Facing the Extremists

Acts of the Apostles for Today
STUDY 8 – Facing the Extremists - Acts 15
The Jerusalem Council
Acts 15:1-11
The early church is faced with deciding how much of Judaism Gentiles ned to practice.  Paul & Barnabas go as delegates to a council called to decide the issue.
Antioch in Syria receives some visitors who begin teaching that circumcision is essential for salvation (v1). These Jewish Christians from Judea may have heard from Mark about the Gentiles coming to faith in large numbers (13:13) and were anxious to reassert the place of Judaism among all the believers. The teaching about circumcision was not simply about submitting to a physical operation but had implications about their respect for Jewish law as a whole. Paul and Barnabas opposed this vehemently (v2) and it is obvious a major disagreement has erupted. Only a full-scale debate can settle the matter, and Paul and Barnabas are sent with a delegation to Jerusalem (v2b).
As they travelled they told what God was doing among the Gentiles (gathering support for their case?) and in the course of their 300 mile journey made many churches excited by stories of God's power (v3). Their arrival in Jerusalem was warmly welcomed by the church, and a preliminary report of their missionary work was shared (v4).
When the Council begins in earnest, representatives of the teachers who had been in Antioch restate their position (v5 cf. v1). No doubt a variety of views were expressed and then the leadership withdrew to consider the matter (v6). 'After much (heated?) discussion' (v7) Peter stands up to make a major contribution to the debate. He argues against the 'Pharisee party' Christians (verse 5a) and in favour of Paul and Barnabas. His argument is based on two principles: 1) his own experience and 2) a theological truth - salvation is only through Jesus.
God has already shown His commitment to the Gentiles through Peter’s ministry to Cornelius (vv 7b-9 cf. 10:9-48).  This incident (though perhaps ten years before) was known to everyone, and had been approved at time (cf. 11:18). In addition, the message had always been about Jesus and turning to Him as the sole provider of salvation (4:12); to add the Jewish law as a requirement would be a 'yoke' (v10) that would result in bondage. Peter ends with the clear assertion that both Jews and Gentiles are 'saved' in exactly the same way - through Jesus (v11 cf John 14:6b)'God does not distinguish between Jew and Gentile, shows no favouritism (v9 cf 10:34 35) and accepts everyone on the same basis: faith on their part (v9), grace on God's part (v11).
Questions to consider
·         Do we add things to the simple gospel message? What do people need to believe to be part of our church?
·         Is Jesus really the only way to God? What about other religions? Or being a nice person? Or doing your best?
·         Notice the powerful combination of personal testimony and clear; principle (vv7-11). Why are these so convincing together? What does this tell us about the value of a clear testimony and a good grasp of the arguments in favour of Christianity?

