Click here to join the effort!
Salvation and Circumcision?
After opposition from outside from the unbelieving Jews together with the Gentiles, there is now opposition from the midst of the believers. Believing Jews from Judaea, still living in connection with the demands of the law, want to impose these demands on the believers from the nations. They have come to this new center of work in Antioch to impose their teachings on the believers. Their teaching is to make salvation dependent on circumcision.
This is a frontal attack on the gospel of the grace of God and that in the center of the church. These people want to prevent Christendom from becoming independent of Judaism. If this would have succeeded, Christendom would only have become a Jewish sect. What these Judaists say is the same as saying: If you do not join our group, you cannot be saved, because there is no salvation outside of us. For those who bring this up, it is not a question of whether they are right. There is not the slightest trace of doubt about this in their legal teaching.
Now, their teaching would not have to cause much commotion if the believers themselves were confirmed in the truth and held fast to it. People who bring legal teaching have neither Scripture nor the apostles on their side. However, the people are docile, and these people speak with force of voice and persuasion. That is why strong action must be taken against them.
It is not a small difference of opinion, but it touches the very essence of the gospel. The introduction of the law is the denial of a risen and glorified Christ. It denies that through Christ everything is accomplished that is necessary to be saved. These people look back to the time before the cross, to things and persons on earth. They do not look through a torn veil at Christ above. They want to hold on to the ancient glory of the Jews from which they derive honor for themselves. They learn that there can only be salvation by becoming entirely Jewish.
In this chapter it is about establishing that salvation lies in nothing but faith in the Lord Jesus without any additional conditions. Apart from the fact that the crisis situation is about a teaching of the highest importance, it is also about preventing a division in the church between believing Jews and believing Gentiles.
The Jewish Christians remain zealous for the law. That in itself is not the problem. The problem is that they want to oblige believers from the Gentiles to also obey the commandments of the law. For the Jewish Christians Christendom is a continuation of Judaism, but now with faith in the Messiah Jesus. For them, the churches among the nations are churches of proselytes. They consider these believers as people who have passed over to Judaism. For them there is still nothing besides Judaism. But they are wrong, because Christendom is something completely new and has nothing in common with Judaism.
If the believers would continue to cling to Judaism or would be forced to cling to it, Christendom would be reduced to Judaism. Later, Paul will expose the new dispensation in all its facets through the various letters he writes to various churches. Especially in the letter to the Ephesians he shows that Jew and Gentile together have become something new in the church.
The wrong teaching causes great discussion, dissension, unrest and confusion. Paul and Barnabas, who see their work threatened, vigorously protest against this false teaching. Fortunately, the brothers in Antioch have so much faith in Paul and Barnabas that they decide that they should go to Jerusalem together with a few others to present this question of discord to the apostles and elders.
The problem is not only a problem of Antioch. Jerusalem is also directly involved. According to the counsel of God, this issue should not be solved by apostolic authority or by the working of His Spirit in Antioch. This might have divided the church. In order to maintain unity, this matter must be resolved during a conference in Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish system. In Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians, the apostles, the elders and the whole church, must declare that the believers from the Gentiles are free from the law. The things at stake touch the heart of Christendom. The importance of a standpoint according to God’s thoughts is great.
To and in Jerusalem
The journey to Jerusalem is also spent for the honor of God and the blessing of the church. On the way, the embassy recounts the conversion of the Gentiles in the regions through which they pass. They do this in Phoenicia – today’s Lebanon – and Samaria. Their stories cause great joy. When they heard and accepted the gospel themselves some time ago, it had made them joyful (Acts 8:8). Now there is great joy when they hear that others from the Gentiles have accepted it.
The brothers have not heard of this work before. It is new to them, but they accept with great joy what they hear. It is important to remember that the special thing about the conversion of the Gentiles is that it happens separately from Judaism and also without them having to become Jews after their conversion.
