ACTS OF THE APOSTLES CHAPTER 15
With Paul and Barnabas successfully planting churches in the Gentile world and believers in Christ were multiplying, the doctrines and practices of the Gentile churches soon came under scrutiny from the Jewish quarters. After all, salvation was of the Jews and the Jews were the first converts and disciples of Christ. Moreover, with their first church established in Jerusalem, so questions pertaining to doctrines and practices had to be trashed out to mark who were the true disciples of Christ.
The Jews and Gentiles were worlds apart as far as their lifestyles and cultures were concerned. The Jews were given the oracles of God to be set apart for God to be the light of the world. They were given a strict code to observe spanning from personal hygiene to moral and religious duties where distinctions were also made between males and females. Now with Gentile churches proliferating all over the regions outside of Israel, the line of control of churches and their practices became the bone of contention between the church at Jerusalem and the rest of the Gentile churches.
This should not be surprising though as the Jews had a long history of extending their control over the identities of the Jews living in the Gentile world. They jealously kept their personal and religious observances maintaining their Jewish characters even though they were not living in Israel. Hence, Jewish believers in Christ naturally would likewise try to impose their beliefs and practices on the Gentile Christians to establish certain norms as believers in the Messiah of Israel. This chapter documents the doctrinal distinction between the Jewish believers in Christ and the Gentile Christians and forever set the rule for Gentile Christians to observe as believers in the Lord.
Acts 15:1: And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
Paul and Barnabas were back in the church at Antioch with the rest of the leaders teaching disciples there. During those days, disciples were free to teach in churches and there were no established controls over who were qualified to teach converts in churches. There was no system of accreditation as to who were teachers qualified to teach converts in different churches. They were all led by the Holy Ghost and there was indeed true liberty among Christians in every sense of the word. So certain men from Judaea went to the church at Antioch and taught the brethren on an issue that was not only divisive but of paramount importance. It was an issue concerning the salvation of individuals in Christ. This was an issue that pitted them against us and the two never shall meet. There was this first identity crisis as to who were really true disciples and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Were these men from Judaea really followers of the Messiah Jesus? If they were, were they wrong to teach the Gentiles to observe the Jewish rite of circumcision for males? Did the Jewish apostles instruct them to go to Antioch to teach the Gentile Christians this requirement from Moses for the Jews and now the Gentile likewise had to observe as well? Paul and Barnabas were Jews and they were no doubt circumcised. They had never taught the Gentile believers in Christ the necessity of circumcision to their converts. Did Paul and Barnabas overlook this issue and were negligent on this matter of such grave importance?
Acts 15:2: When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
This new revelation from these men coming from Judaea surely had caused a stir among those Christians at Antioch. They had been practising Christians for a number of years. They had even sent out missionaries to the region to evangelise and plant churches. Now this bombshell was dropped on them that they had to follow Moses and become Jewish in practice for their lives in Christ. Was this something that they had to comply to remain as followers of Christ?
Human logic would dictate that the Gentile believers had to follow the practices of the Jewish believers. In fact, the first church was Jewish and Jerusalem was the mother church. The question was whether it was God’s will for the Gentiles to follow the practices of Jewish believers of the Messiah. Though many Jews believed in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, they did not abandon their Jewish practices after conversion. They still circumcised their males and observed the Jewish dietary laws and other customs required of them as Jews. Now with a great number of Gentiles also turning to the faith of Jesus, naturally, the question concerning the Jewish practices for the Gentiles would arise.
It was not a small matter concerning this question on circumcision. What other Jewish requirements would be imposed upon the Gentile believers became a real concern for them. They had been happily carrying out their business serving the Lord for quite a long time but now they had to confront this doctrinal issue and settle it once and for all with regards to their relationship with the first church at Jerusalem. There would be no end to external interference of church matters from the church at Jerusalem if this issue was not resolved. So Paul and Barnabas and some other brethren should go up to Jerusalem to iron out this matter that was troubling the brethren at Antioch.
Acts 15:3: And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.
