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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Acts 15

 

 

Verses 1-41

Chapter 15

THE CRUCIAL PROBLEM (Acts 15:1-5)

The influx of Gentiles into the Church produced a problem which had to be solved. The mental background of the Jew was founded on the fact that he belonged to the chosen people. In effect they believed that not only were the Jews the peculiar possession of God but also that God was the peculiar possession of the Jews. The problem was this. Before a Gentile became a member of the Christian Church was it necessary that he should be circumcised and take upon himself the Law of Moses? In other words--must the Gentile, before he became a Christian, first become a Jew? Or, could a Gentile be received into the Church as such?

Even were that question settled there arose another problem. The strict Jew could have no intercourse with a Gentile. He could not have him as guest nor be his guest. He would not, as far as possible, even do business with him. So then, even if Gentiles were allowed into the Church, how far could Jews and Gentiles associate in the ordinary social life of the Church?

These were the problems which had to be solved. The solution was not easy. But in the end the Church took the decision that there should be no difference between Jew and Gentile at all. Acts 15:1-41 tells of the Council of Jerusalem whose decisions were the charter of freedom for the Gentiles.

A PROBLEM BECOMES ACUTE (Acts 15:1-5 continued)

15:1-5 Some men came down from Judaea and tried to teach the brethren, "If you are not circumcised according to the practice of Moses you cannot be saved." When Paul and Barnabas had a great dispute and argument with them, they arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders to get this question settled. So they were sent on their way by the Church, and they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria telling the story of the conversion of the Gentiles; and they brought great joy to all the brethren. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the Church and the apostles and the elders and they told the story of all that God had done with them. But some men of the school of the Pharisees, who were converts, rose and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to enjoin them to keep the Law of Moses."

It was almost by accident that the most epoch-making things were happening in Antioch so that the gospel was being preached to Jew and Gentile alike and they were living together as brethren. There were certain Jews to whom all this was quite unthinkable. They could never forget the position of the Jews as the chosen people. They were quite willing that the Gentiles should come into the Church but on the condition that first they became Jews. If this attitude had prevailed, Christianity would have become nothing other than a sect of Judaism. Some of these narrower Jews came down to Antioch and tried to persuade the converts that they would lose everything unless they first accepted Judaism. Paul and Barnabas argued strongly against this and matters were at a deadlock.

There was only one way out. An appeal must be made to Jerusalem, the headquarters of the Church, for a ruling. The case which Paul and Barnabas put forward was simply the story of what had happened. They were prepared to let the facts speak for themselves. But certain of the Pharisees who had become Christians insisted that all converts must be circumcised and keep the Law.

The principle at stake was quite simple and completely fundamental. Was the gift of God for the select few or for all the world? If we possess it ourselves are we to look on it as a privilege or as a responsibility? The problem may not meet us nowadays in precisely the same way; but there still exist divisions between class and class, between nation and nation, between colour and colour. We fully realize the true meaning of Christianity only when all middle walls of partition are broken down.

PETER STATES THE CASE (Acts 15:6-12)

15:6-12 The apostles and elders met together to investigate this question. After a great deal of discussion Peter stood up and said, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made his choice among us, so that through my mouth the Gentiles should hear the good news and believe. And God, who knows men's hearts, bore his own witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he had done to us too. He made no distinction between us and them for he purified their hearts by faith. So why do you now tempt God by placing on the necks of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we had the strength to bear? But it is through the grace of Jesus Christ that we believe that we have been saved in exactly the same, way as they too have been." The whole assembly was silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told the story of all the signs and wonders God had done amongst the heathen through them.

In answer to the stricter Jews Peter reminded them how he himself had been responsible for the reception of Cornelius into the Church ten years before this. The proof that he had acted rightly was that God had granted his Holy Spirit to these very Gentiles who had been received. As far as the Law's claims went they might have been ceremonially unclean; but God had by his Spirit cleansed their hearts. The attempt to obey the Law's multifarious commands and so to earn salvation was a losing battle which left every man in default. There was only one way--the acceptance of the free gift of the grace of God in an act of self-surrendering faith.

Peter went right to the heart of the question. In this whole dispute the deepest of principles was involved. Can a man earn the favour of God? Or must he admit his own helplessness and be ready in humble faith to accept what the grace of God gives? In effect, the Jewish party said, "Religion means earning God's favour by keeping the Law." Peter said, "Religion consists in casting ourselves on the grace of God." Here is implicit the difference between a religion of works and a religion of grace. Peace will never come to a man until he realizes that he can never put God in his debt; and that all he can do is take what God in his grace gives. The paradox of Christianity is that the way to victory is through surrender; and the way to power is through admitting one's own helplessness.

THE LEADERSHIP OF JAMES (Acts 15:13-21)

15:13-21 After they had been silent James replied, "Brothers, listen to me. Symeon has told you how God first made provision for the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name, With this the words of the prophets agree, as it stands written, 'After these things I will return and I will build again the tabernacle of David which has fallen. I will build its ruins again, and again I will set it upright, so that the rest of mankind will seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who are called by my name'--this is what the Lord says, making these things known from the beginning of the world. Therefore for my part, it is my judgment that we stop making things difficult for the Gentiles who turn to God, but that we send them a letter to keep themselves from the contaminations offered to idols, from fornication, from things strangled and from blood. For Moses from of old has those who proclaim his teaching in every city, for his works are read in the synagogues every Sabbath."

