The Problem: Those from Syrian Antioch: Part 1

by John Lowe
(Laurens, SC)

December 7, 2014

Acts 15:1-35

1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.
4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.
5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.

The stage is now set for Paul’s mission to the heart of the Greco-Roman world as the missionary to the Gentiles. There remained only one final hurdle, and that was the agreement of the whole church on the Gentile mission. There were still those among the Jewish Christians who had serious reservations about the way the outreach to the Gentiles had been conducted. These reservations and the final solution to them worked out in a major conference in Jerusalem are the subject of 15:1-35. There the whole church agreed on the mission. The way was now open for the mission of Paul, and that will be the subject of the rest of Acts. Hereafter the Jerusalem church fades into the background. When it does reappear, as in chapter 21, it will be entirely in connection with Paul’s Gentile ministry. The focus is entirely on him.

The debate in Jerusalem revolved around the issue of how Gentiles were to be accepted into the Christian fellowship. The more conservative Jewish Christians felt that they should be received on the same basis Jews had always received Gentiles into the covenant community—through proselyte initiation. This involved circumcision of the males and all proselytes taking upon themselves the total provisions of the Mosaic Law. For all intents and purposes, a Gentile proselyte to Judaism became a Jew, not only in religious conviction, but in lifestyle as well. That was the question the conservative group of Jewish Christians raised: Should not Gentiles be required to become Jews in order to share in the Christian community? It was a natural question. The first Christians were all Jews. Jesus was a Jew and the Jewish Messiah. God had only one covenant people—the Jews. Christianity was a Messianic movement within Judaism. Jews had always demanded of all Gentile converts the requirements of circumcision and rituals of the Torah. Why should that change?

Evidently, the requirements had changed. There was no indication that Peter had laid such requirements on Cornelius, or the Antioch church on the Gentiles who became a part of their fellowship, or Paul and Barnabas on the Gentiles converted in their mission. This was a cause for serious concern from the more conservative elements. Not only was it a departure from normal proselyte procedure; it also raised serious problems of fellowship. How could law-abiding Jewish Christians who seriously observed all the ritual laws have interaction with Gentile Christians who did not observe those laws? The Jewish Christians would run the risk of defilement from the Gentiles. These were the two issues that were faced and resolved in Jerusalem: (1) whether Gentile converts should submit to Jewish proselyte requirements, especially to circumcision and (2) how fellowship could be maintained between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

Acts 15:1-35 falls into four natural parts. The first comprises an introduction and relates how the debate arose in Antioch and led to the conference in Jerusalem to attempt some resolution (vs. 1-5). The second part focuses on the debate in Jerusalem (vs. 6-21) and primarily centers on the witness of Peter (vs. 6-11) and of James (vs. 12-21). The third part deals with the final solution, which takes the form of an official letter sent to Antioch (vs. 22-29). The narrative concludes where it began—in Antioch—with the delivering of the letter by two delegates of the Jerusalem church (vs. 30-35).

1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.

It all started when some

legalistic Jewish teachers (“certain men,” Judaizers; false teachers who were self-appointed guardians of Judaism; probably the same as those referred to in Galatians 2:12), teaching a doctrine of salvation by works) came to Antioch posing as representatives of James and others of the Jerusalem church: “I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain” (Gal. 2:2). They taught that the Gentiles, in order to be saved, had to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses; but they were ignorant of the relationship between Law and grace. They were attempting to mix Law and grace and to pour new wine into the ancient brittle wineskin (Luke 5:36-39). What they wanted to do was to block the new and living way to God that Jesus had opened when He died on the cross (Heb. 10:19-25). They were putting the heavy Jewish yoke on Gentile shoulders: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). These men were associated with the Jerusalem congregation but not authorized by it (Acts 15:24). Identified with the Pharisees (v. 5), these teachers were false brethren who wanted to rob both Jewish and Gentile believers of their liberty in Christ (Gal. 2:1-10; 5:1). When any religious leader says, “Unless you belong to our group, you cannot be saved!” or, “Unless you participate in our ceremonies and keep our rules, you cannot be saved!” he is adding to the Gospel and denying the finished work of Jesus Christ. When you do that, you no longer have the Gospel but you have a religion. You no longer have the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

These “men which came down from Judea” taught a doctrine that was not only wrong, but was a frontal attack on the Gospel of the grace of God. The true Gospel of grace teaches that Christ finished the work necessary for salvation on the cross. All a sinner has to do is receive him by faith. The moment human merit or works are introduced then it is no longer of grace. Under grace, all depends on God and not on men. If conditions are attached, then it is no longer a gift but a debt. And salvation is a gift; it is not earned or merited.

There were many Gentiles in the church at Antioch; “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20-21). There is no indication that they had been circumcised when they joined the Christian fellowship. This was disturbing to some Jewish Christians who came from Judea and insisted that circumcision in strict obedience to the Jewish law was necessary for salvation. Evidently they shared the views and perhaps were even some of the same persons as the “circumcision party,” who were identified in the Western text1 as belonging to the sect of the Pharisees and who challenged Peter for having table fellowship with Cornelius: “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them." (11:2-3). The group evidently represented the strict Jewish viewpoint that there was no salvation apart from belonging to the covenant community, the people of Israel. To be a part of that community a Gentile must take on the physical sign of the covenant, the mark of circumcision, and live by the precepts of the Law of Moses, ritual as well as moral. In the sharp debate that this demand provoked, Paul and Barnabas were the main opponents to this Judaizing perspective (v. 2). They had laid no such requirements on the Gentiles converted on their recent mission. It is altogether likely that the large number of such converts in their successful mission had attracted the attention of this Judaizing group in the first place.

There was a large number of priests in the Jerusalem assembly (Acts 6:7), as well as people who still followed some of the Old Testament practices (see Acts 21:20-26). It was a time of transition, and such times are always difficult.

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