Acts: Chapter 15

Themes:

  • Freedom in Christ: In Acts 15, we encounter the first official Church council, the Jerusalem Council, where the elders and apostles discuss the topic of salvation and Gentile conversion. In this chapter, the apostles are specifically addressing a grievance Paul had against a group of Jewish Christians called the Judaizers (see below for background). The Judaizers had been going to Paul’s Gentile specific church plants after he left to teach the Gentile Christians that they needed to be circumcised and follow the whole Jewish law in order to be Christians. This causes the church to have a discussion on what salvation is and how does it work in our lives. The Judaizers’ claim about Jesus is that he saves you to keep the law. Paul’s teaching was that Jesus saves you from the law itself. In the Judaizers’ teaching you are still a slave to the law. In Paul’s teaching you are freed from the burden of the law and no longer its slave. Paul’s understanding is confirmed by the apostles, and specifically Peter and James. Peter confirms Paul by retelling the experience of Cornelius’ conversion, and James as the leader of the Jerusalem church writes the final opinion so to say on the issue. James agrees that the Gentiles and truly all men are freed from the law, and it is more important to avoid actual sins such as pagan sacrifices and sexual immorality. In this story we see the simple truth that there is Freedom in Christ. No longer do we have to follow the Mosaic law to find our salvation like the Jews of old, rather our salvation comes from the work and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

People:

  • Judaizers: “The term "Judaizer" has come to be used in theological parlance to describe the opponents of Paul and Barnabas at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and those who sought to preach "another gospel" in the churches of Galatia ( Galatians 2:4 Galatians 2:12 ; 6:12 ; cf. Php 3:2 ). In this sense, "Judaizers" refers to Jewish Christians who sought to induce Gentiles to observe Jewish religious customs: to "judaize." It appears that these individuals agreed with much of the apostolic kerygma but sought to regulate the admission of Gentiles into the covenant people of God through circumcision and the keeping of the ceremonial law. Insisting that "Unless you are circumcised … you cannot be saved" ( Acts15:1 ), these "believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees" ( Acts 15:5 ) posed a serious threat to the gospel of grace and the universality of the Christian mission. Paul's Galatian epistle portrays the Judaizers as having come from the Jerusalem church to his churches in Galatia, stressing the need for Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the law, both for full acceptance by God (legalism) and as the basis for Christian living (nomism).They understood keeping the law not only as the means by which the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant could be appropriated, but also as the regulative guide for Christian life within that covenant relationship. Although the Judaizers appear to be concerned with bringing the Galatian Christians to perfection through the observance of the law, Paul charges them with being motivated by a desire to avoid persecution ( Gal 6:12-13 ).Amidst the rising pressures of Jewish nationalism in Palestine during the mid-first century, and increased Zealot animosity against any Jew who had Gentile sympathies, it would appear that these Jewish Christians embarked on a judaizing mission among Paul's converts in order to prevent Zealot persecution of the Palestinian church.”

Culture:

Places

  • Antioch - “In the early history of Christianity, Antioch occupies a distinguished place. The large and flourishing Jewish colony offered an immediate field for Christian teaching, and the cosmopolitanism of the city tended to widen the outlook of the Christian community, which refused to be confined within the narrow limits of Judaism. Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, was one of the first deacons (Acts 6:5). Antioch was the cradle of Gentile-Christianity and of Christian missionary enterprise. It was at the instance of the church at Antioch that the council at Jerusalem decided to relieve Gentile-Christians of the burden of the Jewish law (Acts 15). Antioch was Paul's starting-point in his three missionary journeys (Acts 13:1; Acts 15:36; 18:23), and he returned from the first two back to Antioch as his headquarters (Acts 14:26; Acts 18:22). Here also the term "Christian," doubtless originally a nickname, was first applied to the followers of Jesus (Acts 11:26). The honorable record of the church at Antioch as the mother-church of Gentile-Christianity gave her a preeminence which she has long enjoyed.”

