For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2001 James Melough

This chapter marks the beginning of a great turning point in the history of the Church.  Hitherto the converts to Christianity had been virtually all Jews, but the church in Antioch consisted mainly of Gentiles, and the proliferation of these Gentile assemblies throughout the whole region of Galatia, combined with an increasing rejection of the gospel by Israel, was fast placing Jewish believers in the minority.  These Jewish Christians still observed the requirements of the Levitical law, and as already discussed, that was proper for Jewish believers during the period between AD 32 and AD 70 during which the millennial kingdom was still being offered to Israel.  It was not, however, the order ordained by God for Gentile believers, either during those thirty-eight years or in any part of the Church age.

In spite of much discussion among commentators as to why at least some of the Jewish believers were so intent on imposing the Jewish order on their Gentile brethren, the simple fact remains that Israel’s day of grace was drawing to a close.  The nation’s rejection of Christ had exhausted God’s patience, with the result that they were about to become the objects of His judgment.  In patient grace He had borne with them, and since the Levitical order is to govern the worship of the nations in the Millennium, He had permitted believing Jews to continue using that order, but foreknowing their forfeiture of the millennial kingdom, He had established a separate order for believing Gentiles, so that in the thirty-eight years from AD 32 till AD 70 there were two separate streams of Christianity, one Jewish, the other Gentile, each with its own order of worship.  The passage of time had brought diminishing numbers of Jewish converts and increasing numbers of Gentile believers, and with the establishment of the Gentile church in Antioch, and ever increasing numbers of other Gentile churches throughout the area, the time had come for God to prepare the way for the end of the Jewish order, and the establishment of the Gentile order of worship for Jew and Gentile alike.

The attempted imposition of the Jewish order on the whole Church, which resulted in the convening of the council in Jerusalem, and the decision of that council not to impose the Jewish order on the Gentile believers, is just another example of the truth that God in His sovereignty can permit men to use their free will, and still unwittingly accomplish His purposes.

It is doubtful whether many, or in fact any, of the believers of that day, were aware of the momentous issues that were to result from that decision of the Jerusalem council.  Had Israel but known it, it was the death knell of her hope of having the millennial kingdom until a day still future, but now imminent.  The unbelieving nation was about to fulfill the type of the generation which refused to enter Canaan in the days of Moses, a refusal which condemned that generation to die out in the following thirty-eight years (less than two years had elapsed since they had left Egypt), while their children, a new generation, grew up and inherited the blessings forfeited by the unbelief of their fathers.  History was about to repeat itself.  This other unbelieving generation “died out” in the thirty-eight years between AD 32 and AD 70, while a new generation, the believing Gentiles and a believing remnant of Israel “grew up” and inherited even better blessings than those forfeited by Jewish unbelief.       

With this by way of a very brief introduction, we will now begin our study of chapter 15.

15:1.  “And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” 

Circumcision was an outward mark ordained for Israel,  symbolizing the cutting off of the deeds of the flesh, but as Paul points out in Ro 2:25-29, true circumcision is that which is of the heart, “For he is not a Jew which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”

Man will not accept the gift provided by grace.  He must do something, for the natural man cannot grasp the truth that faith alone is all that is needed for salvation, nor can he understand that to make works a necessary part of salvation is to declare the inadequacy of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The error of such false teaching is refuted by the fact that the instant a man trusts in Christ, he is saved, the proof being that he is instantly indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  All the law-keeping in the world can’t make him any more saved.

These “certain men” who brought this false teaching to Antioch, are described in Ga 2:4 as, “false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ, that they might bring us into bondage,” and that they were false brethren seems to be confirmed in Ac 15:24 where the apostles and elders in Jerusalem wrote of them, “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.”

15:2.  “When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they (the church) determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” 

“Dissension” is allied to the thought of standing against,  uproar, uprising, insurrection, strife; while disputation is connected with the thought of questioning, debate, discussion.  This was no placid “peace at any price” discussion, and it teaches that we are not to sit passively silent while error is imposed.

