teaching" is in the verb tense that means teaching over and over and over again--very persistently--that they could not be saved unless they were circumcised according to the Law of Moses.
They were saying: it's perfectly all right to believe in the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, it's perfectly all right to believe in the atoning work of Christ, it's perfectly all right to believe in His death, burial, and resurrection, and His bodily resurrection, but in order to be saved, you must be circumcised.
This introduced an issue which split the church at Antioch wide open. They were really saying: "In order to become a Christian, you must first become a Jew." Their "Gospel" might be stated: "Christianity is Jewish. To be saved, one must believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, but in order to be a part of this covenant community, Israel, one must become a proselyte, which is entered into by circumcision, which obligates the individual to keep the Law of Moses."
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.
Some commentators feel that these Judaizers also followed the path of Paul and Barnabas and visited every one of the cities they had just come from on their missionary tour, and taught the same heresy there, That seems very possible, because when Paul wrote the Book of Galatians, he wrote the whole Book to answer this very same question about how a person is saved:
nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16 NASB)
Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, "THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH." (Galatians 3:11 NASB)
Paul is clearly teaching that salvation is by faith apart from works. The book of Galatians was most likely written between the close of the first missionary journey and the Jerusalem meeting. And it was written back to those churches that they had visited, to straighten out this very heresy of faith plus circumcision.
This specific issue has long ago passed away as a concern to us; nobody today is saying you must be circumcised to be saved, but the principle behind it is very, very present with us today. A majority of the different groups who claim to be Christian insist on adding something to the Good News of the Gospel. For instance, here is what one cult says people must do to inherit eternal life: "All who by reason of faith in Jehovah God and in Christ Jesus dedicate themselves to do God's will, and then faithfully carry out their dedication, will be rewarded with eternal life." This is what the Judiazers were saying, Faith plus works, in other words.
Another group says this of salvation: "We believe that through the atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. 'They who believe not your words and are not baptized in water in my name, for the remission of their sins...shall be damned.' Baptism is...the very gateway into the Kingdom of Heaven, an indispensable step in our salvation..."
Substitute baptism for circumcision and you bring the issue right up to date. So this is not an obscure issue that we don't have to consider, this is something we must understand because this teaching is everywhere today. Notice Paul and Barnabas' response to this teaching:
And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. (Acts 15:2 NASB)
They had "Great dissension and debate with them." "Dissension" is from the Greek word "stasis" from which we get the English word, static. There was an uproar in the church at Antioch, because the apostles felt this was false teaching, and they didn't hesitate to speak up about it. No sentimental namby-pamby, spineless love characterized Paul and Barnabas. But they spoke out. There was an explosion in that church that was related specifically to the doctrines of the word of God. I would have loved to hear Paul and Barnabas arguing with Judaizers.
When in the city of Antioch in Pisidia, Paul preached this message:
and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses. (Acts 13:39 NASB)
There is always strife when we talk about the way of salvation. That is because there is such a difference of opinion about the way of salvation. Some have the idea, "It doesn't really make a difference what you believe, so long as you believe it with fervency and with zeal, because God will accept us if we come to Him, no matter how we may come to Him." That's very, very wrong, Biblically, but nevertheless, that's the way the world thinks. It thinks that everybody is going to heaven, though they are traveling by different roads. And, if they are religious people, it doesn't make a bit of difference which religion they may have, so long as they have religion. Now, the Scriptures are utterly opposed to this, but many people--most people--do not read the Scriptures.
This was not a side issue; it had to do with salvation itself. This was not a matter where there could be disagreement among believers, with some believing you must be under the law, and some believing it wasn't important. This was an issue that went to the core of Christianity, and it had to be resolved.
Even the Apostle Peter had been influenced by the Judaizers:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. (Galatians 2:11 NASB)
No one knows with any certainly exactly when Peter had come to Antioch, but it must have happened before the meeting at Jerusalem in Acts 15.
Paul stood face-to-face with Peter and condemned him in front of everyone. Considering who Peter was, this took a lot of guts. Peter was a heavy-weight in the church, and people loved him and admired him and respected him for his work in the church and among the Jews of his day.
Paul says, "He stood condemned." What he means to say is that just as a criminal is found guilty of a crime and has been proven to be wrong in a court of law, Peter has been found guilty of a wrong which can be proved. What Peter was doing was to be condemned as being out of accord with the Word of God, and there were to be consequences; in this case a rebuke to set the matter straight.
