The church in Antioch was the first church where Gentile and Jewish believers fellowshipped together freely. This was a major breakthrough in the expansion of the church. However, certain men from Judea came to Antioch and insisted that the Gentile believers can be saved only if they were circumcised. Paul and Barnabas had a great debate with them, and when they could not resolve the conflict, they presented the matter to the council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the council was able to come to full agreement on what was required of Gentile believers and reached a decision that was of monumental importance for the future development of the church.
Did You Know...?
- Dispute over Circumcision for Gentiles (15:1-5)
- The Council held in Jerusalem (15:6-21)
- Apostles and elders gathered to consider the matter (15:6)
- Peter stressed salvation by grace (15:7-11)
- Paul and Barnabas testified of God’s grace among the Gentiles (15:12)
- James drew the conclusion and resolution on this matter (15:13-21)
- The Council’s Letter (15:22-29)
- Result of the Letter and the Ministry of Silas, Paul, and Barnabas in Antioch (15:30-35)
What was the issue that confronted the church at this time?Hide Answer
Whether the Gentile converts needed to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (1,5).
Why did Paul and Barnabas refuse to give in to those who taught the necessity of circumcision?Hide Answer
1. No one can be justified by trying to keep the law (Gal 2:16, Gal 3:11); those who are under the law are under a curse (Gal 3:10).
2. Since the law could only condemn us but not justify us, God gave us His Son Jesus Christ as a propitiation for our sins so that we may be justified freely apart from the law (Acts 13:39; Rom 3:21-26).
3. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works (Eph 2:8-9). God gives us this grace freely through the washing of regeneration (in baptism) and the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Tit 3:5-7).
4. Through His death, the Lord Jesus has abolished the law of the commandments contained in ordinances and removed the handwriting of requirements that was against us (Eph 2:14-15; Col 2:13-14). If a believer of Jesus Christ still seeks to be justified by keeping the law of Moses, he is denying the atoning death of Jesus and is fallen from His grace (Gal 2:17-21, 5:4).
5. Requiring circumcision would pose an unnecessary hindrance in preaching to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 15:19).
6. In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love (Gal 5:6).
7. Those who insisted that Gentiles must be circumcised did so for their own selfish and hypocritical reasons. They hoped to avoid suffering for Christ and boast in the flesh by advocating circumcision. But in reality, they did not keep the law themselves (Gal 6:12-13).
Why was the way by which the church in Antioch handled the dispute commendable? What can we learn from them?Hide Answer
The believers in Antioch were humble and knew to seek help. Instead of taking matters into their own hands, they asked the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to help resolve this important issue. They realized that the church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch were both of the same body of Christ. So it was necessary to reach a common belief over this issue. They were also ready to obey whatever the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem would decide.
Today, when we face controversies concerning certain teachings or practices that might affect more than just the local church, the local church ought to ask the general assembly or international assembly of churches to discuss the issue and try to reach a resolution that all the churches can follow. This is how we, as the body of Christ, can preserve unity in doctrine.
On the way to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas passed through Phoenicia and Samaria. How did the brethren in these regions respond to the news of the conversion of Gentiles?Hide Answer
They rejoiced greatly (3).
What event did Peter cite when he rose up to speak?Hide Answer
The conversion of Cornelius
What was Peter’s argument?Hide Answer
If God had accepted Cornelius and the other Gentiles with him by giving them the Holy Spirit and purifying their hearts by faith, the Jewish brethren should not impose the laws of Moses upon Gentile converts. Jews and Gentiles alike are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, not by observing the laws of Moses.
In view of the overwhelming pressure from the advocates of circumcision in the Jerusalem church (cf. Gal 2:11-13), what was remarkable about Peter’s stance?Hide Answer
From the account in Galatians, Peter definitely had felt the pressure from the Judaizers. But he never forgot the divine revelation he received when he was sent to Cornelius’ house to preach to the Gentiles. Here, he chose to honor and please God despite the strong pressure from powerful men. His submission to God’s will gave him the courage to speak so decisively against imposing the laws of Moses on the Gentile believers.
What did Paul and Barnabas report to the council about?Hide Answer
They declared how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles (12).
What was the basis for James’ conclusion?Hide Answer
He quoted from the words of the prophet Amos concerning how there would be Gentiles who are called by God’s name. He also pointed out that the words of the prophets agreed with Peter’s personal experience.
