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Bible Commentaries

Mark Dunagan Commentary on the Bible

Acts 15

 

 

Introduction

THE BOOK OF ACTS | CHAPTER 15

OUTLINE AND COMMENTARY - MARK DUNAGAN

I. OUTLINE OF CHAPTER 15:

I. The point at issue ()

II. The debate in Jerusalem ()

A. Peter ()

B. Paul and Barnabas ()

C. James ()

III. The conclusion and letter: ()

IV. Antioch receives the letter ()

V. Churches in Syria and Cilica receive the letter ()

For some years now Gentiles were becoming Christians, but what had started out as a trickle in Acts 10:1-48; Acts 11:1-30 is now becoming a torrent of conversions, especially following Paul"s first journey (14:27). Yet some professed Christians of a Jewish background had a problem with Gentiles becoming Christians without converting to Judaism (15:1ff). In addition, we have false brethren (Galatians 2:4), from a Pharisee past who are trying to force Christians into believing that keeping the Law of Moses is essential for salvation (Acts 15:1).


Verse 1

"Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren": That is, they came down to Antioch and tried teaching the following among the Christians there. Paul will later write that what such men were teaching was another gospel, a distortion of the true (Galatians 1:6-9), and were false brethren (2:4). They also claimed to have been sent by the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15:24). "Began": The verb tense is imperfect, and suggests continual efforts to force their false doctrine on the brethren in Antioch. "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses": They were also teaching that one must adhere to the Law of Moses as well (15:5). From this verse it is clear that Paul and Barnabas were not teaching that Gentiles had to be circumcised. Notice that these false teachers were appealing to Moses as the final authority, not Christ. Likewise modern Seventh Day Adventists claim that the Sabbath is an eternal law they may have argued that circumcision was part of an eternal covenant (Genesis 17:3). "But remember that the word "everlasting" must be understood in the light of whatever limitations are placed on it by its context" (Reese p. 528). "You cannot be saved": The conversion of Cornelius had taken place about 10 years prior, and still the apostles were basically battling the same issue. It is clear from the above statement that such false brethren were teaching that Christians from any ethnic battleground had to keep the Law of Moses to be saved. Compare with Galatians 5:1-4.


Verse 2

"Had great dissension and debate with them": Note that debating is not wrong, especially when truth is on the line (Jude 1:3; Philippians 1:17). God expects us to stand up for the truth and oppose what is false (Ephesians 5:11). Years ago David Edwin Harrell observed that denominations have a variety of distinguishable characteristics. "They are tolerant of other "churches" (denominations), they generally accept the moral standards of the society in which they exist, they are less dogmatic, less active, and more interested in the world around them" This was a crucial issue, for the false brethren had become a pressure group that was attempting to bring all Christians back under a Law and Covenant that could never save anyone. The truth of the matter is that no one is going to be saved when the people are taught that they need to keep the Law of Moses (Galatians 5:1-4). "The brethren determined": The brethren in Antioch. "That Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles": Paul will later write that he went up to Jerusalem, not because he needed help with this question, but because God told him to go (Galatians 2:2). We need to remember that Jerusalem is not a "mother church" that directs all the other congregations; rather they are going to Jerusalem because these false brethren had claimed that they were sent by the apostles and church in Jerusalem (15:24). From this verse it appears that most of the apostles still resided in Jerusalem, the time period is around 51 A.D. "And elders": The congregation in Jerusalem has its own elders and they are consulted because these false teachers went out from their congregation (15:24).


Verse 3

"Sent on their way by the church": "The word sent could either indicate that they were provisioned for the journey (assisted in paying expenses, and encouraged by prayers for a safe journey) by the brethren at Antioch, or that some of the brethren actually accompanied them on the journey (Acts 21:5)" (Reese p. 530). "Such an act is a mark of love and respect, and shows that the sympathy of the church at Antioch was with the apostles, not the Judiazers" (Reese p. 530). "Passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria": In Acts 8:5; Acts 11:19 we read about the initial preaching in both these areas. "They would have traveled along the coast as far south as Ptolemais, and then crossed the Plain of Esdraelon into Samaria" (Reese p. 531). The primary topic of conversation as Paul visited these congregations was the many Gentiles who had obeyed the gospel on his first journey. As a result, there is great joy among the brethren at the news of the extensive spread of the gospel. "Wherever they went, the account of the conversion of the Gentiles was received with a gladness which presented the strongest possible contrast to the bitterness of the Judaizers" (Reese p. 531).


Verse 4

"Arrived in Jerusalem": The journey from Antioch to Jerusalem was about 300 miles. This was his third visit to Jerusalem since his conversion (Acts 9:26; Acts 11:30). "They were received by the church and the apostles and the elders": That is, they were welcomed, acknowledged as faithful brethren and received in a hospitable manner. Compare with Galatians 2:9). "They reported all that God had done with them": "If God was so working, then it must follow that God had accepted the Gentiles without circumcision; and the Jewish brethren ought to so accept them, too" (Reese p. 532). Notice the humility. Paul and Barnabas were merely co-workers with God, the success in preaching was due to the power of the gospel (Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 3:6 ff).

Point to Note

The reader should be aware that a number of writers do not believe that Acts 15:1-41 and Galatians 2:1-21 are the same event. Some believe that Galatians 2:1-21 is describing the visit Paul made to Jerusalem in Acts 12:25, and that the Galatian letter was actually written prior to Acts 15:1-41.


Verse 5

"But": Not everyone is thrilled with such news. While many Christians were rejoicing, some in Jerusalem were only filled with criticism. "Some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed": They had become Christians but it is clear that they had not abandoned all their old Jewish beliefs. "They may believe Jesus is indeed the Messiah; but they picture Him as the Messiah only for a glorified Judaism from which Gentiles are to be excluded, unless they conform rigidly to the Law of Moses" (Reese p. 533). McGarvey feels that "we ascertain that when they despaired of destroying the church by persecution from without, they deliberately confessed Christ and came into the church for the purpose of controlling it from within" (pp. 58-59). Paul will call them "false brethren", who had sneaked into the church (Galatians 2:4), for the purpose of trying to bring the church back into the bondage of Judaism.


Verse 6

"The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter": Carefully note that this meeting is not concluded to figure out what they were going to believe, neither is the church voting on what to teach on a certain doctrine. By contrast, Paul and Barnabas already know what is true (15:2; Galatians 1:12; Galatians 2:5), and so do the other apostles - as we will see in this chapter. In this chapter we see the apostles taking the lead in the discussion, attempting to show all the people exactly what the true answer to the issue was. Galatians 2:1-3 reveals that when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem, they first met with the apostles privately, which is probably the same meeting as Acts 15:4, then Acts 15:6 refers to the public meeting that followed.


Verse 7

"After there had been much debate": Apparently the Judiazers are allowed to present their arguments, but the Holy Spirit records none of their arguments. After they had run out of arguments, the apostles, one by one, rise and counter the claims of the false brethren. "Men who are in error can never be convinced that they are wrong by denying them freedom of speech" (McGarvey p. 536). Yet, error needs to be countered and do so effectively (Titus 1:9-11).

PETER

"Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe": Peter had been specifically sent by God to the home of a Gentile (Acts 10:1-48) for the purpose of offering salvation (without circumcision or keeping the Law of Moses). Peter calls Acts chapter 10, the "early days", and the events in that chapter had taken place some 10 years previously. Remember also that some 20 years before Jesus had told Peter that he would be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19). "Hear the word of the gospel and believe": Salvation is based on hearing and obeying the gospel - not on being circumcised and obeying the Law of Moses.


Verse 8

"God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us": Seeing that God knows the heart (Acts 1:24), God knew that Cornelius was a genuine believer, and He Himself gave His approval of what Peter was doing by sending the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his household as He had sent the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in Acts chapter 2 (Acts 10:45-46; Acts 11:17). Remember, all of this had been done without teaching these Gentiles that they had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.


Verse 9

"and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith": So there is only one plan of salvation for all men (Acts 4:12; Mark 16:16). Though Gentiles had not been circumcised, God still accepted them when they believed and were baptized. Notice the word cleansing that the Holy Spirit here selected through Peter. Peter"s choice of the word cleansing is because in the back of the dispute was the question of purity, which the Pharisees insisted, came through observance of the Law and circumcision. The real uncleanness of the Gentiles was not in being uncircumcised but in being sinners. When it came to terms of forgiveness, faith and baptism (Acts 2:38) were the terms for both Jews and Gentiles and not circumcision and keeping the Law. Remember, Peter had already commanded Jews to be baptized for the remission of their sins; therefore the word faith in this passage inherently includes conditions such as repentance, confession and baptism.


Verse 10

"Why do you put God to the test": That is, why are these Pharisees contradicting the clear will of God on the matter? Why are they acting like God made a mistake when he had Peter baptize uncircumcised Gentiles in Acts 10:1-48? "By placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke": Demanding that new believers be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. "Which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?": The New Testament makes it clear that the Law of Moses was a good thing (Romans 7:12), and righteous men delighted in God"s Law (Psalms 1:1 ff; Psalms 19:7 ff). Yet we are also told that without the sacrifice of Christ, the Law only ended up condemning those under it (Galatians 3:10-11). Peter here appeals to the consciences of these Jews. Their ancestors had not been able to keep the Law perfectly and neither had their own generation. The word bear is being used in the sense that no one had been able to keep the Law perfectly, thus resulting in their justification. Paul will also call the Law a yoke of slavery in Galatians 5:1.


Verse 11

"We believe that we are saved": That"s what the Law could never do - save you! The expression we believe refers to the settled conviction of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem on this matter. "Through the grace of the Lord Jesus": Notice that one is not saved by faith only and neither is one saved by grace alone. "In the same way": The exact same plan of salvation applies to all men. Jews cannot be saved by keeping the Law of Moses, but rather all men need to obey Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Hebrews 5:9).

PAUL AND BARNABAS


Verse 12

"All the people kept silent": "The whole assembly became silent after Peter"s speech. The silence is testimony to the effect of Peter"s presentation. He had presented such clear and forcible arguments that there was nothing that could be said against them" (Reese p. 539). "Listening to Paul and Barnabas": These two preachers recounted in vivid detail all the miracles worked on the first journey as they preached to Gentiles. The point being made is that seeing that God was giving His obvious approval to their efforts it is clear that God was accepting Gentiles without being circumcised and observing the Law of Moses, seeing that Paul and Barnabas did not teach such things.

JAMES


Verse 13

"James": Most feel that this is James the Lord"s brother, who became a prominent voice in the early church (Galatians 1:19; Acts 21:18), and who wrote the book of James around 62 AD


Verse 14

He calls Peter by his Hebrew name Simon, and summarizes Peter"s sermon. "Taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name": By using such words as a people, James is implying that the Gentile converts were no less the people of God than Israel used to be. "For His name may mean that these people bear His name as a people of God, or it may mean that they are considered His special people" (Reese p. 541).


Verse 15

And the Old Testament prophets predicted such. James will quote from Amos but other prophets had also foretold the acceptance of the Gentiles (Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 49:6; Micah 4:1-4). A whole list of Old Testament prophecies about the Gentiles becoming God"s people is found in Romans 15:9-11.


Verse 16

The quotation is taken from Amos 9:11-12. "After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it": This verse is not predicting the rebuilding of the "tabernacle" constructed in Exodus, rather it is speaking of the "house" or royal family line of David. That is, that one of David"s descendants would again reign as king over Israel. The fall of the nation came as Amos predicted; and as a result there were no kings over Israel for some 500 years. Yet Jesus had been born, died, buried and resurrected and now was seated at God"s right hand and ruling on David"s throne over the new Israel (Acts 2:30 ff).


Verse 17

"So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord": When David finally has a descendant once again ruling on his throne at the same time the Gentiles will be offered salvation. Clearly the prophets had predicted that when the Messiah reigns as king, when His kingdom is established, then salvation will be offered to the Gentiles (see Isaiah 11:10 ff; Isaiah 2:2-4) as well. There is a powerful argument here against the premillennial idea that Jesus is not reigning as king and that the kingdom is not the church. If that is the case, then according to the prophets no Gentiles presently had a right to seek the Lord! The gospel being sent to the Gentiles and the Messiah reigning over His kingdom are events that happen at the same time!


Verse 18

"Since God had foretold a long time ago that the Gentiles would be a part of the kingdom, without circumcision, it should not be opposed and resisted by us. We rather should get our ideas in harmony with God"s revealed will!" (Reese p. 543).


Verse 19

"Therefore it is my judgment": This is the only conclusion that James can reach from the facts presented. Notice how the apostles have argued. Both Peter and Paul had offered approved examples and necessary inferences and James has offered direct commands and then made the appropriate conclusion. None of this was argued on the basis of feelings, the culture, or human opinion. "That we do not trouble": "Our word harass rather catches the idea of the word trouble" (Reese p. 543). Once again conversion is spoken of as a turning to God (Acts 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).


Verse 20

"But that we write to them": That is, put this in writing and clear up the matter. "This will leave no opportunity for the Judaizers to again misrepresent what Gentiles have to do to be saved, for the Gentiles will have a specific word from the Lord on the matter" (Reese p. 544). "That they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood": Some writers argued that this section is a compromise with the Pharisees, but to this we must disagree. God does not compromise with error. Obviously after all the arguments, James is not now appealing to certain provisions in the Law of Moses. The Law never was and never will be binding on Christians. It was removed at the cross (Colossians 2:14-16), thus the above restrictions are given not because the Law of Moses taught them, but because the Law of Christ forbids them. These four areas are mentioned because they were the top four temptations for Gentiles who had become Christians. Even after conversion these new Christians were surrounded by an idolatrous and immoral society.

"Things contaminated by idols": This would include getting rid of all their household idols and verse 29 mentions "things sacrificed to idols". In 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; 1 Corinthians 10:1-33 Paul will expand upon when and where a Christian could eat meat sacrificed to idols and when such would be wrong. Compare with 1 Corinthians 8:1 ff; 1 Corinthians 10:14 ff, and Revelation 2:14; Revelation 2:20; Revelation 2:24. "And from fornication": This includes abstaining from all unlawful sexual activity, including premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality. Remember in the ancient world idolatry and sexual immorality often were combined. The worship of a pagan deity often included a visit to a harlot priestess. Like today, it is sad that many pagans considered fornication no more wrong than getting a drink when one is thirsty, or eating when one is hungry. "From what is strangled": That is, animals that have not been properly bled when being butchered. This does not mean that we are still under the regulations of the Law of Moses, but rather God has always considered such practices to be cruel and barbaric. His people, before the Law, during the Law, or after the Law were never to do such things as eat blood or eat the heart of some animal while it is still beating. "From blood": This is not a prohibition against blood transfusions or having any contact with blood, but rather a prohibition against eating or drinking blood. This was a law even before the Law of Moses was given (Genesis 9:4). This does not mean that Gentiles had to eat kosher food, for God declared all foods clean (1 Timothy 4:4), but blood, strangled animals, idolatrous practices and fornication have never been acceptable under any covenant, including the new covenant.


Verse 21

"For": The reason that Gentile Christians need such instruction is because, in contrast the to Jews who had heard the Scriptures read from ancient generations every week, the Gentiles have not had access to such instruction concerning fornication and the above. Jewish Christians do not need such instruction because they had been properly taught, but the Gentile Christians, who are without written revelation (in the past), need to be given these prohibitions. Obviously, James is not saying that everyone is still under the Law of Moses, because verses 7-19 made the opposite point.


Verse 22

"The combined force of the four speeches made the will of God so clear that the opposition was totally silenced, and the only remaining question was how to best carry out the proposal" (Reese p. 549). The elders are mentioned right after the apostles. This does not mean they were equal in authority, but rather that they agreed with the conclusion. "The whole church": The Christians in Jerusalem who heard this presentation were convinced as well, including that the Pharisees were in the minority and where unsuccessful in spreading their error in this congregation. Notice that unity is a real possibility when people listen to Scripture and have good hearts. "To send to Antioch": The letter will first be sent to Antioch because this is were the false teachers had first tried to spread their error (Acts 15:1 ff). Paul and Barnabas are selected because they were from Antioch and Judas and Silas as well, who were leading men in the congregation in Jerusalem. Such men from Jerusalem would only confirm the truth that the false teachers had lied and that the church in Jerusalem did not endorse their teaching.

