What does Acts 15 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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).
Verse Context:
Acts 15:1–5 finds Paul and Barnabas home in the heavily-Gentile church in Syrian Antioch (Acts 11:19–21). They have been planting several Jewish/Gentile churches in Cyprus and modern-day central Asia Minor (Acts 13—14). Legalistic Jewish Christians from Jerusalem arrive and insist Gentiles cannot be saved unless they are circumcised and follow the Mosaic law. Paul, Barnabas, and the leadership of the church in Antioch do not agree. Paul and Barnabas travel to ask the leadership of the church in Jerusalem for a formal ruling.
Acts 15:6–11 is Peter's address to a council, gathered to determine if Gentile Jesus-followers must convert to Judaism. Jewish Jesus-followers who still identify as Pharisees claim Gentiles must be circumcised and follow the Mosaic law (Acts 15:5). Those who have evangelized Gentiles, like Paul and Barnabas, disagree (Acts 15:2). Now Peter, who was first to watch the Holy Spirit fall on un-baptized, un-circumcised Gentiles (Acts 10:44), says his piece: Gentiles and Jews are saved through grace, not works.
Acts 15:12–21 continues the account of the church of Jerusalem's debate. They are discussing whether Gentiles must convert to Judaism to be saved by Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter say salvation is through the grace of Christ (Acts 15:2, 7–11). Jewish Christians from the Pharisee sect disagree (Acts 15:1, 5). Now, Barnabas and Paul will relate their work among the Gentiles on their first missionary journey. James, the half-brother of Jesus, will share his conviction: God has not placed ritual requirements on Gentiles for salvation. However, Gentiles should make reasonable concessions to maintain unity with Jewish brothers and sisters.
Acts 15:22–29 records probably the first or second letter sent by a Christian leader with instructions as to how the church should live. A possibly earlier message is what we now call the book of James. The council in Jerusalem has decided: Gentiles do not need to convert to Judaism to receive salvation from Jesus. They are, however, asked to make a few alterations to their dietary and sexual practices. This is not for salvation, but to maintain unity and community in the Jewish-Gentile church.
Acts 15:30–35 depicts the delivery of a resolution about Gentiles in the church. Jewish Christians from Judea had come to Syrian Antioch and insisted Gentile believers must first convert to Judaism. The Antiochenes took their objections to the leadership in Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem sided with the Antiochenes, but required they make cultural concessions so Jews felt free to worship and live with them in unity (Acts 15:1–29). Now, the church in Antioch rejoices. Not only are they officially free from the Mosaic law, they are warmly unified with the apostles and the first church in Jerusalem.
Acts 15:36–41 marks a significant shift in Paul's ministry. Ever since Barnabas sought him out to help build the church in Syrian Antioch (Acts 11:19–26), the two have seemed inseparable. They established a church that will influence Christian theology for centuries. Their ministry extends beyond Syria and up into central modern-day Asia Minor. And they protected their church from legalists with harmful expectations of the Gentile Jesus-followers (Acts 15:1–35). Now, they go their separate ways. Paul will take Silas on his next missionary journey while Barnabas will take John Mark. Barnabas is not mentioned again in the book of Acts.
Chapter Summary:
Paul and Barnabas are in Syrian Antioch, home from their first missionary journey. Legalistic Christians from Jerusalem arrive and insist Gentiles must convert to Judaism. When negotiations fail, a delegation travels to Jerusalem to request clarification from Jesus' closest students. The leadership in Jerusalem agree with Paul and Barnabas. They write a letter that Gentiles should only make concessions, mostly dietary, which will ensure unity with the Jews in their congregation. After delivering the letter to Antioch, Paul takes Silas and Barnabas takes John Mark to share the letter to other churches they have planted.
Chapter Context:
Acts chapter 15 resembles Acts 11:1–18, where Peter testified before the leadership of the church in Jerusalem. His subject was how the Holy Spirit had fallen on uncircumcised and unbaptized Gentiles. Here Paul and Barnabas also testify that Gentiles are coming to faith in Jesus without being circumcised. The issue the leadership must decide is the extent Gentiles must be responsible to follow the Mosaic law. Their decision is that the Law is in no way required to be saved, but Gentiles should graciously make concessions so their Jewish brothers and sisters feel free to live in community. This forms a partial background to the rest of Paul's missionary journeys as explained in Acts.
Book Summary:
The summary of the book of Acts is provided in Jesus' words in Acts 1:8: ''But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'' In Acts 2:1–13, the Christ-followers receive the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:14—7:60 describes the rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem. Chapters 8—12 find Jewish persecution inadvertently spreading the gospel throughout Judea and Samaria. And in chapters 13—28, Paul and his companions spread the good news throughout the Roman Empire.
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