Cultural Background

  • “The unexpected influx of Gentile converts into the believing community might have been good news to the church of Antioch, but it raised misgivings elsewhere. It is not difficult to understand these misgivings. Until now the main body of the church had been of Jewish origin, and the Jerusalem church had felt some responsibility for supervising Christian outreach in the Gentile world. But now Gentile evangelisation had begun to spread on a scale not previously dreamed of, and in areas where the Jerusalem church could no longer exercise effective control. That Gentiles should confess the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord was a great thing, no doubt, but many Jewish Christians held that more than this was necessary. Jewish Christians had not only the background of Israel’s ancestral faith, but also, in Israel’s ancestral law, they had the basis of sound morality. The admission of so many converts from paganism, who had no such background or basis, was likely, they feared, to lower the church’s ethical standard. What would be the surest safeguard against this danger? According to several Jewish Christians there was one simple way: those Gentile converts must be taught to keep the law of Moses. The men who came down from Jerusalem to Antioch and taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation (15: 1) were perhaps the “false brethren secretly brought in” to whom Paul refers in Galatians 2: 4. But the letter to the Galatians indicates that it was not only in Antioch that this teaching was pressed but also in the recently planted churches of Galatia, where the converts were less able to resist it. Clearly the matter had to be debated and decided at the highest level, so the Christians of Antioch sent a deputation to Jerusalem, led by Paul and Barnabas, to discuss the issue with the leaders of the mother church. On their way south they visited Christian groups which had been formed during the recent dispersal of disciples after Stephen’s death. These groups rejoiced in the news of the Gentile mission (15: 3). But when the deputation reached Jerusalem, a body of believing Pharisees stood up and insisted that the Gentile converts should be circumcised and instructed to keep the Jewish law (15: 5). In their view, a Pharisee who confessed Jesus as Messiah did not necessarily have to give up any of his Pharisaic beliefs or practices. Paul, on the other hand, himself an ex-Pharisee, had abandoned his former reliance on the law for faith in Christ alone.”

  • Why Did Peter use the Yoke Metaphor? - “A yoke is a wooden frame joining two animals (usually oxen) for pulling heavy loads. The rabbis often used the metaphor of a “yoke” with reference to the law, and Peter’s reference to “yoke” here refers not just to circumcision but to the whole of the Mosaic law. By speaking of the law as an unbearable yoke, Peter was not denying that the law was God’s gift to Israel. Rather, he was arguing that Israel was unable to fulfill it perfectly and that salvation could not be obtained through the law (cf. Rom. 2:17-24). Only one means of salvation exists for both Jew and Gentile: God’s “grace” (Acts 15:11) in Jesus Christ. Paul also refers to any requirement to keep the OT laws as a “yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). By contrast, Jesus calls people to take his new “yoke” upon them, a yoke that is easy (Matt. 11:30).”

Contemplating God:

Voice of the Past:

  • An Unbearable Yoke: “We must, therefore, come to the Lord Jesus Christ and find all that we need in him, for it is through him that we are freed from the yoke of the law. This yoke is too heavy for us to bear: not only does it weigh us down, it actually plunges us toward sin, death, and hell. Thus, we obtain this deliverance only through the seed which brings regeneration and complete liberty, Jesus Christ. We have become children of God, and...we will finally reach the inheritance that has been obtained for us at so great a cost, and which we could never have possessed by our own merits. It can only be obtained through Jesus Christ, the One to whom it all belongs, having conferred the inheritance on us through the gospel which we hear each day. Now, let us fall down before the majesty of our great God, acknowledging our sins, and praying that he would help us to feel them more than ever before. Then, we may grow and mature more and more through genuine repentance, so that, in coming to him, we may do so in all humility and without hypocrisy. We must be ashamed of our sin to the point that we seek no other remedy than the Lord Jesus Christ. Since our great God has received us and sealed us with the grace of his adoption in our hearts by his Holy Spirit, may we maintain the purity of the gospel, adding nothing of our own invention. May nothing be corrupted by our own notions, but may the Holy Spirit keep us obedient in the faith.”

Footnotes

Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. “Judaizers.”

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. “Antioch, In Syria.”

Bruce, F.F. Acts: A Bible Study Commentary. Acts 15.

Calvin John. Sermons on Galatians. Galatians 4.

Peter Elliott