When the company arrives in Jerusalem, it is received by the church, which has undoubtedly been called together. The apostles and the elders are mentioned separately. Paul and Barnabas and the others do not suddenly start discussing the question that causes controversy. First they tell, just as they did along the way, about all that God has done to them. They tell how God has created Gentile churches everywhere.
This is the reason for some of the Pharisees to stand up and express their views on circumcision and the law. They are not prevented from expressing their teachings, but are given every opportunity to say what they want. For a good solution it is necessary that everyone is given the opportunity to express their thoughts. These things are not regulated by a single word.
The defenders of the law therefore first get every opportunity to express their views. They have much to criticize because they are strongly against the apostles not having preached circumcision and not having said anything about keeping the law of Moses. The spokesmen, as Pharisees, are very familiar with the whole law, to which they also keep themselves scrupulously.
Luke talks about “the sect of the Pharisees”. A sect is a group that distinguishes itself from other groups. The word ‘sect’ means ‘to choose’. It does not have to be about false teachings, but it is about the overemphasis of a doctrine or a person.
The word ‘sect’ appears nine times in the New Testament, six times in Acts and three times in the letters (Acts 5:17; Acts 15:5Acts 24:5; Acts 24:14Acts 26:5; Acts 28:22; 1 Corinthians 11:19; Galatians 5:20; 2 Peter 2:1). In the church in Corinth, these are groups of believers who separate from each other by following persons who are their favorite (1 Corinthians 1:12). In the letter to the Galatians sects are called a manifestation of the flesh. Peter writes about pernicious cults as the work of false teachers.
A sect is not something of the Spirit, but of man, the flesh, the devil. The Pharisees who raise their voices here have come to faith in the Messiah Jesus, but remain bound with heart and soul to the law and its customs. These are the statutes of God that must therefore also be observed by the believers of the Gentiles, they think.
After the Pharisees have made their remarks and thus have laid down the core of the problem, the apostles and the elders meet together to deal with this problem. It seems that only the apostles and the elders have spoken about this matter, without the whole church being present. In any case, brothers in charge of the church have discussed it with each other. It has not been dealt with by some apostles who have imposed their decision on the others. In making decisions, it is good to involve as many brothers as possible who have responsibility.
Reaction of Peter
Even in the smaller circle of responsible brothers, unanimity is initially hard to find. There is much debate. There is freedom to say what is in one’s heart, although the flesh can abuse it. Yet it is not said: ‘There is no discussion here.’ Nor are structures created to prevent these discussions. This would restrict the freedom to express oneself. In all argumentation it should be about learning to understand the will of the Holy Spirit, so that finally it can be said that “the Holy Spirit and we” have come to a certain decision (Acts 15:28).
During the debate, Peter stands up. After his liberation from prison, he travelled to another place (Acts 12:17), but here he is back in Jerusalem. What he is about to say shows that he learned the lesson from Cornelius thoroughly (Acts 10:34). He listened carefully to what the others said. Guided by the Spirit, he rises at the right moment (Proverbs 18:13). After the thoughts of the people the thoughts of God are given and they come to a unanimous conclusion.
Peter begins by reminding how God used him as a special instrument with the intention that through his mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel and believe it. It was not God’s intention that they would only hear it, no, it was the intention that they also would come to faith.
God proved that they indeed came to faith by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to “us”, who are the believing Jews. By giving His Spirit also to converted Gentiles, God Himself gave testimony that He saved them (Romans 8:9; Ephesians 1:13). God has sealed their faith with the Holy Spirit, without any prerequisites, but only by faith. God knew the hearts of Cornelius and his people and saw faith in those hearts. He would never have given His Spirit in their hearts if their hearts had not been cleansed by faith.
How, then, could people set additional conditions, conditions that were also not fulfilled by those who set them? God does not demand external action such as circumcision or proselyte baptism, but cleanses their hearts by faith. The function of the law is to condemn man. Through the law comes knowledge of sin, but the law does not bring salvation from sin.
Peter tells about the function and the effect of the law. He forcefully states that the unbearable yoke of the law with its inseparable impossibility of being saved by it must certainly not be imposed on others. How could they do that and why would they do that? It is such a great sin that Peter equates it with testing God. It is to challenge God, to test Him to see how far one can go.
