Chapter VI, The First Church Council; The Parenthesis Recognized By The Apostles

Acts 15 is the great dispensational chapter of that book. It occupies a unique place in the New Testament, and is a very distinct help in the understanding of God’s present work of grace and His future plans for Israel and the world.

When Paul returned to Antioch at the conclusion of his first missionary journey, we are told that the whole Church was gathered together, to whom he and Barnabas “rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). For some time afterwards they continued in that same city, teaching and enjoying the fellowship of the saints, but soon a discordant note was introduced, destroying the spiritual harmony which up to that time had prevailed.

We are told in the first verse of chapter 15: “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” It is evident that these men maintained they acted under apostolic authority and were the official representatives of the Church at Jerusalem. They were evidently rigid Jews of the Pharisaic type who had professed conversion to Christ and had been identified with the churches in Judaea. Having only the Old Testament, they based all their conclusions upon it. We need to remember, in order not to judge them too harshly, that so far as we have definite information, not one book of the New Testament had yet been written. There is a bare possibility that Matthew or Mark or perhaps both might be exceptions to this, but of that we have no proof. When these brethren or others referred to the Scriptures, it was necessarily the Old Testament which they had in mind. From the Old Testament they learned that God had made a covenant of grace with Abraham, had promised that all nations would be blessed through his Seed, and had given the ordinance of circumcision as the outward sign that was to separate the covenant people from the rest of the world.

Of course, from the beginning the apostles had taught, as Peter did, the setting aside of the nation of Israel because of their rejection of Messiah, and called upon those who trusted Him to separate themselves by baptism from the apostate part of the nation, and thus save themselves from that untoward generation and the judgment soon to fall upon it; but we can well understand that many Jewish believers might not have grasped the full implication of this, nor have recognized the fact that God was doing an altogether new thing not predicted in Old Testament times.

There is, therefore, no reason to question the sincerity of these Judaean emissaries who doubtless thought that Paul and Barnabas were playing fast and loose with the divine order in not insisting that the Gentile believers accept the sign of the Abrahamic covenant and thus identify themselves with the remnant of the chosen people.

There was evidently considerable discussion in the Antiochian Church regarding the whole matter, as a result of which Paul and Barnabas were asked to go with some others directly to Jerusalem and confer there with the apostles and elders about this question. As they made their way toward their appointed destination, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring whenever they came in contact with Christian assemblies how God had wrought in power in converting the heathen from among the Gentiles. The news of this brought great joy, we are told, unto all the brethren. It is evident that the questions raised by the men from Judaea had not come before these churches as they made no mention of bringing such demands to bear upon the young converts, but simply rejoiced in what God had done for them.

In verse 4 we are told that “when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.” This was evidently in a large open meeting where a great number of the Jerusalem Christians gathered together to receive them and to welcome them in their midst. In this meeting no doctrinal matters or questions of ceremonial observances were discussed until after Paul and Barnabas had given their testimony to the way in which God had wrought through their ministry to the Gentiles. After this we are told: “There rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” These men, like the others who had appeared at Antioch, felt sure of their ground for they could appeal directly to Old Testament Scripture, and they took it for granted that God was now doing what He had promised to do through the prophets, that is, to give the knowledge of His salvation to the Gentiles, but that they would receive blessing through Israel and would be united to them as children of the covenant by taking upon them the outward sign to which they referred. See Isaiah 56:6; 60:3-5; Zech. 8:23, to which many other passages might be added.

Apparently the leaders decided not to debate the question at that time nor to attempt to handle it in a large open meeting, for in verse 6 we read: “The apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.” This would be much wiser, of course, than putting the question up to the entire body of believers, many of whom would have a very imperfect understanding of the Gospel itself and a very slight knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. The apostles appointed by the Lord Jesus to carry the message into all the world and those who had be selected as elders to guide the affairs of the local churches met in council with Paul and Barnabas and the associates to go into the matter dispassionately and carefully.

We can see, as we read on, that even these brethren were of one mind, for we are told that there was “much disputing.” How long this went on we do not know, that eventually the Apostle Peter took the floor and reminded them how God had in a very clear and definite way sent him to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, but that there had then been no commandment to circumcise the believers or to put them under the yoke of the law of Moses. I quote Peter’s address in full so far as we have it here. Doubtless verses 7 to 11 give us but an abbreviation of what he presented to the assembled company:

“Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:7-11).

Observe how carefully the Apostle Peter presented his case. It was God who had chosen him to go to the Gentiles, that through his lips they should hear the word of the Gospel and put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. As he was preaching, Cornelius and his household believed the message, and immediately God, who reads the hearts, recognized their faith and gave them the Holy Spirit in the same way in which He gave it to the one hundred and twenty of Israel on the day of Pentecost. The fact that these were uncircumcised Gentiles and that those were circumcised Jews made no difference whatever to God. It was the state of the heart upon which He looked, and so Peter insists that He did not distinguish between the two groups, but purified their hearts by faith, that is, regenerated them when they believed the Gospel. If this satisfied God, why should it not satisfy the Jewish Christians? Were they not tempting God when they sought now to put the yoke of the law upon the neck of these young believers from among the Gentiles, a yoke which they themselves, as Jews, had always found burdensome?

Then Peter closes in a remarkable way. He says: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” We might well expect that he would have turned it completely around. He might have said: “We believe that they shall be saved even as we”; but he does not do that. He declares that the Jews, despite all their privileges, are to be saved on the same basis of pure grace as idolatrous or philosophical Gentiles who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

This was evidently so convincing that the legalists were nonplused and for the moment knew not how to reply. Taking advantage of the silence, Barnabas and Paul, one after the other, addressed the audience. Note that Barnabas came first in this case as he was well known to the Jerusalem Christians and was highly esteemed for his godliness and righteous life. Paul, who was doubtless more or less under suspicion on the part of some, followed. Both gave the same marvelous testimony to the mighty wonder-working power of God as He wrought among the Gentiles. In this they corroborated the testimony given by Peter.

