15:1-5 The problem of Circumcision
The principle that people of all races could be baptized and formed into a congregation of the Spirit was settled through Peter with the household of Cornelius (10:44-48). The evidence that this had happened could not be denied among the Christian leaders in Jerusalem (11:15-18). But by the time Paul and Barnabas had come back from their first missionary journey some from the Pharisee tradition (15:5) were teaching that although other people could be formed into congregations of the Spirit surely they should at least have their men circumcised as soon as possible. The problem was that circumcision was viewed as a sign that the family was committed to obeying all the rules of the torah (the five books of Moses). If circumcision was going to be required for all men who became disciples all over the world, the Christian church would never have taken root. At most it would have remained a Jewish sect.
15:1-2 These teachers came down from Judea, and began teaching in the church of Antioch (founded 11:20-26). They were Christians who believed in Jesus as Messiah but they were from the Pharisee tradition in Judaism (15:5). Paul and Barnabas would have argued that "a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart - it is spiritual and not literal" (Romans 2:28-29). In any case circumcision was a national sign for the children of Abraham (as it is among Jews and Arabs to this day). It was not a sign for people of other nations. Obviously the need for circumcision was a serious question that needed to be discussed.
15:3 So Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, and they traveled over two hundred miles down the coast to the Phoenician cities of Tyre (see the church there, 21:3-6) and Sidon, then on to the south through Samaria (see 8:4-17). On the way they reported the establishment of churches of the Spirit that they had planted among the Gentile peoples of Galatia. This was good news for the Gentile congregations in Phoenicia and Samaria. And Paul and Barnabas probably asked them to pray for a helpful decision from the brothers and sisters of the mother church in Jerusalem.
15:4 Paul and Barnabas were welcomed in Jerusalem. Three groups are mentioned. First there were the ordinary members of the church consisting of both Hebrew speaking and Greek speaking Jews in the city. Secondly there were some of the twelve apostles, who, except for Peter's tour in the coastal area (9:32-43), had still not moved out all over the world. Thirdly there were elders of the church in the city who served both the Jewish Christian congregations (2:47, 4:4, 23, 32) and the Greek speaking congregation that had been established (Acts 6:5).
15:5 These Pharisees were those who had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but still thought that converts must be circumcised and be taught to obey the Old Testament laws (see 15:1).
15:6-12 The First Council of Jerusalem
This gathering of apostles together with the elders (15:6) of congregations in Jerusalem had to make a very important decision which would either result in killing further church growth or permit non-Jewish congregations to mushroom all over the world. The council began with very heated discussion (15:6-7) until Peter described what had led him to baptize the group of uncircumcized Romans in Caesarea (10:44-48). This had already been approved by the church in Jerusalem (11:15-18). Then Barnabas and Paul were able to tell the story of what had happened during their first missionary journey. And this prepared the ground for James as chairman to offer a good compromise solution (15:13)
15:6 For apostles and elders see note on 15:4.
15:7-8 The discussion was opened by Peter as the leader of the twelve apostles. He had been given "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:19) to open the doors of the church to newcomers (which he did in 2:38-39, 8:14-17 and 10:44-48). He repeated the reasons for welcoming the family of the Roman Centurion in Caesarea which he had previously given to the church in Jerusalem (11:15-18).
15:9 Peter stressed that in cleansing the heart by faith God makes "no distinction" between Jews who strictly obey the Old Testament law and Gentiles who live by the rules of another culture (see Ephesians 2:14, 16).
15:10 The point at issue was whether non-Jews had to be circumcised when they became Christians (learners), as they had done in large numbers (11:26, 13:48-49, 14:21). Demanding circumcision of adult men was bad enough, but circumcision was a sign of a commitment to obeying the hundreds of laws in the torah (the five books of Moses). The Pharisees had defined these in 613 rules, 248 of which were positive and 365 were negative including 39 things which were prohibited on the Sabbath day. And Peter's hearers all knew that ordinary people found these rules extremely burdensome. Jesus ignored some of the old rules (as in Mark 7:18-19), and interpreted others in new ways (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-38, 43-44, Mark 2:27-29). Most modern Jews do the same, except the strictly orthodox rabbis and their followers in our day).
15:11 In any case we are saved by God's love and grace, not by obeying rules (legalism).
15:12 Peter's argument was unanswerable, and it was followed by the account given by Barnabas and Saul of all that happened in the course of their first missionary journey.
15:13-29 A Wise Compromise by James, the Brother of the Lord
The presentations by Peter and Barnabas and Paul proved that Gentiles did not have to submit to Jewish laws. (Many Jews would continue the circumcision of their baby boys, would keep the kosher food laws, attend the main national feasts, and obey as many as of the laws as were reasonably possible). The problem, which was now pressing, was how the two groups in each church could have table fellowship together. How could Jews cope with their Gentile brothers and sisters bringing pork and all sorts of forbidden sea foods to the love feasts (like our pot luck suppers?).