What was the decision of the council?Hide Answer
The church would not trouble the Gentile converts, but would just teach them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood (19-20).
What can the church today learn from this very significant decision?Hide Answer
If certain long-held traditions and practices in the church are not required by the Scripture, or if it becomes clear that they are contrary to God’s will, we must surrender our own prejudices and yield to God’s will. Oftentimes, holding on to the traditions of the majority and imposing them on the minority can become an obstacle to the expansion of the church because it creates an unnecessary burden and excludes many others from joining the church. So we must always measure our practices and policies against the teachings and works of God so that we will not hinder God’s will.
From how the council reached its final decision, what can we learn about how to determine the will of the Holy Spirit?Hide Answer
From the deliberations at the council, we see that the apostles and elders were willing to seek and submit to God’s will. Peter shared from his own experience, which demonstrated that God intended to choose the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas testified of God’s miracles and wonders. James finally referred to the OT Scripture to come to the conclusion.
In making decisions, it is of the utmost importance that we seek what God wants and not what we want. We need to carefully observe God’s guiding hands. Personal experiences as well as God’s workings through miracles and wonders can definitely help us perceive God’s will. Most importantly, we need to search the Scriptures to see what God has to say, for all Scriptures are God-breathed. Once we see the direction that God wants us to take, we ought to humbly submit ourselves to His will.
Why do you think the council specifically singled out the four things to abstain from?Hide Answer
Eating food offered to idols, sexual immorality, and eating meat of strangled animals and blood were common sins among the Gentiles. Therefore, the reason was probably that the Gentile converts needed to be cautioned against these specific sins so that they would not be polluted by the idolatrous and immoral practices around them.
According to the Scriptures, why must we abstain from them?Hide Answer
Things sacrificed to idols are sacrificed to demons. Eating food sacrificed to idols is having fellowship with demons. We must have no part with demons, since God is a jealous God (1Cor 10:19-22).
Sexual immorality is unacceptable to God because it defiles our bodies, which has been dedicated to God as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 6: 13-20). Sexual immorality is also evil because it destroys the sacred institution of marriage (cf. Heb 13:4). Those who practice sexual immorality cannot enter the kingdom of God (1Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21). Sexual immorality includes adultery (extra-marital sex), fornication (premarital sex), homosexuality (sex between members of the same sex), bisexuality (sex with both sexes), bestiality (sex with animals), incest (sex with close relatives or members of the same family), necrophilia (sex with the corpse), pedophilia (sex with children), and prostitution. Examples of some of the sins listed here are recorded in Lev 18:1-30.
We should refrain from blood because the life of an animal is in its blood, and life belongs to God (Lev 17:10-14).
We also need to refrain from eating meat of strangled animals because their blood has not been shed.
Why did James add the comment in verse 21? What is the point?Hide Answer
James’ point is that since the laws of Moses have been preached throughout many generations in every city and are read in the synagogues on every Sabbath, the teaching of the Mosaic laws should be left to the synagogues. The church does not need to take up the responsibility of teaching the laws of Moses to the Jewish believers, and it should not burden the Gentile believers with the requirements of the law. Instead, the church will just write to the Gentile converts and point out the four specific things that they must abstain from.
How did the council make the resolution known to the churches in Gentile regions?Hide Answer
They wrote an official letter and sent it with Paul and Barnabas. They also sent along men they had chosen, namely Judas and Silas, who would also make a verbal report of the resolution.
According to the letter, who made the final decision at the Jerusalem council? Why was this point important?Hide Answer
The decision was made jointly between the Holy Spirit and the church (28). This means that the decision of the council was not based on the personal views of some authoritative figures, but rather, it was through the guidance of the Holy Spirit that they reached this conclusion. They were able to discern the will of the Holy Spirit, and they agreed with it fully. The divine will behind the decision made the decision itself very significant.
Why did the church in Jerusalem send Judas and Silas to go with Paul and Barnabas?Hide Answer
The church in Jerusalem sent Judas and Silas as representatives to personally deliver the letter and confirm by word of mouth the decision that had been made (27). Doing so removed any doubt that skeptics might have about the authenticity of the letter.
What was the effect of informing the church in Antioch of the resolution made in Jerusalem?Hide Answer
The members rejoiced and were encouraged by it.
How did Judas’ and Silas’ mission to Antioch turn out to be very effective?Hide Answer
They not only delivered the letter but also stayed in Antioch for a period of time, exhorting and strengthening the brethren with many words (32-33).