The Jerusalem Council
15 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, 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. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
Paul and Barnabas Separate
And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Acts 15 Commentary
by Hank Workman
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
Conflict. We would rather run as far away as we could rather than deal with it. Yet, conflict happens over and over again. The early church was not immune to it and we see a glimpse as the ugliness of it and yet also the resolution that came. A strong disagreement broke out within the leadership of the church concerning the Gentiles. People were taking a stand as to what they believed and became incredibly vocal about it. It didn’t become fist to cuff but goodness, it seemingly was close. Even more remarkable we see that Paul and Barnabas were not immune to it.
The church had lost a bit of its focus. They had lost the purpose even in fulfilling the Great Commission as they began to rest on the side of legalism rather than grace. When God decides to move in a way we don’t expect very often our own attitudes get in the way. The apple cart has been upturned. Staying in one place seems far more comfortable than setting out into the wild. It would be attitudes of the heart that would bring the conflict.
As the saying goes there are always 2 sides to a story. In this case, there would be 3.
It’s a fairly explosive situation. The passage says Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with these leaders. Can you imagine what that looked like? The one-time Pharisees who were now Believers had come out of tradition. They were having a hard time in what God was doing among the Gentiles. It went against everything they believed or had known for that matter. It was going against their own opinions and laws. It is no wonder they upset and angry – they were struggling to adjust.
But this was a time of transition and such times are always difficult. God was up to something amazing among the people and Gentiles were coming into the Kingdom in droves. It wasn’t necessarily that they were upset over that, but what was happening after they became Believers didn’t fit their protocol, Ideology and they were downright livid. On some level, these legalists were becoming dangerous as they were determined to keep the status quo. They were attempting to mix the Law and grace.
Warren Wiersbe writes:
“They were stitching up the veil that had been torn, blocking the new and living way to God that Jesus opened when He died on the cross. They were rebuilding the wall between the Jews and Gentiles that Jesus had torn down on the cross. They were putting a heavy Jewish yoke on Gentile shoulders and asking the church to move out of the sunlight into the shadows.”Warren Wiersbe
But really this went far deeper. As religious leaders they were changing the Gospel or adding to it, saying unless you belong to our group, follow our ways, participate in our ceremonies you cannot be saved. They were denying the work and grace of Jesus. They also took issue with the missionary program. If these legalists were correct they were saying Paul and Barnabas had been all wrong in their ministry. They were saying the message of grace was wrong.
This is such a reminder that often conflict comes about based on our own history even. For that history dictates all too often of how we respond.
The second side was obviously Paul and Barnabas and yes, even Peter’s point of view. God had made it abundantly clear of this new thing He was doing in reaching the Gentiles. They chose to focus on grace rather than legalism. The Holy Spirit had opened their eyes to so many tremendous things of what He was doing. What is even more interesting to consider, Paul at one time had been one of them.
As a Pharisee he would have understood that mindset but, and it’s a big but, God had arrested his heart and thinking. He was a completely new person. For those who were operating in such grace, this was a no-brainer. They would follow God’s way and not man’s. They were determined to keep the Main thing the Main thing – which was Jesus and His grace.
That brings the third side – God’s. He was doing something so new among the people because this was His plan to begin with. His way, in the end, would trump every other mindset. People needed to adjust to the new thing He was doing or would be in turmoil.
This was messy and ugly. Even though the church was struggling, the conflict was settled and dealt with and they were able to move on. This is so key. They were honest as they acknowledged the upset. They didn’t gloss over it. This conflict was not going to go away. When we are in such turmoil we need to honestly admit there’s a problem. And really, until we admit it, face up to it the process of healing will not happen.
The second thing we glean here is they focused on God rather than the conflict. They acknowledged God was at work and in control not man. On many levels, the challenge was thrown down that people’s behavior was affecting God’s work. Because of this, the Believers in Jerusalem welcomed the Gentiles and such a turn around they desired to bring encouragement to them through their letter.
This resolution and letter strengthened the unity of the church and stopped a split between Law and Grace. It made it possible for the church to present a united witness to those who were not Believers. It brought a blessing to the various Gentile congregations that had been established.
What do we take from this? When conflict arises between 2 Believers or groups we too must acknowledge the issue or conflict. More importantly, though, we must keep our focus on God throughout. It’s far to easy to finger point and make judgments when usually on one side of the conflict we are thinking more of ourselves and our way instead of having God in the equation.
