The success of Paul and Barnabas in taking the gospel to the Gentiles and the growth of the church in Antioch cause the apostles to confront a fundamental theological question. Are Gentiles required to be circumcised and abide by the Law of Moses in order to be truly saved? The ramifications of their answer will spread to the ends of the earth. If Gentiles must effectively become Jews as well as Christians, then the work of Paul and Barnabas to this point has been in vain and the gospel from here on must be accompanied by the Mosaic Law. The apostles must decide if salvation is by grace alone or if the gospel requires Moses to back it up.
Some men come to Antioch from Jerusalem (note that a traveler always comes down from Jerusalem or Judea because Jerusalem is on Mount Zion) and instruct the believers there (the brethren) that they must be circumcised according to the custom of Moses to be saved. Nothing is said about who these men are or why they come. They simply come down to Antioch and make sure the growing number of Gentile believers realizes there is more to becoming part of the new church than simply believing the gospel.
Perhaps the church in Antioch is garnering some attention because of its size and the many Gentiles in it and so these men feel it necessary to instruct the believers on the full requirements of conversion. They are not identified in verse 1 but they likely are the same people – or are some of the same people – who are identified in verse 5 as converted Pharisees. As Pharisees their whole lives have been devoted to the Law, so the thought that someone can come into the church while ignoring it is unfathomable.
This could be the same event that Paul describes in Gal 2:11-16. There he says that certain men came to Antioch from James, meaning they came from Jerusalem (where James is the leader of the church – this does not mean James sent them – he later states in the letter he sends to Antioch that the men came without his knowledge). If this is the same event, it causes a great deal of consternation in the Antioch church. Peter – who apparently is spending time in Antioch – and Barnabas both separate themselves from the Gentile believers and refuse to eat with them out of fear of the Jerusalem delegation. The actions of Peter and Barnabas cause the other Jews in Antioch to separate themselves also. The church effectively divides and fellowships only along racial lines.
It is hard to know if the Pharisees in this text are truly saved themselves. Nothing is said about them being false believers but Paul will later say in Galatians that men teaching the same false gospel to the Gentiles there are accursed (see reference below). In verse 5 Luke describes them as Pharisees who had believed – seemingly meaning they are in the community of faith. However, if they do not understand the gospel then perhaps this is in question. Regardless, their motives are not questioned here and perhaps it is just that they are saved out of a background so devoted to Judaism and the exclusive right of the Jews to be called the people of God that they cannot comprehend someone becoming a Christian without also effectively becoming a Jew. Circumcision is THE outward sign of the covenant – first practiced by Abraham. How can someone become a child of God without being circumcised?
Paul and Barnabas do not react well to this new teaching (perhaps this is after Barnabas comes to his senses?). They have spent years proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles and have seen multitudes saved and new churches started throughout Galatia, Syria and Cilicia. Nowhere have they taught that the Gentiles must obey the Jewish Law and become circumcised in order to be saved. If circumcision is a requirement, then all their work and all their travels have been for naught. All the believers in Antioch, Cyprus, Perga, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe are not really Christians at all and their churches are just groups of misled believers. Understandably, the two of them have great dissension and debate with the Jewish teachers.
Paul’s words in Galatians about those who preach this addition to the gospel shed light on how passionately he and Barnabas disagree with the men from Judea – As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (1:9). I have confidence in you in the Lord, that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is (5:10). Would that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves (5:12).
Paul’s anger and harsh words are understandable when we consider what is at stake. If anything must be added to the gospel – in this case the Mosaic Law – then it is worthless. The gospel is the good news that God has justified those who believe based only on the work of Christ. If His work alone cannot justify then Christ died in vain and all who believe on Him believe in vain. The fundamental truth of the gospel is threatened by anyone who claims that it only partially provides for salvation. Any who add to the gospel destroy it. It is true by itself or it is not – there is no such thing as a partial gospel.
Interestingly, the men from Jerusalem do not defer to Paul and Barnabas and their apostolic authority. They hold to their teaching that the gospel must include the Law and circumcision – regardless of what the two missionaries teach. Therefore, the believers in Antioch decide to send Paul and Barnabas (and certain others) back to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders there to determine once and for all what the proper teaching is.
Paul and Barnabas travel back to Jerusalem through Phoenicia and Samaria (regions to the north of Judea) and spread the news of all that God has done with the Gentiles. Since these are Gentile regions the people rejoice when they hear the good account.
When the two men reach Jerusalem they tell the church there what God has done and report on all the success of the gospel in Syria and Galatia. The apostles and the elders apparently welcome the news but the Pharisees once again take a stand and say that regardless of what Paul and Barnabas claim about the Spirit going to the Gentiles, it is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.
This event shows – just as similar events earlier in the book did – that the march of the gospel has always been a messy process. There has never been a time since Jesus gave the Great Commission where everything has proceeded smoothly. The bottom line is that God directed that His good news go forth through the agency of men; and that means its proclamation has always been subject to disagreements and misunderstandings even amongst those who truly believe it. We err when we think the New Testament church in Acts was ideal and our current congregations are fraught with issues. Every body of believers has struggled with difficult human relationships and differing views of how the work of God should proceed. It is a mark of the Spirit’s stewardship of the gospel that it has reached as far as it has while going forth through the actions of weak and sinful men.
The leaders in Jerusalem decide to meet together and consider this question. After much debate, Peter stands and addresses the group (this is the last mention of Peter in Acts). It is interesting to consider what his mindset is if this is in fact happening after the events Paul records in Galatians 2. In his account Paul says that he confronted Peter in Antioch and accused him of being a hypocrite. He said to Peter’s face – in the presence of all – “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Paul publicly rebuked him and he deserved it. It could be that he is somewhat chagrined as he stands to address the Jerusalem leadership (perhaps he gives a little nod to Paul as he stands).
Peter reminds the group that it was through him that the gospel first went to the Gentiles. He tells them that the Gentiles he witnessed to – Cornelius and his family (10:1-48) – believed and received the Holy Spirit just as the Jewish believers did. And this happened to Cornelius without him being circumcised or practicing the Law. God cleansed the Gentiles’ hearts by faith – nothing else (this is actually the second time Peter has rehearsed this for the Jerusalem leadership – the leaders decided right after Peter returned from Cornelius that since the Holy Spirit went to the Gentiles they had no right to question their conversion [11:1-18] – interesting that years later this has to be officially debated again).
Since the Gentiles were clearly saved without the Law or circumcision, why do the Pharisees want to put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? Peter chooses his words carefully as the Pharisees certainly know that testing God is strictly forbidden. To say that they test God is to make it plain that their teaching is seriously wrong and has dangerous ramifications. He also identifies the Law as a yoke no one has ever been able to bear. No one has ever kept the Law so how can it be required for salvation? It has never saved anyone – how can it save now?
Peter ends his speech with a simple declaration of the heart of the gospel. “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” This is effectively what Paul said when he rebuked Peter in Antioch – “…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal 2:16). Everyone – Jew and Gentile alike – who is saved, is saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus – not through works of the Law.
When Peter finishes speaking the people turn their attention to Paul and Barnabas who tell them all about their missionary journey and what God did through them. Luke does not record what they say because he already recorded the events of the trip earlier in the book. The multitudes are apparently very interested as they stay silent while the two men speak.
James speaks after Paul and Barnabas. He refers to Peter’s words (he actually calls Peter Simeon – the Greek version of ‘Simon’) and says God took from among the Gentiles a people for His name. This equates the Gentiles to Israel – the nation God took for His name. James states that the Gentile converts are God’s children just like the people of Israel were.
He then quotes Amos 9:12 to show that the prophets foretold that the Messiah would rebuild the fallen tabernacle of David (the eternal rule of David) such that all the nations of the world – not just Israel – can call on God and enter into fellowship with Him. The rest of mankind may seek the Lord. This takes place without the Gentiles first becoming Jews. They call on the Lord because of the Messiah – nothing more.
James continues and says that since all of this is true there is no reason to trouble the Gentiles with the Law and circumcision but only to ask them to refrain from four things. It is important to note that James does not intend that these four abstentions are required for salvation. He only means to keep the Gentiles from offending the Jews. This is a request borne out of a desire for the two sides to coexist peacefully and with respect for the beliefs of each. He says this is important because the Law of Moses has been proclaimed throughout the world, so there are Jews everywhere who could be offended by the unknowing actions of Gentile believers.
The activities the Gentiles are to refrain from at first seem somewhat random. They are to abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. Of all the prohibitions in the Law, why highlight just these four? Is there meaning to the list or does James just arbitrarily select what he thinks are the easiest to fulfill? It is important when reading these to remember that his focus is on fellowship within the body. He wants to ensure that Gentiles can fellowship freely with Jews who may still observe the Law.
With that in mind three of the four have to do with dietary laws. Jews cannot eat meat with the blood still in it or from animals that have been strangled or that has been sacrificed to idols. In each case the meat is unclean and forbidden. That means that for Gentiles and Jews to eat together – vital to fellowship and the one thing that Peter and Barnabas stopped doing when the Jews came to Antioch – the Gentiles must be sensitive to these dietary prohibitions.
The fourth abstention is from fornication. James may mention this because it is so widespread in Gentile communities. Many pagan religions utilize cult prostitutes as part of their worship and the Gentiles saved out of these societies and religions may have a casual view of sexual purity (Paul addresses this in I Cor 6:15-20). James wants to make sure they abstain from it and so avoid offending their Jewish brethren who know it to be fundamentally and morally wrong (fornication as the Law defines it includes all the prohibitions listed in Lev 18 – this includes incestuous marriages, homosexuality, bestiality, etc.).
Note the spirit behind these abstentions. The whole purpose is to encourage fellowship and sensitivity to the beliefs of others. The Gentiles do not have to avoid these things to earn their salvation or to prove their legitimacy in the church. They are to avoid them out of love for their Jewish brothers. The gulf between Jews and Gentiles could not be wider outside of the gospel. Here James lays the practical groundwork for the gulf to be bridged and relies on the love and willingness of both sides to accommodate the other.
We also should note that while James and the Jerusalem leaders address the problem at hand and firmly let the Pharisees know they are wrong – they do not forget to be sensitive to the issues believers like the Pharisees will continue to struggle with. They do not focus only on the right answer to the dispute. They remember to be loving to the ones – or ones like them – who brought it up in the first place. The resolution to the problem thus has in it love expressed to both sides. The Gentiles do not need the Law to be saved but should defer to the Law in certain situations out of love for their Jewish brothers who still hold it in high esteem. With this process the church leaders show that commitment to the truth includes pursuing it lovingly. Love must undergird every relationship and interaction within the body.
The apostles and leaders in Jerusalem decide to write a letter to the Antioch believers and send it with Paul and Barnabas and also with two men from their group – Silas and Barsabbas. The two extra men give credibility to Paul and Barnabas so no one doubts the legitimacy of the letter (since it backs what they argued from the start).
The letter states that the men who came to Antioch were not sent by the Jerusalem leadership and that the Gentiles have no requirements on them other than what they have already believed. It then sets out the four abstentions and encourages the Gentiles that if they abide by these they will do well.
The believers in Antioch receive the letter with rejoicing. They now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are truly saved and not second-class believers. They are children of God and as much a part of the church of Christ as any Jew.
By deciding this issue definitively and permanently, the apostles free the gospel from its Jewish roots and enable it to go forward without reservation to any people anywhere. Christianity is not a Jewish movement. It is a Christ movement and proclaims freedom for all people of all backgrounds whether or not they understand the Mosaic Law or bear on them the mark of the Abrahamic Covenant. This chapter is the foundation of the remaining story of the church. The gospel belongs to all. Indeed we ourselves, from our later perspective of church history, can see the crucial importance of this first ecumenical Council held in Jerusalem. Its unanimous decision liberated the gospel from its Jewish swaddling clothes into being God’s message for all humankind, and gave the Jewish-Gentile church a self-conscious identity as the reconciled people of God, the one body of Christ (John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts; The Bible Speaks Today, 241.).