It is an insult to God to say that something still must be done in addition to the work done by the Lord Jesus in order to be saved. No, the foundation on which the Gentiles stand is that of grace and faith. On that basis they have been saved. Peter sets the way in which God saves Gentiles as an example of how Jews too can be saved and not the other way around. The origin lies in the grace of the Lord Jesus and grace places everyone on the same basis before God.
Report of Barnabas and Paul
The silence of the crowd indicates that they have no response to what Peter said. A reply would mean that they would contradict God. While they remain silent, Barnabas and Paul take the floor. After Peter has looked back to the past, Barnabas and Paul speak about the deeds of God in the present. After them, James will look to the future.
The whole crowd hears Barnabas and Paul relate the signs and wonders that God has done through them among the Gentiles. What God has done among the Gentiles proves that His grace also goes out to them. Already in Acts 15:4 Barnabas and Paul have talked about God’s work among the Gentiles. Now they want to make clear that what took place in Caesarea as a one-time event is happening everywhere among the Gentiles. It is striking that God has not given any indication that there is anything lacking in His work, such as keeping the law.
With their account Barnabas and Paul substantiate and underline the account of Peter. The signs and wonders they mention in their account are an underlining of God’s message of salvation also for the Gentiles. God has thus confirmed that their proclamation to the Gentiles is according to His will.
As already mentioned in Acts 8, we see that where there are signs and wonders, they are done by the apostles and next to them only by Stephen and Philip. Thus, the practice of signs and wonders is not something generally done by all believers, but only by a select group that God has given the ability to do so.
Reaction of James
When Barnabas and Paul have spoken, James takes the floor. He is the leader of the church in Jerusalem and therefore has a special place in it. Although he does not belong to the twelve apostles, he is also called an apostle (Galatians 1:19). He is the brother of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7) and the writer of the letter of James. It is of great importance that James will speak. His words will be decisive in this discussion about the meaning of the law for the Gentiles. His great zeal for the law is clear to everyone. If he says that the Gentiles do not have to keep the law, all zealots for the law will be silent.
He starts his speech by drawing attention to what he has to say. First he points out what Peter has said. James uses the Hebrew name of Peter and speaks about Simeon. He connects to his report. From what he says, it appears that he has understood that the work Peter has spoken about does not consist of making proselytes. He understood that God is in the process of taking from the Gentiles a people for Himself, a people from among the Gentiles, and that “for His name”.
For the zealots of the law, “for His name” can in fact only mean that it is about the people of Israel, because they are the people that God has chosen for His name. Therefore, all who come to faith from the Gentiles should join Israel. But James shows that even in the Old Testament there is already talk about Gentiles which the Name of the Lord has been proclaimed separate from the people of Israel. So this is not an unknown phenomenon, a new doctrine, but something the prophets have spoken about in the writings of the Old Testament.
James quotes an example of this from the prophet Amos. It is not a fulfillment of what Amos said – that fulfillment only comes in the realm of peace – but it corresponds to it. This quote shows that in the realm of peace the nations will be blessed, not by joining Israel, but by seeking Yahweh. The expression “as it is written” is the end of all contradiction. It confirms what has already been said by the other apostles.
James quotes the verse according to its tenor. God promises in Amos that “the tabernacle of David” will be rebuilt. The ‘tabernacle of David’ means the royal family. It has decayed since the Babylonian exile. Then the kingship of the house of David came to an end, while God promised that the house of David will exist forever (Psalms 89:3-Numbers :; Psalms 89:35-Haggai :).
The prophecy of Amos is fulfilled with the coming of the Lord Jesus. Although He has been rejected and His dominion is not visible on earth, all power has been given to Him in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). This can only be seen in faith. Soon it will be visible to everyone, when He will sit on the throne of His father David in Israel. Then the Gentiles will seek Him and He will call out His Name over them.
