Acts 15 Bible Study
Why are they said to have come "down" (Acts 15:1) from Judea when it is south of Antioch in Syria?
They came down from the higher elevation of Judea to Antioch, located near the Mediterranean coast.
Who were these "certain men" (Acts 15:1) from Judea?
Had they been unbelieving Jews, Paul and Barnabas most likely would have just kept them out of the church until they came around. The fact that they had heated dispute(s) - "no small dissension and dispute" (Acts 15:2) - against these men indicates that they were most likely Jews who professed faith in Jesus but with a seriously flawed theology.
What was their flaw?
In effect, that becoming a Jew - "circumcised according to the custom of Moses" (Acts 15:1) - is a prerequisite to salvation.
Why didn't the church in Antioch simply reject their flawed message?
The church in Antioch wasn't founded by Paul and Barnabas: "Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord." (Acts 11:19-21) Barnabas, who recruited Paul, was a missionary to the young church in Antioch from the established church in Jerusalem: "Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." (Acts 11:22-26) Since another group of self-declared Christians from Judea were preaching a different message, at least some of the hearers in the Antioch church would have been unsure which side to believe.
How did they decide to settle the dispute?
"They determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question." (Acts 15:2)
Why did they pass through "Phoenicia and Samaria" (Acts 15:3)?
Travelling south from Syria, where Antioch was located, they would pass through Phoenicia (Lebanon today) and Samaria (central Israel today) to get to Jerusalem.
What did they do en route?
They told the churches en route about the conversion of the Gentiles, causing "great joy to all the brethren". (Acts 15:3)
Upon arrival, did they report all that they had done to
"the apostles and the elders" (Acts 15:4)?
No, they reported "all things that God had done with them". (Acts 15:4). Scalpels should never take credit for the Surgeon's work.
Who were "Pharisees" (Acts 15:5)?
The Pharisees were one of the leading sects within Judaism who took pride in trying to adhere not only to the laws in the Old Testament, but a dizzying array of man-made laws as well. They were respected by the other Jews and enjoyed social, religious and political power in the community, comprised a large proportion of Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and were the chief persecutors of Jesus during His earthly ministry.
Why would they rise up in protest?
Given the similarity in the key message of the "certain men" (Acts 15:1) in Antioch who were from Judea but apparently had not been sent by the apostles (see below), and the Pharisees' protest above (compare Acts 15:1 with Acts 15:5), these Pharisees may well have been the ones who sent those "certain men" to Antioch.
Were these Pharisees Christians?
Since they are described as having "believed" (Acts 15:5), they most probably did believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, but evidently retained element(s) from their flawed tradition.
What was the result of that retention?
They ended up trying, hopefully unintentionally, to inject a heresy into the church, confusing the young believers in Antioch, consuming their teachers' time, and causing strife within the Body of Christ.
Are any elements of your theology based on extra-biblical (denominational) traditions?
What did they "dispute" (Acts 15:7) about so "much" (Acts 15:7)?
Most likely what they thought and felt.
What did Peter tell them?
What God did.
When did God choose the Gentiles to hear the gospel through Peter's "mouth" (Acts 15:7)?
When He had Peter preach to the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household in Caesarea: "So Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.’ So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.” Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ - He is Lord of all - that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.” (Acts 10:30-43)
When did God give "the Holy Spirit" (Acts 15:8) to the Gentiles?
While Peter was speaking to Cornelius and his household: "While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word." (Acts 10:44)
What is Peter saying?
This dispute about the Gentiles is nothing new. It was settled "a good while ago" (Acts 15:7). Purification of the heart is achieved not by circumcision but "by faith" (Acts 15:9) and God makes "no distinction between us and them" (Acts 15:9).
What "yoke" (Acts 15:10) is Peter referring to?
Salvation through works - obeying a set of rules, "which neither our father nor we were able to bear." (Acts 15:10).
What does Peter remind them about salvation?
It is by grace, not only the Gentile Christian, but also them - the Jewish Christians: "through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they." (Acts 15:11)
Does Peter seek a compromise between the disputing factions
to maintain harmony in his church?
No, he unequivocally stands by the teachings of Jesus, even rebuking the faction in error: "why do you test God ...?" (Acts 15:10)
What did God do with Peter's stand?
