Lesson 44 - Chapter 15:1-11

Lesson 44 - Chapter 15:1-11

Lesson for March 5, 2017

The Book of Acts

Chapter 15:1-11

“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.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. 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. 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. But some 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. The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 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 would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 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? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

These men who came down from the church at Jerusalem in Judea were Judiazers; legalists who taught both salvation by works and spirituality by works. In Galatians 2:1-4 we have a parallel description of the situation which existed here. They had come to Antioch to try to refute the teaching of grace. We can only surmise what was their ultimate motive. Their teaching of salvation by works and spirituality by works was false doctrine and contrary to the grace of God.

“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” It was a legitimate function under the Mosaic Law, but the Mosaic Law was given to Israel and never to the Church. The Mosaic Law had no function as far as the Church was concerned. The purpose of the Mosaic Law was confined to the dispensation of Israel mostly in the Old Testament. Its purpose today continues to be one of teaching principles but it has no function in salvation or spirituality. (Galatians 2:16) There is absolutely no place in the Christian Way of Life for the Mosaic Law except as a communication of doctrine by way of illustration of the fact that man is devoid of God’s righteousness and does not have the ability within himself to save himself. (Titus 3:5) These men however were saying in effect that salvation was by the work of the Cross plus circumcision. They were not excluding the work of the Cross and this was what made it so subtle. They were saying you must believe to be saved but once you have believed you are still not saved, you must be circumcised.

“And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.” Since they could not contend with Paul and Barnabas regarding grace, they wanted to get them to Jerusalem to prove their point regarding circumcision. So Paul, Barnabas and some others agreed to go and meet with the apostles and elders in the church at Jerusalem. The result of this was a Jerusalem conference.

“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.” The Greek word for being sent is “propempo,” which means an escort. The people of Antioch thought so much of Paul and the way he defended the truth that the Antioch church made it clear how they felt about grace versus legalism. They did not fall for legalism and so they didn’t send Paul and Barnabas like two prisoners to Jerusalem under indictment, they sent them with an escort of like-minded believers (perhaps a show of strength or for their protection). The Antioch Church was adhering to the principle of grace.

“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.” As always, Paul and Barnabas continued to spread the Gospel message and encourage the churches as they travelled. In this case they were encouraging the other churches and bringing joyous news by narrating in detail about their first missionary journey and of the grace of God with regard to salvation and spirituality.

“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. But some 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.’” This was a public reception. This means to receive with intimacy and respect. During the course of this reception there was an opportunity to declare what God had done. This was the first time that the people of Judea and Jerusalem had had an opportunity to hear an account of the first missionary journey. Luke’s account in Acts emphasizes all of the historical principles and their doctrinal implications, but what we have here is a brief record of the Gospel that was preached. Apparently Paul emphasized the contents of his message of grace to the Gentiles and in so doing he aroused the antagonism of the legalistic faction. Paul was telling the people in this big reception all about what he had said to the Gentiles, and what he said to the Gentiles aroused the anger of the legalists.

Their opposition came from believers in this case not unbelievers as one would think. The group who opposed him were some of the Pharisees who had believed in Christ but obviously had not given up their religious practices. Notice we have a more complete statement in verse 5 than in verse 1. Verse one was talking about salvation only but verse 5 includes the legalism of spirituality as well. And what was their message? They break the plan of God down into two parts: a) if you are going to be saved you have to be circumcised with believing; b) you must keep the Law of Moses for spirituality. One was a ritual and one was a way of life. They were saying in effect that ritual was part of salvation and morality was the Christian Way of Life.

“The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. 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 would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 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? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” The apostles and elders came together to consider this controversy. Peter who was a leader in the church at Jerusalem by this time couldn’t stand it any longer and so he gets up to speak. He was going to state something which in reality was going to eventually place the apostle Paul in the place of leadership as far as the early church was concerned - grace.

Legalism and human good had infiltrated the minds, the concepts and the actions of some believers in Jerusalem. Peter cites his own situation, how God led him to Caesarea and to the home of a centurion by the name of Cornelius, and how they had this meeting in which it was shown that Gentiles were placed into the body of Christ just like the Jews who believed in Christ. (Acts 10)

Peter begins with the correct principle of grace. Grace is the work of God and it is God who made the choice. The reality was the fact that in the Church Age Jewish and Gentile believers were one in Christ. Peter portrays the plan of God for the Church Age and sets up a precedent, and therefore a wise choice of words on the part of Peter.

”That by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe” is the beginning of the settling of the controversy. First, Peter was pointing out that the people involved in this revelation from God were Gentiles, therefore they had no relationship with the Mosaic Law, and they had nothing to do with the ritual of the Law, including circumcision. He was pointing out immediately that they simply heard the Gospel and responded to it. The Gospel had nothing to do with keeping the Mosaic Law. The Law did however give a clear presentation of the Gospel.