The decision that Paul and Barnabas and others should go up to Jerusalem about this question, was evidently to determine whether the views of those who had come to Antioch from Jerusalem were in fact the views of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.  It may not be inferred from this that the elders at Jerusalem had any authority over the church in Antioch or anywhere else.  They didn’t, nor does the authority of the elders in any church extend beyond that church.  In those early days when the church was in its infancy and the canon of Scripture incomplete, the apostles had authority over all the churches, but with the passing of the apostles, and the completion of the canon of Scripture, God’s order for the Church age is that each church is autonomous, its elders being responsible only to the Lord Jesus Christ, and having no authority beyond the local church over which the Holy Spirit has placed them as overseers.  Nor does Scripture know anything of a presiding or head elder, or of the appointment of anyone as “the pastor” of a church.

Having seen no better summation of the situation than that given by F.W. Grant in The Numerical Bible I quote him, “Behind these persons from Judea looms the shadow of Jerusalem and the twelve, the primal seat of authority; and in fact it is of God that this matter shall be settled there, so that there may be no possibility of cavil any more.  Jerusalem is to be the place of settlement, just because the Jewish yoke is to be finally and for ever taken off the necks of the Gentiles, and no other hands could do it so well.  It is an act of abdication of supposed rights that is to be accomplished, and those must do this who are thought to have the rights.  After all, the decision really is that God has settled the matter, and that they have nothing to do but to bow to what He has done.”

15:3.  “And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.”  

Their being brought on their way by the church is generally taken to mean that the church financed the trip, and perhaps furnished also an escort.

Chapter 11:19 indicates that these to whom they brought the good news were Jews.  Their joy at hearing the good news of the conversion of the Gentiles is in marked contrast with the general indifference evinced by the average professed Christian today in response to the news of conversions. 

Paul’s deep love for his own people, however, prompts the question of whether his joy wasn’t tinged with at least some measure of sadness, for there can be little doubt that he was aware that these Gentile conversions heralded the end of Israel’s day of grace, and the approach of her foretold judgment.

15:4.  “And 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 (through) them.” 

Its being said that “they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders” indicates that all or most of the believers welcomed them; but if, as is generally believed, this is the same occasion as described in Gal 2, then verse 2 of that chapter makes it clear that they had first had a private meeting with the apostles and elders.

They took no credit for anything connected with the great work being done among the Gentiles, for they knew that they were but God’s instruments.  It would be for the blessing of His people today if all of us were imbued with that same spirit of humility.

15:5.  “But 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.”

It is emphasized that these Pharisees were believers, but having been accustomed all their lives to believe that salvation was to be obtained only by keeping the law of Moses, it was difficult for them to grasp either the principle or the magnitude of grace, which provides salvation without works.  The struggle of these converted Pharisees will be better understood when we look at Christendom today and see its bondage to the same erroneous belief.  The idea of salvation without works is not easily grasped.  It is hard to learn that we can do nothing to save ourselves, except trust in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Circumcision speaks of giving up; the law of Moses speaks of doing good works.  Salvation is neither by giving up nor by doing, but by believing.

15:6.  “And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.” 

Verse 12 indicates that all, or at least the majority of the believers were present, but it was the leaders, i.e., the apostles and elders who engaged in the discussion of the problem, for clearly only those of mature spiritual discernment are fit to handle such matters.  Christianity is not a democracy where everything is done by vote, that of the novice and the carnal having the same weight as that of the mature spiritual believer.  Spiritual matters are to be dealt with by spiritual men.

15:7.  “When there had been much disputing (debate), Peter rose up, and said unto them, 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.”

He identifies himself, not as the apostle to the Gentiles, but as the one who would first bring them the Gospel, even though he was the apostle to the Jews; and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, Ga 2:7.  They were already aware of his call to bring the gospel to the Jews, but they were also aware that he had been used of God to take the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius, as recorded in chapter 10:45.  (The “good while ago” is generally believed to have been about 15 years earlier).

God’s foreknowledge is involved in all of this, as it is in everything else.  He knew that many Gentiles would believe, and His using Peter, the apostle to the Jews, and not Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, to bring the Gospel to the first Gentile converts, is in accord with His principle that He has ordained the Jew to be His channel of blessing to the nations; and here, even though as a nation she was about to forfeit those blessings, she is the instrument used to confer them on the Gentiles.  It is sad that she herself by her disobedience should with her own hand transfer those blessings to the Gentiles.  God’s blessings will not go unused.  Others will seize eagerly what is rejected or forfeited by the disobedience of those to whom they were first offered.  The judgment seat of Christ, it is to be feared, will reveal that many of us have failed to profit by Israel’s folly.  We have rejected, or forfeited by disobedience, many opportunities to inherit eternal blessings.

