Acts 14:21-15:4 by Robert Dean
Paul's first missionary journey ignites an explosion of new believers in Jesus Christ across Asia Minor. Not willing to leave these converts in their "diapers", he and Barnabas face extreme danger as they go back and teach doctrine to start these "baby" believers on the road to maturity. Meanwhile, some Pharisee believers insist that the Gentile believers must be circumcised. Listen to this lesson to see how Paul demonstrates the role of a pastor and how circumcision was not just a religious ritual but was an act of patriotism to the Jews. Find out what the political landscape was like in the 1st century and follow the dynamic timeline of the early church.

Oy, What About Those Goy? Acts 15:1-4; Gal 2:1-10


Concluding Acts chapter fourteen. Acts 14:21 NASB "After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, [22] strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and {saying,} 'Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.'"

Some things need to be pointed out here which help us to understand the role and purpose of the pastoral ministry. We have here the phrase "preached the gospel." That needs to be clarified. Then there are two participles that are translated with the English "ing" in verse 22—"strengthening" and "encouraging/exhorting". What does it mean to strengthen and exhort and how does that relate to verse 21 because as we look at these two verses they are one sentence. The participles strengthening and exhorting modify the main verb, which is "they returned." So we have to be careful to exegete this and evaluate the grammar because that helps open up what they are doing a little more obviously than what is on the surface in the English text.

First of all they "preached the gospel," and once again we have the familiar word that has come over into the English as "evangelize" or the noun "evangelism." It is the word euangelizo, and it is an aorist middle participle here. That is important because grammatically participles give their time sense, if it is an adverbial participle like this one, from the main verb. The main verb here, "returned," is an aorist tense verb. When you have an aorist participle with an aorist tense verb, or with any verb, the action of the participle comes before the action of the main verb. With a present tense participle the action is at the same time as the main verb, and a future tense participle comes after the main verb. The English translates "preached the gospel" as almost a simultaneous action, using the time word "when." This is accurate; it is a temporal participle. But an aorist participle precedes the action of the main verb, so it should be "after they had evangelized the city." The best translation would be "after they had explained the gospel to the city."

Then the next participle is the word for "making many disciples," from matheteuo which means to make a disciple or a student of someone, or if it is translate it in a little more active sense to teach or instruct someone. So they are doing two things here. First of all they are evangelizing and secondly they are instructing those who have responded to evangelism. This is the mission of the universal church. Jesus said to the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. So they are fulfilling that function of what is called the great commission.

Then in Matthew 28:19, 20 it goes on to identify how that disciple-making process goes on—by baptizing. That doesn't mean that they are saved by baptizing but in the early church it was understood that if you trusted Christ as savior there wasn't anything that hindered you from water baptism. It was assumed that you would be baptized immediately. It didn't make you more saved or less saved, more sanctified or more spiritual, it was an object lesson to communicate the really of positional truth. If people are saved and there is water baptism then people have the opportunity to be taught the significance of being baptized by the Holy Spirit because water baptism depicts the identification the believer with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ so that we are now raised to new life in Christ. And by having new life in Christ, as Paul explained in Romans chapter six, that old life of being a slave to the sin nature has been broken and we are no longer under that tyrannical relationship where the sin nature is the only master.

So when Matthew 28 says we are to make disciples by baptizing that is summarizing the whole evangelism operation—"and teaching," which is what you do after salvation. Sadly, there are too many congregations where all the pastor does is evangelize. There is never anyone telling believers what to do after they are saved, and so we end up with a lot of spiritual bed babies who are just in a spiritual nursery and no one seems to know how to get them out of the nursery. 

So what Luke is reminding everybody here is they are doing what they were told to do. They are going out and giving everybody the gospel and then they are teaching them. They then returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch even though there is going to be a lot of persecution possibly and maybe it would cost them their life. There were those there who hated them and had already demonstrated that they were angry enough to kill Paul.

Then verse 22 which in English appears disconnected. The first word "strengthening" is the Greek word episterizo, a participle here. Participles without an article modify the verb; they are adverbial participles. Here it is modifying the main verb, which is "returned." So they returned strengthening. How does strengthening relate to returning? Returning is a past tense verb, an aorist tense, and now we have a present tense participle. What did we see previously? Past tense comes before, present tense comes roughly at the same time, and future tense happens after. As they returned they were strengthening the souls of the disciples. That is the main idea, and it has that idea of strengthen, support, build up. They are teaching them the Word.

How do we know that? That is explained in the very next participle, "exhorting." This again is a present active participle but it should be understood this time as an instrumental participle. So they returned as they were strengthening the souls of the disciples by exhorting them. There shouldn't be a comma there in the English. How do you strengthen them? By challenging them with the Word. You are teaching them the Word and then challenging them to obey the Word and to transform their thinking by what the Word says. They are exhorting them to continue in the faith. That involves a couple of things. First of all the word the words "the faith" here isn't just meaning to continue to believe in Jesus. It is not continue in faith but continue in the faith. When there is the article in front of the noun for faith it refers to set body of beliefs, the entire body of doctrine that a person holds to.

They were challenging the believers to continue in the faith, i.e. to continue to hold to sound doctrine, to continue to study and understand the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostles, and to continue to grow and mature on the basis of that set body of beliefs. They challenged them to continue because that threat, the temptation for believers, is to give up. The word for "continue" is a form of the word meno which the Lord Jesus uses in John 15 when He says "Abide in me." It is a word that is related to fellowship—continue in fellowship, continue walking with the Lord Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. So they are challenged to continue in the faith.

And they are teaching, related to the kingdom of God, that we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God. This is interesting because there are people today who think that we are in some form of the kingdom of God. In Acts the issue is repent for the kingdom will come. The kingdom is a literal physical, geographical, political kingdom on the earth headed up by the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus ascended, according to Revelation 3:22, He was seated—not on His throne, He is not the King yet—on His Father's throne at the right hand of the Father, and according to Daniel chapter seven is waiting for the Ancient of Days to give Him the high sign to go take the kingdom. He hasn't become the King yet and we have a lot of really sloppy language today where people talk about doing something for the kingdom and worshipping our King, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is not our King yet. He is not going to assume the crown and be crowned as King until the Second Coming. 

  ow do you strengthen? How  

What Paul is teaching here is the importance of challenging people to continue and press on in doctrine, to study the Word and not give up in studying the Word. And the teaching is summarized: "we must go through many tribulations to enter the kingdom of God." Here Paul is using a little different way than he has in other places. It is obviously not talking about salvation. Entering the kingdom for this passage has the idea of preparing to serve in the kingdom. 

Acts 14:23 NASB "When they [Paul and Barnabas] had appointed elders [pastors] for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed." Notice the last phrase "in whom they had believed." It is not as clear in the English but in the Greek that verb there is pisteuo and it is a pluperfect active. A perfect tense verb means completed action in the past and it is emphasizing the present results of a completed past action. The pluperfect is talking about the past results of a completed past action. A perfect is the present results of completed past action; pluperfect intensifies that and talks about the past results of a completed past action. The point is that they had already completed their action of believing a long time before the events of vv. 22, 23 and it had results from that belief before vv. 22, 23. So their justification salvation had occurred the first time Paul went through town.

Now he comes back and is encouraging them to stay the course because "through many tribulations you are going to enter the kingdom." He is talking about the same thing as in Romans 8:17 in relation to inheritance: "heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ if we suffer with Him." So it is not getting saved because the context is saying they have already been saved. They are not getting saved again by going through tribulations; that would be a works salvation.

There are three terms in the New Testament for church leaders, for a pastor. One is the term "bishop" or "overseer." That is focusing on the leader in terms of his authority and his responsibilities. The term "elder" focuses in his maturity. And the term "pastor-teacher" focuses on his responsibility to feed the sheep and to lead. These terms are used interchangeably in 1 Timothy, Titus and Acts and this gives us our understanding.

Acts 14:27 NASB "When they had arrived and gathered the church together, they {began} to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles." That last phrase is critical for understanding the flow of what is happening historically in Acts. Now the door is fully open to Gentiles. When the church first started in Acts 2 it was all Jewish. So this phrase is a transitional statement to foreshadow the focus of the next chapter which is the Jerusalem Council.

Acts 14:28 NASB "And they spent a long time with the disciples." That is, those who had made themselves students or learners of the Scriptures. 

Acts chapter fifteen comes at the end of the first missionary journey and what we will see here is that how even during the apostolic period, even during the time when there was direct revelation from God to the apostles, there is still seen a progressive understanding of doctrine among the apostles. It is not that anything changes but that they get greater clarity, especially on the gospel. The issue that comes to a head—it's not the last time and it's not the first time—is when the apostles and the elders meet together and conference together in a more detailed way the issues related to the Gentiles coming into the church. This had already started back in Acts chapter eleven. This is critical here because they have to define this. Paul has come back from his missionary journey when there has been this explosive outreach to Gentiles and this extremely strong and hostile violent reaction from a certain percentage of the Jews in the synagogues.

Now it is becoming more and more clear that the nature of this new movement, the church, is going to focus more and more on the Gentiles, and so they have to raise this question. What do we do with thee Gentiles? They come in and do things and eat things that are offensive to the Jews who didn't think it was really spiritual according the Mosaic Law. There were conflicts between a Pharisaic element in the church (by now there were a number of Pharisees who had trusted in Christ as savior) who still had a hold-over of legalism from their days before they were Christian, and they are going to get into conflict with the apostle Paul.

The first part of Acts 15 raises the problem. In verse 5 "some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed" makes it very clear that these are believers. In their post-salvation spiritual life they have gotten into legalism. "… saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses."

So there is this conference with the apostles and the elders (a term that refers to the pastors in the congregations in Jerusalem) and they have a lengthy debate. Verse 7 "After there had been much debate …" They really hashed this out and it is a progress in understanding. God isn't just dumping on them revelation to handle the problem, they have to wrestle with scripture they've been taught and come to a conclusion. So this is another important passage for understanding principles of decision-making and God's will. The Holy Spirit is directing them but not where they can be consciously perceptible of it. He is the invisible hand that is unseen and unfelt but is overseeing the whole process. And when they do make the right decision we read two or three times that they say: "it seemed good to us." Notice they don't say, "God revealed this to us." After working through all the issues they have to apply doctrine from the wisdom banked in their own soul to this extremely contentious, divisive issue. Then they must make a decision as to how to implement their decision among the congregations. 

Acts 15:1 NASB "Some men …" These aren't leaders. This is not a deputation sent from Jerusalem to Antioch, it is just some men who have their own theological agenda. "… came down from Judea and {began} teaching the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" This is reiterated in verse 5: "But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, 'It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.'" This is the first time they are identified as Pharisees. They were believers but they were coming out of a legalistic background. After the resurrection there were a large number of Pharisees who responded to the gospel. Some of those held on to the legalistic background.

What we should recognize here is that we look at this through certain theological lenses. We need to get rid of that and get a little different perspective on this.

Think of this as if we were an extremely patriotic first century Jew. What had happened in your history? Back in the period of approximately 320 BC after Alexander had conquered most of the Middle East and the Greek empire was then subdivided among his generals. For the next 200 years or so there was a lot of fighting between the Ptolomies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria. And who was in between? Israel which sits on most of the major trade routes that went through the Middle East. The Ptolomies controlled the area for the first part of that period and then the Seleucids took over in the period of the early 100s. They had a really evil Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes. He was a type or picture of the Antichrist from the Old Testament. He was so horrible and hated the Jews so much that he had a pig sacrificed on the altar in the temple and pig blood scattered on the inside of the holy of holies. He desecrated the temple and the Syrians passed laws that made it illegal for Jews to circumcise their male children. It was a death penalty offence to hold copies of the Torah. Their goal was to completely obliterate Judaism. 

The sign of the Abrahamic covenant was circumcision. In second temple Judaism circumcision also became a symbol of some being obedient to the Mosaic Law. We have a passage out of one of the apocryphal books (good history but not a part of the Old Testament), 1 Maccabees 1:11-15 we get a sense of what was happening in Israel. People were wanting to give up their Judaism; they were losing their identity as Jews. This is what this passage in Maccabees shows:

[11] In those days went there out of Israel wicked men, who persuaded many, saying, Let us go and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us: for since we departed from them we have had much sorrow. [12] So this device pleased them well. [13] Then certain of the people were so forward herein, that they went to the king, who gave them licence to do after the ordinances of the heathen: [14] Whereupon they built a place of exercise at Jerusalem according to the customs of the heathen: [15] And made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen, and were sold to do mischief. 

This created a huge controversy among the Jews there and the culture is just polarized and imploding because of this large number of Jews who were compromising with Greek heathenism. And they "made themselves uncircumcised." The issue was that circumcision was a patriotic act. It indicated that a Jew was devoted to the Abrahamic covenant, devoted to the tradition and history of the fathers, and it was a sign that he wasn't assimilating to the enemy, that he wasn't becoming a cultural traitor. This is the background. So when we get into the first century and this emphasis of the Pharisees and the Sadducees on the importance of circumcision we need to cut them a little bit of slack because they see this as a sign of allegiance to their historical devotion to the covenants of Abraham and Moses. This was a major thing for them and so they are bringing all of that history to the table. It is not just a theological issue for many of them; it is a racial pride and historic pride that they must maintain being circumcised. 

We are going to need to get into some of the background going back to Acts chapter eleven and then look at Galatians chapter two. Basically when we get into this what we will discover is we have to fit this with these two other passages—Acts 11:30 and Galatians 2:10. There are basically four positions. One is that the visit of Galatians 2:10 is identified with Acts 11:30 and Paul's second trip to Jerusalem. We believe that is the correct view. The second view is that Galatians 2:1-10 is really talking about this trip to Jerusalem in Acts chapter fifteen. Then we always have the position of the liberals. Liberals just basically don't pay attention to facts, everything is made up by everybody else whether you are a liberal theologically or a liberal politically. The third view is that none of this actually happened historically, so quit trying to figure out how all the parts fit together because there really weren't any parts to begin with. Then there is the other view that we aren't given enough detail so quit trying to put it all together.

What we have to do is look at this because it helps us see the flow of how the apostles increased their understanding of the issues related to the purity of the gospel as faith alone, not faith plus circumcision, faith plus works or faith plus anything else.