Chapter 13: How to deal with deadly doctrine
1 And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ 2 Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.
3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. 4 And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.’
6 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. 7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: ‘Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore, 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? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.’
12 Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles.
13 And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, ‘Men and brethren, listen to me:’
Battle over basic truth: what is the gospel?
Circumcision ‘(from the Latin circumcidere, meaning “to cut around”) is the surgical removal of the foreskin (prepuce)’ from the male sex organ.1 It may have started in Egypt,2 but became significant for Jewish people.3 Through it the male concerned becomes a covenanted member of God’s earthly people, Israel. Though it can take place later in life, every Jewish male child must be circumcised when eight days old. Thus circumcision is an important entry rite to Jewish males. Here the men from Judea wrongly teach that to be saved from sin and judgment circumcision, as taught by Moses, is needed as well as conversion to Christ. If that is so, the gospel alone cannot ‘be the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek’.4
Paul and Barnabas have come to trust the Lord Jesus Christ as circumcised Jews. They know that circumcision never changed their lives or saved them from sin. They also know that the ‘circumcision’ needed is spiritual, internal, personal and only through repentance from sin and faith in Christ. It is not the flesh that needs cutting off. We need to be separated from and cleansed from our sin. Paul will make this clear later when he writes to the church at Rome: ‘he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God’.5 To be a real child of God spiritually—in a sense, a ‘real Jew’—your heart needs to be changed within by faith in Jesus Christ crucified and risen again.
So the two Christian missionaries dissent from and challenge the views of those who would add man’s requirements to God’s insistence that a sinner is saved by His grace and by faith alone in Christ alone.6 They dispute strongly with them. Christians still must stand for God’s truth today. The decision is taken to go to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and with the elders of the Jerusalem church ‘about this question’. The church at Antioch sends them there.
En route through Phoenicia and Samaria they cause great joy for other Christians by telling them how Gentiles have trusted Jesus and been converted. It has been rightly said that our biggest joy is to know Jesus as our Saviour, both now and in eternity, and the next biggest joy is to see other people turning to Christ. We need to be part of that joy.
At Jerusalem: the same error reappears
Two opposite reactions face Paul and Barnabas when they reach Jerusalem. First, after ‘being received by the church and the apostles and the elders’ they have the great privilege of reporting ‘all things that God [has] done with them’. They have known God ‘with them’ and working ‘with them’. They have experienced His gracious enabling to do what they needed to do. The second reaction leads them to a repeat episode of their contending in Antioch for the simple gospel of forgiveness through faith alone in Christ alone. This time they encounter some Pharisees who have believed in Christ, but who are still affected by legalistic Judaism. These Pharisees have a long way yet to go to understand the word of God: they claim that believers in Christ must be ‘circumcised and keep the law of Moses’.
We have already seen that a Christian’s ‘circumcision’ is not a physical one, but is being separated spiritually from sin (and its judgment in Hell!) by repenting and trusting the One who died for our sins on the cross. Regarding ‘the law of Moses’, the ceremonial law which pointed to Christ as its fulfilment, the hygiene law for the wilderness wanderings, and the nation’s changing and passing national criminal and civil law codes can do nothing to save a sinner from judgment and Hell, or change his life from within. God’s timeless and changeless moral law—as seen in the Ten Commandments7—remain as an expression of God’s timeless and changeless character. Those commandments show us how far we have fallen and therefore why we need a Saviour. They are a guide also to holy conduct and in keeping them we show we love their author, the Lord Himself.8 But no-one at any time has been able to save himself from Hell’s judgment by trying to keep God’s moral law. In fact we have broken it time and time again since we became guilty before God the first time we broke it. If we could keep all His Ten Commandments perfectly from now on—which we cannot—that cannot save us. We will be judged as guilty sinners who have continually broken God’s law.
The case for grace at the Jerusalem Council
The apostles and elders jointly host the important discussions. In the beginning there is ‘much dispute’. One can imagine light coming from those who love Jesus and His gospel, and heat continuing to leave the lips of those who do not. If ‘light not heat’ was practised in all our disputes, we would have a much better world today!
Then Peter speaks. He traces how God has commissioned him to speak to Gentiles, and how they first heard the gospel and believed when he spoke to them at the house of Cornelius.9 Peter stresses that God knows and deals with hearts and that He has given His Holy Spirit to Gentiles, just as He has to believing Jews.10 He asserts that God made ‘no distinction between us and them’. Through their belief in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, God has purified ‘their hearts by faith’. He argues that as God has done that in them, for them, and to them, how can Christians who know what has happened through the gospel, put a further yoke of bondage on them? It is wrong to say they need to be circumcised and to keep God’s law to be saved. He is adamant that the right belief is that ‘through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ’ both Jews and Gentiles will be saved in the same way. Perhaps he remembers Jesus’ clear words: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through Me’.11
Paul and Barnabas are, by now, well experienced in sharing with hearers how God had performed ‘miracles and wonders’ through them and ‘among the Gentiles’. They are arguing that if God has manifested His power and authority to Gentiles through them, He is showing they have been speaking on His behalf and with His Spirit and power. How then can anyone say logically that the conversions accompanying their work for God are not the work of God? No doubt, the point will not be lost on their hearers that circumcision and being saved by trying to keep God’s law were never part of their gospel message that saved Gentile sinners and that God blessed so definitely.
The President speaks
After Peter’s passionate speech and Paul’s and Barnabas’s factual testimony of what God has done when the Gentiles have heard the gospel preached to them, no-one says anything. There is silence. Christianity, from its earliest days, has benefited from the combination of infallible Biblical truth, solid facts consistent with that Biblical truth, and individuals’ experiences of that Biblical truth through faith in Christ. A similar combination has just been observed again in Antioch and now all can see that God’s gospel of grace is the same for all people. All who repent and believe the gospel by trusting Christ will be saved. All sinners are the same in this respect: Christ has died to forgive them: He lives as their Lord to change, bless, strengthen, use and guide them. He will keep them eternally.
It now remains for James, as President of the Jerusalem Council, to speak up and summarise the discussion. He is an apostle, the half-brother of Jesus, and one of the pillars of the church.12 He is well respected. Through what has been said the Council is now assured of the truth that God calls Gentiles to salvation. All pay attention as James begins: ‘Men and brethren listen to me’.
We will hear what he has to say in the next chapter.
Questions on Chapter 13
Acts 15:1–13 How to deal with deadly doctrine
A. What is the basic teaching of the gospel about keeping God’s law? Can I get to Heaven if I keep the Ten Commandments from now on? Why should I try to keep them if they cannot save me?
Acts 15:1–5, Galatians 2:8–9, Galatians 2:16, Romans 7:7, Galatians 3:24, 1 John 3:4, John 14:15
B. What are the arguments put forward to the Council first by Peter and then by Paul and Barnabas as to why Gentiles should not have to be circumcised physically or keep God’s law in order to be saved?
Acts 15:7–12, Acts 10:34–48, Acts 13:42–49
C. How does James conduct the proceedings? Who is he?
Acts 15:13, Acts 15:14–21, Matthew 13:55, Galatians 2:9