It is ominously significant that this is the last mention of Peter’s activity, his disappearance from the divine record being the foreshadowing of God’s casting off the nation to which he had been made the apostle in the gospel.

15:8.  “And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;”

15:9.  “And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.”

The proof that believing Gentiles had received exactly the same new life as had believing Jews, was attested by the fact that in the house of Cornelius God gave them also the Holy Spirit, as recorded in 10:44-47, “... the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.  And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.  For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.  Then answered Peter, can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?”

There is no difference between the Jew and the Gentile, either as to need, or as to the method of salvation.  Faith in Christ as Savior saves Jew and Gentile alike. 

Relative to their having spoken in tongues, see notes on 10:46.

Stress is laid here on the fact that the definitive proof of conversion was the possession of the Holy Spirit, the evidence of His indwelling being the ability of the convert to speak in known languages other than his native tongue, but without his having learnt them.  As already discussed, that was the proof of conversion for the Jewish age only, and there is no evidence of its having continued after AD 70.  But a fact also related to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and unfortunately taken little account of today, is another equally valid evidence of a genuine conversion: the ability of the professed convert to understand spiritual things, at least in some measure.  Immaturity and carnality will veil that ability in varying degrees, but where a professed convert fails to comprehend any spiritual teaching, his profession is suspect, hence the need for elders to watch carefully for signs that there is at least some measure of comprehension on the part of those they teach.

It is instructive to consider also the reason for God’s making tongues an evidence of conversion in the early apostolic age: it was to enable the converts to be His witnesses in the gospel, and at least one lesson to be learnt from this is that it is the responsibility of every believer to be a witness for Him today also.

“... purifying their hearts by faith.”  The ancients believed the heart and kidneys to be the seat of the intelligence, for example,  “For as he (man) thinketh in his heart, so is he,” Pr 23:7.  Conversion should affect a man’s thinking, as it is written, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,” Ro 12:2; and again, “And be renewed in the spirit of your mind,” Ep 4:23; “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus...” Php 2:5.  Mere outward form isn’t good enough.  The change must be in the mind; hence the worthlessness of insisting upon outward Jewish ordinances.  The Jews, with these outward signs, weren’t saved, so of what use to impose such things on the Gentiles?  “... for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart,” 1 Sa 16:7

15:10.  “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?” 

They were testing God’s patience by imposing an unbearable burden that He hadn’t appointed.  His purpose in giving the law was not to have men get to heaven by keeping it, but to show them that man was utterly incapable of meeting its requirements, that revelation being designed to lead them to cast themselves on His mercy, and accept eternal life as His priceless gift given by grace, and not the reward of worthless works. 

The Jews, refusing to admit that they couldn’t keep God’s holy law, had sought to reduce it to an attainable standard by imposing upon it a mountain of misinterpretations and laws of their own making, and now wanted to place that same yoke on the necks of Gentile believers who were justified by their acceptance of God’s gift of grace. The only yoke to be on the neck of the believer is that of the Lord Jesus Christ, as He Himself declared in Mt 11:28-30, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

It is to be noted that Christ’s yoke is connected with learning - learning more about Him.  The disobedience of ignorance brings the same loss of peace as does wilful disobedience.  There is no excuse for ignorance.  We are to study the Word so that we grow in grace and knowledge, see 2 Pe 3:18, “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”; 1 Pe 2:2, “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk f the word, that ye may grow thereby”; He 5:12-14, “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again ... and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.  For everyone that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.  But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”

The yoke is that which enables the ox to serve the master, and it chafes only when the ox attempts to rebel.  Knowledge is the yoke that enables us to serve, and with obedience the yoke sits comfortably and lightly, for the Lord’s burden is light.  But disobedience adds to the burden the additional restraint of the Master’s preserving hand, so that then the yoke becomes heavy and chafes the neck.  When a pure, renewed, instructed mind is governing thought, speech and conduct, the Lord’s yoke will be light.

This matter of law-keeping is linked with God’s knowing the heart, verse 8, and with the yoke.  Jewish law-keeping produced right speech and conduct - what man saw; but the mind, which God saw, was corrupt.  They were hypocrites.  Outward form isn’t enough.  There must be a transformed mind.  Then speech and conduct will not be hypocritical, but the true expression of the renewed mind.  The purifying of the heart (mind), verse 9 is what is essential.  

There is the danger of our repeating the error of the Jews  by imposing upon others mere human restrictions.