This is how it is now. Over all those who seek the Lord in faith, who repent to God and accept the Lord Jesus in faith, He will call out His Name. This is completely independent of Judaism and entering Judaism as a proselyte. It has been of eternity in God’s heart, when there was no mention of Judaism yet. Everyone who knows God knows that He is like that and acts like that.
The Judgment of James
Because God wants to make a great people from among the Gentiles to be His people without having to become a Jew, James is of the opinion that the Gentiles should not be brought into trouble. The difficulties consist of imposing the yoke of the law. The nations have their own place in the ways of God.
The fact that the law should not be imposed on them does not mean that they have nothing to do with general statutes of the Lord. James mentions four things to which the nations must adhere. The things he mentions are not imposed by him as the four commandments of the law in order to impose commandments on the Gentiles by means of a detour. These things are not Jewish in themselves, but have to do with the rights of God as Creator.
The first, the idols, attacks the true authority of God. “Things contaminated by idols” is everything connected with idolatry. That they had to keep far away from idolatry did not have to be emphasized again. They had just converted from idolatry as such. The danger, however, lies in its contamination. Eating meat in an idolatry temple is such contamination (1 Corinthians 8:10), for it could give others the impression that whoever does so is still an idolater.
What applies to the idols also applies to the second, “fornication”. Everyone who is converted knows that fornication is sin. Fornication goes against the will of God with respect to marriage, where the woman is only bound to the man in the sacred bond of marriage. Therefore, what is meant by abstinence from fornication is primarily intended for forms of fornication that are condoned.
These are all kinds of associations that God calls fornication, while in society they are generally accepted and equated with marriage. We can think of marrying someone who is divorced (Matthew 5:31-Jonah :; Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11-2 Kings :; Luke 16:18), premarital sexual intercourse (Matthew 19:5) or homosexual intercourse (Romans 1:24-Daniel :). They are all violations of the only marriage bond God has established.
The third and fourth, to abstain “from what is strangled and from blood”, has to do with the fact that the blood, the life, belongs to God. He is the only One entitled to life. After the deluge, man was given the flesh for food (Genesis 9:3-Numbers :), but man must always remember that the blood was not given to him as food. The blood is the life that belongs to the Creator. Therefore, the blood of an animal that serves as food must run away into the earth, as it were, to give it back to God.
James does not present his hearing a new law. Nor does he meet the prejudices of the Jews, as if he treats the Gentiles on the level of the Jews after all. Nevertheless, the things he mentions are not foreign to Judaism. According to their character they may not be Jewish, but they are in accordance with the law. The Jews, too, must at least abide by these things. They can all know about this, because every Sabbath in the synagogues is read from the law. In reading the law, everyone present in the synagogue listens to the preaching of Moses.
The Letter for the Gentiles
Those gathered are convinced
a. by Peter who recounted what God had done in connection with Cornelius,
b. through the account of Barnabas and Paul on the deeds of God during their missionary journey, and
c. through the voice of God from the Scriptures quoted by James.
They decide to send a letter to the Gentiles. Agreement was reached because all bowed to the judgment of James that there can be no question of imposing the law on the Gentiles.
The church is not a democratic body where decisions are taken by the majority of votes. There is no voting. The apostles and the elders with the whole church who are here again, decide that Paul and Barnabas will go to Antioch again to share the outcome of the consultation in Jerusalem.
In order to avoid any possibility of a wrong impression, some brothers from Jerusalem will also go with Paul and Barnabas. For this purpose they choose Judas and Silas. These men are leaders among the brethren (cf. Hebrews 13:7; Hebrews 13:17Hebrews 13:24). They are men who are known to the believers in Jerusalem and who teach and show them by their lives what God expects of His own.
The outcome of the consultation is laid down in a letter which they give to the company. The result of the exchange of words is that a letter is sent to the brothers from the Gentiles. The letter is addressed to “the brothers from the Gentiles” in the areas where this confusion has been caused. Apparently this is not only in Antioch, but also in Syria and even up to Cilicia.