Now, in the next verse, Paul explains what this wrong is:
For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. (Galatians 2:12 NASB)
Here's what's going on: In Antioch's fully integrated congregation of Christian Jews and Gentiles, Peter had regularly followed the custom of eating with Gentile Christians. Undoubtedly, his presence at table fellowship with Gentile Christians was taken as an official stamp of approval on the union and equality of Jews and Gentiles in the church. We can imagine that the Gentile believers in the church were especially encouraged by Peter's wholehearted acceptance of them.
So Peter is in Antioch having a good time eating Lobster and ham until some Jewish believers from James show up. Then, because of fear of these men, Peter quits eating with the Gentiles and begins to eat only what the Jewish law allowed him to.
Paul goes on to tell us that Peter's hypocrisy spread like gangrene to others:
And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. (Galatians 2:13 NASB)
Peter, Barnabas, and the others were being two-faced when they withdrew from eating with the Gentile Christians. They were saying one thing with their actions and believing another in their hearts.
Our text says, "Even Barnabas was carried away." Can you hear the heartache of Paul in those five little words? Paul would have expected that Barnabas would remain loyal to him and the Gospel even if everyone else turned away. After all, Barnabas, as the first pastor of the church in Antioch, had warmly welcomed Gentile believers. He had worked alongside Paul in that church and in their mission of planting Gentile churches in Galatia. How could Barnabas deny the truth of the Gospel now? Didn't he, of all people, know that Gentile believers were to be fully accepted? Yes, he knew that. But the emotions stirred up in the crisis swept him along to act contrary to his convictions. And so, along with the rest of the Jewish Christians, he was guilty of hypocrisy; behavior inconsistent with basic beliefs. Barnabas withdrew with him leaving Paul standing all alone. So as you can see, this is a very serious matter.
Paul and Barnabas saw to the heart of the question and stood firm against these new teachers, disagreeing with the men and challenging the basis of their teaching and questioning their arguments. But it was finally agreed by the whole church that what was necessary was to go to the apostles and the mother church in Jerusalem and discover their minds on the subject.
Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. (Acts 15:3 NASB)
And so, Paul and Barnabas and a few others made their way to the city of Jerusalem under the official auspices of the church at Antioch; and, along the way, they stopped in little gatherings of Gentile believers and Jewish believers, and they told them of the things that had been happening among the Gentiles. And those Christians rejoiced in what Paul and Barnabas told them about the things that were happening among the Gentiles.
And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. (Acts 15:4 NASB)
Though this is a disputed issue in New Testament historiography, it is my opinion that this trip was Paul's third visit to Jerusalem after his conversion and subsequent to the argumentation and debate Paul recounts in Galatians 2:1-10. For one thing, the meeting described in Galatians was a private one between Paul and Peter, John, and the Lord's brother, James (Gal. 2:2, 9), while this one was a public meeting between Paul and the Jerusalem congregation. After the issue was decided by this public Jerusalem Conference, it would have been well nigh impossible for James to take the restrictive Jewish attitude he did toward the Christian gentiles in Antioch (Gal. 2:12), and for his emissaries to frighten Peter to the extent that he withdrew from the table with gentiles and caused even Barnabas to do the same (Gal.2:11-15).
I don't think we should see this as an official council. It was simply a consultation between two sister churches. Thus "the apostles" here must mean those of them who were present, seen as representing the whole:
But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses." (Acts 15:5 NASB)
So the circumcision party began to argue their case. They included among them Pharisees who had come to believe in Jesus Christ, but considered that the tenets of the Pharisees had to be maintained. The Pharisees were renowned for their high regard for the law and their scrupulous observance of the law. They argued that all who responded to Christ and became Christians had necessarily to be circumcised so as to enter into the covenant, and must then observe the whole Law of Moses. This would involve among other things temple worship and the offering of sacrifices when in Jerusalem, the payment of the temple tax, separation from Gentiles who did not observe the laws of cleanliness wherever they were, regular washings in order to maintain cleanliness, avoiding all that could render unclean according to Jewish principles, abstaining from the eating of blood and of various meats, strict observance of the Sabbath by not working, and a following of the multitude of Laws that governed the daily living of every Jew.
