In our study of Acts chapter fifteen, we look at the Council at Jerusalem and it's effects on the "church" of today. This council was called to determine what should be required of Gentile believers to be accepted into the family of God.
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: 'Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.' This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
So, while Paul and Barnabas were at their "home church" in Antioch, some men tried to tell the people that they must be circumcised to be saved. Paul and Barnabas knew that it was wrong and it caused a dispute there. Instead of simply standing on the teaching of Jesus and their experience from their missionary journey, a group of men were sent to Jerusalem to get an answer.
The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
On their way to Jerusalem, they explained how God had allowed them to share the gospel of Jesus with the Gentiles on their previous journey. When they came to Jerusalem, they reported the same thing to the church there and it's leaders.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, 'The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.' The apostles and elders met to consider this question.
So, some of the Pharisees stated that the Gentiles must obey the law of Moses to be saved and the leaders of the "church" in Jerusalem met to discuss the matter. These people were trying to add their rules to Jesus' sacrifice instead of realizing that salvation is truly a gift from God by faith alone. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem did not want to make anyone mad so they did not set them straight right away. They had a meeting to discuss the question.
After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: 'Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.'
During the debate over which laws the Gentiles must follow to be saved, Peter stood up and spoke. He reminded those present of how God had used him to share the gospel with the Gentiles (Acts 10). He also reminded them that God granted the Gentiles the Holy Spirit just as he had the Jews and that was proof that they were accepted by God. Then, he reminded them that the Jews could not keep the law of Moses and that is was only through grace that they were saved.
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.
After Peter, Paul and Barnabas talked to the group of leaders. They recounted the things that God had done through them with the Gentiles. This is yet again an example of people sharing their testimony of what God has done and is doing in their lives. You can almost feel how the assembly must have been on the edge of their seats waiting to hear more about how God was at work. That same excitement is what we, as Christians, can have every day in anticipation of what God is going to do on any given day.
When they finished, James spoke up: 'Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: "After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things that have been known for ages."'
Now, James, who was the leader of the "church" in Jerusalem, addressed the group. He pointed out that what Peter (also called Simon) said agreed with what had been said by the Old Testament prophets. He then quoted the prophet Amos (9:11 & 12). Through Amos, God had promised to restore the relationship between the Jews and himself and also between Gentiles who call on Jesus.
'It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.'
James now gives the council his judgment which is a list of rules for the Gentiles to follow. The rules are all in line with scripture and it is good to stay away from the things on the list. But, the question that was brought before the council was what must the Gentiles do to be saved. Therefore, this list of rules does not fit in with the grace of God. Once you begin to add any conditions to grace (which is unmerited favor) then it stops being grace.
Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers.
The "church" in Jerusalem now chose men to deliver this ruling to the believers in Antioch.
With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul- men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing.
The result of this council is a letter to the groups of believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. The leaders in Jerusalem also sent Judas and Silas to confirm what the letter stated.
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.
Now, the letter gives the instructions to the believers. It is good to avoid all of the things listed but this letter can cause some confusion. You see, the controversy was over what one must do to be saved and the simple answer to that is to accept Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life. The ruling from this council can lead people to believe that other actions can have a bearing on your salvation. Once you accept Christ and have the Holy Spirit living in you, then you will not want to have a part in the things that are listed.
The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers.
So, the letter was delivered to the "church" in Antioch where it was received with gladness. Though it contained some restrictions on their freedom, they did not have to keep the entire Jewish law. That burden had been lifted and replaced by a smaller burden. The question is: What is the purpose of the Law? The answer is that it was given to make us (and them) see the need for a savior. We do not keep any part of the Law to be saved we try to follow the instructions of Jesus because we are saved.
After spending some time there, they were sent off by the brothers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
So, Judas and Silas were sent back to Jerusalem after they delivered the letter. Paul and Barnabas stayed there, as it was their "home church". They taught and preached the Word to continue to strengthen the believers at Antioch.
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, 'Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.'
After preaching/teaching in Antioch, it is decided that Paul and Barnabas will go and check on the groups of believers in the towns where they preached before. This is important in that they did not just leave new believers alone to figure things out on their own. They were going to disciple them, where it was needed, to help them to grow in their faith. This follows the pattern of what Jesus did with the apostles and it is the same pattern that we should follow today.
Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.
This passage refers to the events of chapter 13 where we are told that John (Mark) left Paul and Barnabas and returned to Jerusalem. Because of that, Paul did not want him to go with them now. It is clear here that Paul did not feel that he could count on John Mark.
They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
So, what started out as a seemingly minor matter ends in a disagreement that was large enough to break up the team. Barnabas took John Mark (his relative) and they went back home to Cyprus where they tended to the believers there. Paul chose Silas and they went back to the cities where they had shared the gospel and strengthened the "churches". There is good news in the relationship between Paul and John Mark as they are reconciled later (see 2 Timothy 4:11).