15:11.  “But we believe that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.”

Peter continues to emphasize that for the Jew as well as the Gentile, salvation is all of grace, i.e., God’s bestowing undeserved blessing.   (The better translation of this verse is, “we are saved,” or “we have been saved”).

15:12.  “Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.”

As noted verse 6, the whole church appears to have been present, but not necessarily taking part in the discussion.  Spiritual men deal with spiritual matters. 

The mention of Barnabas before Paul is generally believed to have been just because he was better known to the assembled company.

The proof that salvation for Jew and Gentile alike is by grace (God’s part), through faith (man’s part), is declared in that the very same miracles and wonders that had accompanied the preaching of the gospel to the Jews, accompanied also its preaching to the Gentiles.  And again God was given all the credit: Barnabas and Paul were but instruments He had graciously been pleased to use. 

While the signs and wonders certified that it was still a Jewish age, the diminishing Jewish, but multiplying Gentile converts - all exempt from observing any of the Levitical ritual - certified with equal certainty that the Jewish age was about to end, though it is doubtful whether anyone then realized it.  Nor is it different today.  A diminishing response to the gospel is only one of many signs that this present age is also about to end.

15:13.  “And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:”

15:14.  “Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.”

15:15.  “And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,”

15:16.  “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:”

15:17.  “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.”

Whether this James was the Lord’s brother is open to question, but even if he was, it doesn’t mean that he had any special authority.  He was simply the spokesman for the Jerusalem church.  No elder is superior to another, nor has one authority over another. 

He was obviously convinced by Peter’s rehearsal of how the Gentiles had been saved in exactly the same way as the believing Jews, that all of this was indeed of God. 

“... at the first,” refers to the conversion of Cornelius. 

The Holy Spirit brought to his mind the Scriptures that had foretold this very thing, and now by quoting Amos 9:11-12 he reminded the audience of what is written in those Scriptures.

The verses quoted from Amos appear to speak of the millennial blessing of Israel, the foretold outcalling of the Gentiles being that which will occur in the Millennium rather than during this present age.  But, as already discussed, Israel could have had the millennial kingdom two thousand years ago, and there is little question that that was the expectation of the believing Jews in the early apostolic age.  It is therefore the same with this prophecy of Amos as with that of Joel.  The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was a partial fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.  The complete fulfillment would have come in just seven years (the Tribulation era), and was hindered only by the refusal of Israel as a nation to accept the Lord Jesus Christ.  Similarly, this conversion of the Gentiles was a partial fulfillment of the prophecy of Amos, the complete fulfillment being hindered also by Israel’s unbelief.

It is to be remembered that the gospel preached by the Lord was to Israel only, and it called upon the nation to repent and believe in order to have the millennial kingdom, with only His sin-atoning death and the seven years of the Tribulation to intervene.  While certainly the Lord’s words in Mt 24 should have prepared them to expect the Tribulation, it is possible that they understood the persecution that began with the martyrdom of Stephen, to be the fulfillment of that warning.   They apparently didn’t know that Israel’s unbelief was not only going to postpone the inauguration of the kingdom, but that it would result in the outcalling of the Gentiles to inherit, not millennial, but eternal spiritual blessings, that outcalling being extended for what has now been two thousand years.

It is after the completion of the outcalling of the Gentiles, i.e., the completion of the Church, that God will resume His dealings with Israel, leading a remnant to repentance in the Tribulation, and then bringing that believing remnant into the Millennium as the new nation of Israel.  The “residue of men” is literally “those remaining,” and very clearly they have to be the believing remnant of Israel remaining alive on the earth following the terrible Tribulation judgments, and the Lord’s judgment of the nations at the end of that era just prior to His inauguration of the millennial kingdom, that judgment resulting in the banishment into hell of all the surviving unbelievers.  The believing Jewish survivors will be “remaining ones” in the sense that they will remain after the Tribulation and Christ’s judgment of the nations; and that they are Jewish is certified by the fact that the other survivors who will also enter the Millennium, are described as “the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called.”

“... saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.”  Everything that happens advances God’s plan for the ultimate blessing of the whole creation.

15:18.  “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.”

Unlike men, God never has to react to any situation.  Every circumstance is not only foreknown, but is also under His control, and is used for the accomplishment of His purposes.  His great plan of redemption was conceived long before the earth or man was created.

