Acts 15

1. And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Now a problem arises among the believers in Antioch. Certain men come down from Judea. It might seem strange to us to call this “coming down,” since Antioch was far north of Judea. Yet we should remember that Judea was mountainous country, and in those days people traveled on foot. They did not care as much about heading north as they did about going downhill, and Antioch was definitely downhill from Judea. Not to mention that the place Judea holds in God’s future plans means that it is always a trip “down” to leave Judea.

These men who came down from Judea start to teach the brethren in Antioch. The message they give them is that they must be circumcised according to the custom of Moses in order to be saved. Some might suggest that this was a very simple teaching. They wanted the Gentile believers in Antioch to be circumcised, and to be forced to keep the law of Moses in order to be saved. Yet is that really what is going on here?

Now I have set forth earlier that it does not appear that any of what we would call “Gentiles” were actually brought to faith in the Lord in Antioch. Many ancestral Israelites, both of those who spoke Aramaic, the native language of Israel, and those who spoke only Greek, the official language of the Roman Empire, were brought to faith. However, there is no reason for us to think that any of what we would call “Gentiles” had come to faith there. I do not believe that, other than the household of Cornelius, any of these were brought to faith until Paul started his ministry in Acts 13. One Gentile ruler named Sergius Paulus was brought to the Lord on Cyprus, and certain Gentiles came to faith in Pisidian Antioch. If there were any Gentiles brought to the Lord in the other cities Paul and Barnabas visited on their journeys (and there may have been,) we do not read of it specifically. Yet ultimately there is no reason to think that there were any Gentile converts in Antioch in Syria.

Then there is the matter of circumcision according to the custom of Moses. What does this mean exactly? We know what circumcision is. But what is circumcision after the custom of Moses? Is this something different than circumcision in general?

The fact is that Moses gave very specific instructions for circumcising. Yet these were not the first instructions given regarding circumcision. The man Abraham was the first one who was given instructions regarding circumcising his male children. We can read of this in Genesis 17:9-14.

9. And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11. and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. 13. He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”

So God had actually given circumcision to Abraham and all his male descendants approximately four hundred years before Moses had given his instructions regarding circumcision. The command regarding circumcision was, as we see, that all his male descendants were to be circumcised. This was to be done on the eighth day after birth. It applied to all who were Abraham’s descendants, but also to all those who belonged to any household of theirs, even if foreign born.

Now consider in contrast to this the law given by Moses regarding circumcision. Note carefully the things that are the same, and the things that are different. These instructions are given in Leviticus 12:1-8.

1. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2. “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. 3. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled.
5. ‘But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her customary impurity, and she shall continue in the blood of her purification sixty-six days.
6. ‘When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. 7. Then he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.
8. ‘And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”

These instructions had to do not just with how a baby was to be circumcised, but also with what was to be done after he was circumcised. Again, he was to be circumcised. There is no change in how he was to be circumcised. It was to be done in the household in which he was born, and was traditionally the father’s responsibility. We see this in the case of John the Baptist in Luke 1:59. Then, the mother was to be purified for thirty-three days afterwards. At that time, she was to bring an offering to the priest to make an atonement. What the offering was depended upon how wealthy or poor the family might be.

So we see that really the change between the commandment given to Abraham and the commandment given to Moses was not in the circumcision itself, but in the offering that came after it. The circumcision given to Abraham could be done anywhere and by anyone. The circumcision given to Moses was the same, except that it required an offering thirty-three days afterwards. This offering required a functioning priesthood, and therefore could only be done in the land of Israel and at the temple in Jerusalem, which at the time the book of Acts was written still stood there, and still housed the priests who performed the sacrifices the law demanded.

Now the ancestral Israelites who were living far outside the land of Israel could all keep the circumcision given by Abraham with no difficulty. This circumcision could be performed anywhere and by anyone. Yet the circumcision given by Moses could only be performed in or near the land of Israel. This is because one had to follow it up with a visit to the priests in the temple to perform an animal sacrifice. Those who lived any great distance from the temple would have had great difficulty in performing this type of circumcision. For those who lived a journey of months away from the temple, this would be a burden that only the most wealthy could have afforded to undertake, and even then at great risk, for travel, while better than it had ever been thanks to the Roman roads, was still a danger.

Therefore we can see why many of those of Israelite ancestry who were living outside the land would have been circumcised after the manner of Abraham, but not after the custom of Moses. Those outside the land would have generally been very supportive of this kind of circumcision, knowing the difficulties that the circumcision of Moses placed upon them. Yet those in the land, particularly those from Judea, the ones who lived the very closest to the temple, were often very zealous for a more “complete” circumcision that involved the sacrifice afterwards at the temple, as Moses had instructed. Those who insisted on this circumcision would often insist that a circumcision done without the sacrifice afterwards was no circumcision at all, and that those who had performed a circumcision after the manner of Abraham were not really circumcised men. They told those from outside the land that to really be circumcised, you must actually go to the land and be circumcised over again, so that you could perform the proper sacrifice afterwards.