It was customary of Paul and Barnabas to share with the brethren the victories God granted them in their missionary work and so it was a perfect occasion for them to share this joy with the believers along the way to Jerusalem. No doubt the brethren were encouraged to learn firsthand from these men who went to distant lands to preach the gospel of Christ. The conversion of the Gentiles was a happy occasion for the believers at Samaria and other parts of Israel. The Kingdom of Christ was thus expanding though they met great resistance from the Jews concerning their faith in Christ where they were even persecuted and one time under the hands of Paul. This was surely good news to the brethren in Israel coming from a far country, which is certainly refreshing to say the least: As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country. (Proverb 25:25)
Acts 15:4: And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.
Paul and Barnabas and the brethren finally reached Jerusalem and had an audience with the leaders and members of the church there. They declared to the brethren at the church what the Lord had done with the Gentiles. The conversion of the Gentiles with the establishment of their indigenous churches were not news to them but this was the first time they heard this work from the mouths of those who had a hand in this great and wonderful work where the gospel had been going to the uttermost part of the earth as promised (Acts 1:8). This should be an occasion of great rejoicing indeed.
However, the question of circumcision for the Gentile believers soon had to be dealt with as the believers in Christ were multiplying in a scale not imagined outside of Israel. The Gentile believers in Christ by that time could have outnumbered the Jewish believers. Their churches were sprouting everywhere along the coastal regions and the hinder lands of the Mediterranean Seas. The Jews living outside of Israel had their circles of believers congregating on the Sabbath day in synagogues observing the Law of Moses and likewise believers in the Messiah living outside of Israel ought to follow a similar pattern like their Jewish counterpart having their churches following guidelines from the mother church at Jerusalem.
Acts 15:5: But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
The Jewish believers were not all first generation believers where many of them were fishermen and people from ordinary backgrounds. There were believers coming from privileged background where some were Pharisees and priests among these followers of the Messiah after Pentecost where the apostles were greatly used of the Lord to preach to the Jews and they proved to them that the Lord Jesus Christ was indeed the Messiah of Israel whom God had raised from the dead and went back to heaven. This wonderful conversion of the Jewish religious elites was recorded in Acts 6:7: And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.
These were learned men and it was understandable that they brought up the issue of circumcision for the Gentiles. They were among those up in arms against the Jewish apostles and disciples in the beginning but converted by the amazing grace of the Lord. These men were so used to observing the Law of Moses and it would be certainly logical for them to think that the Gentile believers should likewise follow Moses as well. They did not understand fully what the Lord Jesus Christ had done for them at Calvary where liberty was now theirs to enjoy but liberty could be a nightmare to these men so used to this strict regiment of rules and regulations under Moses. Liberty thus became their enemy instead of their friend and they found comfort in following something they knew to be true and were so used to observing all along. The trouble was when they sought to impose such rules on the Gentile believers in Christ they failed to take into consideration the background of these Gentiles who were brought up very differently from them. Following something they could see and do may afford them comfort where they thought they were pleasing God by so doing but the Gentiles had never been part of such comfort zones of the Jews which could be turned into prisons for them to follow. Hence, this meeting at the church in Jerusalem was indeed needful in order to trash out the grey areas these Jewish believers thought the Gentiles should likewise follow.
Acts 15:6: And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.
This doctrinal dispute brought up by the believing Pharisees was an eye-opener for the apostles and elders in the church at Jerusalem. They were not consulted when some of these Jewish brethren went to the church at Antioch to demand compliance from the Gentile believers there. It was a matter based on human understanding that was logical to the Jewish elites where the apostles including Paul and Barnabas had not considered before. The conversion of the Gentiles was nothing new. The Ethiopian eunuch was converted in Acts 8 as well as Cornelius with his household in Acts 10 was not an issue to the Jewish brethren in Jerusalem. But now with Paul and Barnabas planting churches everywhere and the Gentile believers multiplying much faster than the Jews, it was natural for some Jewish brethren to become concern about the character of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Their fears of Gentile believers eroding the Jewish character of the first church at Jerusalem could not be underestimated. If something was not done, soon the Jewish church at Jerusalem would be eclipsed by the Gentile churches and what constitute the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ could become mired in endless disputes between the Jewish and Gentile believers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Each would claim to be the true followers of the Lord Jesus Christ and this would surely hinder the gospel work in the regions beyond. It would be tragic for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ to split at such an early time as the Gentile churches were only now beginning to grow after the first missionary trip of Paul and Barnabas.
