Paul’s Defense of His Gentile Ministry
While Paul was in Antioch, working with a congregation made up of both Jew and Gentile Christians, some men came from Judea, and began to teach the brethren than unless they were circumcised, in accordance with the Law of Moses, they couldn’t be saved.1 This threatened to destroy not only the congregation in Antioch—which had a great number of Gentile Christians—but also all the work Paul had accomplished in his first missionary journey. The teaching those men were bringing undermined (1) the Holy Spirit, who sent Paul and Barnabas on the mission; (2) the validity of the prophets—including Paul and Barnabas—in Antioch, who received and delivered the message from the Holy Spirit; (3) the confidence of the congregation in Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, since they had sent these men and most likely financed a good part of their journey; (4) the good name of the congregation in Antioch, who had sent Paul and Barnabas as “apostles,” representatives of the church at Antioch; (5) God Himself, who had confirmed the apostolic message by miracles; (6) the salvation of a vast number of people, both in Antioch and across Asia Minor.
With so much at stake, it is no wonder that Paul and Barnabas’ argument and debate with these Jews was “not small.” Paul no doubt showed from the Old Testament Scriptures that salvation was open to the Gentiles as Gentiles—not as proselytes to Judaism, but still these Judean teachers would not back down. The disturbance was so great that the church sent Paul and Barnabas, as well as some of the other brethren, to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders to get an authoritative answer to the question2—even though Paul knew what the answer would be before they ever left.
As they made their way from Antioch to Jerusalem, financed in their journey by the church at Antioch, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, and Paul declared to the Christians they met about the conversion of the Gentiles—in other words, he was sharing the good news about the salvation of Gentiles in Christ while he was on his way to a big event whose purpose was to determine if these Gentile converts were really saved. Paul knew what the decision would be, and shared the joy with others before the apostles and elders gave their decision on the matter. This news which he proudly spread to the churches in Samaria brought great joy—the Samaritan Christians wouldn’t have had the same prejudices against Gentiles as the Jews.3
Arriving in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed warmly by the church, the apostles, and the elders. They shared the good news of how God used them as missionaries, but instead of bringing joy to all the people like it did in Samaria, it got some people upset. Some of the Christians who were also Pharisees stood up and basically denied that the Gentile converts had ever really be saved, because they hadn’t been circumcised, nor did they follow the Law of Moses.4 This caused the apostles and elders to convene a public hearing on the matter.5
After much discussion (or questioning, ASV) on the matter, in which the Pharisees would have been able to present their case, Paul watched as Peter stood and affirmed that the Gentiles had no obligation to follow the Law of Moses to be saved. Then Barnabas and Paul6 stood, “declaring the miracles and wonders that God had worked by them among the Gentiles,” re-affirming what Peter had said: that God showed His approval of Gentiles coming into the kingdom without the Law of Moses.7 After James gave the verdict, and a letter was written to send to the Gentile Christians, Paul and Barnabas (along with Judas and Silas) went back to Antioch to share the good news—their salvation was secure, and sealed with apostolic approval.
–Bradley S. Cobb
1 Acts 15:1. Several questions arise when considering this event—first and foremost among them How/why did these teachers from Judea get access to the church? We cannot doubt that they were sincere in their belief, and it is not likely that they attempted to be stealthy about it. However, this shows the wisdom of not letting someone teach without first knowing them. This responsibility falls on the elders. Secondly, these men were teaching that unless one was circumcised after the manner of Moses, they couldn’t be saved. Yet the covenant involving circumcision pre-dates the Law of Moses, going back to Abraham (Genesis 17:13). Additionally, Moses wasn’t too good at remembering to circumcise (Exodus 4:24-26).
2 Acts 15:2. Paul was inspired, as was Barnabas and the other prophets in Antioch. As such, their answer should have been sufficient to put the matter to rest. However, Paul’s status as an apostle was not as well-established among the Judean Christians at this point, so it was decided to appeal to a universally-recognized authority among the Christians—the apostles. It’s interesting that the apostles and elders were mentioned as authoritative in the matter. It is quite likely that the elders there included many of the 70 men that Jesus sent forth during His earthly ministry. These were leaders among the first church of Christ (in Jerusalem since Pentecost), and were given great respect by those in Antioch.
3 Acts 15:3. This final point was brought out by J.W. McGarvey in his original commentary on Acts.
4 Acts 15:4-5. Some have questioned why it is that this argument was even brought up in the first place. After all, didn’t they know that the Law of Moses was nailed to the cross and fulfilled in Jesus Christ? Did they not know that God’s New Covenant was in force? What were the apostles teaching them anyway, if they didn’t know this extremely basic concept? Part—perhaps even most—of the answer can be found in understanding that the Law of Moses was not just a religious law, but also a civil or national one. At the death of Jesus, as the perfect sacrifice, the Law of Moses ceased to have any religious power. But at the same time, it was the law of the land, and so faithful Jewish Christians would be obliged to follow the Law of Moses as the national law, except in instances where it could have violated the law of God. This is why the Jewish Christians would celebrate the Passover, observe the Sabbath, keep the Jewish dietary laws—because it was the law of the land, which is to be obeyed unless it causes one to violate the law of God. So Jewish Christians, especially in Jerusalem, would have never stopped observing the Law of Moses, even after becoming a Christian. So, since they never stopped observing the Law of Moses, it was very difficult for them to comprehend being right with God without the Law of Moses.
5 Public as far as the church is concerned, at least. Verse 12 says that there was a “multitude” in attendance, which would have been more than just the apostles and elders.
6 This reverses the order used throughout their missionary journeys, probably showing that Barnabas took the lead in speaking.
7 Acts 15:6-12.