They begin their letter by apologizing for the fact that “some of our number” caused confusion among the brothers from the Gentiles by their words. The words they have spoken have unsettled the souls of the believers. Here we see how devastating the introduction of the law is for the assurance of faith. Introducing the law or legal principles undermines the assurance of faith and turns steadfast believers into unstable souls.
The senders of the letter clearly distance themselves from the words of their fellow believers. These believers acted on their own initiative and not by order of the Jerusalem church. People who preach the law always do so on their own initiative and not on the recommendation of the church. The brethren they now send do come with a recommendation from the church. It can be concluded from the words “having become of one mind”, that before these men have been selected to go to them on behalf of the church in Jerusalem some things have preceded.
Judas and Silas come along with Barnabas and Paul who the church calls “our beloved”. The use of this expression clearly tells how much these two apostles have been accepted and appreciated by the church in Jerusalem. It also means that the work of these servants among the Gentiles is fully acknowledged by them. They also mention that they are people “who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. A more impressive recommendation can hardly be given. By speaking of “our” Lord Jesus Christ, using the full Name of the Lord, they express the fellowship the believers have in that Name.
Besides Barnabas and Paul, also Judas and Silas will be present at the handing over of the letter. They will explain the letter orally. The letter is not a law, but a report, in which a further explanation helps to understand its purpose. Their message goes beyond just the businesslike, formal handing over of a letter.
They have been witnesses to the realization of its contents. They have experienced how the Holy Spirit has brought the believers to the unanimous decision which they are now announcing to the Gentiles, so that they have been able to write: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”. This means that the Holy Spirit has been able to work in the discussion. The unity to which they have come is His work.
If it had been stated in the letter that the believers in Jerusalem had become united and now communicated their decision in the letter, no one would have doubted that this had been worked out by the Holy Spirit. The fact that the Holy Spirit is explicitly mentioned is done in view of the entire work of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles. The brethren, the elders and the apostles agree with this work. In this way they have come to the conclusion that not the law, but only the generally binding commandments are to be observed.
The generally binding commandments are imposed on them, they cannot ignore them. These things are called “essentials”. They are ‘essentials’ because they have to do with
1. the relationship of faithfulness to God to Whom alone may be sacrificed,
2. the recognition of His exclusive right to life and
3. the absolute faithfulness in the relationship to one’s neighbor in the most intimate form, that of marriage.
Those who observe themselves in these essentials do well. Taking these things into account is a benefit for the spiritual life. They conclude the letter with the wish that they will fare well.
Delivering the Letter in Antioch
The church lets the embassy go, which indicates that they support their mission. When the four of them arrive in Antioch, the crowd of believers is convened in a meeting. Then the brothers who have come from Jerusalem hand over the letter. The letter from Jerusalem brings joy because they are acquitted of the yoke of the law. The prescription to abstain from some necessary things is also part of that joy. Jerusalem guarantees freedom for the Gentiles, although they themselves hold fast to the law. This is the right mind to deal with each other as churches when it comes to regulations and statutes that some people think they have to keep.
In addition to the encouragement that the letter has brought to the believers, there is also an opportunity for Judas and Silas to encourage and strengthen the believers orally. As prophets they are able to speak totally different words than their predecessors who have been here without a commission and have spoken words that have unsettled souls (Acts 15:24). The many words spoken by Judas and Silas serve to strengthen the faith. It is beautiful to speak to one another in this way and also to be built up in faith by those who have received the gift of the Lord to do so.
When Judas and Silas have performed their comforting and strengthening service in this way for some time, they return to those who sent them, i.e. the church in Jerusalem. The brethren let them go in peace. There is peace and harmony in the church. When Judas and Silas leave, they leave behind a church with whom they are in unity. The report that they will have made later in Jerusalem of their stay and service in Antioch, will certainly have caused joy there as well.
Paul and Barnabas stay in Antioch. Together with many others they teach and proclaim the Word of the Lord. This indicates that there is a large church in Antioch and that there is a large number of gifts. The goal is the same for all. It is about the building up of the believers and that is only possible through the Word of the Lord. Here again it is not the ‘Word of God’, but the ‘Word of the Lord’. The purpose of the service is that the life of the believer in all its aspects comes under the authority of the Lord.
