Maps in this study are all extracts from Map120
First read Acts 15:1-6
1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’
(I was confused – they went down to Antioch, and in verse 2 they go up to Jerusalem. Antioch is north from Jerusalem, but I suppose it is nearer sea level, whereas Jerusalem is higher – but in the south of the country! Best demonstrate on the map.)
Originally most followers of Jesus were Jewish by birth and all males would automatically have been circumcised at birth. Christians would have been considered a sect within Judaism, still maintaining the traditional practices and traditions associated with their religion.
The ‘Certain people’ were not an official deputation (v24). Probably they were originally Pharisees (v5) who, although followers of Christ, still strongly held onto their old traditions. To them the sign of circumcision was a vital sign that they were people of God. Their Law stated that if a Gentile wished to convert to Judaism they had to be circumcised, so they simply extended that practice to those who wished to join their church.
Although the church in Jerusalem was considered to be the place to seek authoritative judgements on Christian Doctrine, the church was people, and people’s views can sometimes be divergent.
2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
Paul and Barnabus had first-hand experience of seeing the grace of God converting Gentiles, and the obvious changes that had taken place in their lives, without them first having to take part in any ritual.
(Although once converted, the new Christians usually asked to be baptised as an act of obedience to Jesus’ teaching and an outward witness to their new faith.)
Later, Paul would write in his letter to the Galatians 2:8-9 ‘We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.’ (Paul, writing to the Galatians soon after these events, explains his actions and views in greater detail: Galatians 2:11-21.)
It was not only the two apostles – other believers also shared their understanding and went with them to demonstrate their support (v2).
3 The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad.
A party of this size would be conspicuous; they needed provisions and tents for a journey of around 300 miles, which would take at least two weeks of walking (resting on the Sabbaths). As they journeyed south down the coast they would obviously be happy to share their mission with any who were curious. They evidently met with other believers too as they travelled.
4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.’
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question.
This came to be called the first ‘Council of Jerusalem’ and was an important milestone in the life of the church
Read Acts 15:7-35 (Perhaps people could share this reading)
7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles should hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.’
As we saw in Acts 10, Peter had realised that he was no longer to regard Gentiles as unclean, and was happy to enter Cornelius’ house, eat with him and preach to him and everyone assembled in his house. And as a result there had been many Gentile conversions. Since then he had slipped back into his old ritualistic practices and Paul had reprimanded him for it (Galatians 2:11-14). Now, he is happy to back up Paul, and points out that it was God himself who accepted the Gentiles just as they were (v8) – by grace, through faith alone (v11).
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.
The Assembly knew all about Peter’ vision and his missionary trip to Caesarea, now they were eager to hear what had happened as Barnabas and Paul travelled further into Roman territory.
13 When they finished, James spoke up. ‘Brothers,’ he said, ‘listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16 ‘“After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things” – 18 things known from long ago.
James is quick to point out that it had been prophesied that the Gentiles would also be accepted by God - a fulfilment of some of the passages that so far had no doubt been ‘difficult’ for Jewish religious minds.
19 ‘It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.’
James was a sound law-abiding Jew, and the Law of Moses had been a fundamental part of his upbringing. Now he recognised that although the law concerning circumcision applied specifically to the Jewish nation, there were other laws that should apply to everyone.
But why these particular laws?
James’ choice of commands may appear strange to us today, but in those days they were obviously pressing issues in the lands beyond Israel. This was a world where sexual immorality was rife, and where much of the best meat for sale in the markets had already been offered to idols in sacrifice – and where Jewish laws regarding slaughter were ignored.
But why was it so important to avoid eating blood?
Leviticus 17:10-12 ‘I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. 11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. 12 Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood'
22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers.
Obviously the council was in agreement and they now had the responsibility of correcting the error that had been spread in their name by the zealous Jews of verse 1. So they not only wrote a letter to the Gentile Church in Antioch, but sent two of their respected leaders to confirm its message.
23 With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.
24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Not only was the letter to be read to the Antioch church, but it was then to be passed on to all the Gentile Christians in the other churches established by Paul and Barnabus (v23).
30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them.
Again, we can only imagine the worship meetings that continued for several days (v33). Obviously central was the theme of encouragement, mentioned twice (v31 and 32). I picture a preaching convention that continued for a week or two before Judas and Silas were sent back joyfully to Jerusalem.
35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
It also seems that Silas, having returned to Jerusalem, then rejoined Paul in Antioch (v40).
Now read Acts 15:36-41
36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
What a shame, but how honest of the Bible. Barnabus was keen to involve his nephew again, as by now he was that much older. But Paul probably thought that Mark would still not be ready to face the suffering that he had experienced on his first journey. So Barnabus returned again to his native Cyprus, while Paul (now with Silas) headed north from Antioch to his own homeland, overland through Syria to Cilicia and the churches around Tarsus.
But Paul and his companions did not stay there, it would have been an obvious thing to cross the Taurus mountains through the pass known as the Cilician Gates, and then turn west in order to also visit the churches he had established on his first missionary journey.
Now we’ll read read Acts chapter 16 verses 1-5
1 Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek.
Timothy was a Greek name and he had been brought up as an uncircumcised Greek, although his mother (Eunice) and his grandmother (lois) were both Jews. They and Timothy had been converted when Paul first came to Lystra (2 Timothy 1:5), no doubt influenced by Paul miraculously healing the man who had been lame from birth. Timothy had obviously since become a useful member of the church.
2 The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3 Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
Now surely that is a bit odd. Do you remember Acts 15:1-2?
1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
And how about the whole of the rest of that chapter? They had all agreed with Paul that Greek men should not be required to be circumcised.
Paul himself was still adamant about this when he wrote his letter to the Galatians – see chapter 2.
Timothy had been a Christian for some years and by now was a valued member of the church – Paul had no problem on that score. But he was of mixed race. His mother was a Jew but as his father was a Greek he could not have automatically been circumcised at birth. However as a child if his Mother and Grandmother were practising Jews they may well have taught Timothy to observe Jewish practices.
But as he grew up he would not be able to participate fully in the Synagogue, and there is a hint in verse 3 that the local Jews would have known that – and the reason for it. Now, as an adult, he could choose to adopt the Jewish nationality of his mother. Travelling with Paul, whose custom was first to visit the local synagogues, it would simply be much easier if Timothy could join him as a Jew, however before he could do so he would have to conform to this most fundamental ritual.
4 As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
Possibly this was a time when Paul was able to think through the implications of the basic message: that ‘it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9). This was to be a theme in many of his letters.