Acts 15 Jerusalem Council

Tod Kennedy, April 30, 2000

Main points of application or “So what?” from Acts 15

  1. We ought to live for God because we want to please him, not because we think that the way to successful Christian living is by following taboos or religious regulations, which is legalism.
  2. Am I clear on what the gospel is and what is the right response to the gospel? The gospel is the good news that Christ died for the sins of the entire world and then arose from the dead. The right response to the gospel is faith alone in Christ alone.
  3. What is my attitude toward the church age rituals of the Lord’s table and water baptism? What am I thinking during those rituals? A ritual symbolizes or pictures a real event and the truth that that event teaches. A biblical ritual symbolizes something that God has done and the Bible doctrine associated with that event. It teaches and reminds people of God’s grace. The ritual itself has no merit. Circumcision was a ritual; the Levitical offerings were rituals; water baptism and the Lord’s table are rituals.
  4. God’s word has been founded upon historical events: God did make a covenant with Abraham; Jesus was born into the world and was the Christ; Jesus Christ did die and arise; Peter, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and James were real people who lived in the first century and got the church started.
  5. When  believers gather to define policy or solve problems, they ought to make use of appropriate evidence and wise people to come to the best decisions. Then they ought to try to maintain unity about the acceptance and application of the policy.
  6. John Mark, Peter, and Paul illustrate that failure in the Christian life does not prevent future ministry. God continued to teach, use, and bless them.

Summary Outline

  1. Acts 15.1-4.  Legalistic Jews tried to convince the believers in Antioch that Gentiles must be circumcised in order to gain eternal life; what they were saying was that a Gentile had to become a Jew in order to gain eternal life. They contended that faith alone in Christ alone would not work. Paul and Barnabas would have none of that. The Antioch believers wanted to know what the apostles thought about this so they sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to meet with Peter, James, and the others. When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Jerusalem they gave their missionary report to the church and presented the question from the believers in Antioch. Circumcision was a physical sign, a ritual, a human work showing that one believed God’s covenant to Abraham. The Abrahamic covenant was God’s promise that he would bless the human race through the seed of Abraham. Paul wrote in Galatians 3.16 that Jesus Christ was the seed through whom blessing would come.
  2. Acts 15.5-6. A Pharisees who was a Christian had become confused about salvation by grace through faith and about the place of the Mosaic Law in the life of a Christian. He argued that Gentile believers must be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law. He was wrong, but due to the Jewish nature of the young church, this disagreement had to be addressed and settled. The fundamental question was whether eternal life was gained by faith alone in Jesus Christ or faith in Jesus Christ plus something else. Here that something else was circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses. Today we face the same kind of  disagreement: does one gain eternal life by faith alone in Christ alone or by faith in Jesus Christ plus water baptism or making Jesus Lord of one’s life or demonstrating holiness by one’s life or ….
  3. Acts 15.7-11. Peter, Barnabas and Paul, and James each took a turn in the debate. Peter argued based on God’s revelation to him throughout the Cornelius episode of Acts 10-11. Peter concluded that both Jew and Gentile are saved the same way that Cornelius and the others were saved: by God’s free gift—grace—through faith alone in Christ alone; there was no need for circumcision or obedience to the law of Moses.
  4. Acts 15.12. Barnabas and Paul explained how God had worked through them on behalf of the Gentiles during their first missionary trip (Acts 13.48; 14.20-21, 27). Many Gentiles were saved without circumcision or any other legal observance. They were saved by faith alone in Christ alone.
  5. Acts 15.13-21. James, the half brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, referred to Peter’s ministry among the Gentiles (Acts 15.14) and said that this was just what the prophets said would happen. His point is not the specific fulfillment of the Amos prophecy, but that Gentiles will be included in God’s salvation and that the Gentiles will not pre vent Israel’s promised future. James concluded that Jews ought not to require Gentiles to follow the Mosaic Law: leave them alone and allow them to freely believe in Christ (Acts 15.19). Since every city has Jewish people who hear the law read  in the synagogue every Sabbath, the second part of the decision was to recommend that Gentiles refrain from four activities that would bother Jews and especially new Jewish believers and therefore cause unnecessary tension between Jews and Gentiles: do not eat food offered to idols; do not engage in sexual immorality; do not eat food from an animal that had been strangled (the blood would still be in it); do not eat meat from an animal from which the blood had not been drained.
  6. Acts 15.22-29. The church in Jerusalem, including the apostles and elders, agreed to James’ conclusion. Note the process that they followed to arrive at the right decision: the question was stated; each side presented its case; those closely associated with what God had been doing among the Gentiles presented evidence; the evidence was confirmed by Scripture; James, the recognized leader in Jerusalem gave his decision; this decision was agreed to by the council; and they made a strong effort to maintain unity among the believers in Jerusalem and elsewhere. The conclusion was written up in the form of a letter. The church leaders chose Paul and Barnabas to carry the letter to Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. They also chose Judas, a Jew, and Silas, a Gentile to go along with Paul and Barnabas—presumably to lend credence to the letter by having a representative from both Jews and Gentiles.
  7. Acts 15.30-35. Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and Judas traveled to Antioch where they read the letter to the gathered believers. The believers were very glad to hear that Gentiles were saved without becoming Jews or accepting Jewish laws. At this point the four men began to teach Bible doctrine to the Antioch church. Soon after, Judas returned to Jerusalem while Paul and Barnabas continued to teach the Word of God to the Antioch believers.
  8. Acts 15.36-40. After a period of Bible teaching, Paul suggested that they return to southern Galatia in order to follow up believers in those areas. At this point Paul and Barnabas disagreed about whom to take with them on the trip. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark but Paul said no to that. Paul did not think that John Mark should go because he had left them at Perga on the first trip to return to Jerusalem (13.13). Out of this disagreement two missionary teams arose. Barnabas took John Mark and went to Cyprus and Paul and Silas began the second missionary trip; they would revisit southern Galatia, then go as far west as Macedonia and  Greece.  Scripture does not say why John Mark left Paul and Barnabas; there are a number of possible reasons. The important thing to remember is that whatever the reason, it did not disqualify John Mark from future ministry.  Spiritual growth along with Barnabas’ encouragement turned him into a valuable minister of the early church. Later on, Paul writes favorably of him in Colossians 4.10, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4.11. John Mark authored the gospel of Mark.

