Chapter Fifteen The First Church Council

One of the hardest things for these poor minds of ours to grasp is the freeness of God’s salvation. In other words, it is so difficult for us to abide in a sense of grace, to realize that the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is justified by faith, justified on the ground of the finished work of Christ, plus nothing else! Absolutely nothing is to be added to the propitiatory work of the Lord Jesus Christ as the ground of our salvation. This is the gospel proclaimed in the beginning and preached by God’s faithful servants down through the centuries. But always there have been found those who, because of their legalistic minds, thought it too good to be true that men could be saved by grace alone and attempted to add something else to the gospel.

One comes along and says, “Yes, you are saved by faith— but you must be baptized to get to Heaven.” We practice baptism, but not as a means of salvation. Another says, “Grace saves us— but it is mediated through the sacraments, and you must partake of the Lord’s supper to have divine life.” We observe the Lord’s supper, but not as a means of salvation. Others will say, “Yes, we are saved by grace— but God saves men through the church, and you must join the church if you are to be saved at last.” We believe in the church, but the church does not save and does not have anything to do with the forgiveness of sin.

Law and Grace (Acts 15:1-35)

In the beginning, as the apostles labored among the Gentiles, they were preaching salvation by grace alone. This troubled certain men who came down from Judea to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas were ministering that time, having returned from their first missionary journey. These men said, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” This was an attempt to add something to the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. It created so much division that a showdown was necessary and “they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” They would go to the city where the first church had been established and find out if the gospel they were preaching was in accordance with the gospel that was being preached in Jerusalem.

When they reached Jerusalem they did not launch immediately into a discussion of the subject of law and grace. The church had a welcome meeting for Paul and his companions and they took the opportunity to give—what we call today—missionary addresses. “They declared all things that God had done with them.”

It must have been most interesting to sit in that group and listen to those veteran missionaries as they reviewed the years they had served the Lord and told about some of the marvelous miracles of grace wrought among the Gentiles. One might have supposed that this alone would have answered the question whether people need anything other than grace in order to be saved. But seated there were brethren who before their conversion had been Pharisees and they had brought their Phariseeism into the church. These were, after all, honest men. It is hard for us to realize when religious conflicts arise, that a godly man may believe something altogether contrary to what we believe. Yet if we are honest before God, we need to recognize that usually he is honest too and is seeking, according to the light God has given him, to stand for what he believes to be the truth.

These men had the Old Testament-—remember they did not yet have the New Testament. In the prophecies of the Old Testament Israel was recognized as God’s chosen people separated from the rest of the nations. There it was made clear that as others came to a knowledge of the true and living God they came to Israel and through circumcision were admitted into the congregation of the Lord. The prophets declared men would be saved, but it was always in subjection to Israel. “The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Isaiah 60:3), and “It shall come to pass, that there shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities…saying, We will go with you; for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:20-23). These are but samples of many Old Testament passages that declare Israel to be the vehicle through which God would save the nations.

As the legal-minded Pharisees read these Scriptures they said, “We can thank God for the conversion of the Gentiles, but they must come to God through Israel; they must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses.” So we read in Acts 15:5, “There rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed [do not forget that they were sincere believers and yet they differed with others as to salvation by grace alone], saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” After a good deal of disputation it was decided the apostles and elders should come together and consider this matter, instead of the whole church going into session about it.

It seemed eminently fitting that Peter should be the chief spokesman on this occasion. He was recognized as the one to whom the Lord Jesus Christ had given a very special commission, “Feed my lambs.. .feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). He was the one chosen of God to go down to Cornelius and preach the gospel to him and his household. So after the brethren had been gathered together to consider this matter and had a great deal of discussion, Peter rose up. He said, as it were, “Now, brethren, let me speak.” (And they were willing to listen to him.) “You know how by my mouth the Gentiles heard the gospel and believed.” Then he related, as he had told them before, what had occurred when he had preached the gospel to the Gentiles.

We remember that when he went and preached the gospel to the household of Cornelius he did not add works, he did not say anything about clean or unclean foods, or Jewish practices such as circumcision. He told them about the Lord Jesus Christ who lived and died and was raised again, and as he preached the gospel, “God which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us.”

When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost upon that great multitude of converted Israelites, He came in power and there were outward signs of His presence. In the same way when these Gentiles heard the Word and believed, immediately the same blessed Holy Spirit fell on them and baptized them into the body of Christ. They received the same outward signs He had given the Israelites in Jerusalem—thus demonstrating to a certainty that God accepted Gentiles on the ground of pure grace, altogether apart from the works of the law. There was no difference!

How we need to stress that no difference doctrine today. Paul said in his Epistle to the Romans, “There is no difference; For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (3:22-23). It does not make any difference what religious standing you may have-no difference as to what part of the world you were born (whether among Christians or among the heathen)—or maybe you are a Jew-there is no difference! For all have sinned. The Greek word for sin literally means “to miss the mark,” and all men have missed the mark. Not one man has ever lived in this world without failure and sin—except of course the Lord Jesus Christ. Another Scripture says, “There is no difference.. .for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him” (Romans 10:12). There is no difference—the same Savior is for everybody, and by putting their trust in Him, all men may be justified. So Peter said God “put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.”

That is what happens when people believe the gospel; it is not merely that they are justified before God—but there is new life; their hearts are purified by faith. Whereas they once loved sin, they now love holiness: whereas they once loved impurity, they now love purity. There is a complete change and reversal of attitude when people are born of God. This had taken place in these Gentiles. Who could doubt that God did the work?

Perhaps some of you have heard evangelist A. H. Stewart tell how, when greatly concerned about his soul, he was told to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and trust Him as Savior. But he thought that way was far too easy. He went about it his own way—he joined a church, sang in the choir, and became quite a worker. He hoped in all these things to obtain peace with God, but there was no peace! One day, while he was reading in his Bible the parable of the sower, he came to the words, “Then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). Stewart threw down his Bible and said, “Will you look at that! Even the devil knows a man will be saved if he will believe!” And that day he settled it and turned to Christ and trusted Him as Savior. Yes, God saves men when they believe; He saves all sinners, no matter what their situation or condition, when they trust His Son.

So Peter said, “Why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10) They were in bondage all the years they were in Judaism and they had to be delivered from this and brought into the liberty of grace. Why bring the Gentiles into the same bondage out of which they had been saved?

The breadth of Peter’s vision comes out here magnificently. “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” We would not have expected him to say that. We would rather have expected him to say, “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, they shall be saved, even as we.” But grace had done its work in Peter’s heart so he turned it right around. In other words he said, “Do you not see, God is saving Gentiles by grace and thank God He saves Jews by grace too! He delivers the heathen from the corruption of idolatry, He delivers the Jews from the bondage of legalism.”

The Christian Pharisees did not know what to say, but deep in their hearts they were probably thinking, “The Bible says these Gentiles are to come to God through Israel, and Israel is marked as separate through circumcision; therefore they must abide by the law.” However, we read, “Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them” (12). They did not get up and try to argue the question. Very rightfully. They were visitors and did not want to be too prominent. But after Peter made this thing clear, Paul and Barnabas said in essence, “We will give you some examples how He has been changing wicked men into holy men through grace.” So they gave example after example, just as returned missionaries have done through the years, telling of corrupt men changed by grace to godly men. So Paul and Barnabas gave testimony; and this helped clear the minds of the Pharisaic Christians.

After Paul and Barnabas had finished, the last man you might have expected spoke on their side: “And after they had held their peace, James answered.” Who was James? The brother of the Lord. He is often called the first Bishop of Jerusalem. He was a legalist of the legalists before his conversion, which did not take place until after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the leader of the Jewish party in the church, and was careful not to depart from the old ways until a fuller revelation had come. But God gave to James the special light that was needed for the moment.

“Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” These Pharisaic brethren had the Old Testament and there they read of the day when the Gentiles were going to turn to God and be blessed through Israel in the kingdom reign of the Messiah. James explained that this, however, is not what is happening now. God is now taking out from among the Gentiles a people to His name and He used Peter first to go to the Gentiles. That is the work going on at the present time. In other words, God is not converting the world today. What is He doing? He is taking out an elect people from the world and bringing them to a saving knowledge of His blessed Son.

James said in effect, “I understand. You brethren are perfectly right, but God is working out His own plan. The day is coming when God will bless the Gentile world through Israel and they too are going to enjoy the kingdom reign of Messiah and will all be united together as one holy, happy people; but that is not what God is doing now! God is now taking out a people, Jew and Gentile, to constitute the church of God. When He completes this work, the Lord is coming back the second time. That will be the time of blessing for the whole world. He will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down. He will then bring Israel as a nation into blessing again. Then all the remnant of the Gentiles will return to God-that is, in the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. Wars will cease. The Lord Jesus Christ will reign in righteousness over all the earth, and Jew and Gentile will be one happy, redeemed people, glorifying God together.”

In light of this fact, James said,

Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them [knowing the intense feeling of the Jewish brethren toward certain things tolerated by the Gentiles], that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication [from which every Christian should abstain], and from things strangled [which in the Jewish mind were very unclean], and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day (19-21).

To this they agreed, and the first council of the church ended in happy unison. What a wonderful thing it was that the Spirit of God should have so overruled, where men held such different views, as to bring them all at last to see that salvation is by grace alone through faith! How we can rejoice today that that precious truth has been preserved through the centuries and that, believing in Him, we can be a part of that great company of the redeemed some day to be revealed as the glorified church of our Lord!

Meantime, as we wait for His return from Heaven, we are to seek to get the gospel of His grace out to all men everywhere, that all may have an opportunity to know of the Savior and to find in Him life and peace, through faith, altogether apart from meritorious works of any kind.

Paul’s Second Journey Begins (Acts 15:36-41)

We have already considered the many momentous events that took place in connection with his first journey. We have seen how he and Barnabas eventually returned to Antioch in Syria, from which city they had set out on their gospel tour. Then, after remaining for some time, “teaching and preaching the word of the Lord,” it came into the heart of Paul to go on another journey.

We do not have in connection with this second missionary journey the same evidences of direct divine guidance as on the first. In that instance, we are told that the Holy Ghost said very definitely, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” In this case, we are told, “Some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they do.” It seems to have been a voluntary thing on Paul’s part rather than the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit as on the previous occasion. And, strikingly enough, from the very start things seemed to go wrong and you find the missionaries perplexed on several occasions as to just what their task should be.

Barnabas wanted to take his young cousin John Mark along. He had taken him to Cyprus when they went on their first journey, but when they returned to the mainland Mark left the apostles. He returned to Jerusalem, evidently preferring the company of his mother Mary and the comforts of home to an itinerant missionary life. “But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.” I take it Paul considered the work of the Lord so serious he could not think of linking up again with a man who had shown so little sense of the importance of service for the Lord. These mission trips were no Sunday school picnic! They were times of severe testing, hard work, and service for the glory of God. Paul did not wish to take anyone who was not divinely guided nor ready to endure hardship. Barnabas evidently felt differently.

“The contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder.” It is rather pitiable to read such a statement about these two devoted apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, but the Bible never tries to hide the faults of God’s servants. In that aspect the Bible is so different from many secular biographies. One would think their heroes perfect in almost everything. But the Word of God turns the light on and gives the record of their failures just as truly as of their successes and victories. This is both for our warning and our encouragement.

So these two venerable brethren could not agree in regard to this companion for their travels. They separated and for years did not labor together again. We are told in Proverbs, “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city” (18:19). Many of us know that the beginning of strife is as one little drop of water, which, after the break in the dike has begun, soon grows into a torrent of water that is practically impossible to stem. However in this instance, as the years went on, a kindly, considerate feeling prevailed, and in his old age Paul spoke affectionately of both Barnabas and Mark. As he wrote from his prison cell to Timothy we read, “Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”

I am sure most of us are thankful that Barnabas gave Mark another chance. There is many a young Christian who has failed in the beginning, but gone on later to become a valuable worker in the vineyard of the Lord Jesus Christ. We who are older need to be careful of our condemnation of the younger. Barnabas gave a helping hand to Mark, however it is very evident the brethren sided with Paul and thought he was right. But Mark brought forth good fruit later on.

So we read here, “Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus”— the same field in which they had labored before and found conditions so congenial. But Paul chose Silas, who is called a prophet— the one who went down to Antioch to convey the decree of the Jerusalem council. He proved himself to be an able man, as well as a prophet. We read that they “went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.” These were the two areas where Paul and Barnabas had labored before.