Now it seems that those who came to Antioch were of this type. They knew that there were Israelite believers in Antioch who had not been circumcised after the custom Moses gave. Though these had now come to faith in Jesus Christ, these men from Judea insisted that this was not enough. They needed to go to Jerusalem and be circumcised over again, this time following Moses’ law to the letter. Otherwise, they could not be saved, even by their faith in Jesus Christ.

2. Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.

Luke uses almost a touch of humor here when he describes it that Paul and Barnabas “had no small dissension and dispute” with these men from Judea. We can well imagine the indignation of Paul at the suggestion by these Judeans that faith in Christ was not enough to save a man, but that he had to go through some ritual at Jerusalem, or else his faith was not enough! These Judeans certainly displayed a selfish superiority, being those who lived close by to the temple, over all who, through the accident of birth, lived far from it. It was certainly easy for them to say that you had to be circumcised after Moses’ custom to be saved. They had all already had this done for them, long before they could even remember. Their parents had to go no great distance or make no great sacrifice to do it. Yet now they tell these men who were adults, whose parents had perhaps been poor and the difficulty of a journey all the way from Syria down to Jerusalem too great, that they cannot be saved unless they go through a ritual like them!

Not only so, but this teaching utterly denied Paul’s message, as he preached it in Pisidian Antioch, that through faith in Christ “everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” Except, it seems, being too poor and living too far from Jerusalem to circumcise your children as Moses commanded! No, Paul and Barnabas could not stand for such teaching for a moment. So we can well imagine the volatile arguments that took place between them and these smug, self-satisfied Jews from Judea.

It seems there can be no settling this issue in Syrian Antioch. The Judeans will not acknowledge the authority of Paul and Barnabas, and the people of Antioch are no doubt quite confused about the issue. There always was a perception by the Israelites living outside the land that they were not doing things quite right. In this, they were correct, for no one could truly keep the law when living very far outside the land of Israel. At the very least, even if one did make the difficult journey to Jerusalem every time a child was born, you could not visit Jerusalem to worship the Lord there three times a year if you lived more than a few weeks’ journey from Jerusalem. The less wealth you had, the greater a burden the distance became. And if you were more than two months’ journey from the temple, of course you could just forget it! You could not spend four months on the road to attend a feast, only to immediately turn around and do it once again!

So, these Israelites living outside the land were used to the idea that they were not really pleasing God. Now, however, the blessed word about Christ has given them the opportunity not only to believe in Him, but also to be forgiven of all that. They could know that they were accepted in God’s sight, and be certain that their failure to keep the law as God commanded had been forgiven. Yet now these Judeans were trying to take that all away from them! How could they be certain that they were not correct, and that their faith in Christ really didn’t do them any good if they could not keep the law?

So a decision is made. Paul and Barnabas must go with certain others, probably from the opposing party, to Jerusalem in order to see the apostles and elders there, whom everyone on both sides recognized as having authority, and allow them to settle this question.

3. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren.

This delegation is sent out by the ekklesia in Antioch. Again, these ekkesia were those with positions out of God in that city. They had the power to commission a delegation like this, and this delegation was commissioned to discover the answer that God would give them through the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.

The word for “sent on their way” is the Greek word propempo, or our word for a simple sending pempo with the Greek prefix pro attached to it. Pro means “before,” and so propempo means literally “to send before.” The idea behind it is to help someone forward or aid them on their way, as it is suggested by the New King James Version here.

As Paul, Barnabas, and the rest of the delegation make their way to Jerusalem, they pass down through Phoenicia. This was an ancient nation, to which the cities of Tyre and Sidon had belonged. Now, the apostles travel down through this region and visit the brethren there. This means they took the coast road north through Caesarea. It is interesting that they chose this route, rather than passing through Galilee to the east. Then, they pass through Samaria, where we read that Philip did such a great work in Acts 8. In both these places, they proclaim to the brethren they meet the conversion of the nations, as it has been accomplished by Paul and Barnabas. This causes great joy to all these brethren, to hear that so many of their ancestral Israelite brothers and sisters outside the land, and even some Gentiles, had come to the Lord through His word.

4. And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them.

Now when this delegation arrives at Jerusalem, they are received by the ekklesia there. Of course, prominent among this ekklesia were the twelve apostles, who were leaders there, along with certain elders or representative men. To these Jerusalem leaders, then, Paul and Barnabas make a report of their ministry. It is interesting that the Spirit does not here say that they described what they had done, but rather all things that God had done with them. This work had not been the work of Paul and Barnabas. This work had been the work of God, using Paul and Barnabas as His instruments. This, indeed, is our contention all through the book of Acts. The things we read of the apostles doing are not their acts alone and not their words alone, but rather the words and actions that the Lord Jesus Christ is doing through them.

5. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”

Upon hearing this report, some of the sect of the Pharisees who believe rise up and argue that what Paul and Barnabas have done is not sufficient. They believe it is not enough for these men that they have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. They must also be circumcised and begin to keep the law of Moses. As we have contended above, this was not something that was possible for many of those living in these places to do.

Notice here the very interesting fact that those who are contending this are described as some of those “of the sect of the Pharisees who believed.” We tend today to have a very negative view of the Pharisees, due to arguments many of them had with the Lord Jesus Christ, and the many things He accused them of. Yet here we see that not all of the Pharisees were so dead set against the Lord as we might tend to think. Some of them actually became believers, joined themselves with the brethren, and were even counted among the leadership group of believers in Jerusalem. When we remember that Paul himself was a Pharisee, and that he even claimed to still be a Pharisee in Acts 23:6, this perhaps will not seem so strange to us.

6. Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.

When this dispute arises, the matter is not decided there and then. Instead, a special meeting of the apostles and elders is called. Notice that not all of the ekklesia are included in this meeting, as in the first of verse 4, but just the apostles and elders. These were the men given the most authority by the Lord, and they were the ones who would decide this important matter.

7. And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.

There is much general discussion, which we do not have recorded for us. “Dispute” may be too strong here, as the idea is that there was much questioning. Probably many questions were asked both of Paul and Barnabas and of the men from Antioch who were on the other side of the debate about what had been going on there, and what the issues were. Once all are clear on what the question is, Peter stands up.

Now Peter brings their minds back to the important events in which he had been involved, as we have already studied them in Acts 10-11. All the apostles and elders in Jerusalem were, of course, familiar with these events. Peter had been chosen by God to speak to certain men who were Gentiles, so that by the words he spoke they could hear the word of the gospel and believe. This had indeed been a good while before, perhaps as much as thirteen years.

8. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us,

Peter points out the work of God in this situation. He is the One Who knows the hearts of men. In Greek this is literally a title for God, the “Heart-Searcher.” He had looked into the heart of these believing Gentiles, and He had acknowledged the truth of their faith by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to the apostles and elders on the day of Pentecost, as we have studied in Acts 2.

The words “Holy Spirit” in Greek here includes the definite articles in Greek, reading “the Spirit the Holy.” Therefore, the Person of the Spirit is meant here. Of course, the way He was given was through the gift of tongues, so once again the Giver is connected with His gifts. Nevertheless, it is the Person of the Spirit Who is emphasized here, bringing to the front once again the clear fact that it was God Who had done these things, and had accepted the Gentiles right alongside the Jews in this situation.

9. and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.

By doing this, Peter reasons, God had put no difference between these Gentiles and the men of Israel. Now this was not in everything, of course, for as Paul argues in Romans there is still a great advantage, “much in every way,” to being a Jew. But what he means is that God had purified these Gentiles’ hearts by their faith, just as He did the hearts of the Jews. Notice, of course, that these Gentiles had not been circumcised, nor had they started to keep the law, when God did this.

10. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

If God was willing to accept these Gentiles as they were, without any circumcision or keeping of the law, why then did these men want to place the burden of law-keeping on these new disciples, whoever they might be? Israel in the land had proven time and again to not be up to the task of keeping the righteous and holy law of God. Even in Peter’s day they were not able to bear it. If those in the land were not able to keep the law, and we know that Israel had constantly been guilty before God of not keeping the law they had been commanded by Him to keep, then why put this burden on those outside the land, where keeping the whole law was not even possible?

11. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”

Peter’s words here are rather strange. We might better translate this, “But through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall believe to be saved in a manner even as they.” In other words, whether one was a law-keeping Israelite in the land or a disciple living outside the land where the law could not be kept, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ was the way they would be saved. Salvation was by grace through belief, and not by keeping the law. This was true whether you were a law-keeping Israelite or not.

12. Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles.

Now that Peter has spoken, the time comes for Barnabas and Paul to give their testimony, and all the multitude keeps silent to hear them.

Notice that Barnabas is listed first here. Barnabas had been a member of the great unity in Jerusalem. He was probably well-known to all the men present. Paul, on the other hand, had been better known to those in Jerusalem as a persecutor of the believers, and had not spent a considerable amount of time among them. Therefore, it was quite natural that Barnabas should be the one more recognized here, and therefore the leader in presenting their case.

Barnabas and Paul declare how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the nations. “Gentiles” is a poor translation here, for many of these signs and wonders were done before the Jews living outside the land. In fact, we saw what a problem happened in Lystra when the Gentiles watched Paul heal a lame man! They had been doing these miracles among the nations, but this is not the same as among the Gentiles. Many of these miracles and wonders had been focused on the Jews, and done in their presence in the synagogues.

The fact that God had been doing these miracles and wonders through Barnabas and Paul proved His backing for their ministry. They were being accused of doing something wrong when they taught the disciples outside the land salvation without the keeping of the law. Yet how could this be when their work was backed up by God in the working of miracles and wonders? If God had not approved of what they were doing, then He would not have given His mighty works to help them in doing it. How then could they be accused of doing something wrong?