Being a Christian, and in fellowship with other Christians, will expose us all to difficulties and problems. The Acts of the Apostles is an honest testimony of such problems and difficulties in the early church, and many of those troubles have continued down the centuries to the present.
Initially, the early Christians faced problems that were external and physical; in chapters 4, 8, and 11, the church faced persecution: chapter 4, Peter and John were set upon by the religious leaders in Jerusalem; chapter 8 tells us of the zealot Saul of Tarsus and the havoc that he sought to wreak; chapter 11 tells us how God used that persecution for the furtherance of the gospel.
However, there were also internal difficulties. In chapter 5, the problem was moral. Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Ghost in trying to deceive the apostles as to the level of their giving to the Lord’s work. The couple came under the discipline of God. In chapter 6, the problem was practical. The murmuring among the Grecians was in respect of the daily ministration and the care of the poor among the gathered company of believers. Seven men were chosen to undertake this work and ensure its equity before the Lord. In chapter 10, the problem was developmental. The gospel that had initially been preached to Jews was now preached to Gentiles and Gentiles were saved - the gospel reached out beyond national and racial boundaries and Peter was brought to appreciate the scope of the work of God.
As we come to chapter 15, we see a problem that was doctrinal -whether the Gentiles should be made subject to the Law of Moses - and, later in the chapter, a problem that was personal - the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas that led to them splitting up and going their separate ways.
Why do we face problems and difficulties? It may be that such difficulties and problems are the means that God uses to shape and mould us. They can confirm us in our faith, and they can, and should, bring us to our knees, ‘Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby’, Heb. 12. 11. However, challenges can also be the outcome of carnality. The Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians, ‘For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?’ 1 Cor. 3. 3.
But the purpose of this article is to explore the fundamental challenge that was launched against the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, Acts chapter 15. Deffinbaugh summarizes it, ‘Up until this time … there was no need to agonize about a few Gentiles (most of whom were God-fearers or Jewish proselytes) who came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. But now large numbers of heathen, pagan, Gentiles were being saved’.1 This was a significant test of Jewish sensitivity, illustrated by Peter’s experience in chapter 10, and one that exposed false teaching on the matter. Verse 1 indicates the gravity of the matter, ‘certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren’. That these false teachers came from Judea gave an appearance of credibility to their teaching. Their doctrinal onslaught was protracted; they ‘began to teach and kept it up’.2 It also seemed to have some biblical basis, stressing ‘after the manner of Moses’.
How important to realize that error seldom comes accurately labelled! This was a fundamental issue. Was the work of Christ sufficient in the salvation of the soul, or was there a need to add something from the law of Moses to that work? The answer is clear - the work of Christ is sufficient. But how did these early Christians resolve the difficulty over false teaching? ‘They determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question’, v. 2.
Whilst we don’t have apostles today, we do have elders within a local assembly and, when a problem arises, we should take the matter to the elders, men to whom the assembly can turn to find wise counsel and guidance. But this has a double edge. We need men of spiritual experience and wisdom to handle difficulties, but they too must be men whom we can approach easily and discuss issues with freely, knowing that what is discussed will go no further than the elders themselves.
As the company from Antioch arrived at Jerusalem they were welcomed and given the opportunity to declare ‘all things that God had done with them’, v. 4. It is to be noted that stress is placed upon what ‘God had done’! As Barclay observes, ‘They were prepared to let the facts speak for themselves’.3
However, the false teachers were not going to concede without a battle.
It is interesting that Luke describes them as ‘the sect of the Pharisees’, v. 5. ‘Sect’, hairesis, is the word from which we derive the English word ‘heresy’. It is indicative of those who not only have different aims and objectives but who are prepared to pursue them to division.
Having listened to both sides of the matter, the apostles and elders convened a private meeting. There is wisdom in privacy. Not only does it avoid open debate within the assembly, which often generates ‘more heat than light’, but it also thwarts the opportunity for division, as opinions might polarize. In the support of such a meeting, it is important for the saints to have a degree of trust in those men that God has raised up to shepherd the flock. It is also to be noted that they ‘assembled with one accord’, v. 25. Whether this refers to the elders’ meeting, or to the whole assembly, this is not uniformity, where we are all made to say the same thing, but a unity of purpose, a desire to find a spiritual solution to the problem.
Within this private meeting we are told there was ‘much disputing’, v. 7. This may suggest something noisy and heated, but the opposite is really the truth. In reality, the apostles and elders had a deep ‘discussion’, JND, or ‘debate’, ESV. The purpose of the reasoning and questioning was to find a solution to the problem. It is important that the discussion showed mutual respect. What a contrast with human nature which seeks its own way - that is what sin is essentially. This is where godly elders should be different.
‘Peter rose up’, v. 7. He sought to summarize the discussion, bringing his experience and weight to that discussion. After all, Peter had been the one who had been chosen of God to communicate the gospel to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius and he asked his brethren to appreciate what God had done in the past regarding the matter under discussion. God is ordered and consistent in His actions. Jew and Gentile were saved by grace, v. 11, through the same exercise of faith, v. 9. Both were given the Holy Spirit, v. 8. As the law could not help the Jew, why should it now be applied to the Gentiles, v. 10?
As Peter had stilled discussion, Paul and Barnabas were able to give a report of the Lord’s blessing on their work amongst the Gentiles. The emphasis is upon the ‘wonders God had wrought’, v. 12. As Deffinbaugh comments, ‘These signs and wonders were God’s “Amen” to their message and ministry’.4 Finally, James speaks, asking those present to search the scriptures. In essence, the same theme is emphasized, ‘God at the first did visit the Gentiles’, v. 14. What Paul and Barnabas had described was not new, but a continuation of the work begun in the house of Cornelius. It was also a fulfilment of scripture. As Anderson states, ‘The NT fulfilment is in harmony with the OT prophecy’.5
This is crucial. If we are to find a solution to the problems of assembly life, we need men who can and will search the scriptures for that solution. Equally, when an answer is found, these elders will be able to stand up before the assembly and say from the scriptures, ‘as it is written’, v. 15. It is interesting to note that the passage that James refers to is Amos chapter 9. How important to have men who have a wide knowledge of the word of God.
The decision was to write letters to the churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, setting out a resolution to this challenge that was made upon the purity of the gospel, vv. 23-29. Although such a situation would be difficult to replicate in our day - there are no longer apostles in existence - what this outcome does teach us is a need for transparency.
In certain situations, it would be right and proper to ensure that discussion is minuted and records are kept. Certainly, those who have responsibility in relation to a building and its trust must do that. For matters that are of a personal and delicate nature, those affected ought to be kept up to date with actions taken.
As in the case of this chapter, men of spiritual standing and integrity should be used to communicate the message.
In summary, if we have a desire to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the companies of the Lord’s people, let us endeavour to:
Robert Deffinbaugh, Acts, Christ at work through His Church. Found here:
A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, electronic edition part of e-sword resource.
William Barclay, Daily Study Bible - Acts, St Andrew Press, electronic edition part of e-sword resource.
Robert Deffinbaugh, op. cit.
James Anderson, Acts, What the Bible Teaches, John Ritchie, 1992.