He settled the dispute and shut up the heresies, replacing them with declaration of His "miracles and wonders" (Acts 15:12)
How does your church deal with intra-church disputes?
Who is this "James" (Acts 15:13)?
He is one of the 4 sons Mary bore after Jesus - "Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas?" (Matthew 13:55) - who thought Jesus was crazy - "Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, “He is out of His mind." (Mark 3:20-21) - but became a believer after Jesus appeared to him after His death and resurrection - "For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles." (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) - and who had become one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
Why does James say, "God at the first visited the Gentiles
to take out of them a people for His name." (Acts 15:14)?
To remind them that their revered forefather and the first Jew - Abraham - was a Gentile to start.
Why does he then cite the Old Testament prophet Amos?
To express that Gentiles coming to the Lord not only fulfills a prophecy given to their forefathers, but that the very reason Israel was re-established as a nation after its exiles was for the very purpose of affecting the Gentiles to come to the Lord: "I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord who does all these things." (Acts 15:16-17)
So what is James saying?
God began with a Gentile. God is continuing with the Gentiles. God is doing everything - "the Lord who does all these things" (Acts 15:17) - exactly as He planned from the beginning: "Known to God from eternity are all His works". (Acts 15:18)
Whom did the Jerusalem church discredit to the Gentile
church in and around "Antioch" (Acts 15:23)?
The "certain men" (Acts 15:1) from Judea: "Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” - to whom we gave no such commandment." (Acts 15:24)
Whom did the Jerusalem church affirm as servants of Christ?
"Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Acts 15:25-26)
Who accompanied Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch?
"Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren." (Acts 15:22)
A letter carried back and presented by only Paul and Barnabas conceivably could have been accused by their opponents in Antioch as having been forged or altered. "Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren" (Acts 15:22) could also help Paul and Barnabas deal with their opponents in Antioch, as well as to minister in its young church.
What four abstentions did the Jerusalem church instruct to the Gentile church in Antioch?
"Abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality." (Acts 15:20)
Were they being issued a new set of commandments or the most important commandments?
The Peter had just rebuked the Pharisee believers, "Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15:10) and the most important commandments would not have been those: "But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:34-40)
Then why did the Jerusalem church instruct those four abstentions?
Things offered to idols refers to animals sacrificed to idols in pagan temples. Blood was a pagan delicacy and strangled animals spilt blood when being cooked, as opposed to slaughtered animals which had been cut and their blood already drained. And temple prostitution of course was an especially popular element of paganism. Prior to this incident, the young Gentile church had been caught between the Jewish church on the one side and paganism on its other side. Negating the need for circumcision eliminated the barrier between the Gentile and Jewish churches, while the above four abstentions strengthened the barrier between the Gentile church and paganism, from which most of its members had come. Satan had created a conflict to try to split the Gentile church from the Jewish church, but God used it to unify them.
Did the Gentile Christians understand the letter as it was intended?
"When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement." (Acts 15:31)
How else were they encouraged?
By the ministries of Judas and Silas who came with Paul and Barnabas: "Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words." (Acts 15:32)
Who returned to Jerusalem "with greetings" (Acts 15:33)
from the Gentile church in Antioch?
All of the emissaries from Jerusalem who escorted Paul and Barnabas, except "Silas" (Acts 15:34), whom the Lord had lined up as Paul's new missionary partner, as below.
What did Paul propose to Barnabas "after some days" (Acts 15:36)?
To revisit the churches they planted during their first missionary journey: “Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” (Acts 15:36)
Why didn't Paul want to take along "John called Mark" (Acts 15:37)?
On their first missionary journey, "when Paul and his party set sail from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John, departing from them, returned to Jerusalem." (Acts 13:13) and "Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work." (Acts 15:38)
Why then was Barnabas "determined to take with them John
called Mark" (Acts 15:37)?
While the exact reason isn't given, the fact that John Mark was his cousin might have played a role: "Mark the cousin of Barnabas" (Colossians 4:10)
Was Satan again trying to create a dissension?
Did he succeed?
Yes, in sending out two teams of missionaries instead of just one to strengthen the Body of Christ, who wins again: "And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches." (Acts 15:39-41)* Moreover, Paul's later comments about John Mark indicates that their dissension was temporary: "Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are my only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision; they have proved to be a comfort to me." (Colossians 4:10-11)