God was up to a new thing. A glorious new thing and it was imperative the early church and yes even us are reminded in such times: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
Acts 15 Commentary
by Brad Boyles
The first question we want to know is, who was right and who was wrong between Paul and Barnabas? I feel that when we approach it from that angle we really miss Luke’s point. Luke, the writer here, doesn’t even weigh in on what he thinks. It’s a disagreement between believers which serves as an illustration for us to learn from. Otherwise, why would Luke include it in his narrative? It would make more sense to simply state that Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways and leave the uncomfortable confrontation out of it.
John Mark was Barnabas’ cousin. He had accompanied Paul and Barnabas for part of their first missionary journey but had abandoned them at Perga. This story is found a few chapters before in Acts 13.
Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem.Acts 13:13 NASB
Again, Luke gives no details as to why Mark left, just that he did. Evidentially, Paul was upset about it. So, the bottom line of this disagreement is that Barnabas believes in Mark and is convinced he has a lot to offer to the second missionary trip. Based on recent history, Paul feels quite the opposite. He may have been thinking, “If he abandoned us in Perga, what’s to say he won’t abandon us again?” The two are unwilling to compromise. Barnabas will not go without Mark. Paul will not go with him. So, they split.
Why did they feel so strongly about their position?
Paul The Truth-Teller
- “How can they contribute to God’s work?”
- Emphasis on facts over emotions
- Believed Mark wasn’t cut out for the mission
Barnabas The Encourager
- Encourager (name literally means ‘Son of Encouragement’)
- “How can God’s work change them?”
- Emphasis on compassion and second chances over facts
- Believed Mark deserved a second chance
Two missionary ventures took place in different areas.
There were new cities were reached with the Gospel. If you remember, the original plan Paul had suggested was to only re-visit the churches from the first missionary journey. This split enabled the Gospel to go in different directions and opened the door for more people to hear about Jesus.
There was verifiable spiritual growth happening individually.
Paul becomes more gentle (evident in his letters to Titus and Timothy), and takes the Gospel to new cities. Barnabas gets to go back to his home country to disciple Mark. Mark writes a Gospel and starts a church in Egypt (based on church legend). Silas gets involved in the mix and becomes a useful companion to Paul. Timothy comes alongside Paul in Acts 16 and kind of becomes his right-hand man. We don’t read of any negative consequences from this disagreement. Both men were respectful, humble, and prioritized God’s calling and their own personal gifting.
Christians can disagree with each other and still both walk in God’s will.
There are many issues we will encounter in the church that are not doctrinal issues, but personal ones. Many of those specific issues are not defined in black and white for us. In Romans 14, Paul outlines some specific issues where it is acceptable for Christians to disagree while still being accepted by God and useful in their Christian walk.
Even though we are called to unity, we will have diversity in the body when it comes to ‘judgment call’ issues. We can disagree with each other over personal issues of conviction, spiritual gifts, and calling while preserving the unity of doctrine and the big picture of bringing the Gospel to the lost.
Disagreement is not a sin but it does create a tempting environment to sin.
This story of Paul and Barnabas illustrates to us that those who are humble, obedient, and dialed into the Spirit will see fruit in their relationships. We need to stop assuming that disagreement is a sin. In our world today, we have worked ourselves into a delusional frenzy of political correctness. We have been duped into believing that disagreement means hate and we must do whatever we can to make people feel good all the time.
I’m not saying we should look for opportunities to disagree. However, I am saying we shouldn’t avoid them and treat them as sinful because we have evidence right here in Acts that all these men became more complete followers of Jesus because of a disagreement that was handled with love, respect, and humility. The delicate issue at hand (with judgment calls) is resisting our urge to win the argument and convince everyone else that our way is always the best way.
Paul and Barnabas did not make this into a right vs wrong issue!
They didn’t over-spiritualize their position by invoking God into the argument. They didn’t demonize the other side or read too much into it like so many people do today. It would have been easy for Paul to say, “Well the Holy Spirit told me this so you are wrong Barnabas,” or, for Barnabas to say, “I’ve been a Christian longer than you Paul, I gave you your chance in ministry, you owe me!” We don’t read any of that, yet, how much of that kind of talk is going on in the church today?
It is vital that we use this story as an opportunity to learn how we can disagree respectfully while also following God’s calling for our life. In an issue of doctrine, it is also important to consider the method prescribed by Jesus in Matthew 18 for confronting another brother or sister in Christ.