Acts 15:6-31 by Robert Dean
Knockdown, drag-out fights make rousing TV shows but don't do much to change opinions. When the early church began to have verbal brawls over the role of Jewish rituals, they decided to convene a council in Jerusalem to resolve the issue. The Pharisees had forgotten to check their rules at the door when they became believers and they wanted to impose them on new converts. Listen to this lesson to learn the different approaches Peter and James used to arrive at the conclusion that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. Find out about the four rules decided upon to bring goodwill between Jewish and Christian believers.

Jews and Gentiles in One Body. Acts 15:6-31


Acts 15:6 NASB "The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter." We see here how they are learning to resolve a doctrinal issue. They already have the revelation they need to make the decision they need to make. This is one of those great passages that counters a lot of the quasi mysticism that is in the church. We hear from a lot of people all the time who think that somehow God is going to tell them what to do in a decision-making situation. What God has said is He has given us His Word and we need to reflect upon His Word and ask Him to guide and direct us in understanding His Word. His Word is going to give us what we need to make those decisions. God is not giving new revelation or new information.

In this situation there is a doctrinal matter that they have to resolve and there are really two aspects to the problem they are facing. One is the doctrinal issue. Is circumcision, an aspect of obeying the Law, necessary for either salvation or the spiritual life? And then there is a second issue, which is a social issue. That is an important thing to talk about and something that isn't talked about a lot. It really goes into the area the apostle Paul talks about in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 regarding doubtful things because there is a social problem with the fact that there are observant Jews who are socially trained and culturally trained to observe the Law and the dietary restrictions of the Law. Now they are believers but they may not be looking at following those aspects of the Law as something related to either salvation or the spiritual life. But that is their background. It is the way they were raised and taught, and so to have Gentiles come in with practices that can cause offence is also a part of this dynamic. So there are two problems. One is a doctrinal problem, and the other is in the area of doubtful things and in a grey area of cultural and social issues.

This is going to be important. We will lay the groundwork a little bit for what we will see later on because this is something that hasn't been taught very well in a lot of congregations, and we have to remember that this is a transitional book, but when we get down the road to Acts 20 or 21 when Paul comes to Jerusalem and is observing a vow, following the Law, he is said to be someone who keeps the Law. What about the Jerusalem Council? What about what Paul said to Peter in Galatians 2? Why is Paul keeping the Law? He is keeping the Law, not for salvation or sanctification, but he is observing the Law because he is dealing with Jews for whom that is significant. And as Paul said, he tried to be all things to all people. In other words, he is not to intentionally be obnoxious or offensive to anyone and to take these things into account.

Most of the Jews throughout the community and in the Jerusalem church are still going to the temple which is still in existence, they are still observing a lot of the Jewish ritual calendar; but they are not doing it for the wrong reasons, they are doing it for social and cultural reasons. So we have to look at these two issues. First there is the theological side to the issue, in which the Law has no relevance, and then there is the cultural, historical side. They would still want observe Passover, that would be their Independence Day. They would remember Yom Kippur and with them as believers that would have special significance because they would understand that as having been fulfilled in Jesus. But they are not observing these things in the sense that they were necessary or added anything to their salvation or their spiritual life. Those are distinctions that are not made by too many people. 

The leadership that comes together here is described in terms of two groups, the apostles and the elders. The term "apostle" refers to the eleven (now twelve with Paul present) and the "elders," which refers to the pastors. When we get into the Greek New Testament there are three Greek words that are used to describe pastoral leadership. Over the course of church history these terms have been mis-defined, misused, and have come to represent some different traditions in churches as to how they govern themselves. We have the term "elders," the term "bishop," and the term "pastor" used to describe the same person.

There are other church traditions that have distinguished these. The Episcopal form of government from the Greek word for "bishop" is one where there are pastors in the area but one person was elevated over the pastor in that area and he became known by the end of the second century as the bishop over the other pastors in a geographical location. Later on, coming out of the Protestant Reformation, in reaction to the Episcopal form of government which was everything—the Roman Catholic church is an Episcopal form of government and the pope is the bishop of Rome over the entire universal church—there was the development of the Reformed churches and what became known as a plurality of elders or Presbyterian. In Presbyterian government the local church is usually divided into two groups, a group of elders and a group of deacons. Then in the Presbyterian denomination representatives from each congregation go to a higher group called a synod, which represents or oversees a number of different congregations.

