ACTS - CHAPTER 15
Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
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
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
With this by way of a very
brief introduction, we will now begin our study of chapter 15.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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
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.
“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
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.
“And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this
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.
“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.
“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
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
“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
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.
“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
“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
As noted verse 6, the whole
church appears to have been present, but not necessarily taking part in the
discussion. Spiritual men deal with
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
“And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, 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
“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
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
“... saith the Lord, who
doeth all these things.” Everything
that happens advances God’s plan for the ultimate blessing of the whole creation.
“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.
“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.
“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,
“... 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.
“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.
“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
“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.
“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
“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
“Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus
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.
“We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall tell you the same things
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.
“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
“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
“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.
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
“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.
“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.
“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).
“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
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
“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
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.
“And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.”
“But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them
from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.”
“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;”
“And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto
the grace of God.”
“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
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
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