We saw in our study last week that they got this idea of the necessity of circumcision from the Hebrew Scriptures. In Isaiah 52, which is a prediction of the New Jerusalem. Isaiah writes:
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. 2 Shake yourself from the dust, rise up, O captive Jerusalem; Loose yourself from the chains around your neck, O captive daughter of Zion. (Isaiah 52:1-2 NASB)
I think we could understand that this could be taken to mean that only those physically circumcised could enter the kingdom. This misunderstanding came from the fact that they were looking for a physical kingdom which required a physical circumcision. But in the New Jerusalem, God's spiritual kingdom, which is the Church, all are circumcised of heart.
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.
And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. (Acts 15:6 NASB)
It is evident that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem had not taken a position and had not dealt with this matter, because it is only at this time that they meet to determine what their position would be. How could this be? Why had they not had to deal with this issue? It is because there were no Gentile Christians in the Jerusalem church, or the question would have been settled before.
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. (Acts 15:7 NASB)
"And after there had been much debate"--this would have been amazing to see! Christians serious enough about the truth to debate for it! These people believed truth was important. When is the last time that you debated with someone about Scripture? It seems that we want to talk and argue about everything except what is really important, God's Word. Shouldn't we be making a serious effort to understand it?
"Peter stood up and said"--this was after the matters in dispute had been fully debated; and now the apostles, like judges, after hearing counsel on both sides, proceed to give judgment on the case.
Peter reminded all present of his own experience with Cornelius and his fellow-Gentiles many years before, and of how God had chosen him to take to these Gentiles the Good News with the result that they had believed.
Even before Peter finished his sermon at Cornelius' house, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began speaking in unlearned foreign languages, just as the Jews had done at the Day of Pentecost. It happened right after Peter had said:
"Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." (Acts 10:43 NASB)
As we have said many times, the ONLY thing that Peter tells these Gentiles that they must do is BELIEVE!
"And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:8-9 NASB)
What had been especially significant was that God, Who knows the heart of all men, had borne witness to the fact that even while they were uncircumcised, he had cleansed their hearts by faith, for He had given to them His own Holy Spirit in precisely the same way and with the same signs as He had previously done to the Jews who believed.
"Made no distinction between us and them"--Peter makes an important observation. It comes straight from his vision of the clean and unclean animals from which God taught him this principle: God has shown to me that I should not call any man common or unclean (Acts 10:28). Those of the sect of the Pharisees who believed thought that the Gentiles were inherently "common" (in the sense of "unholy") or "unclean," and had to be made holy and clean by submitting to the Law of Moses.
Peter's argument is that God would not give His Holy Spirit to those who were unclean (uncircumcised) in their hearts. The fact that He sent the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles the instant that they believed, apart from their being circumcised, shows that salvation is by faith alone, not by faith plus circumcision or some other act of keeping the law.
If God testified to their salvation, based solely upon their faith, how could anyone require anything more of Gentile Christians? Furthermore, God did not make any distinctions between these new Gentile saints and those who came to faith who were Jews. How could this Council make any distinctions in the Gospel which was proclaimed to Gentiles?
If the salvation of those Gentiles in the home of Cornelius set not only a precedent but a pattern, then simple faith in Christ alone was all that was necessary for a Gentile to be saved:
"Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? (Acts 15:10 NASB)
What does he mean by "testing" God? It was to question the judgment of God. God knows the hearts. He knew that in Cornelius' house those individuals had been cleansed from their sins, for He had done that. And then, to insist that they must be circumcised in order to be saved--when God has indicated His approval of them by giving them the Holy Spirit--that is to tempt God.
I'd like for you to notice that term that is used for being under the Mosaic Law--it is a yoke. In Paul's statement in Galatians 5, verse 1, where speaking to the Galatian Christians, he said:
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1 NASB)
So, both Peter and Paul speak of being under the Law of Moses as being under the yoke of bondage. "Taking on the yoke" was in fact precisely what Jewish proselytes were described as doing when they ritually bathed themselves and were circumcised.
Then Peter says this:
"But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are." (Acts 15:11 NASB)
"The council of Jerusalem" is the name and title that is often given to this time when Paul and Barnabas came from Antioch to Jerusalem to discuss the question of the relationship to circumcision and the salvation of Gentiles. Like many other popular Biblical expressions, it's probably a bit misleading to call this "The council of Jerusalem." For example, it was not a convention of delegates, but a meeting of Antioch with Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas were there for consultation, not authoritative decree.
Other things that often have been given titles, which do not really represent the events too well are things like, "The Lord's Prayer," which is usually a reference, a term, that refers to that part of the "Sermon on the Mount" in which our Lord gives the model prayer. Whereas, "The Lord's Prayer," if we were to look simply at what is the important prayer of the New Testament by our Lord, it's obvious that it should be that great high priestly prayer in John, chapter 17.
"The Apostles' Creed" is another term that is very misleading, because strictly speaking, no apostle ever signed "The Apostles' Creed." "The Apostles' Creed" is, at best, a 2nd Century document. And this statement in verse 11 has more reason to be called "The Apostles' Creed," than that "Apostles' Creed." In fact, "the Apostles' Creed" does not really give us this fundamental teaching that is found here in this statement by the Apostle Peter. And, if I had to choose between them, having the Bible and having this statement, of course I would choose this statement. It's more significant.
But, he says, "We believe" This is "We"--we, apostles, we apostles and elders: "We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus, we shall be saved, even as they." In other words, Paul, Barnabas, and I and others agree, salvation is through grace. If we are saved through what we do, we're not saved by grace:
"But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are." (Acts 15:11 NASB)
That's quite a statement for a Jew to make! You would have expected, "They are saved in the same way as we are." But, rather, Peter is saying, "We religious Jews are saved in the same way as these pagan Gentiles are, namely, through the grace of the Lord
The word "grace" means: "free and unmerited favor shown to guilty sinners who deserve only judgement." Human merit plays no part in man's salvation. Notice Paul's stress on grace:
being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; (Romans 3:24 NASB)
The word "justified" means: "to declare righteous." It a legal act on the part of God. We see here that we are justified "as a gift by His grace." The word "gift" is the Greek word dorean. It means: "for nothing, gratuitously, giftwise or without a cause." The cause of our justification is in God and not in us.
"As a gift by His grace" is redoubled to show that the act of justification is all of God. Nothing in this act of justification belongs to, or proceeds from man:
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. (Romans 11:6 NASB)
Grace and human effort are mutually exclusive.
And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. (Acts 15:12 NASB)
The old order of these two names recurs here. Barnabas, as a respected member of this church (4:36-37; 11:22), took the lead in relating the experiences he and Paul had undergone in ministering to Gentiles.
Peter's words had moved them all to silence. Peter stated facts: Paul and Barnabas confirmed the statement. God had accredited Paul and Barnabas and authenticated their Gospel by the signs and wonders which He granted them, in addition to their words. These signs and wonders were God's "Amen" to their message and ministry.
God does not get involved in confirming by miracles false doctrine. Are you with me? Paul and Barnabas were traveling around preaching salvation by grace through faith. And God was attesting to their message by miracles. You don't see the Judaizers having any confirming miracles, do you?
The Gospel requires nothing more than a personal faith in the substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, in the sinner's place, resulting in the forgiveness of sins, the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and the certainty of eternal life.
For some reason it seems very difficult for men to grasp "absolutely free grace." It seems impossible for men to understand that they are saved by faith, plus nothing. They are saved on the grounds of Christ's perfect work alone. The Bible is so explicit in teaching that you're saved by God's grace, through faith plus nothing, that is obviously what the Bible teaches, and yet people want to add things.
I could foul up a little on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit; I could foul up a little on the doctrine of eschatology, the study of end times; and I could be a little off beat on the doctrine of ecclesiology, or the study of the church; l could mess up in interpreting a few Scriptures, but if I mess up on the doctrine of salvation, then I'm messed up! And yet many today who call themselves Christians have added works to faith, thus destroying faith.
The struggle for faith alone never ends. It's a part of our own inability to accept a gift. And deeper than that: We want to be loved because of what we do for God.
J. C. Ryle, a 19th century Anglican bishop, wrote, "Controversy and religious strife, no doubt, are odious things; but there are times when they are a positive necessity. Unity and peace are very delightful; but they are bought too dear if they are bought at the expense of truth. It is a pity, no doubt, that there should be so much controversy; but it is also a pity that human nature should be so bad as it is... It was a pity that Arius
taught error about Christ's person: but it would have been a greater pity if Athanasius had not opposed him. It was a pity that Tetzel went about preaching up the Pope's indulgences: it would have been a far greater pity if Luther had not withstood him. Controversy, in fact, is one of the conditions under which truth in every age has to be defended and maintained, and it is nonsense to ignore it."
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