The Jerusalem Council: Grace vs. Law – Acts 15:1-35

Grace Bible Church

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Sermon Study Sheets

Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

March 19, 2006

The Jerusalem Council: Grace vs. Law

Acts 15:1-35

In our study of Acts 15 this morning we come to the most hotly contested theological debate of the early church. What is the nature of the gospel? Is salvation based on grace alone or must the works of the law also be performed?

We have seen elements of this debate begin as soon as the church went beyond the Jews in Jerusalem. The first question was the relationship of the gospel to those that were not Jews. It was only partially answered in Acts 8 when Philip began to preach to the Samaritans followed by Peter & John coming and the Samaritans receiving the Holy Spirit. The wall of division that had separated them from the Jews was knocked down by the gospel, but the Samaritans were a mixture of Jewish and Gentile blood and they followed many Jewish practices.

The next step is recorded in Acts 10 when Peter was preaching the gospel to Cornelius and those with him. These Gentiles believed and received the Holy Spirit as well. When Peter returned to Jerusalem and the issue was discussed it was conceded by those that had opposed that God had granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life. This was a huge step, but the issue of Gentile conversions had not yet been resolved because Cornelius was a devout Gentile who was already following some Jewish practices. What about Gentiles who were not proselytes to Judaism in any manner?

That is a question that became critical following the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. Recall from our studies in Acts 13 & 14 that though they had strong opposition from disbelieving Jews resulting in opposition and persecution, nevertheless, a large number of Gentiles who were not proselytes responded to the gospel. When they had returned to Antioch and reported what God had done and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles, we can only imagine the great rejoicing among that church which was largely made up of Gentile believers.

The Dissension (1-5)

As word of these Greek conversions reach Jerusalem, there is a negative reaction by some of the Jewish Christians in Judea which were of the sect of the Pharisees. Conversion of Gentile proselytes still allowed Christianity to be seen as a sect of Judaism, but outright conversion of non-proselyte Greeks who did not keep the Jewish traditions made it clear that Christianity was a new religion. Verse 1 tells us,

“And some men came down from Judea and [began] teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

This is a message that is very different from what those in Antioch had been taught and the gospel that Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed on their missionary journey. These men were not authorized by the church to go to Antioch to say these things, but they did so anyway. These men believed in Jesus, but they also believed that the Laws of Moses had to be kept too. That is why they were teaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation. While we would now understand that this teaching is a serious heresy, as explained by Paul in his epistle to the Galatians, this was an issue that was still unclear at that time to a lot of believers. Though they were ignorant in many ways of the teaching of Jesus, they were not ignorant of their heritage and traditions. Remember that even Peter struggled with the proper relationship of Jews and Gentiles and how Gentiles should live after salvation (Galatians 2).

Verse 2 reveals the reaction of Paul and Barnabas and the church.

And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, [the brethren] determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

While Paul and Barnabas put up a great fight against this false teaching, neither could they get the issue resolved properly. The church in Antioch finally decided that the best way to resolve the issue was to send Paul & Barnabas to Jerusalem since that is where the argumentative men had come from and also gain the assistance of both the apostles and the elders of the Jerusalem church. This was a very wise decision because this was not just a local church problem, but one that would affect every church. What is the nature of salvation for the Gentiles, and therefore, for everyone?

I should point out that the Greek text in vs. 2 has some implication that these Judaizers may have been the ones that initially demanded that the question be taken to the apostles and church leaders in Jerusalem, but that is not why the church in Antioch sent a delegation. A good idea is a good idea regardless of the source. The church should neither act nor fail to act just because evil people say or demand something. The same thing is true for us as individuals. Christians should evaluate and do what is right and best before God regardless of the source of an idea.

Verses 3 – 5. ”

Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. 4 And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”

Paul & Barnabas travel down to Jerusalem, but while going through Phoenicia and Samaria they tell the brethren along the way about their missionary trip and the Gentiles that believed the gospel of Christ. The result was much rejoicing in those churches.

When they arrived in Jerusalem they met with the church along with the apostles and elders and reported to them what God had done. This was not really any different from what they had been doing in the churches while traveling to Jerusalem, but the response was very different. While some may have been rejoicing as they were listening to this report, our text says that other

certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed raised opposition. They were critical instead of rejoicing. Their concern was that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised and obey the Laws of Moses. It is important to point out that in this verse they are not specifically demanding this for salvation as were the men back in verse 1 though that may have also been present in their minds. The demand here reveals that their concept of holiness had not yet been changed. They still thought of holiness as an outward conformity to the law rather than an inward change brought about by the Holy Spirit. They did not yet understand the New Covenant and were still living under the concept of the Old Covenant in which holiness was an external code of conduct that separated them from all other people. In addition, the pharisees twisted and added their own traditions to those laws. The issue here is not just circumcision, but all the Mosaic law and their traditions too.