We can imagine the rigid Pharisaic Christian Jews silenced but unconvinced. In their own minds they would be saying, “But we have the Word of God on our side. Regardless of the remarkable experiences Peter and Barnabas and Paul can relate, it is very definitely stated in Scripture that those whom God recognizes as His covenant people are to be marked out from the rest of the world by the covenant sign. Moreover, who has been authorized to set aside the commands of the Law, a Law given by God Himself when He appeared to Moses on Sinai?” They knew, of course, that there were many promises in the Old Testament of blessing for the Gentiles. They knew that the day was yet to come when all the nations of the world would recognize in the Lord Jesus Christ God’s King, but when that day came, Israel was to have the pre-eminent place. There was no proof that God’s attitude would be changed in regard to the matters in question. The presumption was that all the Gentiles would in a certain sense become as Jews when together they should all enjoy the blessings of Messiah’s reign. Yet these brethren must have been puzzled to explain the way in which God was now working among the Gentiles and His apparent indifference regarding what to them seemed so important.

James, however, had the key to the entire situation. We have a brief outline of his speech given in verses 13 to 21:

“Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (Acts 15:13-21).

He refers to what Peter had already told them, but he uses an expression which is of great interest to us, and was indeed the explanation to the present work of grace. “God,” he says, “at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” Now this is not the conversion of the Gentiles as predicted in the Old Testament. The taking out of a people, instead of the conversion of the nations as such, was something very different from that revealed by the prophets. This spoke of a special election from among the Gentiles and that doubtless for a particular purpose. This is the work that God is doing now. While the messengers of the Gospel are to carry it to all nations, God’s present object is not the conversion of the nations through this testimony but that all men may have an opportunity to come to Christ if they will, but He who knows the end from the beginning has foreseen the fact that only a small number comparatively would actually receive the message in faith, and trust the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour. This company is designated throughout the book of Acts as the Church of God, and of the Church of God as such we hear nothing in the Old Testament prophecies.

But now observe how James harmonizes the present work of God in taking an elect people out from among the nations and the prophecies of the conversion of all the nations in some future day. He refers his hearers to the prophecy of Amos as recorded in chapter 9, verses 11 and 12: “After this I will return.” This is not exactly the way Amos wrote it, but James is quoting from the Septuagint, and he recognizes the correctness of the expression. “After this,” that is, after the present work of God in taking a people out from among the nations is concluded, Messiah will return again. Then when He comes back He will build once more the Tabernacle of David which has been for so long set aside. He will raise up the throne of David again and fulfill the prophecies made to that man after His own heart. It will be in that day that the residue will seek after the Lord and all the Gentiles upon whom His Name will then be called.

This made everything clear. James, you see, recognized and explained the Great Parenthesis in God’s dealings with Israel. He showed that the Church of God had been called out and was bearing its witness in that parenthetic period. When it shall come to a close, the Lord will return again and fulfill all the prophecies connected with Israel’s restoration and the salvation of the nations of the world. And so he exclaims, “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” God is working according to a plan, and that plan was partly unfolded in Old Testament times, but now has been fully made known. In the light of the revelation thus given, James suggested that no further pressure should be brought upon the Gentiles to make them conform to Jewish rites or ceremonies, but that they should be called upon simply to abstain from the evils connected with idolatry, from the immorality that was so common among the nations, and from unclean foods which to their Jewish brethren were abhorrent. If any of the Gentile believers wished to know more of the teachings of the Law, they could easily find enlightenment, for in virtually every city there were synagogues in which the Law of Moses was read and taught, and any who desired could go in to hear.

This settled the matter at least for the present, and a letter was drawn up and sent out to the Gentiles to put their minds at rest regarding the teaching of the legalists who were seeking to turn them away from their liberty in Christ. We have the letter given in verses 23 to 29:

“And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: it seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well” (Acts 15:23-29).

It must have been with great joy and light hearts that Barnabas and Paul and their companions left Jerusalem and returned to Antioch. The truth for which they had been contending for so long was now acknowledged by the brethren at Jerusalem, and they could go on preaching with the full assurance that their testimony was endorsed by those who had been in Christ before them. They immediately gathered the Church together, to whom the letter was read, and all rejoiced for the consolation that it brought. It is true that later on further trouble developed, because legalism is a form of leaven, and it is in the nature of leaven to work; and so we have the Epistle to the Galatians, written to Gentile believers some years later in order to counteract the contentious propaganda of certain Jews who still insisted on pressing upon the Gentiles the necessity of conforming to the Law of Moses. That letter is in itself the very best answer to legality of every description.

The pitiable thing is that in the centuries that have elapsed since, the Judaizing of the Church has gone on in an amazing way until in many places the Gospel of the grace of God is looked upon as though it were a strange new heresy, whereas the effort of men to procure justification by human merit and sanctification by attention to religious rites and ceremonies is accepted as the ortho- dox position. It only shows how hard it is for these poor hearts of ours to abide in the truth of the grace of God. We so readily seek some other ground of approach to God and fitness for His presence than that of pure, unadulterated grace as set forth in the work of our Lord Jesus Christ and the purifying power of the Holy Spirit. One great reason for this is that so many fail to differentiate between the covenant of works given at Sinai and the grace of God as revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ. We read in John 1, verse 17: “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” That Law, Paul tells us in the Galatian letter, was a child-leader designed to guide the steps of the people of God in the days of their nonage until Christ Himself should come. Now that He has come there is no further need of the child-leader, but all that is required both for justification and sanctification is found in the risen Christ, who, of God “is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, sanctification and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30).