And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.” God knows the soul of every person. When these Gentiles heard the message of the Gospel they were positive at the point of God-consciousness. Into their minds went the Gospel. They responded to the Gospel by believing. This described the “Gentile Pentecost” at Caesarea. Giving them the Holy Spirit indicated that Gentiles had equal rights with Jews in the Church Age as believers, and that by the giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles no distinction was made. So if the Jews consider themselves superior in the fields of religion and theology, this superiority had no standing before God. The Gentiles were one with these Jewish believers in Christ, and eventually the great theologians of the Church would be Gentiles, though at that point the great theologians were Jews. All of the superiorities are removed; we are all one in Christ.

Peter was giving the message which was going to clarify some of the principle of grace with regard to the Gentiles in the Church Age, which also applies to the Jewish believer. In the previous dispensation the Jews were the custodians of the Word of God and responsible for sharing it throughout the world. There was no Church Age doctrine revealed in the Old Testament, it was totally unknown to the Old Testament people. At this point it was very important for these legalistic Jews to understand that they no longer had the monopoly on salvation. During the Church Age the Jews would be under the fifth cycle of discipline, and until the Second Advent of Christ occurs the Jews were going to continue to be scattered. Even though there would always be Jews in the land of Israel they would be there in relatively small numbers. Therefore, with the Jews under divine discipline it was necessary for God to have a new representative. He always had His agents in this world (a remnant according to grace) and therefore the Church took over the responsibilities held by Israel in the previous dispensation. This means that every believer today is in the body of Christ and every believer is an ambassador for Christ. One of the great problems in the early days of the Church was that the Jews no longer had an advantage over the Gentiles.

“He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.” The word hearts refers to the soul where faith is applied to the truth of the Gospel. The moment we believe in Jesus Christ that is the moment we are cleansed from sin and made the righteousness of God in Christ. (II Corinthians 5:21)

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?” The word test is the Greek word “peirazo,” which means to test for the purpose of discovering good or bad. In this case these legalistic believers were testing God’s patience and wrath by distorting the truth of the Gospel and blaspheming His Son Jesus Christ. The yoke is legalism and it is bondage not freedom. (Galatians 5:1) These Pharisees who were legalistic were trying to superimpose a system of bondage on Christianity. Peter was saying that no one can carry the yoke of legalism. Legalism destroys a church.

“But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” Grace means Christ did the work of salvation for the entire human race which included Gentiles. This had always been the case but the nation of Israel had missed it so God had to once again demonstrate to these Jews the principle of unlimited atonement. (John 3:16)

Unlimited atonement simply stated is the fact that Christ died for the sin of the entire human race and anyone can have eternal life by believing in Him for salvation. Unlimited atonement is compatible with the sovereignty of God, since God desires that all men be saved. God selected every member of humanity for salvation, not a certain privileged few. It is God’s desire that everyone should be saved. The fact that all are not saved is indicative of the fact that we are given free will. We have free will because we must have the same basic pattern in immaterial essence as the angels in order to resolve the Angelic Conflict. Christ was judged for the sin of the entire human race, which is a manifestation of the sovereign will of God. Unlimited atonement provides potential salvation for the entire human race, but restricts actual salvation to those who believe in Christ. Negative volition can express itself in indifference or rejection of Christ, or it can express itself in any form of works or human good as a means of salvation. Unlimited atonement offers potential salvation for the entire human race based on grace.

Unlimited atonement is compatible with man’s two chances at salvation: 1) at the point of God-consciousness and 2) at the point of Gospel-hearing. For anyone who is positive at God-consciousness, God is obligated to provide the Gospel. Unlimited atonement is compatible with the issue of the Angelic Conflict to prove that God is fair and just, and that anyone can be saved by God’s grace. All of God’s creatures have had the opportunity to become elect. Man was created to resolve the Angelic Conflict. Man was created with one thing in common with angelic creatures: a free will. Like angelic creatures, mankind in the Garden of Eden used his free will to oppose God. And in both cases God provided a solution so that mankind, like angelic creatures, had the option for salvation by grace. In the Word of God we are not given specific, detailed information about angelic salvation. But we know there are elect angels and fallen angels. The parallels are obvious. All angelic creatures had equal opportunity to become elect angels in eternity past. Mankind can become “elect” by faith in Christ. Election means chosen for privilege but does not mean that God chooses certain people to believe in Christ and certain people to not believe in Christ. Negative volition of mankind toward the divine provision of unlimited atonement is the cause of man’s failure to receive salvation and become “elect.” Election is the expression of the sovereignty of God in eternity past. God willed the highest and best for those who would believe and provided equal privilege and equal opportunity for them in election for attainment of that highest and best.