The compromise offered by James was one that Jews and Greeks, and Romans, and other races could live with. And it solved the problem of table fellowship for the next 22 years till the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. By then the Pharisees had been decimated (Matthew 23:32-36), and Jews became a minority in the churches. Soon Jews felt unwelcome, and they decided that they could not continue to be both Jewish and Christian. An important change in our day is that Messianic Jews have shown how it is not necessary for Jews to stop being Jews when they come to believe in Jesus as their Messiah.
15:13-14 James first reminded them of the obvious fact that God had begun to bless and welcome Gentiles to faith in the Messiah.
15:15 This certainly fitted the original promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3, 26:4, 28:14). It was also an important theme of the Old Testament prophets (e.g. Isaiah 42:1, 6, 49:6, 51:4-5, 56:6-7, 60:3), and many devout Jews expected this to be connected with the coming of the Messiah (Luke 2:32).
15:16-18 To support this inclusion of Gentiles James picked a Davidic promise about the restoration of the royal line of David (Amos 9:11). In our current Hebrew Masoretic text the word Edom (Amos 9:12) is obviously out of place. It was correctly translated as humanity in the Greek Septuagint translation (at least 1200 years earlier) which James quotes here (edom and adam had the same consonants in the original unpointed Hebrew text). The point of choosing this Old Testament text (among many others) is that through the revelation of the Messiah the Gentiles are to be included among God's people, and that was now taking place..
15:19-20 James' solution is that the Gentiles now coming in to the churches should not be required to submit to circumcision or obey the hundreds of rules in the torah. Jews by race would continue to do this, but when they met for common meals the Gentiles would be asked to abstain from four customs which Jews found particularly obnoxious. They should not bring meat that had been dedicated to idols in the heathen temples. Nor should they engage in sex with a heathen temple prostitute. The eating of blood was strictly forbidden (Leviticus 7:26-27, 17:10-12) and that included the blood which had not been drained out when an animal was strangled.
15:21 James' final remark was to point out that this was not all that radical since for several generations thousands of Gentiles had been attending Jewish synagogues all over the diaspora (Jews of the dispersion) to hear the Old Testament read in Greek (see 13:16, 26).
15:22-23 In addition to Barnabas and Paul, Silas and other leaders were sent with a letter to the Gentile believers in the churches of Antioch, Damascus, Tarsus, and probably other churches to the west that had been planted in the first missionary journey.
15:24-27 The "certain persons" who had unsettled the new non-Jewish Christians were of the Pharisee party (15:1, 5). The Gentile Christians should know the Pharisee opinion had been unanimously rejected (15:25) in the council, as would be confirmed by those who were sent as witnesses to the decision. The leadership in Jerusalem wanted all to know that they fully supported "our beloved Barnabas and Barnabas: in their mission (15:25)
15:28-29 The four compromises, which the Holy Spirit had approved, and the Gentiles would be asked to accept, was repeated in writing (from 15:20). The problem of meat that had been bought in the temple butcheries was relegated to the last - this would be very difficult to enforce because in many cities that was the only place you could buy meat (see Paul's solution in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:27-33). In exchange for these essential compromises the Jewish Christians would agree not to lay Jewish law burdens on the Gentile believers (see Peter's point in 15:10).
15:30-41 Two New Missionary Journeys
After delivering the good news of the letter from Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas disagreed about who should accompany them on the next missionary journey. The feelings must have been very strong (15:39), but the outcome was that there would now be two missionary teams instead of one.
15:30-31 Barnabas and Paul traveled back to Antioch and spoke to the community (plythos means a large number, meeting, assembly) which in this case included representatives of many congregations from all over the large city. The decisions were received with great joy.
15:32-34 Judas and Silas, who had accompanied Barnabas and Paul (15:22) were prophets who gave messages of "upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" (1 Corinthians 14:3). Then they were sent back to Jerusalem "in peace." Probably Paul was so impressed with Silas that he asked him to consider greeting his family and settling his affairs in Jerusalem before coming back to be part of his mission team (see 15:40). Meanwhile there was much work for Paul and Barnabas to do in Antioch (see 11:21, 26).
15:36 It was Paul who wanted to go back and visit the new churches which they had planted.
15:37-39 Barnabas wanted to give Mark another chance after his previous failure (13:13). Paul thought he was too unreliable. The solution was for Paul to take Silas (15:27, 32, see 16:19, 25) with him back across present-day Turkey. And Barnabas took Mark to strengthen the churches in Cyprus. Titus was later left to organize the congregations of the church in Crete (Titus 1:5, see note on 18:21)
15:40 At first sight it seems that Paul and Silas had the blessing of the church in Antioch (see 13:2-4) for the second journey. But perhaps Luke was more interested in focusing on Paul's work, and omitted the commendation of Barnabas and Mark to go back to Cyprus? Paul sailed by Cyprus (21:3, 27:4) but never returned there.
15:41 Damascus was the capital of Syria, and there was a strong church there (9:10, 19, 22). The capital of the province of Cilicia was Tarsus which was Paul's home city. And he must have planted a church in the period between being sent back to Tarsus because of persecution in Jerusalem (9:30) and Barnabas coming to call him from that city (11:25).