We may well believe that the matter of the reception of the Gentiles hung in the balance; then James spoke. He was the leader of the Jerusalem church. His leadership was not a formal office; it was a moral leadership conceded to him because he was an outstanding man. He was the brother of Jesus. He had had a special resurrection appearance all to himself (1 Corinthians 15:7). He was a pillar of the Church (Galatians 1:19). His knees were said to be as hard as a camel's because he knelt in prayer so often and so long. He was so good a man that he was called James the Just. Further--and this was all-important--he himself was a rigorous observer of the Law. If such a man should come down on the side of the Gentiles then all was well; and he did, declaring that the disciples should be allowed into the Church without let or hindrance.

Even then the matter of ordinary social intercourse came in. How could a strict Jew consort with a Gentile? To make things easier James suggested certain regulations that Gentiles ought to keep.

They must abstain from the contamination of idols. One of the great problems of the early Church was that of meat offered to idols. Paul deals with it at length in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; 1 Corinthians 9:1-27. When a heathen sacrificed in a temple, often only a small part of the meat was sacrificed. Most of the rest was given back to him to make a feast for his friends, often in the temple precincts, sometimes in his own house. The priests received the remainder which was then sold for ordinary purposes. No Christian must risk pollution by eating such meat for it had been offered to an idol.

They must abstain from fornication. It has been said that chastity was the only completely new virtue that Christianity brought into the world. In an impure world the Christian had to be pure.

They must abstain from things strangled and from blood. To the Jew the blood was the life and the life belonged to God alone. They so argued because when the blood flowed away life ebbed away too. Therefore all Jewish meat was killed and treated in such a way that the blood was drained off. The heathen practice of not draining the blood from a slaughtered animal was obnoxious to the strict Jew. So was the method of killing by strangulation. So the Gentile is ordered to eat only meat prepared in the Jewish way.

Had these simple regulations not been observed there could have been no intercourse between Jew and Gentile; but their observance destroyed the last barrier. Within the Church the principle was established that Jew and Gentile were one.

THE DECREE GOES OUT (Acts 15:22-35)

15:22-35 Then the apostles and the elders together with the whole Church took a decision to choose men from their number and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas who is called Barsabas and Silas, men who were leaders among the brethren, and they sent a written message by their hand. "The apostles and the elders, brethren, to the brethren from the Gentiles who are throughout Antioch and Syria and Cilicia--greetings. We have heard that some who came from us have disturbed you with their words in an attempt to upset your souls. They were not acting under our instructions. We have therefore decided, when we were met together, to choose men and to send them to you, with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who are men who have devoted their lives for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore despatched Judas and Silas to you to tell you the same things by word of mouth. It was the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us to place no further burden on you other than the rules which are necessary--that you should keep yourselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these things you will be doing well. Farewell." So these were sent away and came down to Antioch. They called the congregation together and delivered the letter to them. When they had read it they rejoiced at the message of comfort. Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many an address and strengthened them. After spending some time there, they were sent away with every good wish for their welfare from the brethren to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas with certain others, too, stayed in Antioch teaching and telling the good news of the word of the Lord.

Once the Church had come to its decision, it acted with both efficiency and courtesy. The terms of the decision were embodied in a letter. But the letter was sent by no common messenger; it was entrusted to Judas and to Silas who went to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Had Paul and Barnabas come back alone their enemies might have doubted that they brought back a correct message; Judas and Silas were official emissaries and guarantors of the reality of the decision. The Church was wise in sending a person as well as a letter. One of the earliest Christian writers declared that he had learned more from the living and abiding voice than from any amount of reading. A letter could have sounded coldly official; but the words of Judas and Silas added a friendly warmth that the bare reception of a letter could never have achieved. Any amount of trouble might be avoided many a time if only a personal visit is paid instead of someone being content with sending a letter.

PAUL TAKES THE ROAD AGAIN (Acts 15:36-41)

15:36-41 Some time after, Paul said to Barnabas, "Come now, let us go back and visit the brethren in every city in which we preached the word of the Lord, so that we may see how things are going with them." Barnabas wished to take John who was called Mark along with them; but Paul did not think it right to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. There was so sharp a difference of opinion that they were separated from each other and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and went off when he had been commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches.

Paul was a born adventurer and could never stay long in the one place. He decided to take the road again; but the preparations for the journey ended in a tragic breach. Barnabas wished to take John Mark but Paul would have nothing to do with the man who had played the deserter in Pamphylia. The difference between them was so sharp that they split company never to work with each other again. It is impossible to say whether Barnabas or Paul was right. But this much is certain, Mark was supremely fortunate that he had a friend like Barnabas. In the end, as we know, Mark became the man who redeemed himself. It may well have been the friendship of Barnabas which gave Mark back his self-respect and made him determined to make good. It is a great thing for a man to have someone who believes in him. Barnabas believed in Mark and in the end Mark justified that belief.

The Second Missionary Journey

The narrative of Paul's second missionary journey, which occupied him for about three years, is given in the section of Acts which extends from Acts 15:36 to Acts 18:23. It began from Antioch. Paul first made a tour of the churches of Syria and Cilicia. Then he re-visited the churches in the regions of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch. There followed a period when he could not see his way clear before him. That time of uncertainty ended with the vision at Troas. From Troas, Paul crossed to Neapolis and thence to Philippi. From Philippi he moved on to Thessalonica and Beroea. From there he went to Athens and then on to Corinth where he spent about eighteen months. From Corinth he travelled to Jerusalem by way of Ephesus and finally back to Antioch, his starting point. The great step forward is that with this journey Paul's activity passed beyond Asia Minor and entered Europe.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/acts-15.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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