15:19.  “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:”

Obviously he wasn’t just expressing his own personal opinion, but that of all the apostles and elders, and it is equally clear that it was the Holy Spirit Who had been responsible for that unanimous decision, He, as God, knowing that Israel’s national existence was soon to end, and that following that dissolution, believing Jews and Gentiles, without national distinction, would be incorporated into the Church, the mystical body of which Christ is the Head, that church being a mystery hitherto unrevealed, except symbolically in Scripture, as declared by Paul in Col 1:26-27, “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

His use of the word “trouble” indicates the evil that would have resulted from imposing on believing Gentiles the requirements of a law which could only condemn, but not save.

15:20.  “But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.”

“... pollutions of idols” is generally understood to refer primarily to food that had been offered to idols, but also to include anything that might have had any connection with idols.  It is to be remembered that Judaism and Christianity were two tiny islands in a great sea of idolatry, for the nations all around them were idolaters, and these Gentile Christians, having been idolaters, would be in particular need of separating themselves from everything pertaining to that Satanic worship.

This may have more practical relevance than we think, for we also may make idols of money, pleasure, ease, knowledge, etc.

“... and from fornication.”  This was a social evil, and a common practice in connection with the gross immorality that accompanied idol worship.  But again the reference may be to the fact that literal fornication represents love of anything more than Christ.  It speaks of spiritual unfaithfulness.

“... from things strangled, and from blood.”  These two things are closely related.  God’s ordained mode of slaughter was to cut the throat of the animal or bird, and pour out the blood, that pouring out being the symbolic acknowledgment that the life of the flesh is in the blood, and all life belongs to God Who alone can give life.  Strangulation left the blood in the carcase, and thus symbolically denied God’s claim upon life.

The proscription of blood as man’s food is also to remind us that “The life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.  Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood,” Le 17:11-12.  Since the blood represents the life, and God is the Giver of life, He has a claim on man’s life, abstention from eating blood being man’s token acknowledgment of that truth.  As someone has said, “The life of the spirit can’t be sustained by that which is the life of the flesh.”  It is by virtue of Christ’s precious blood shed at Calvary that we have spiritual life, and God sets such a value on that blood that He would guard it from even the possible appearance of common use.

15:21.  “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.”

“... thus keeping alive in every Jew those feelings which such practices would shock, and which, therefore, the Gentile converts must carefully respect if the oneness of both classes in Christ was to be practically preserved” is the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown comment on this verse, and it appears to be correct.

William MacDonald adds the further apt comment, “Why then should the Gentiles offend God by committing immorality, or offend man by doing the other things?”

Regarding things not morally wrong, such as eating flesh that had been sacrificed to idols, and not proscribed by God, Romans 14, 1 Cor 8, and 1 Cor 10 should be studied, the essence of those chapters being that Christian liberty is not to be exercised if there is the possibility that by that exercise offence might be given to another, believer and unbeliever alike.  We should be careful that the exercise of Christian liberty doesn’t result in damage to our own testimony, for then God is dishonored, and the cause of Christ impugned.

15:22.  “Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren:” 

It must have been an occasion of great joy to all, that a problem having such widespread harmful potential should have been resolved amicably, and apparently unanimously, to the glory of God.

Judas and Silas appear to have been elders (the word “chief” indicates ruler), highly esteemed by their brethren, and their being sent to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas and the others, was undoubtedly to add further verification to the decision which was being put into writing.

15:23.  “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:” 

“... after this manner” makes it clear that only a brief summary of the letter is given here, the original obviously being more detailed.

The decision was put in writing, because the spoken word is easily changed, and there was to be no changing of this edict.  Any doubt as to the make-up of these two churches is settled here: Jerusalem was Jewish; Antioch, Gentile, and there was a different order appointed for each, the Jewish order to continue for only a few more years, until AD 70, after which the Gentile order would govern the life of the Church until the Rapture, following which God will resume His dealings with Israel. 

15:24.  “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:”  

This seems to confirm that those who had gone to Antioch with this wrong doctrine, were indeed unbelievers.  Here they are not called brethren, but in Ga 2:4, “false brethren, brought in unawares.”  There is need of care on the part of the elders to ensure, as far as is possible, that those seeking fellowship are born again, and are sound in doctrine.  Failure to exercise that care can have far reaching results.

“... subverting your souls,” is literally “unsettling your minds,” that is, attempting to move their minds off the solid foundation that salvation is by grace through faith, and apart from law keeping.