The Council Concludes

Acts 15:12-21
Peter's speech is followed by testimony from Paul and Barnabas, and a 'summing up' from James. A momentous decision is made - Gentiles are not bound by the Law.
After Peter's crucial speech (vv 7-11) the assembly grows silent (v 12); the hot debate between various factions settles down, and Barnabas and Paul are allowed to share eye-witness accounts of what God is doing among the Gentiles. The Council heard how the same miraculous power which God had used to confirm His message to the Jews, was also released among the Gentiles (3:2-3 cf 14:8-10). These accounts and Peter's speech seem to have convinced the Council.
James, by now established as a key leader in the Jerusalem church, and almost certainly acting as chairman of the Council, sums up the situation (v13). Obviously, whatever Peter said would be influential and James (calling him by his Hebrew name - 'Simon') affirms the pivotal significance of the Cornelius incident (9:14). In addition, he reminds the Council that the Old Testament saw a place for the Gentiles in God's purposes. He quotes from Amos 9:11-12 to show that God had always intended there to be two distinct (but linked) groups who would share in the blessing the Messiah would bring - restored Jews ('rebuild David's fallen tent' (verse 16)) and 'Gentiles who bear my name' (verse 17).
James gives a précis of the summing up, when he declares that nothing should be done to put obstacles in the way of Gentiles who want to turn to faith. They will not have to embrace Judaism; they may come to God on the same basis as the Jews (v19 cf. v11). This judgement is a clear affirmation of the ministry of Barnabas and Paul. They must have been delighted!
James goes on to suggest some practical guidelines for Gentile behaviour. These instructions seem to be given not to appease the Jewish faction but to ensure harmonious relationships between Jewish and Gentile groups of believers (v21). James seems keen that the freedom from the Law that Gentiles now enjoyed did not turn into licence; causing unnecessary offence to their Jewish brothers and sisters. He suggests four things which should be avoided to ensure fellowship between Gentile and Jewish Christians - three relate to food (verse 20)! This was a big issue for Jews, deeply embedded in their culture. What you ate and how you ate it, had major ceremonial and religious implications. Jesus challenged this thinking (Matt 15:16-20) and Peter's vision also challenges it (10:11-16).
Questions to consider
·         In what ways do we make it difficult in our churches for those who are not Christians (see v19)? What do they find difficult about - our services? our premises? our organisations?
·         We smile at the Jewish concerns with food (v20) but are we guilty of gluttony? Obsession with dieting? Wasting food?
·         To what extent should we be ready to avoid behaviour which offends others (vv20,21)? Are there any limits to this?
Spelling out the Decision
Acts 15:22-34
The Council writes down the decision it has come to and sends it with a delegation to Antioch. The letter is well received and the church is encouraged.
It seemed sensible to the Council to convey their feelings on such an important matter in writing and in person. A decision of this kind of significance must be communicated as clearly as possible. Judas and Silas are chosen as representatives of the Jerusalem church, to take the letter' and explain its content (v22). The letter is intended to be read in Antioch first, but also to Gentile Christians over a much larger area (v23 - Antioch, Syria and Cilicia). This is not a small issue where a single group of believers has a problem, and the mother-church responds to it. This is the largest single issue the church has faced in its short history - every Christian congregation will be affected by the Council's decision.
The letter makes it dear that the teachers who provoked the trouble in the first place (v1) were not sent or authorised by the Jerusalem church (v24). The letter also clearly affirms Paul and Barnabas as people (v25 - 'dear friends') and in their ministries (v26 'risked their lives'). The decision the letter contains has a divine source combined with their human wisdom (v28) - God approves of Gentile mission and so do the Jerusalem Christians! The four guidelines to promote good relationships between Jewish and Gentile believers are spelt out. Notice that these are issues of immense practical importance, not theoretical niceties. For example food offered to idols was a major source of friction and disagreement at Corinth (1 Cor 8f).
It must not be forgotten that the Jerusalem Council have made a gracious, generous and costly decision for them. Every advance among the gentiles makes their own situation among Orthodox Jews more difficult. By coming to this decision they have opened themselves up to the probability of ever-increasing persecution In their own country.
The church in Antioch was called together for a special meeting, where the letter was read and explained. Not surprisingly, it was received with great delight (vv30, 31). It was useful to have two such gifted brothers as Judas and Silas in Antioch, and their prophetic ministries were put to good use (v32). There was much encouragement - both through the letter (v31) and through their ministry (v32). Living in this huge centre of vice and other religions they probably needed it!
Silas and Judas eventually return to Jerusalem, taking happy memories and blessings back home (v33).
Questions to consider
·         How many of the four guidelines (verse 29) apply today? Explain your answer!
·         Right decisions can be costly decisions. Think of some examples.
·         Encouragement is vital in church life (verses 31, 32). How can we encourage ... the lonely? the pressurised? the leaders? How can we develop a 'ministry of encouragement'?
The Second Mission Begins
Acts 15:35-41
Now that a clear position has been established on Gentile evangelism, Paul and Barnabas are anxious to spread the word still further - separately!
Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch with a ministry to both believers ('taught') and non-believers ('preached') - along with an increasing number of people who were developing these ministries (v35). Paul was a man born with 'itchy feet’!  By Acts 15 he has been in Tarsus, Jerusalem, Damascus, (Arabia), Damascus, Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tarsus, Antioch, 'the first missionary journey', Antioch, Jerusalem and back to Antioch. He suggests to Barnabas that they need to re-visit the churches they have planted (v36).  Barnabas agrees, but wants to take his cousin Mark with them (v37). It is a case of 'once bitten, twice shy' for Paul, who considers Mark a deserter (v. 39 cf. 13:13). Paul appears to doubt his 'stick ability' and may still feel personally aggrieved by Mark's attitude.
Paul and Barnabas are unable to reconcile their differences ('a sharp disagreement’! v39) and split up as a mission team. (It is helpful to realise that personality clashes and strong differences of opinion occurred in the early church as well as today!).  God, in His wisdom and power, turned this sad situation to the benefit of the church. Now there were two mission teams instead of one!  Barnabas and Mark, and Paul and Silas set off in different directions to preach the gospel and encourage the believers. Barnabas and Mark went back to Cyprus (the home of Barnabas; where the first mission had begun) and Paul and Silas headed north, through Syria, back to Paul's home territory, Cilicia (v41). Paul (when known as Saul) seems to have been active in Tarsus when he was sent there for his own safety from Jerusalem (9:30). Churches were obviously planted by him throughout the region surrounding Tarsus.
Silas was an excellent choice of travelling companion and co-missionary with Paul. He was evidently highly respected by the Jerusalem church (verse 22) and would help give Paul added credibi1ity in Jewish Christian circles. He was a Roman citizen, like Paul, (and unlike Barnabas) which would stand him in good stead for their dealings with the authorities (16:37). He was also a prophet (verse 32) and Paul seems primarily to have been a teacher. This was precisely the ministry mix' which had worked so well for Barnabas and Paul on the first mission.  It was a team which met with the approval of the Antioch church, who gladly and prayerfully sent them out (v40b).
Questions to consider
·         Should we only work in the church with people we like (v39)?  How can we resolve personality conflicts? Are there ever 'irreconcilable differences' which would cause us to part company from our fellow workers?
·         Silas had lots of the right qualifications - both in ministry and background. What kind of ‘qualifications' should we look for in a ... housegroup leader? steward? missionary? Preacher? teacher?
·         Why do you think 'teachers' and 'prophets' need each other?
·         What happens in Church life when only one of these ministries is present?
·         “God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called!” Do you agree or disagree? Why?


Bob Kiteley, 09/07/2013