Acts 15:7: And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
Acts 15:8: And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;
Acts 15:9: And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
Acts 15:10: Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
Acts 15:11: But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
This dispute could turn ugly with so much disputing among them. It concerned the purity of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ and so no one was willing to give an inch and come to some kind of compromise regarding this matter. How could one win an argument with the well-trained believers coming from the background of a Pharisee? Did the Jewish apostles think that even they themselves being Jews should abandon their own Jewish practices? If they did, it would be scandalous and even blasphemous and the church at Jerusalem would split and close shop. Even ordinary Jewish believers would not go along with such a departure from their Jewish upbringing. If they did not, what were the reasons and rationale that the Gentile believers should not follow them in their Jewish customs and traditions? Would they betray their own ancestors and follow the Gentiles? What were the repercussions if the Gentiles were allowed to have practices that were different from them? Would not this plunge the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ into a serious identity crisis. Were there any precepts from the Old Testament to show them the way forward to build up the Church of the Lord? They were indeed stuck in this quagmire arguing from the standpoint of the Old Testament.
The law offered them no solution moving forward and the prophets were inconclusive on this matter for they did not explicitly instruct the Gentiles believers in Christ to conform to their customs and traditions though the previous Jewish proselytes under the Law were obedient to the Jewish customs and traditions attending to synagogues and temple worship during their annual feasts. To continue searching the law and the prophets would be futile for the Lord Jesus Christ had come to fulfil every jot and tittle of the law and there was no commandment to compel the Gentiles to become Jews in practice. The Church was a new set up when Christ came with a promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against this Church. The apostles and disciples were still finding their ways around concerning the building up of this Church of the Lord. There were no short cuts and inquiring the mind of the Lord on this matter would be paramount and this whole new experience was part of the learning curve for everyone regarding the establishment the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Hence, Peter eventually stood up to testify. He had to because he was given the keys to open the gospel door to the Gentiles: And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18&19) The Lord Jesus Christ promised to build the Church but Peter was given the keys to open the door firstly to the Jews on the day of Pentecost and then the Samaritans and later the Gentile household of Cornelius. Now with the apostle Paul planting Gentile churches everywhere it was about time to discuss the next wave of the gospel movement among the Gentiles and set the direction forward in this Kingdom of the Lord.
Peter brought the congregation back down memory lane concerning the conversion of the household of Cornelius. Peter was led by the Holy Ghost to enter the house of a Gentile that was forbidden under their law. He even got an earful when he returned to the church at Jerusalem where he was confronted by the Jewish brethren accusing him for entering the house of a Gentile. So Peter was of course aware of the sensitivity concerning the cultural differences between the Jews and the Gentiles and the enmity between the two was so strong that he would not have gone to the Gentile on his own accord. He was led by the Holy Ghost after he was given a vision from above. The remarkable conversion of the Gentile household where the Holy Ghost was given to them like it was given to the Jews in the beginning was unmistakable which authenticated Peter’s Spirit led visit to this Gentile household.
So Peter affirmed that he was chosen from among the Jewish brethren to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Peter further testified that God made no difference between the Gentiles and the Jews when the Gentiles responded to the gospel of salvation through Christ. It was God who purified the hearts of these Gentiles by faith and God even gave them the Holy Ghost without requiring them to convert to become Jews before they were qualified to become worthy recipients of the Holy Ghost like the Jews in the beginning. Thus Peter questioned the need to force the Jews to conform to the customs and traditions of the Jews where they themselves could not bear. This argument was completely logical as the Gentiles had already received the Holy Ghost without becoming Jews, why then force them to become Jews in practice after their conversion? It simply did not make sense at all. Was keeping the law really superior over the Gentiles? If it was, then why Peter and their fathers found it a burden instead of a joy to keep the law? Were they trying to burden the Gentiles just because they were unhappy the Gentiles were not under such a strict code that they had to uphold?
Hence, what was the real reason behind trying to impose circumcision on the Gentile believers? Were they really trying to keep the Church pure to maintain this Jewish character of the Church? Or was it to bring the Gentiles under the same burden as the Jews? Peter insisted that God knew the hearts of these Gentiles and gave them the Holy Ghost. God was not bound by any conditions to give the Gentiles the Holy Ghost until they became Jews or practitioners of Jewish customs and traditions. In that case should they tempt God by forcing circumcision on the Gentile believers? Some years back when Cornelius and his household got saved and received the Holy Ghost, circumcision was not an issue and it was not imposed on them. So why should circumcision suddenly become an issue now?
As such, Peter concluded that the Gentiles were saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ just like the Jews. Salvation was not a result of their obedience in keeping the law. The law was a burden and they found it hard to bear. It was the Lord Jesus Christ who came to fulfil the law and hence they can now by saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This same saving grace was now extended to the Gentiles having been demonstrated that the Lord did not require the Gentiles to become Jews before giving them the Holy Ghost. They were now recipients of the Holy Ghost just like the Jews without having to adopt any Jewish customs and rites. Thus imposing circumcision on these Gentile believers would not only be inappropriate but an act of tempting God in reversing what the Lord had already moved forward the cause of the gospel in the Gentile lands where churches had already been established. This was the first time that salvation by grace through faith was declared unequivocally in the church at Jerusalem. This was an important declaration to put to rest for those who might think that they were saved primarily because they were Jews who found special favour from God. This was simply not true as many Jews in Israel as well as those Jews the apostle Paul and Barnabas encountered in the Gentile lands did not turn to the Lord Jesus Christ. At this juncture with the congregation giving audience to Peter, Paul and Barnabas were now given a chance to address them.
Acts 15:12: Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.
Without Peter testifying his experience in the conversion of the Gentile household of Cornelius, there was no way the members of this church would hear what Paul and Barnabas would tell them. The dispute earlier was heading nowhere and threatened to become an issue of great contention. After Peter’s testimony, they listened attentively to what Paul and Barnabas declared to them concerning their work among the Gentiles. The Jewish church at Jerusalem was established among signs and wonders under the hands of those Jewish apostles. Likewise, Paul and Barnabas wrought miracles and wonders among the Gentiles and many of them became obedient to the faith of Christ. These converts became followers of the Lord Jesus Christ learning of the Lord and established in the faith. Their churches were flourishing, in particular, the church at Antioch in Syria was greatly used of the Lord where prophets and teachers were there to ground believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. The church at Antioch was no stranger to the church at Jerusalem. It was the church at Antioch that sent relief to the brethren in Jerusalem in the past and brethren between the two churches fellowshipped freely where some from Jerusalem went to teach them at Antioch that the Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved. So Paul and Barnabas made their case to the brethren at Jerusalem where the Gentiles believers were never required to be circumcised in order to please God under their ministry and moreover, they were already doing very well.
Acts 15:13: And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:
Acts 15:14: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.
Acts 15:15: And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,
Acts 15:16: After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:
Acts 15:17: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.
Acts 15:18: Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.
When Paul and Barnabas had declared to the church what the Lord had done through them with the Gentiles, James the elder of this church at Jerusalem spoke to the church. James was the presiding elder who commanded the respect of the members there. Paul made mention of James a few times in his epistles. So James in his opening statement referred to Peter’s earlier declaration regarding the visitation of the Gentiles by the Lord through the preaching of Peter. That incident sealed the fate of the Gentiles bringing them into the fold of the Church. James also quoting the prophets regarding God’s plan for the Gentiles, continued to address the church.
In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old: (Amos 9:11)
As a nation, Israel had a central place in this world to be a light to the Gentiles. This nation had fallen where their kings in the past with their rebellions and excesses had caused Jehovah God to forsake them. Even during that time under the Roman Empire, the nation existed as a vassal state without fulfilling God’s original plan for them. Hence the apostles asked the Lord when He would restore the Kingdom unto Israel (Acts 1:6). The tabernacles of David had indeed fallen. This restoration had started and was on going and when the Kingdom Age should come, the Gentiles were also to be incorporated into part of God’s plan where the Seed of Abraham would be a blessing for all the families on earth.