“... to whom we gave no such commandment.”  These men were acting without having been commanded by God, and the seriousness of such sin is demonstrated in that Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, were instantly stricken dead for the same folly, see Le 10:1-2.  We should be very sure that all we do is by God’s command, for much evil comes of self-willed action.

15:25.  “It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,”

It is uncertain whether the “one accord” refers to their having come together “with common purpose of heart” (Knox), or to their having come to a unanimous decision.  It may possibly mean both.  Unfortunately there is not always unanimity, and in more than one assembly, failure to achieve it is the result of a minority’s determination to have its way - right or wrong - with the result that either nothing is done, or the will of the dissenting minority governs the assembly.  Where there is dissent among the elders relative to a decision, there should be careful waiting upon God for the clear revelation of His will; but where there is continual opposition from a minority, and no clear scriptural basis for their dissent, it may indicate an irreparable division that will widen and further damage the whole assembly.  In such an unfortunate situation it may be necessary to face the fact, and agree to make the division also physical, for if it is there spiritually, the outward unity is simply a facade.

Unlike those who had caused the trouble, the men now being sent were “chosen,” i.e., they were recognized by the apostles and elders as godly men who were to be trusted.

“...with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,” indicates the high esteem in which they were held by the Jerusalem church.

15:26.  “Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

In our western society there is little likelihood that any one of us will be called upon to risk his life for the sake of the gospel, or even to suffer persecution, but the sad truth is that most of us are so unwilling to risk being laughed at or thought fools, that we refuse to even give a tract to someone!  There are places in the world, however, where believers do seal their testimony with their blood, and surely their faithfulness ought to rebuke our cowardice.  Do we forget that we must all stand one day at Christ’s judgment seat, and render an account of our stewardship?  Here on earth we can choose whether, for His sake to accept shame, and the eternal reward that goes with it; but at the Bema there will be no choice - no escaping the shame, no retrieval of the lost reward.

15:27.  “We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall tell you the same things by mouth.” 

The written word was to be confirmed verbally, and while here in the present context the confirmation relates to doctrine, we should remember that verbal confession is also an essential confirmation of salvation, as it is written, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved,” Ro 10:9.

It seems that Judas and Silas were being sent so that they could answer questions and supply details not covered in the letter.

15:28.  “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;”

It is to be noted that the decision was good first to the Holy Spirit, and then to them, and it should never be otherwise.  All too often, however, it is otherwise: He is expected to accept what we think good, and to bless it, without His ever having been  consulted, and in spite of the fact that it is often contrary to God’s Word.

As to the necessity of the things enjoined: it was to ensure that there would be no offence either to God or man.

15:29.  “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.”

The repetition of the things from which they were to abstain, appears to be to emphasize the importance of the injunction.

15:30.  “So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle:”

On this return journey from Jerusalem to Antioch there is no mention of their stopping to visit assemblies, as they had done on the way to Jerusalem, and this may be to teach us that once God has spoken, there is to be no delay in obeying?  Even such a worthy work as ministry must not be permitted to hinder or delay the obedience of the Antiochan believers.

While “multitude” usually refers to “an enormous crowd,” the meaning here is more correctly “the congregation” without any indication of size, though it does seem to have been a large one.

15:31.  “Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.”

And well might they rejoice!  There could have been no better news than that salvation is by grace through faith, and apart from law keeping.

15:32.  “And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.”

Their being prophets assures us that it was still a Jewish age, and that the canon of Scripture was still incomplete, for with the completion of that canon the prophetic office ceased, there being no further need of it, God’s will, and the revelation of Himself, now being given in the written Word.

“Exhorted” is used here in the sense of consoling, encouraging, urging to obedience; and “confirmed” means “strengthened” them in their faith.

15:33.  “And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles.”

“... unto the apostles,” means that they returned to Jerusalem, for the apostles had remained there following the death of Stephen, see 8:1, and the Church there seems to have flourished in the interval.  Its being said that they returned “unto the apostles,” indicates the importance of the apostles, further verification of their importance being furnished in Eph 2:19-20, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.”  (It has to be understood that it was the doctrine they taught, and not the apostles and prophets themselves, who were the foundation of the Church.  The Lord Jesus Christ is the only Foundation, as he is also “the chief cornerstone” of the Church).

15:34.  “Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still.”