The Debate


Peter’s Presentation (6-11)

The issues are serious and they are discussed in at least three separate sessions. The first was with the congregation with the apostles and elders present (vs. 4,5). The second session is restricted to the apostles & elders along with Barnabas and Paul. We assume that those believers of the party of the Pharisees which were concerned about this issue would have also been present, but the general congregation is not (vs. 6). It is unclear when that private session ended and the next congregational session began. Perhaps at verse 7, but certainly by verse 12 in which “the multitude” is present again.

6 And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

This second session included much debate as they wrestle with the issues. The word for debate here,

zhthsiV / zêtêsis, is not arguing, but the searching out of a question or controversy. At the end of this discussion Peter summarized a conclusion in verses 7-11. Peter referenced his experience when God had him preach the gospel to Gentiles at the home of Cornelius, and that the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit just as they themselves did on the day of Pentecost. He concluded: 1) God did not make a distinction though the Gentiles did not meet the Mosaic law in any way. 2) They should not put a burden (yoke) upon the Gentiles that they themselves could not bear. 3) Salvation was through the grace of the Lord Jesus.

That last conclusion in verse 11 is an important one. The phrase, “we are saved” is an aorist passive infinitive which shows that Peter believed that salvation was God’s action upon man through the grace of the Lord Jesus. This statement is directed at pointing out the condition upon which they as Jews were saved, and not just commenting on how the Gentiles were saved. Salvation is not something they had accomplished for themselves. The Jews were also saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus and not through the keeping of the law.


Barnabas & Paul’s Report (12)

After Peter’s gives his conclusion Barnabas and Paul speak.

“And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.”

It appears that during the private session the apostles and elders may have also set some direction for how they would bring further resolution to this problem. This included Barnabas and Paul giving more detail about what had happened on their missionary journey. The multitude is silent while they related the signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. The grammar used here (imperfect tense) indicates that it may have taken awhile for them to finish telling all that had happened. The recounting of these miracles are the evidence that this was the hand of God and that Paul & Barnabas were His messengers. The Judaizers who were demanding that the Gentiles also keep the law of Moses and their traditions did not have any such attesting miracles in their ministry.

James’ Judgement (13-21)

After Barnabas and Paul finished speaking, James, the brother of the Lord and a key leader in the Jerusalem church, gave a conclusion and recommendation for action. Verse

13 And after they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. 14 “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. 15 “And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 ‘After these things I will return, And I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, And I will rebuild its ruins, And I will restore it, 17 In order that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, And all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’ 18 Says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old. 19 “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

James first calls attention to Simeon’s speech concerning God’s work in the case of Cornelius. Simeon is the other name for Peter. [This is a reason to believe that the third session begins with vs. 7 instead of vs. 12]. James then specifically points out the prophecy of Amos 9:11,12 which declares God’s promise of a future restoration of Israel which also included hope for the Gentiles. James uses Amos as an example of the the Old Testament prophecies which agree with what Peter has related. This is not to say that the conversion of Cornelius and other Gentiles fulfilled Amos, for that is still future, but that they agree with what happened. The Old Testament prophecies do not make additional demands on the Gentiles. James reasons that since Peter has shown that the Gentiles have been saved by grace alone, and since Amos shows they will not be required to become Jewish proselytes in the future, then there is no reason to require them to be Jewish proselytes in the present.

James then gives his personal judgement and advice. First, the Gentiles should not be troubled by having any sort of Jewish ceremonies imposed on them. Second, the Gentiles should be careful of their conduct so as not to unnecessarily offend the Jews faithful to Moses who were scattered around the world. They were to do this by: A) abstaining from things contaminated by idols. Passages such as Exod. 20:3; 34:17; and Deut. 5:7, speak to the important of this issue to the Jews. Paul dealt with this issue in specific in Romans14 and 1 Cor. 8 & 10 in talking about meat offered to idols. B) abstaining from any fornication. Leviticus 18 details the commands of the Mosaic Law on this issue. Some have wondered why this would need to be included, but remember that in 1 Cor. 6 Paul had to correct the Corinthian Christians on their practice of sexual immorality. They did need to be told about this. The last two C) abstaining from meat from animals that had been strangled and D) from eating blood itself were related. Animals that were strangled would still have had the blood in them and Leviticus 17 explains the importance of this to the Jews. If they did this they would be cut off from their people (vs. 10).

James’ advice would have not only aided in keeping harmony between Gentile and Jewish believers, but also helped the Gentile believers have credibility with Jewish non-believers so as to gain a hearing. He points out in verse 21 that there were Jews who adhered to Moses throughout the known world so the Mosaic law would be familiar to people throughout the world, and those who wanted to follow Moses could do so by going to one of these Synagogues. James’ conclusion is that the Gentile believers were to show respect towards both Jewish believers and unbelievers, but they were not required to follow Mosaic law.

The Decision


After carefully examining the issues involved and hearing the reports of Peter, Barnabas and Paul and considering the advice of James, the council comes to a conclusion in verses 22-29. ”

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas– Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 and they sent this letter by them,

“The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. 24 “Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with [their] words, unsettling your souls, 15 it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word [of mouth]. 28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”

James’ judgement seemed good to the apostles, elders and the whole church, so they choose men to go back to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to bring a letter and tell the brethren there of their conclusions. Judas Barsabbas and Silas are chosen. Silas, also known as Silvanus, will also go with Paul on his second missionary journey.