And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)
And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee. (Isaiah 60:3-5)
And the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us go speedily to pray before the LORD, and to seek the LORD of hosts: I will go also. Yea, many people and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the LORD. Thus saith the LORD of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you. (Zechariah 8:21-23)
The prophets did see the Gentiles seeking Lord in the future. Israel would be the political and religious centre where the Gentiles would come to them for salvation and blessing. So Israel would attract the Gentiles like a magnet during the Kingdom Age. As such, James concluded that the Gentiles were part of God’s plan to be incorporated into the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. The Old Testament prophets were silent on what the Gentiles were supposed to do to partake of the blessings that would come upon Israel and the whole world in that day. Would these Gentiles be required to observe the custom of circumcision and many other Jewish requirements?
Meanwhile, the Kingdom was held in abeyance and they were all still waiting for the return of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ to restore all things. Under this new setting of the Church, what should they do with these Gentiles becoming members of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ? Should the Gentiles be converted to adopt all the customs and traditions of the Jews in order to become members of this Church awaiting the coming of the Kingdom? This was the pertinent question that was troubling the Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ.
Acts 15:19: Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:
Acts 15:20: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
Acts 15:21: For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
Finally James gave his sentence that the Gentile believers were to be left alone on this issue. Having the Gentiles to be part of the Kingdom with Israel was a prophetic fact. They were only dealing with the Gentile believers earlier in this transitional period to the time of the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. Hence circumcision was not to be imposed on the Gentile believers in Christ. The Gentiles who got saved earlier especially the household of Cornelius were not circumcised and they were doing well. They were even given the Holy Ghost. Circumcision would be a moot point anyway for the Lord did not impress upon the Jewish apostles to impose this requirement of circumcision on them in the beginning.
Likewise under the ministry of Paul and others, the Gentiles were already saved and received the Holy Ghost. What was the point of forcing circumcision upon them when the Lord had already accepted them into the Church? They were already saved by grace through faith in Christ and as such, circumcision would not made them anymore safer or spiritual. For even the Jews themselves were not saved because they were Jews who were circumcised but because they believed in their Messiah and they were also saved by grace as well. Many other Jews, though circumcised, were still lost when they rejected their Messiah. Hence, this should put the issue of circumcision for the Gentile believers to rest.
Nevertheless, James proposed to give certain instructions for the Gentile believers to observe. These rules were not meant to be a prerequisite for the Gentiles to get saved nor to keep them saved. Salvation was only found in the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ that Peter so explicitly declared when he preached one time in the past: Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) These rules were to be observed after conversion to keep the Gentiles in good standing before the Lord and the world at large as believers of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of the world coming back to establish the Kingdom on earth.
Here the four points for the Gentile believers to observe were not something extraordinary. It was by virtue of the fact of their pre-conversion experience being Gentiles that necessitate such observance for their own good. There were four points for these Gentile believers to take note.
Firstly, the issue of idolatry was mentioned. Israel had a very bad history of following after the Gentile nations around them to worship their false gods and eventually Jehovah God had to destroy them and caused them to be carried away from their homeland because of idolatry. The Gentile nations began to follow after idols after the flood and as such God called Abraham out from among them to make him a father of many nations. This historical fact of the Gentiles worshipping idols was also mentioned by Joshua when he challenged his people to choose between following the true and living God or these idols.
Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the LORD. And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24:14&15)
Hence this issue of idolatry would be the most appropriate item on the agenda to be addressed by the mother church at Jerusalem during this forum. Believers of the Lord should flee from idolatry. Abstaining from pollution of idols would keep a Christian clean before the Lord. Indeed idols do pollute and they pollute the spiritual life of a Christian absolutely. The nation of Israel was chastised for following after idols. Likewise Christians as members of the Church cannot escape chastisement from above when they fail to abstain from such spiritual pollution from idols. In fact, Paul also confirmed that the Gentiles had a strong propensity towards idolatry: Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. (1 Corinthians 12:2) Hence, he exhorted Christians to stay away from idols and their pernicious influence: Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry. (1 Corinthians 10:7&14)
The second point high on the agenda was fornication. Though fornication is not the only prevalent sin of the Gentiles, it is a sin that any sinner could easily commit as sinners born with a fallen sinful nature are very prone to such lust and temptation. The propensity to commit fornication is very great and soon for Gentiles not living under the Law of Moses, they could regard fornication as a norm and it becomes an acceptable practice especially in these day and age where men and women fornicate openly outside of the marriage bed. Fornication is a big market and prostitution is legal in many countries. Society justifies prostitution as a necessary evil. Prostitution is just like any service in the service industry and becomes part of the economy and most importantly, prostitution protects innocent girls and women from becoming victims of molestation and rape. Christians living in such an environment must not fall prey to such humanistic justification and participate in such immoral transaction. For fornication is indeed the work of the flesh and there are consequences for practitioners of fornication to take note before plunging into such immorality rationalising it away as a normal way of life where the people of this world could accept.
Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. (1 Corinthians 6:13&18)
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. (Ephesians 5:3&4)
Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. (Colossians 3:5-7)
With regard to the third point raised concerning eating of blood of animal, this requirement actually predated the Law of Moses where all the Gentiles were supposed to abide.
Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. (Genesis 9:3&4)
Unfortunately with the passage of time, men on earth disregarded this commandment given to Noah and his children. It is common for the Chinese to eat the blood of chicken. The blood from the chicken is first drained into a bowl and allowed to solidify. It is then cut into cubes and boiled in soup to be consumed. Many years ago, the author actually witnessed a man drink a whole fresh bowl of blood from a pangolin killed in a market. Some people believe drinking blood of animals can cure certain illness or strengthen the body system. Of course such perverted practices have no scientific proof let alone approval from the Creator God. Eating of animal blood is strictly forbidden. The Jews observed this commandment under the Law of Moses and now the Gentile believers in Christ are reminded to take heed as well. The reason is given in passages from Leviticus and Deuteronomy where blood is the life of all flesh and the people of God are forbidden to eat flesh with blood.
Moreover ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it be of fowl or of beast, in any of your dwellings. Whatsoever soul it be that eateth any manner of blood, even that soul shall be cut off from his people. (Leviticus 7:26&27)
And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust. For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off. (Leviticus 17:10-14)
If the place which the LORD thy God hath chosen to put his name there be too far from thee, then thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock, which the LORD hath given thee, as I have commanded thee, and thou shalt eat in thy gates whatsoever thy soul lusteth after. Even as the roebuck and the hart is eaten, so thou shalt eat them: the unclean and the clean shall eat of them alike. Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life; and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh. Thou shalt not eat it; thou shalt pour it upon the earth as water. Thou shalt not eat it; that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 12:21-25)
All the firstling males that come of thy herd and of thy flock thou shalt sanctify unto the LORD thy God: thou shalt do no work with the firstling of thy bullock, nor shear the firstling of thy sheep. Thou shalt eat it before the LORD thy God year by year in the place which the LORD shall choose, thou and thy household. And if there be any blemish therein, as if it be lame, or blind, or have any ill blemish, thou shalt not sacrifice it unto the LORD thy God. Thou shalt eat it within thy gates: the unclean and the clean person shall eat it alike, as the roebuck, and as the hart. Only thou shalt not eat the blood thereof; thou shalt pour it upon the ground as water. (Deuteronomy 15:19-23)
The final fourth point was related to the previous requirements concerning the blood of animals. The animal to be eaten had to be killed and its blood poured out. Animals that are killed by strangling are not fit for human consumption as the blood remains in the animal. Eating raw meat with its blood running is tantamount to eating blood. Ever since Noah left the ark, animals became meat for human consumption except their blood. Those people living before the flood were vegetarians as eating of meat was only allowed after the flood. Vegetarianism before the flood has become history and it is not a biblical practice for Christians to observe. In fact avoid eating meat is a doctrine of devils.
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: (1 Timothy 4:1-4)
Instead of avoiding meat, Christians may fast from time to time for certain spiritual purposes and vegetarianism is not a substitute for fasting and it has no additional spiritual value in the sight of the Lord. Eating of meat is not a cruel act if the animal is killed by draining of its blood in a quickest possible way as the blood is the life of the flesh. In fact, God does not condone cruelty against animals and the length of men’s life will depend on how they treat animals: The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk. (Exodus 23:19) If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young: But thou shalt in any wise let the dam go, and take the young to thee; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days. (Deuteronomy 22:6&7) Since the fall of man, cruelty has become part of the fallen nature of man.
In China, some people prefer to eat fish so fresh that the fish is cut to remove its internal parts and then its body is fried with the chef holding the head of the fish above the oil. When the fish is served, the head of the fish is not completely dead and its mouth is still moving. Some people also cook snake by slicing open the snake and to clean it and then quickly boil it and cut its body into smaller parts. Gravy is then poured over these cut pieces of snake meat and when the dish is served, these meat pieces are still moving. Cruelty towards animals is no justification for vegetarianism. It is God who commanded His people to eat meat and it is also God who commended on how a righteous man would treat animals in contrast with the cruelty of the wicked: A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. (Proverbs 12:10)
So James having decided not to impose circumcision on the Gentile believers, he listed out these four points for the Gentile Christians to observe. James was not making some motherhood statements to appease those who insisted that the Gentile believers should be circumcised. These four points raised by James were certainly not some afterthought or part of a compromised package tabled in order to win the approval of those who thought that the Gentile believers should adopt Jewish practices in their Christian life. These points were genuine concerns for the welfare of the Gentile believers as there was no better time than during this forum to address some of these issues so that there should be consistency of practice within the Church of Christ made up of Jews and Gentiles without having the Gentiles becoming Jewish in custom. These points were also not simply intrinsic to the Law of Moses but were universally binding on all men on earth after the flood long before the establishment of the nation of Israel.
Acts 15:22: Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren:
Acts 15:23: And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:
Acts 15:24: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:
The sentence proclaimed by James pleased the entire church from the leadership to all the members of the church. It was no doubt the wisdom from the Lord given to James to sum up this hotly debated issue on circumcision for the Gentile believers in Christ. If it was not handled wisely and properly the church could split and members especially the younger believers hurt by such schism within the church. The Holy Ghost was present to move and guide the servants of the Lord that day during this very important meeting and consensus among all was reached. So the church decided to send Silas and chief men among the brethren to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to the church at Antioch to inform them on the outcome of this conference. This showed the importance the church at Jerusalem placed in sending chief men to Antioch to allay the fears and doubts of believers there concerning this issue on circumcision. Their sincerity was commendable and their determination to resolve this matter for the benefit to all believers should be a model for all Christians of all ages to settle dispute in an amicable fashion for the glory of the Lord. Such exemplary conduct of the members of the church at Jerusalem and Antioch unfortunately is seldom found in believers in these day and age where many are self-centred and blinded by spiritual pride where their spirit is not right to discuss any matter in the first place.
The letter stated unequivocally that those Jews who taught them that the Gentile believers must be circumcised in order to be saved were not authorised by the apostles and elders from the church at Jerusalem. This clarification was especially important to the members of the church at Antioch as the requirement imposed on them by some Jewish teachers were troubling to say the least. In fact, their souls were subverted with their salvation in Christ hung in doubt. This was no small matter to be dismissed and swept under the carpet where eternal security was the real concern for these believers there. So this was good news to them indeed although they needed not give in to external interference from another church. But fellowship with other churches was much treasured and so a clarification would indeed be wonderful to keep the fellowship on track and they could serve the Lord together with unity of spirit in the bond of peace.
Acts 15:25: It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
Acts 15:26: Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Acts 15:27: We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.
Acts 15:28: For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;
Acts 15:29: That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
Acts 15:30: So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle:
Acts 15:31: Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.
The acknowledgment of Barnabas and Paul as beloved and commendation for their laying down of their lives for the Lord in the gospel showed the church’s appreciation of these men and their friendship with them in this work for the Lord. There was no air of superiority from the church at Jerusalem in the delivery of this letter to the church at Antioch. The leadership of the church at Jerusalem was not talking down to the members of the church at Antioch. Instead, solidarity from the church at Jerusalem was expressed to encourage the church at Antioch to move on in the work and walk with the Lord. They also acknowledged the leadership of the Holy Ghost on this matter where circumcision could become a burden for the Gentile Christians and it was not required for their salvation.
The four points raised by James were delivered to the church at Antioch for their benefit and not as a burden required for their salvation. It was clearly stated that if they kept these rules they should do well in the Lord. These rules were not an addendum to become part of their salvation in Christ where failure to observe them would disqualify them from the Kingdom of God. Needless to say the church at Antioch was much comforted having received this letter from the church at Jerusalem and heard from the mouth of those chief men from the church there to confirm this matter to them. It was a time of great rejoicing as their forward march in spreading the gospel needed not be hampered by such uncertainties such as the issue on circumcision. It was time to move on with this issue on circumcision for the Gentile believers but unfortunately some still preferred to adopt such requirements for the Gentiles where Paul had to addressed this issue and other matters pertaining to the Law in his epistle to the Galatians who desired to return to the Law.
Acts 15:32: And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.
Acts 15:33: And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles.
Acts 15:34: Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still.
The fellowship between the two churches was cordial and warm and frequent exchanges between the two churches often complemented one another in teaching and exhorting Christians to continue to follow the Lord. There was no need for any system of accreditation and they taught freely among the churches. There was no need to maintain a membership list or to require letter of transfer for members between churches in those days. There was true liberty in the Lord and the Lord prospered their work: Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. (2 Corinthians 3:17) Those chief men who came from Jerusalem eventually returned except Silas who chose to stay behind with the work there. It should be noted that the NIV and NASB left out verse 34 putting Silas’s decision to remain behind in the church at Antioch. This caused the presence of Silas at the church who was later chosen by Paul for his second mission trip to become confused and opened to speculation.
Acts 15:35: Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
Acts 15:36: And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.
Acts 15:37: And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.
Acts 15:38: But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.
Acts 15:39: And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;
Acts 15:40: And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.
Acts 15:41: And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.
With this episode on imposing circumcision on Gentile believers settled, the church continued its teaching ministry from within and soon Paul and Barnabas entertained the thought of another missionary trip to the region to see how those churches they established were doing. However, Barnabas wanted to bring his nephew John Mark again for this trip. John had disappointed them before in the earlier trip by leaving them in the earlier part to return to Jerusalem. He was now back in the church at Antioch with Barnabas. Perhaps Barnabas brought him back with him to Antioch after the conference at Jerusalem. Barnabas had been an encouragement to many and bringing people with him was nothing new. In fact, it was Barnabas who went to seek for Paul and brought him to Antioch many years ago. So Barnabas wished to give John Mark another chance to prove himself but Paul thought otherwise.
Unfortunately, their disagreement was turned into a sharp contention and they had to part company. Their earlier partnership in the gospel work thus came to an end. It was sad but such incidents do happen even in our day. It was tragic that their disagreement was not over doctrine but personal preference. When personalities were involved, it was often hard to see God’s will on the matter. Paul and Barnabas managed to settle a much more serious contention on the matter of circumcision with the church at Jerusalem but they could not overcome their personal differences on opinions involving a third party for the work. Blood was thicker than water for Barnabas and this was indeed a sensitive and touchy issue for the two men to deal with. This also showed how much they were affected by the departure of John Mark during the first trip where there was no record of the gospel being preached at the city where John left them during that time. So Barnabas took John Mark and left for Cyprus and he was never mentioned again in the history of the acts of the apostles. It was sad indeed to see these two great men greatly used of the Lord to quarrel in this manner and the church at Antioch was no doubt deeply affected: A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle. (Proverbs 18:19)
With Barnabas leaving the church at Antioch with Mark without the blessing and recommendation of the brethren there, Paul chose Silas instead as the replacement of Barnabas for his next missionary exploit. They were sent out by the church at Antioch for the purpose of furthering the gospel of Christ to the region beyond. The gospel has yet to be preached unto the uttermost part of the earth and this trip would bring Paul and Silas to much further territories to plant the gospel seed while they visited the earlier churches to exhort and comfort them in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Missionary activities would continue and more people would be saved and added unto the Body of Christ with churches springing up in many cities but persecution of the saints would also follow. The spiritual warfare was heating up where the souls of sinners were at stake. These Holy Ghost led men were certainly up to their task in bringing many sons to salvation in the Lord in the days following.
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