Over the last several chapters in Acts (since chapter 10, specifically), Gentiles have been entering the kingdom, via the church, in waves. Naturally, the Jewish believers who have been here from the beginning thought of themselves as the community gathered around the risen, ruling, and soon-returning Jewish Messiah—and didn’t have much of a concept of Gentiles as Gentiles joining themselves to that community. So of course there was much debate over what to do about all these ex-pagans now worshiping Jesus. They don’t know the Old Testament. They don’t know the Mosaic laws. Heavens, they don’t even flinch when they see pork offered in a sacrifice to Zeus. Acts 15 offers the apostolic answer to these issues—words from heaven about how Gentiles can come to know the God of the nations.
A. A Disturbance (vv. 1-4)
Barnabas and Paul have returned from their missionary journey—in fact, they have been home in Antioch for some time (cf. 14:28). During this period, some men from Judea, the region where the Jerusalem church was located, came and began teaching the largely Gentile Antiochan church that they had to become Jews first for the (Jewish!) Messiah to save them. They had to be circumcised, and that meant, of course, they also had to obey all the other laws Moses gave the children of Israel. After much debate, with Paul and Barnabas defending the gospel of grace and the Judeans defending Mosaic obedience, it was decided that Paul and Barnabas ought to go to Jerusalem to settle the matter. Why? Was Jerusalem in hierarchical authority over all the other churches (much like the diocese of Rome is considered authoritative over all local Roman Catholic dioceses and parishes)? Or were the leaders of that church bishops with overruling say over the leaders of other local assemblies? No. The simplest answer is that the men from Judea claimed to be from James and representatives of the church (perhaps they really were members). It would make all the sense in the world for Paul to address the matter with the apostles and elders located at Jerusalem. Of note, they travel through Phoenicia (located in Tyre) and Samaria, testifying to what God has done in the lives of Gentiles. Why these places? Phoenicia had a large Jewish population (11:19), and Samaria was full of half-Jewish people; it is possible both groups would have been susceptible to the false teaching coming from Judea and would have looked down upon (or worse, antagonized) the truly saved and biblically-ignorant Gentile believers. Paul ad Barnabas do the pastoral thing and are proactive. The response is one of unmixed joy. They reach Jerusalem and give the report again to James, the other elders, and the remaining apostles. It is to the aftermath of that we now turn.
B. A Debate (vv. 5-12)
In response to this report, men who were Pharisees but had come to Christ immediately begin contradicting Paul and Barnabas. They have not grasped the inauguration of the New Covenant yet (or perhaps thought Gentiles weren’t included in it, or that the New Covenant was merely the Law of Moses restated), and so they insist on the Gentile believers having to become and live like Jews before they can be saved. And really, one can understand why. All of the first Christians were Jews. Even they had difficulty giving up the ceremonial and civil laws. How many prayer meetings and pivotal events in Acts take place at or around the Temple? The observance of the Mosaic Law had never been an issue in coming to Christ since all of them—all of them!—already did it. Perhaps they even thought this was evidence of their sanctification, as the Yahweh they were obeying was the risen Messiah. So very naturally, they assumed that for Gentiles to have a share in their Messiah, the Gentiles would have to become, well, them.
Another debate ensues as the apostles and elders seek to respond biblically to these things. After some time, Peter stands up—Peter, not Paul—and defends Paul and Barnabas’s argument. He, after all, is the one who stated this whole mess by bringing the gospel to Gentiles! He says God chose him to give Gentiles the gospel (v. 7b), that God knows the hearts of those He saved (v. 8a), He testified to them about Christ and the reality of their salvation through signs and wonders (v. 8b) and by giving them the Holy Spirit (v. 8c). Therefore God made no distinction between Gentile and Jewish believers (v. 9a) because He cleanses both of their hearts alike by faith in Christ (v. 9b).
Indeed, Peter says that by forcing Gentile believers to embrace a pathway to salvation that God has not authorized, they are testing Him (v. 10)! Not only are they not recognizing the work of God among the Gentiles (effectively daring Him to do more for the Gentiles than He had done for them to prove they were saved), they are also challenging God to save people in a way contrary to His revelation. This is very serious indeed. Peter underscores that they way of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike is by grace alone, not any works (v. 11). Then, Barnabas and Paul share more of what God has done through them among the Gentiles (v. 12). James’s response is next.
C. A Decision (vv. 13-35)
As the leading elder of the Jerusalem church, James speaks for all the elders and apostles, just as with the letter James will later write (vv. 23-29). His next words are most interesting: He says the words of the prophets (plural) agree with what Peter has said about Gentile salvation; then he quotes Amos 9:11-12. This is a kingdom text, stating how God will restore the Davidic tabernacle (i.e., the kingly dynasty cut off in the exile) so that the Gentiles called by God’s name (a covenantal term meaning they are His chosen people) might seek Him. This means God would restore the Davidic kingdom and rule so that Gentiles, once cut off from Him, could be saved by Him and be His people as Gentiles. Some dispensationalists wrongly push this into the future Millennial kingdom (for reasons I can’t get into for the sake of space). While the last three verses of Amos 9 do apply wholly to the Millennium, and while verses 11-12 will find a greater fulfillment then, it is a mistake to say there is not a real, actual fulfillment of them today in the church (otherwise, one wonders why James quotes it in response to the very things happening in the church). God has restored the Davidic kingly line in Christ, the anointed Messiah to whom all the other kings pointed. Gentiles who surrender in faith to God’s chosen king have God’s own name placed upon them, just as Jews did.
Therefore, as a means of maintaining peace in the church among all the groups that were yielding to God’s Messiah, James and the other leaders write to the Gentile Christians to encourage them about the truth of the gospel they’ve received and things to avoid to not unnecessarily offend the Jewish believers in their midst. The church sends Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and Silas (the latter being prophets of the Jerusalem church) to Antioch to encourage the Gentile believers; the letter was received with overflowing joy and the two prophets strengthened them further with “a lengthy message” (v. 32). Paul and Barnabas stay in Antioch, ministering God’s Word to all who would hear (v. 35).
As God’s New Covenant embraced Gentiles, God’s people needed a clear Scriptural understanding of what that meant and what it looked like. (Those of us on the other side of this revelation may not fully appreciate how radical, even upsetting, it was for Jewish people to accept that Gentiles stood on equal footing with them.) God’s promise to restore the cast-off Davidic line in Messiah contained the very proof they needed. For in the risen, ruling, and soon-returning Messiah, Gentiles who were once not a people would be one, and those who had known no mercy would know it to the fullest degree (Rom. 9:25-26). Praise God for His unyielding, unstoppable, sovereign, gracious display of His mercy, glorifying Him who loves the unlovable!