There are several things to take note of in the letter. First, it is written from

“apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren.” It is from brethren to brethren. There is no racial discrimination on their part. There is equality.

Second, it is specifically written to the brethren who were disturbed by those who came from Jerusalem. (I will add that though the Galatian church is not specifically mentioned, we find in Acts 16:4 that Paul & Silas also deliver it to them during the second missionary journey). They were addressing the men that had gone to Antioch without the church’s authority and said things that were unsettling to them. The word disturb

(tarassw tarassô) is a strong word meaning to “deeply upset / disturb – cause fear”. The word unsettle (anaskeuazw anaskeuazô) is used in extra Biblical Greek of going bankrupt or of a military force plundering a town. These men had caused great turmoil to the Gentile believers because it questioned the heart of the gospel message and whether they were saved or not.

The letter was written in harmony for they were “all of one mind” in it. This would have included Barnabas and Paul. They were writing what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and them. “Seemed good” is

dokew dokeô which refers to their subjective judgment, which may or may not conform to the fact. They believed that their unanimity was a the result of the working of the Holy Spirit. It is on that basis they were writing so as to lay upon or put on them [Present Passive Infinitive] no further burden than these essentials or necessary things of abstaining from certain behaviors which I have already explained. [Burden is baroV, baros – weight – used figuratively here. Essentials is epanagkeV epanagkês – things necessary].

It is very important to note that these are responsibilities in keeping harmony, but not commands. [It is a Present Middle Infinitive and not an imperative]. In fact, there are no commands in the letter at all. They made it clear that they did not have to be circumcised or follow the Mosaic law and advised them that they would do well to follow the prohibitions that were listed. The four prohibitions were not given as universal law for all Christians for all time, but requests made to keep harmony in the churches.

Report to Antioch


30 So, when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31 And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. 32 And Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message. 33 And after they had spent time [there], they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out. 34 [But it seemed good to Silas to remain there.] 35 But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching, with many others also, the word of the Lord.

As can be imagined, the congregation in Antioch rejoiced at the encouragement of the letter. Their salvation would no longer be questioned. They would not have to keep the Mosaic law to be saved or accepted, and the restrictions given were not law, but requests made to encourage harmony in the church among Jews and Gentiles. The length of time that they were there is not recorded, but it was sufficient to accomplish their purpose. Silas chose to remain and Judas Barsabbas and whoever else may have been with him departed in peace and returned to Jerusalem. Harmony had been restored.

There was no longer a question about the nature of salvation and what would be required of Gentiles. As Paul would succinctly state it in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, [it is] the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Good works are part of the believers life because they are saved, not so that they can be saved. They follow, not precede salvation.

While Jews were free to follow their traditions and culture as they chose to do so, the Gentiles would not be required to become Jewish proselytes. They were only asked to be careful to refrain from certain practices that would be a serious offense to Jews. It is matter of living in harmony with other believers and maintaining a proper witness to the unsaved.

These two foundational principles are still true today. We are saved by God’s grace and not our works. We are to live in a way that demonstrates the priority of our love for other believers by not causing them to stumble into practices that would be sin to them, and also of our love for the unbeliever by living a life of holiness that reflects Jesus Christ.


Sermon Study Sheets


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help.

Young Children

– draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch.

Older Children –

Do one or more of the following: 1) Write down all the verses mentioned in the sermon and look them up. 2) Count how many times “law” is mentioned. Talk with your parents about the difference between grace and law in salvation and in daily life.


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.

What is the most significant theological argument you have ever been part of? What was the final conclusion to it? How were you able to work to a solution? How had the gospel spread from Jews in Jerusalem to Gentiles in Antioch and Asia? What was the significance of the demand in Acts 15:1 that the Gentiles be circumcised in order to be saved? What was the reaction of the church in Antioch? Why did the church send Paul & Barnabas to Jerusalem instead of just deciding for themselves? What do they do as they travel to Jerusalem? What do they do when they arrive? What is the response of the believing Pharisees? What were their concerns? How did the church seek to resolve the issues? What were the points of Peter’s presentation in Acts 15:6-11? What was the point of the presentation made by Barnabas and Paul in Acts 15:12? What are the points of James’ judgement in Acts 15:13-21? Why did he cite Amos 9:11,12? What is the significance to the Jews of the four prohibitions he recommends? What is the final decision of the council? Who was the decision to be communicated and how was that to be done? What is the significance that the letter does not have any commands? How did the church in Antioch respond? How is a person saved from sin?

Sermon Notes – March 19, 2006

The Jerusalem Council: Grace vs. Law – Acts 15:1-35


The Dissension (vs. 1-5)


The Debate (vs. 6-21)

Peter’s Presentation (vs. 6-11)


Barnabas & Saul Report (vs. 12)


James’ Judgement (vs. 13-21)


The Decision (vs. 22-29)


Report to Antioch


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