“Judas called Barsabbas": People speculate concerning whether he is the same man mentioned in Acts 1:23. "Silas": He will accompany Paul on his next journey (Acts 15:40; Acts 16:25; Acts 16:29; Acts 17:4; Acts 17:10; Acts 17:15).


Verse 23

THE LETTER

Carefully note that this letter is not some human decree or creed. The apostles did not vote on this matter, rather the will of God was clear. The letter itself makes it clear that this decision was a decision given by the Holy Spirit (). Ancient and modern church councils and conventions have nothing in common with this chapter.

The letter is addressed to the recent Gentile converts where the gospel has been preached thus far.


Verse 24

The Judaizing teachers had lied. The apostles did not endorse their teaching and neither did the congregation in Jerusalem. Evidently such false brethren had been making some false claims of being authorized to teach such views. "We cannot help but wonder if the Judaizers were present in the assembly at Antioch when this epistle was read to the congregation, and if so, what their reaction was" (Reese p. 551).


Verse 25

This letter represents a united position among all the apostles and the elders in the Jerusalem church. 15:25 "With our beloved Barnabas and Paul": Here is how the church in Jerusalem viewed Barnabas and Paul. This makes it clear to all that all the apostles are on the same side against the false teachers.


Verse 26

"Men who have risked their lives": "It is clear from this that the sufferings and narrow escapes during the first missionary journey were well known in Jerusalem" (Reese p. 552).


Verse 27

Judas and Silas would also teach exactly the same thing as that taught in Paul and Barnabas. Their presence, along with the letter, makes it clear that the false teachers were teaching their own opinion.


Verse 28

"For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit": The speeches and arguments made in this chapter are the arguments given through inspired men by the Holy Spirit. This decision in Jerusalem was an inspired conclusion and so was the letter.


Verse 29

Note that God does not want to burden believers, but rather the commands that He gives are "essentials" and for our good (15:29) (1 John 5:3). Some have argued that the essential mentioned here only applied to this time and place and are not standards of conduct demanded of all Christians for all time, but such misses the point that such things have always been wrong (like eating blood, Genesis 9:4), and will always be wrong (remember this list includes "fornication").

THE RESULTS


Verses 30-35

The new Christians in Antioch immediately embraced the message in the letter and rejoiced. "Encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message": "These men took a personal interest in the brethren, encouraging and strengthening them, just the opposite effect that the Judaizers had, who "unsettled the souls of the disciples"" (Reese p. 557).


Verse 35

"Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch": Notice how Paul attached himself to and worked with a local congregation when he was not traveling and establishing churches. Some feel that at this time the events recorded in Galatians 2:11-14 took place.

THE SECOND JOURNEY


Verses 36-38

This second trip will take place between around 51-54 AD It will start with Paul visiting the congregations that he had established on the first trip. 15:37-38 Barnabas wants to take along Mark, but Paul objects. Barnabas kept insisting that they take Mark and Paul kept on refusing.


Verse 39

"There occurred such a sharp disagreement": Note that no apology is ever given by either man and that neither man is rebuked by God. Secondly, years later Mark will be with Paul (Colossians 4:10), and Paul always will praise Barnabas when he is mentioned in his letters (1 Corinthians 9:6). Here we learn a lesson that two brethren can have a sharp disagreement over a matter of opinion, opt for two different courses, and still remain close friends and still accomplish God"s work. The result of this disagreement is that now we have two evangelistic teams rather than one! "Notwithstanding their disagreement and separation, they did not allow the good cause to suffer, nor did they fail to accomplish separately that which Paul proposed they should accomplish together" (Reese p. 562). Thus we must never allow disagreements, even pointed ones to hinder us from doing God"s will and seeing that the work progresses.


Verse 40

See Acts 13:3; Acts 14:26 for similar language.


Verse 41

 


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Bibliography Information
Dunagan, Mark. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". "Mark Dunagan Commentaries on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dun/acts-15.html. 1999-2014.

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