Dictionary of Bible Doctrine

  1. Legalism is the belief  that a person must follow religious regulations or taboos in order to gain eternal life or to live a successful Christian life. Coupled with this is another belief: that God will bless, help, and prosper the one living this way. A legalist follows the letter of Scripture and tradition in order to gain good from God or show his own righteousness. Legalistic people work for God’s blessing, they confuse cause and result, and they misunderstand grace. In contrast to the legalist, a biblical believer follows the meaning of the scripture from a desire to please God. Scripture teaches that a believer is to think and act rightly because of genuine appreciation for God. Legalism becomes a heavy yoke or load to live under (Matthew 11.28). Legalism is against salvation by grace (Galatians 1.6-9; 2.16), spirituality by grace (Galatians 3.2-5; 5.5), and the freedom to live the Christian way of life by grace—which is the freedom to live apart from pressure imposed by a religious community or a taboo list (Galatians 4.8-11; 5.1-5). Legalistic people attempt to force their lifestyle upon others and thereby judge and interfere in the freedom of other believers (John 7.19-24; Romans 14.1-12; Galatians 2.1-5). Pride, self righteousness, and a critical mental attitude characterize legalists and perpetuate legalism (Matthew 12.10; Luke 18.9-12; Galatians 2.3-5; 6.12-13). The legalistic person has separated himself from the light load and easy yoke of freedom in Christ (Matthew 11.30; Galatians 5.1-4). Legalistic people replace Bible doctrine and the spirit of Bible doctrine with human standards (Matthew 12.1-8; 15.1-3). Common legalistic practices in Bible times include observing religious ritual for the sake of ritual (Acts 15.5; Galatians 4.10-11; Colossians 2.16), observing special days, months, seasons, and years (Galatians 4.10-11; Colossians 2.16-18), circumcision (Galatians 2.3-5; 5.2-4), taboo lists (Colossians 2.20-22), hand washing before eating (Matthew 15.1-20), special rules for the Sabbath (Matthew 12.1-1-5, 9-14), self righteousness (Luke 18.9-14), and depending on personal heritage, ability, and conformity to a regulatory system to please God (Philippians 3.4-6). Current day expressions of legalism related to salvation include believe plus promise to change one’s life, believe plus make Christ Lord, believe plus join the church, believe plus give up habits such as smoking and movies, believe plus an emotional experience, and believe plus participate in church sacraments. Current day expressions of legalism related to the Christian way of life may include right activity done for the wrong reasons: praying regularly, giving money, reading the Bible, and experiencing emotional highs during a church service. Legalism related to the Christian life may also include wrong activity for the wrong reasons:  imitating famous Christians, basing one’s spiritual life on emotional responses to God, avoiding certain taboos such as smoking, attending movies, or playing sports on Sunday. Legalism ultimately emphasizes human works. The Bible teaches that a believer is unable to contribute anything to God through his own human efforts. Grace emphasizes God’s work and the believer’s dependence upon God’s work.
  2. Circumcision was a physical sign, a ritual, a human work showing that one believed God’s covenant to Abraham. Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin from the male sex organ.  