Separation Between Paul and Barnabas
When there are so many others who preach the Word of the Lord in Antioch, we can imagine that Paul, after a few days, is thinking of doing a service somewhere else. He thinks of the brothers in the cities where he and Barnabas went on their first missionary journey. His heart goes out to them and he would like to know how they are doing. He tells Barnabas what concerns him. This consideration of Paul is the introduction to the second missionary journey.
However, it is also the introduction to a sad separation between Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas agrees with Paul and wants to go with him to visit the cities of which Paul spoke, but he wants John Mark to go with him. Mark has also been with them the first time, but has returned halfway (Acts 13:13). How nice it would be if he would get a second chance and be able to participate now for the whole journey.
Barnabas, a real ‘son of comfort’ (Acts 4:36), wants to give him a second chance. Paul does not agree with him. He doesn’t think Mark is a suitable companion. It does not mean that he has written off Mark for good. Later he will write to Timothy that he should take Mark with him because Mark is of great use to him for the service (2 Timothy 4:11). But at the moment Paul apparently does not consider him mature enough.
It has been suggested that Barnabas has been too much guided by his affection for his cousin Mark. Affection is good, but it is not a basis for dedication. No honey was allowed in the grain offering (Leviticus 2:11), where honey represents natural affections and the grain offering represents the full devotion to God.
Natural love is good. Woe to us if we do not have natural love. The absence of natural love is a characteristic of the last days (2 Timothy 3:3). But natural love should not affect our full devotion in our service to the Lord. Has Barnabas been too soft and Paul too hard? The Lord has hidden it from us. We can draw general lessons, but we cannot point out causes.
Here two dedicated servants of the Lord, who have known each other long and well and have done much for the Lord together, have a disagreement and that disagreement is not resolved. This chapter has started with a dispute about a question of teaching. That dispute concerned the teaching of salvation and had to be solved. There is no compromise in such a dispute. That dispute has therefore been solved.
The disagreement between the two men of God is of a different nature. It concerns a question of judgement and that dispute remains unsolved. The dispute even leads to bitterness. They are both to blame for the bitterness. From the fact that Paul and Silas leave with the blessing of the brethren, we should not too quickly draw the conclusion that Barnabas and Mark have gone the wrong way. It is possible that Barnabas left quickly to prevent the division between him and Paul from spreading among the brothers as well. It is in accordance with his character that he does everything to prevent divisions.
The bitterness is not good, but now that they are separated, two teams go out for the Lord. Sometimes our imperfections are opportunities for God to do His work. Barnabas will undoubtedly also be used by the Lord for His service. We won’t hear any more about it. He leaves for Cyprus, his homeland, which he had previously chosen as his first destination with Paul during the first missionary journey (Acts 13:4).
When Paul talks about Barnabas again later, there is no trace of bitterness. He speaks with appreciation of Barnabas as a fellow servant and places him in the same place as himself in his service to the Lord (1 Corinthians 9:6).
Beginning of the Second Missionary Journey
Paul needs a companion who can occupy the vacant place of Barnabas. His choice falls on Silas. He spent some time with Silas in his service in Antioch and thus learned to know his qualities. Silas had travelled to Jerusalem again (Acts 15:32-Micah :). Luke does not mention how Paul came into contact with him again. Together they are, before they leave, committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.
Not a geographical place of departure, but the spiritual place of departure is decisive for a service. The grace of the Lord is the point of departure of Paul and Silas for the second missionary journey. The brethren who committed them to the grace of the Lord know that the success of this missionary journey depends on that.
For Paul and Silas a home base that sees the importance of this is a great encouragement. With this support Paul goes through Syria and Cilicia, where the souls were first brought to waver and later strengthened. With this last work he continues. He strengthens the churches everywhere where they have come into being.
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
No part of the publications may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Acts 15". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany