Acts chapter 15

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What does Acts chapter 15 mean?

God had always planned to offer salvation to the whole world (Genesis 12:3). He had always planned to first set aside a particular line of Abraham's descendants to demonstrate to the world the importance of worshiping the holy God and to provide the Messiah—God the Son come to earth in humanity—as a sacrifice for the sins of the Jews and the Gentiles. When this expansion into the non-Jewish world begins, however, Jewish Christians who have lived a particularly devout life have a difficult time accepting that the purpose and necessity of their separation from other nations is over.

Paul and Barnabas are settling back in Syrian Antioch after their journey spreading the news about salvation through Jesus in Cyprus and up into modern-day Asia Minor (Acts 13—14). Jewish Jesus-followers have come to visit, demanding the Gentiles be circumcised. They are essentially saying the Gentiles must convert to Judaism in order to obtain salvation, not just put their faith in Jesus. Paul and Barnabas, having seen many Gentiles come to faith in their travels, vehemently disagree. The church in Antioch sends Paul and Barnabas, as well as a few others, to the church in Jerusalem for a final ruling. While traveling, the envoys encourage the churches along the Phoenician coast and in Samaria with stories of the churches they have planted. In Jerusalem, however, the Antiochene representatives meet Jewish Jesus-followers who still identify as Pharisees and who insist the Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law. The debate may not have been as much a genuine question of salvation as it was that the Pharisaical Christians didn't want to associate with Gentiles who are not submitting to Mosaic law because they'll lose their standing in the Jewish community (Galatians 6:12; Matthew 23:1–12) (Acts 15:1–5).

It was Peter who had watched the Holy Spirit fall on the centurion Cornelius and a houseful of Gentiles without benefit of circumcision or even baptism (Acts 10:44). He and the other apostles had heard Jesus' promise that He would not put a heavy burden on His followers (Matthew 11:28–30). More, Peter reminds the council that even the Jewish Jesus-followers are not saved from their sins and reconciled to God because of their circumcision and adherence to the Mosaic law. Salvation is only by grace, through faith, and not of works, as Paul (Ephesians 2:8–9) will attest later (Acts 15:6–11).

Peter's testimony quiets the crowd enough for Paul and Barnabas to give an account of how God validated their message. As they ministered to the Jews and Gentiles, God empowered them to perform miracles. Then James, the half-brother of Jesus and pastor of the church in Jerusalem, speaks. James reminds the council that God had always planned to bring the Gentiles to Himself—as Gentiles, not as converted Jews. He rejects the belief that Gentiles need to be circumcised or follow the Mosaic law. He does, however, suggest they tell the new believers to refrain from sexual sin and from food that Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ would find abhorrent—not because doing so would ensure the Gentiles' salvation, but because to do otherwise would cause a break in fellowship as wide as forcing the Gentiles to be circumcised would (Acts 15:12–21).

Church leaders and members agree with James' suggestions. They write a letter laying out specifically that the apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem place no expectation of circumcision on Gentile Jesus-followers. They do require Gentiles to accommodate the sensitivities of the Jews to maintain harmony. The council also chooses Judas Barsabbas and Silas to take the letter as representatives of the church (Acts 15:22–29).

Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and Silas reach Syrian Antioch with the letter from the church in Jerusalem. The Gentile Jesus-followers are understandably pleased; not only do they not have to be circumcised, Jesus' apostles validated their faith and the unity of their churches. Judas returns to Jerusalem; it's unclear if Silas stays or if he goes back to Jerusalem and then returns to Antioch (Acts 15:30–35).

This brings the book of Acts to the dissolution of Paul and Barnabas' ministry partnership. They both feel led to take James' letter to the churches they planted (Acts 16:4), but they are divided as to whether they should take John Mark, Barnabas' cousin. Mark had started with them on their first missionary voyage, accompanying them to the island of Cyprus and on up to Perga. But then he left them, apparently in such a way that disrupted their efforts. Mark then returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Paul did not want Mark to come; Barnabas, the "son of encouragement" (Acts 4:36), did. So, Barnabas and Mark sailed to Cyprus and Paul took Silas overland into Asia Minor. While the disagreement seems to have been sharp, the end result is each man choosing to serve God separately, without condemning or harming the ministry of the other. Over time, both men likely realize this was the best possible outcome (Acts 15:36–41).

This is the last we will hear of Peter or any of the other apostles in Luke's writing. The rest of the book of Acts covers Paul's second (Acts 16:1—18:23) and third (Acts 19—20) missionary trips, his arrest in Jerusalem and imprisonment in Caesarea Maritima (Acts 21—26), and his sea voyage to prison in Rome (Acts 27—28).
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