It began with Abraham and the Mosaic Law included circumcision (Leviticus 12.3). It is a ritual which signifies that the individual has accepted the Abrahamic covenant—God’s unconditional covenant that he would bless Abraham by giving him and his heirs a land, by giving him children who would expand into a nation, and by blessing the whole human race through one of his heirs (Genesis 12.1-3; 17; Romans 3.1-2)—by faith (Genesis 17.1-14; Romans 4.10-11). Circumcision was established for all male Jewish children 8 days old (Genesis 17.12), male Gentile children born into the house or purchased (Genesis 17.12-13), and male foreigners wishing to celebrate the Passover or become citizens of Israel (Exodus 12.48). True circumcision was a sign that a particular Hebrew family accepted by faith the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17.1-14; Romans 2.24-29). Circumcision was a prerequisite for eating of the Passover meal. The Passover is indirectly a commemoration of the Abrahamic Covenant (Exodus 12.40-51). Circumcision was never necessary for salvation (Romans 3.30-4.12; 1 Corinthians 7.19; Galatians 2.3-7). There have been two types of circumcision in Israel’s history. True circumcision was the surgical procedure based upon faith in correct doctrine. False circumcision was the surgical procedure based upon works and incorrect doctrine (John 7.14-24; Romans 2.25-29; 9.1-9; Philippians 3.1-7). Circumcision has no spiritual significance in the church age (Acts 15; Galatians 2; 5.1-13; 6.12-18). The Baptism of the HS is the spiritual sign that a person is a part of the church just as circumcision was a physical sign that the person was a part of Israel under the Abrahamic covenant (Romans 6.3-4; 1 Corinthians 12.13; Colossians 2.11-13).
  3. Eternal salvation comes to a person when he believers in Jesus as savior—faith alone in Christ alone. The good news is that Jesus Christ offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe in Him because He died in our place for our sins. Paul wrote of this in Romans 1.9, 15-16, 1 Corinthians 15.1-4, 2 Corinthians 10.1, Galatians 4.13, Ephesians 1.13, Philippians 4.15, and 2 Timothy 1.8. This good news or gospel of eternal salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone is for the entire world. Eternal salvation becomes the possession of every person at the moment he believes in God’s Son for salvation. People wrongly try to add many things to the gospel—discipleship, changing one’s life, making Jesus the Lord of your life, stopping  sinning, performing Christian service, going to church, giving up certain activities, or obeying God. They may say that unless your life shows morality and Christian growth and service you may not be a Christian. They change grace—grace means that God has done everything Himself and offers us salvation for free—ever so subtly by making us do something to help insure our salvation. They change faith, again very subtly, by making it include obedience to God instead of simply believing in Christ. Faith is a belief, a trust, an inner conviction, a reliance that something is true—faith must be directed toward the right object, Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2.8-9; Romans 1.4-8).
  4. Faith is the conviction that something is true; faith is trust; faith is reliance upon an object. Faith must have an object. We use faith every day. When we are driving a car and step on the brakes, we believe that they will slow the car down; that is faith. When we go to church we believe that there will be a service; that is faith. In order for a person to gain eternal life, he must believe the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ. “Saving faith” is simple faith in the only object who is able and willing to save—Jesus Christ.  In biblical terms, saving faith “is the inward conviction that what God says to us in the gospel is true” (Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free, 31). What he said was that Jesus Christ,  the Son of God, was judged by God the Father for the sins of the world, including my sins, and that because of his substitutionary death he offers me eternal life if I will believe in him as my savior (John 1.12; 3.16; 20.31; Acts 16.31; Ephesians 2.8-9; 1 Timothy 1.15; 1 John 5.13). Jesus Christ is, as John said in John 1.29, “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”