A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 15:5-21. The debate in Jerusalem.
No sooner had the delegation from Antioch been given a warm welcome by the Jerusalem church, especially by the apostles and elders, than the controversy broke out afresh. *Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’* (5). They were entirely biblical to value circumcision and the law as gifts of God to Israel. But they went further and made them obligatory to everyone, including Gentiles. We note their word ‘must’, as we did the word ‘cannot’ in verse 1. Circumcision and law-observance, they insisted, were essential for salvation. So *the apostles and elders met to consider this question* (6), although others were present also. Luke gives no details of the *much discussion* (7a) which took place, but he summarizes the decisive speeches which were made successively by the three apostles involved – the apostle Peter (7-11), the apostle Paul supported by Barnabas (12) and the apostle James (13-21).
a). Peter (15:7-11).
Peter’s contribution was to remind the assembly of the Cornelius incident, in which he had been the chief human factor, and which had taken place *some time ago*, probably about ten years previously. He humbly attributed the whole initiative to God. First, he said, *God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe* (7). The choice had been God’s, the privilege his. Secondly, *God, who knows the heart (the word *kardiognostes*, ‘heart-knower’, had been used of Jesus in 1:24), showed that he accepted them* (literally, he ‘bore witness to them’, meaning ‘showed his approval of them’, NEB, JB) *by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us* (8). This proves that Peter’s earlier statement that ‘God …accepts men from every nation who fear him…’ (10:35) meant that there is no racial barrier to conversion; but God ‘accepted them’ in the sense of welcoming them into his family only when he gave them his Spirit. Thirdly, *God made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith* (9), demonstrating that it is the inward purity of the heart which makes fellowship possible, not the external purity of diet and ritual. It is also a purification by faith, not works.
This threefold work of God (choosing Peter, giving the Spirit, purifying the heart) led to an unavoidable conclusion. In expressing it, Peter addressed the opposition direct: *Now then, why do you try to test God* (that is, why do you provoke him by resisting what he has clearly revealed?) *by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?* (10). We Jews have not obtained salvation by obedience to the law; so how can we expect Gentiles to do so? ‘*No*’ Peter concludes, ‘*We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are*’ (11).
As he makes this final affirmation, we notice that he is echoing, perhaps quite unconsciously, the gospel statement which Paul had made to him in Antioch, while publicly challenging him. Together they made it plain that salvation is ‘through the grace of Jesus Christ’ and ‘by faith in Jesus Christ’. Grace and faith cannot be separated.
Paul: ‘We know that a man is …justified…by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus’ (Gal.2:16).
Peter: ‘We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are’ (Acts 15:11).
The central theme of Peter’s testimony was not just that Gentiles had heard the gospel, believed in Jesus, received the Spirit and been purified by faith, but that at each stage God *made no distinction between us and them* (9, cf. 10:15,20,29; 11:9,12,17). Four times in Luke’s condensed report of Peter’s speech the theme of ‘us-them’ or ‘we-they’ is repeated. God gave the Spirit to them as to us (8) and made no distinction between us and them (9). So why lay on them a yoke we could not bear? (10). We conclude that we are saved by grace as they are (11). If only the Judaizers could grasp that God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, but saves both by grace through faith, they would not make distinctions either. Grace and faith level us; they make fraternal fellowship possible.
b). Paul and Barnabas (15:12).
*The whole assembly became silent*, evidently out of deep respect, *as they listened to Barnabas and Paul* (perhaps the priority of Barnabas is because he was better known in Jerusalem than Paul) *telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them*. Previously God was said to work ‘with’ them (*meta* in 14:27 and 15:4, RSV); now ‘through’ them (*dia*) as his agents. This extremely brief resume may be due to the fact that Luke’s readers were already fully acquainted with the details of the first missionary journey from having read Acts 13 and 14. And probably the emphasis on the signs and wonders is intended not to denigrate the preaching of the word, but because they confirmed and validated it.
Tomorrow: c). James (15:13-21).
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.