The apparent contradiction between this and verse 33, together with its absence from some manuscripts, has led some to reject it’s legitimacy; but the contradiction may be more imagined than real.  Their being “let go” may very well mean that the Antiochan brethren, aware that the two had been away from their homes in Jerusalem for a considerable time, simply assured them that they should feel free to return home, and that Judas availed himself of that permission, while Silas choose to remain longer in Antioch.  The “notwithstanding” of this verse appears to lend support to this interpretation, as does the “also” of the next verse, “Paul also ... continued in Antioch.”

15:35.  Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.”

The “teaching” refers to the teaching of doctrine, while “preaching” places the emphasis on the proclamation of the good news of the gospel.  New converts need to be taught sound doctrine, and the unconverted need to hear the gospel.  In a healthy assembly there should also be both, the “with many others” reminding us that the preaching of the gospel is not just the work of a special few: each of us is responsible to spread that same good news, the moribund state of many local churches today being directly attributable to failure to obey the Lord’s command, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,” Mk 16:15.

The variety of teachers and workers ought to remind us that Scripture knows nothing of the one man ministry system entrenched in Christendom.  Variety is essential.  The Holy Spirit does not reveal all truth to any one man, nor does Scripture offer any evidence that any believer receives more than one spiritual gift, the apostles being the unique exception.

15:36.  “And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.”

This reminds us of the need to provide continuing care for converts.  Just as a new born baby can’t manage on its own, neither can a “babe in Christ.”  He requires to be cared for until he achieves maturity, and with some that process takes longer than with others. 

15:37.  “And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.”

15:38.  “But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.”

15:39.  “And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;”

15:40.  “And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God.”

15:41.  “And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.”

John Mark was Barnabas’ nephew, and the first mention of him is in Ac 12:12 where we learn that the prayer meeting for the deliverance of Peter was held in the home of Mary, John Mark’s mother.  In the same chapter, verse 25 it is recorded that he accompanied Paul and Barnabas when they returned from Jerusalem after having delivered the gift sent to the saints there by the believers in Macedonia.  The next we read of him is in Ac 13:3 when he went with Paul and Barnabas following their commendation to the work by the believers in Antioch, it being recorded in verse 5 of that chapter that, “... they had also John (Mark) to (as) their minister (or assistant).”  In verse 13 of that chapter, however, it is recorded that he left them and returned to Jerusalem, and it was that separation from them that led to the separation between Paul and Barnabas recorded in our next verse. 

In 13:13 his departure from them, and his return to Jerusalem, are mentioned without any comment as to whether he was wrong in leaving them, but the word “depart” is associated with the idea of desertion.  The difficulty of deciding the question is further complicated by its being recorded by Paul years later during his first imprisonment, in Col 4:10, “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner saluteth you, and Marcus (John Mark) sister’s son to Barnabas, (touching whom ye received commandments: if he come unto you, receive him,” for this would indicate that Paul and he had been reconciled.  In Paul’s letter to Philemon, verse 24, he is also included in the list of those who were with Paul and who sent greetings to Philemon; and in his second letter to Timothy 4:11 Paul writes, “Only Luke is with me.  Take Mark (John Mark), and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”

Paul’s thinking “it not good to take him with them” has never been explained to the satisfaction of everyone, so we must leave it.  It teaches, however, that godly men may have sharp disagreements, and since only one can be right, it warns of the need to be certain that our views are such as God can approve.  Others have pointed out that since there was kinship between Barnabas and John Mark, fleshly considerations may have influenced Barnabas in making what should have been a purely spiritual decision.  Such considerations have no place in spiritual matters.  Paul’s eventual acceptance of Mark, however, shows that even if Mark had been wrong, he had recovered himself.  One error need not be the end of fruitful service. 

Omitted from verse 39 relative to the departure of Barnabas and Mark (John Mark) to Cyprus, is the mention of their “being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God,” while this is recorded relative to the departure of Paul and Silas in verse 40,  some construing this as evidence that Barnabas was in the wrong. The fact that this is the last Scriptural mention of Barnabas seems to also confirm the view that he may have been wrong.

Sadly it is not recorded that this rift between these two great men was ever healed, and the comment of Jamieson, Faucett, and Brown is worth quoting, “How watchful does all this teach Christians ... to be against giving way to rash judgment and hot temper towards each other, especially where on both sides the glory of Christ is the ground of difference!”

[Acts 16]


     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough