Agreeing on the Basics


Biblical Truth: In resolving conflict, the church is to acknowledge biblical truths that are essential and nonnegotiable.

Acknowledge the Conflict:  Acts 15:1-2,4-5.

[1]  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.” [2]  And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. [4]  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. [5]  But some 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.”  [NASU]

The tranquility of the Christian fellowship in Syrian Antioch was shattered by the arrival of a group Paul later dubs ‘trouble makers’. The situation Luke describes at the beginning of Acts 15 is the same as that to which Paul refers in Galatians 2:11-16. Thus the statement that some men came down from Judea [15:1] corresponds to the coming of certain men from James [Gal. 2:12]. Not that James had actually sent them, for he later disclaims this [15:24], but that was their boast. They were trying to set two apostles against each other, claiming James as their champion and framing Paul as their opponent. They were Pharisees who were teaching that unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved [1]. Nor was the circumcision of Gentile converts their only demand; they went further. Gentile converts, they insisted, were also required to observe the Law of Moses [5].

Because they could not accept conversion without circumcision as adequate, they had organized themselves into a pressure group, whom are called ‘Judaizers’ or ‘the circumcision party’. They were not opposed to the Gentile mission, but were determined that it must come under the umbrella of the Jewish church, and that Gentile believers must submit not only to baptism in the name of Jesus, but, like Jewish proselytes, to both circumcision and law-observance as well. It is hardly surprising that this teaching of theirs brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them [2]. These Judaizers were insisting that without circumcision converts could not be saved. The Judaizers were stressing that circumcision was the God-given sign of the old covenant; but they were going further and making it a condition of salvation. They were telling Gentile converts that faith in Jesus was not enough, not sufficient for salvation: they must add to faith circumcision, and to circumcision observance of the law. In other words, they must let Moses complete what Jesus had begun, and let the law supplement the gospel.

The issue was immense. The way of salvation was at stake. The gospel was in dispute, the very foundations of the Christian faith were being undermined. The apostle Paul saw this with great clarity, and was outraged. His indignation increased when the Judaizers won over a notable convert in the apostle Peter, who was also in Antioch at the time. Before they arrived, as Paul explains in Galatians 2:11-14, Peter would eat with the Gentiles who had believed, received the Spirit and been baptized. So Peter, remembering Cornelius, was entirely happy to associate with them freely, and even to eat with them, doubtless including the Lord’s Supper, recognizing them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. But when the circumcision party arrived in Antioch, they persuaded Peter to withdraw and separate himself from the Gentiles.

Unfortunately, that was only the beginning. What happened next Paul explains in Galatians 2. The rest of the Jewish believers followed Peter’s bad example and joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy [Gal. 2:13]. Paul saw that Peter and his followers were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel. So he opposed and rebuked Peter in the presence of all for his inconsistency. Peter’s behavior was a disgraceful contradiction of the gospel. So Paul said to Peter: We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 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, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified [Gal. 2:15-16]. How, then, if we know this and have ourselves experienced it, can we preach a different gospel to Gentiles? Further, if God has accepted them by faith, as He has accepted us, how can we break fellowship with one another? How dare we reject those whom God has accepted?

Paul’s logic was incontrovertible. His courageous confrontation of Peter evidently had the desired result. For by the time Peter reached Jerusalem for the Council, he had regained his theological equilibrium and went on to bear faithful witness during the assembly to the gospel of grace and its consequences for Gentile-Jewish fellowship. Barnabas had recovered too.

The issue can be clarified by a series of questions. Is the sinner saved by the sheer grace of God in and through Christ crucified, when he or she simply believes, that is, flees to Jesus for refuge? Has Jesus Christ by His death and resurrection done everything necessary for salvation? Or are we saved partly through the grace of Christ and partly through our own good works and religious performance? Is justification by faith alone, or through a mixture of faith and works, grace and law, Jesus and Moses? Are Gentile believers a sect of Judaism, or authentic members of a multi-national family? It was not some Jewish cultural practices which were at stake, but the truth of the gospel and the future of the church. We are not surprised, therefore, by the fierce dissension and controversy which arose. We may be thankful that the church of Antioch grasped the importance, and took practical steps to ensure a resolution of the issue. The calling of a Council can be extremely valuable, if its purpose is to clarify doctrine, end controversy and promote peace [2-4].

Evaluate in light of Scripture:  Acts 15:12-15a.

[12]  All the people 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. [13]  After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. [14]  Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. [15]  With this the words of the Prophets agree.   [NASU]

[12]  The whole assembly became silent, evidently out of deep respect, as they listened to Barnabas and Paul describe the signs and wonders that God had done among the Gentiles. This extremely brief resume may be due to the fact that Luke’s readers were already fully acquainted with the details of the first missionary journey from having read Acts 13 and 14. And probably the emphasis on the signs and wonders is intended not to denigrate the preaching of the word, but because they confirmed and validated it.

[13-15]  The James who spoke next was ‘James the Just’, as he came later to be known because of his reputation for godly righteousness, one of the brothers of Jesus, who had probably come to believe in Him through being granted a resurrection appearance. Already recognized as a leader of the Jerusalem church [12:17], he was evidently the moderator of the assembly. He waited until the leading missionary apostles Peter and Paul had completed their evidence. Then he addressed his audience. James summarized Peter’s testimony in these words: Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name [14]. His statement is considerably more significant than it looks at first sight, for the expressions people and for His name are regularly applied in the Old Testament to Israel. James was expressing his belief that Gentile believers now belonged to the true Israel, called and chosen by God to belong to His one and only people and to glorify His name. He did not refer also to the testimony of Paul and Barnabas, perhaps because it was their mission policy which was on trial. Instead he went straight from the apostolic evidence to the prophetic word: the words of the Prophets agree [15].

Councils have no authority in the church unless it can be shown that their conclusions are in accord with Scripture. To substantiate his claim, James quoted Amos 9:11-12. As it stands, this quotation from Amos is a powerful statement of two related truths. God promises first to restore David’s fallen tabernacle and rebuild its ruins (which Christian eyes see as a prophecy of the resurrection and exaltation of Christ, the seed of David, and the establishment of His people) so that, secondly, a Gentile remnant will seek the Lord. In other words, through the Davidic Christ Gentiles will be included in His new community. Thus James, whom the circumcision party had claimed as their champion, declared himself in full agreement with Peter, Paul and Barnabas. The inclusion of the Gentiles was not a divine after-thought, but foretold by the prophets. Scripture itself confirmed the facts of the missionaries’ experience. There was an agreement between what God had done through His apostles and what He had said through His prophets. This correspondence between Scripture and experience, between the witness of prophets and apostles, was for James conclusive. He was ready to give his judgment which the other leaders endorsed, so that the decision was unanimous and the letter went out in the name of the apostles and elders, with the whole church [22].

Identify the nonnegotiable Truths:  Acts 15:23-29.

[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. [24]  Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, [25]  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. [27]  Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves 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 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.”   [NASU]

The Council agreed with James’s summary. The combination of prophetic Scripture and apostolic experience seemed conclusive to them, as it had done to him. And James’s proposal of Gentile Christian abstinence in four cultural areas seemed a wise policy to promote mutual tolerance and fellowship. The Council chose to send emissaries with a letter to the churches with a Gentile membership, in order to convey its decisions. A letter can seem impersonal; it was wise to send people with it who could explain its origin, interpret its meaning and secure its acceptance.

The letter has justly been described as a masterpiece of tact and delicacy. The Jerusalem church and its leaders made three important points in their letter. First, they disassociated themselves from the circumcision party and therefore, by clear implication, from the requirement of circumcision. Secondly, they made it abundantly clear that the men they had chosen to send with the letter did have their full approval and support. They would not only deliver the letter, but also confirm by word of mouth what it contained. Thirdly, they enunciated their unanimous decision not to burden Gentile converts with anything beyond the four specified abstentions: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication [29]. All four requested abstentions related to ceremonial laws laid down in Leviticus 17 and 18, and three of them concerned dietary matters which could inhibit Jewish-Gentile common meals. To abstain would be a courteous and temporary concession to Jewish consciences, once circumcision had been declared unnecessary, and so the truth of the gospel had been secured and the principle of equality established. The abstinence here recommended must be understood not as an essential Christian duty, but as a concession to the consciences of others, who still regarded such food as unlawful and abominable in the sight of God. The letter’s conclusion, which expresses more a recommendation than a command, was: if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well.

Questions for Discussion:

1.      What were the two demands of the men from Judea? Why did Paul see this as an attack on the central truth of the Gospel?

2.      Why do you think Peter joined the Judaizers? What does the confrontation between Peter and Paul teach us about the importance of correct doctrine in the church? If Paul was willing to confront Peter and the Judaizers over justification by faith alone, what should we do today in order to safeguard this key doctrine?

3.      Why did James and the Jerusalem Council place the four requirements upon the Gentile believers? What does their decision teach us concerning the handling of “nonnegotiable” truth and “negotiable” truth? How do we determine what is a “nonnegotiable” truth?.


The Book of the Acts, F.F. Bruce, Eerdmans.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter-Varsity.

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