Then there is what is usually referred to as Baptist government, which views the pastor as the elder, and again there is a board of deacons in a local church. It really doesn't matter what you call different functionaries in leadership positions in churches. Successful churches all basically follow the same pattern and it doesn't matter what you call them. Ultimately it doesn't matter what you call them because the successfully, well-organized churches tend to have the same leadership with different labels.

These words that are used in the Scripture for pastor, elder and bishop are seen to be synonymous. We see this by comparing scripture with scripture. Titus chapter one and 1 Timothy chapter three give basic, minimal qualifications for elders. In Titus 1:5 Paul introduces this to Titus: NASB "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you… [7] For the overseer [bishop] must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain." Bishop and elder both focus on the same person that is being appointed. In verse 5 we see the term "elder" or presbuteros, and this is synonymous with episkopos, "bishop." They refer to the same person.

In Acts 20:17, 28 which is part of the section which describes Paul's stop-over in Miletus we see [17] NASB "From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church… [28] Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [episkopos, bishop], to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." So they are called elders in verse 17, bishops in verse 28, but what do they do? They shepherd the church of God. The noun is poimenos, the verb is poimaino, meaning to shepherd.

Each one of these words tells us something different about the role of the leader, the pastor of a congregation. A practical reason for not believing in the plurality of elders is because there have been congregations where there were no men qualified to be elders. The episkopos looks at the leadership responsibility of the pastor. He is the leader of the congregation, the overseer. This is a word that was often used of a manager in a secular setting. poimenos emphasizes his function as the one who feeds the sheep. That is how he leads the sheep—through the feeding of the sheep. presbuteros emphasizes that he has a level of spiritual maturity—not necessarily physical maturity, but he should have a measure of spiritual maturity to lead the congregation. So one of the reasons these three different words are used is to give a fuller perspective of the leader. 

So in Acts 15:6 the terms apostles and elders are referencing the leaders of the local churches. They come together in order to look into, to investigate the matter. As they do that they are arguing, getting into some lively discussion, and this may have gone on for a couple of days as they are struggling to understand the Scripture, the concept of grace, and what has happened recently. Luke doesn't go into all of the debates, he just summarizes: "After there had been much debate." Then we get Peter's conclusion.

The thing to focus on is that the authority that they go to in this debate is the revelation of God. Part of that revelation is New Testament revelation that hasn't been enscripturated yet, and part of it is Old Testament revelation that has been enscripturated. It begins with Peter. 

Acts 15:7 NASB "After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, 'Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.'" And just as another note there were no women present. This isn't because women were second class citizens—which is what liberal progressives will tell us—or that God has no significant role for women in the body of Christ, but that God has reserved the leadership responsibility in the church to the men. This is made very clear in 1 Timothy 2:8ff where Paul prohibits Timothy from having women as teachers or as exercising any level of authority over men. Peter here is referring back to the events in Acts chapters 10 and 11. In those chapters Peter learned that God had opened the door to the Gentiles, and as a leader of the apostles he is the one whom God chose to do that. Here again we see that the only thing required for salvation is "believe"— "the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe." The issue that Peter emphasizes is hearing and believing. 

Acts 15:8 NASB "And God, who knows the heart …" This is the Greek word kardiognostes [kardio = heart; gnostes = know]. "… testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, God is validating them as equal participants in the body of Christ with Jews. They are no better and no worse, they have equal access to God through Jesus Christ with the Jews, there is no racial distinction as there had been in the Old Testament. So God acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, and here is the key: "just as He also did to us." The Jews and the Gentiles both enter into the body of Christ on the same condition, which is faith alone in Christ alone. It does not involve the Law.

Acts 15:9 NASB "and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith." The word "cleansing" is katharizo, a word to describe in this context positional cleansing that occurs at the instant of salvation. We are cleansed in the process of the baptism by the Holy Spirit as we are washed by regeneration and renewed by the ministry of God the Holy Spirit. The word "heart" refers to the inner man, the immaterial part of man.

Acts 15:10 "Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" He refers to the Gentile believers as disciples which shows that he has no doubt that they are saved. The word translated "test" is peirazo which has the idea of testing or trying God or, why do you put this additional burden on there? And he refers to the Law as a yoke, that which was heavy, made out of wood to join two oxen together to pull something, restricting their freedom. Paul uses the same phrase in Galatians 5:1 NASB "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." Paul is talking about those who apply the Law as necessary for sanctification. So both Paul and Peter use this idiom to refer to the Mosaic Law or the Torah as a yoke. This same metaphor is used to describe the Torah in the Mishnah. And even though rabbinic writings of the second temple period and later on were filled with a lot of praise for the glories and value of the Torah the average person really hated its burden. Not only that but they had so overloaded the Mosaic Law's 613 commandments with another 3-4000 commandments of their own from the Mishnah and even more from the Talmud. 

Acts 15:11 NASB "But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are." That is, without the Law. The Law is not relevant to salvation. Again, he is emphasizing that for Jew and Gentile the gospel is the same.

Side note: There have been some in the evangelical community who have sought a way to get Jews saved apart from faith in Jesus. This is sometimes called the two-covenant way of salvation.

Acts 15:12 NASB "All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. [13] After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, 'Brethren, listen to me.

[14] Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.'" He starts out by reviewing what the evidence is (Simon's) that God is taking out a people for His name from among the Gentiles. God has always had a people. He has had a remnant of Jews, He is now focusing on Gentiles. [15]  "With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written." He is now going to go to Old Testament revelation. Paul and Peter have both referred to the new revelation God has given them related to the church age but James is going to go back to Old Testament revelation. He is going to go to a passage from Amos.

There are several different passages he could go to in the prophets. That is why he is going to say in his introduction here, "With this the words of the Prophets agree."

There are four different ways in which Old Testament prophecies are cited as being fulfilled in the New Testament. The first is a literal prophecy that is fulfilled literally, such as in Matthew chapter two where we find a quote from Micah 5:2 that Jesus will be born in Bethlehem. The second is a type, and that is also depicted from Matthew chapter two when there is a quote that the passage is fulfilled that "out of Egypt I will call my people." Just as Israel came out of Egypt that type or picture is used to portray something that would occur in the life of Christ, where Joseph and Mary were told to flee because Herod was going to kill the babies. When they came back out of Egypt that is the fulfillment of a type. It is not a literal prophecy; it is a typical prophecy and a historical fulfillment. Then there is another category which is a historical statement with an application. The example of a historical statement with an application had to do with when Rachel was crying over her children. This refers to the mothers of Israel weeping as their sons and daughters were being hauled off in the Babylonian captivity. That was a literal historical event. That is later applied to the mothers of the infants that are slaughtered in Bethlehem. It wasn't a prophecy in the Old Testament at all, it just stated a historical fact, but it is used by application what is going on when the mothers were weeping over their slaughtered children at the time of Herod. Something is taken out of the Old Testament statement that is simply applied to the current situation. It is not saying it is a fulfillment of prophecy, only that there is something we learn from the Old Testament that validates what we are looking at right now.

"…the words of the Prophets agree." This is the Greek word sumphoneo, from which we get our English word "symphony," the harmony of things that come together. So all the words of the prophets harmonized. They all support this same idea is what James is saying. 

Acts 15:16 NASB " 'AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, [17] SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,' [18] SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM LONG AGO." The precise wording here does not fit the wording of the Masoretic Text. The apostles are often using their LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament where the wording differs a little bit from the Masoretic Text, and the words here differ from the what became the standard Septuagint text later on. What has been discovered from the Dead Sea scrolls is that there were a number of readings that were the exact same reading as this quote of James. It shows that he has just memorized one particular version of the LXX. The variants don't change the doctrine or the ideas at all, and so by quoting it it is just as valid and has the authorization of God the Holy Spirit. 

Amos 9:11, 12 NASB "In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, And wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins And rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom And all the nations who are called by My name," Declares the LORD who does this.

Sometimes the writers of the New Testament will quote this much from the Hebrew text of the Old Testament and they are just emphasizing one word or one phrase, but they give the whole context giving one or two verses. That is the case here. He is just zeroing in on part of what is said in the middle of Amos 9:12—"all the nations [Gentiles] who are called by my name." The implication of that statement that Amos is drawing out is that God has a plan to save a vast number of Gentiles as well. It is not only a Jewish remnant in the messianic kingdom or in God's plan for the future but there is a Gentile remnant as well. God is not restricting His soteriological plan to Jews. The point that this shows is that part of the kingdom in the future is going to be made up of Gentiles, so there is no problem with Gentiles being included in this dispensation either.

There are some people who come along and say rebuilding the tabernacle of David is a reference to the Davidic lineage. And that part of it is true. The tabernacle of David is just a way of referring to the Davidic line that ceased when Zedekiah was taken off the throne 586 BC. Jesus is the descendant of David and He will fulfill those Davidic covenant promises. But they go on to say that the church is this rebuilding of the tabernacle of David. But that misses the whole point. That is a non-literal interpretation. The tabernacle of David refers to the house and lineage of David and the church doesn't fulfill that. Jesus fulfills that and that will occur in the future. This is used to support what is called "replacement theology" which is a way of saying God no longer has a plan for the Jews, He only has a plan for the Gentiles. 

James concludes: Acts 15:19 NASB "Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles." There are two important words here. The first is the word "trouble." The Greek word is parenochleo which means to trouble, to annoy, to add extra trouble to somebody or to harass them. He is viewing this as if they are just harassing these Gentiles because they don't have their Jewish background. Why do we want to harass all these Gentile men by making them get circumcised? These Gentiles are "turning to God"—epistrepho. Remember there are two different words that are used in the Greek for different aspects of the turning: epistrepho means to turn, to change direction; metanoeo means to change your mind. They are the counterparts of the Hebrew shub [turn, as epistrepho] and nacham [repent]. You would first change your mind and then change direction. So epistrepho is a broader based word that covers everything, including metanoeo (repent).

On a spectrum is would be like this. You repent (change your mind about something), then you turn, and then you end up believing. So somebody who believes has changed their mind and they've turned. It is just assumed that that would be part of the process. Some times people get wrapped around the axles and ask: Do you have to repent in order to be saved? Yes, and no. If we understand it right it doesn't mean you repent from your sins, but it is not a stated condition. If you can be saved from reading the Gospel of John which says that "these things [the Gospel of John] were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life through His name." John never mentions the word "repent." But repent is also a sort of sub-text in belief. If you go from believing one thing to something else you have turned, you have changed your mind. In that sense it is a sub-text. But it really often creates a non-issue of argument. 

The fourth things they have to do: Acts 15:20 NASB "but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols …" This is the area of doubtful things that we run into in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. Paul says there is nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols because the idols are nothing, the meat hasn't been tainted or anything, but that may bother some people. So for conscience sake don't do something offensive to people if they are not mature enough or knowledgeable enough to understand the issues. That is a social issue, not a doctrinal issue.  "… and from fornication [sexual immorality] and from what is strangled and from blood." Under the Mosaic Law animals were not suppose to be eaten if they were strangled. They were to drain the blood.

Sexual immorality here doesn't refer to fornication. This is the Greek word porneia, a very broad word, and it was also used to apply to illegitimate marriages according to the Mosaic Law. That usually meant someone who was a kissing cousin, too closely related according to Jewish Law. These are not doctrinal issues here. They have already solved the doctrinal issues: they don't need to obey the Law to be saved or to be sanctified. But it is a good idea if you are going to socialize with Jews not to offend them, so we just think it is a good idea that you avoid certain things. 

So the issue they come down to is in the grey areas. It is not related to doctrine, it is related to the fact that if you are going top socialize with Jews then you need to be socially acceptable to Jews who may not understand grace as well as you. That is their point.