A Commentary by John Stott

Acts 15:1-16:5 – 1. The point at issue (15:1-4)

The tranquility of the Christian fellowship in Syrian Antioch was shattered by the arrival of a group Paul later dubs ‘trouble makers’. Some men came down from Judea to Antioch (1). Before going on to consider who they were and what they were teaching, I need to share with my readers that I hold the so-called ‘South Galatian’ view, namely that Paul’s Letter to the Galatians was written to the South Galatian churches of Pisidian Antioch,Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, which he and Barnabas has just visited on their first missionary journey; that he dictated it during the height of this theological crisis before the Council settled it (for he does not refer in his letter to the ‘apostolic decree’); that he was writing it probably on his way up to Jerusalem for the Council, which would be his third visit to the city, although he does not mention it in Galatians because it has not yet taken place; and that therefore the situation Luke describes at the beginning of Acts 15 is the same as that to which Paul refers in Galatians 2:11-16.

If that is correct, then the statement that some men came down from Judea to Antioch (1) corresponds to ‘certain men came from James’ to Antioch. Not that James had actually sent them, for he later disclaims this (24), but that was their boast. They were trying to set two apostles against each other, claiming James as their champion ad framing Paul as their opponent. They were ‘Pharisees’ (5), and ‘zealous for the law’ (21:20). And this is what they were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’ (1). Nor was the circumcision of Gentile converts their only demand; they went further. Gentile converts, they insisted, were also required to obey the law of Moses (5). Because they could not accept conversion without circumcision as adequate, they had organized themselves into a pressure group, whom we often term ‘Judaizers’ or ‘the circumcision party’. They were not opposed to the Gentile mission, but were determined that it must come under the umbrella of the Jewish church, and that Gentile believers must submit not only to baptism in the name of Jesus, but like Jewish proselytes, to both circumcision and law-observance as well. It is hardly surprising that this teaching of theirs brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them (2a).

We need to be clear what they were saying, and what the point at issue was. They were insisting, in Luke’s tell-tale summary, that without circumcision converts could not be saved. Of course circumcision was the God-given sign of the covenant, and doubtless the Judaizers were stressing this; but they were going further and making it a condition of salvation. They were telling Gentile converts that faith in Jesus was not enough, not sufficient for salvation: they must add to faith circumcision, and to circumcision observance of the law. In other works, they must let Moses complete what Jesus had begun, and let the law supplement the gospel. The issue was immense. The way of salvation was at stake. The gospel was in dispute. The very foundations of the Christian faith were being undermined.

Tomorrow: Acts 15:1-4. The point at issue (continued)

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.