Back at the beginning of chapter 13, Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church in Antioch to preach the good news about Jesus Christ in various places around the Mediterranean. And in the rest of chapter 13, and then in chapter 14, we read about the various places they went to and how they got on. In each place, some refused to believe the good news — and often those who refused to believe opposed them and they stirred up trouble against Paul and Barnabas. But, on the other hand, others did believe the good news. And little churches were established in the cities they visited.
Having reached the city of Derbe, they decided to return to the places where they had been in order to encourage the churches and to teach them some more. And then finally they ended up back where they started, in Antioch. And we read at the end of chapter 14 that they stayed there a long time with the disciples in Antioch.
The church in Antioch, you might recall, was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers. That’s what we read back in chapter 11 where it tells us that some believers from Jerusalem went down to Antioch and began to preach to Greeks, that is, to Gentiles, as well as to Jews. And a great number of people — Jews and Gentiles — believed and turned to the Lord. When news of what had happened in Antioch reached Jersualem, the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to check out what was happening. Well, Barnabas was completely satisfied with all that he saw there; and, in fact, he sent for Paul to come and to help him. And the two of them spent a year in Antioch, where they taught the believers and built them up in the faith.
So, the church in Antioch always comprised both Jewish and Gentile believers.
In verse 1 of chapter 15, we read that some men came down to Antioch from Judea. And whereas some visiting preachers bring a message to build up and encourage the believers, these visiting preachers only brought trouble. They began to teach the believers in Antioch that no one can be saved unless they are circumised according to the custom taught by Moses. In other words: the forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life is only for those who have been circumcised. That’s what they were teaching.
Now, there are three comments to make here. First of all, they were not saying that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is unnecessary. If that were the case — if they were denying the need to believe in the Lord Jesus — then no one would have listened to them. They would not have been given a hearing at all in the church if they had denied the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. So, they were saying that faith in Christ was necessary. But they were saying that faith in Christ was not sufficient. They were saying that faith in Christ by itself cannot save. They were saying that in order to be saved, you need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you need to be circumcised. As well as faith, you must be circumcised. So, faith alone is not enough; it’s faith plus circumcision. That’s the way to receive salvation from the Lord.
Secondly, it’s likely that circumcision was only the very step. Not only must they be circumcised, but they must keep the rest of the law of Moses. Circumcision was the doorway into lifelong obedience to the law of Moses. Why do I say that? Well, if you glance forward to verse 5, you’ll see that the same kind of people in Jerusalem were saying that the Gentiles must be circumcised and they must obey the law of Moses. So, circumcision was only the start of it. It was only the first step. Once they had been circumcised, then they must keep the rest of the law.
So, faith in Christ is not enough: you need to be circumcised as well. And circumcision itself is not enough; you need to keep the rest of the law as well. So, the third thing to note here is what they mean by keeping the law. By keeping the law they probably meant you need to do all those things which distinguished the Jews from the Gentiles. So, there’s circumcision. Then there were all the rules about what they can and cannot eat. For instance, beef is good, but pork is not. One is clean; the other is unclean. And then there were all the ceremonies and festivals which the Jews had to keep, and all the sacrifices at the temple.
These Jewish believers from Judea probably wanted the Gentiles believers in Antioch to abide by all those kinds of laws which we find in the Old Testament. They were saying to the Gentile believers in Antioch: Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is not enough. In order to be justified before God, you must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; and you must be circumcised; and you must follow all our rules about food and you must perform all the ceremonies we do in the temple.
What did Paul and Barnabas make of what these visiting preachers were saying? Look at their reaction in verse 2. Luke tells us:
This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.
Sharp dispute. Isn’t that interesting? In churches today, we sometimes think that division and disagreement should be avoided at all costs. We must preserve the unity of the church at all costs. And, normally, that’s true. Normally. Believers should love one another. We’re to live at peace with one another. If someone has something against us, we’re to go to them and make peace with them before we do anything else. That’s all true. In term of how one believer ought to behave towards another believer, we’re to love one another; we’re to put up with one another; we’re to forgive one another.
However, when it comes to what is preached in our churches, and the doctrines which are taught, sometimes the only right thing to do is to oppose a person who is preaching and teaching things which are not right. If someone is undermining the truth of the gospel and if they are robbing believers of their assurance, then we cannot put up with it even if it means entering into sharp dispute with someone.
And that’s what was happening here. These men were undermining the truth of the gospel and that is a very, very serious matter.
You see, whether they realised it or not, what they were teaching was that Jesus Christ by himself cannot save us. If Jesus Christ by himself could save, then faith in him would be enough. But since faith in him is not enough, and since we have to do these other things as well, then Jesus Christ by himself cannot save. He does his bit, but then we’re to do the rest ourselves.
And so, the person who trusts in Christ alone will only get half-way to heaven, and it’s up to us to make it the rest of the way by the things we do.
So, what they were teaching undermined the truth of the gospel that salvation is found in no one else and that he alone is the Saviour of the world.
And then, what they were teaching undermined the assurance of salvation. You see, if my salvation depends in part on what I do myself, then I’m always wondering whether I have done enough or not. Have I done enough to please God? We’re never too sure. We’re always wondering and worrying. There can be no assurance if my salvation depends on me and what I do. But what the apostles were preaching is that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Christ has covered over all our sins by his blood and through faith in his name, we are justified — declared right with God — for ever.
And then, what they were teaching would affect our praise. If Christ can’t really save us, then why should we praise God for him? Or why should we praise God with our whole heart? We can praise him a bit, because Christ has helped us a bit. But he doesn’t deserve all the praise or the glory, because he didn’t do all things necessary to save us.
Do you see how damaging their message was? And so, it was only right for Paul and Barnabas to oppose them and to dispute sharply with them. This false teaching needed to be stopped before it spread to other places.
Verses 2b to 4
These visiting preachers had caused so much confusion that it was decided to send Paul and Barnabas and some others to go to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders there and to ask them about this matter.
Now, notice, in passing two things. First of all, please notice the importance of the church in verses 3 and 4. In verse 3 we’re told the church sent Paul and Barnabas. And in verse 4, we’re told that the church in Jerusalem welcomed them. The church sends and the church receives. Paul and Barnabas did not act on their own, but they always acted as servants of the church.
And that fits with what we’ve already read. Back in chapter 13, the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas off on their missionary journey. Wherever they went, they planted churches. Then, at the end of chapter 14, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and they reported to the church all that had happened on their journey.
Paul and Barnabas never acted on their own, but always as servants of the church. And it’s important that we — in our day — note this carefully, because in our day there are so many para-church groups and organisations and often they have very little, if any, connection to the church. And their leaders and members often operate outside the oversight of any local church. And they do whatever they want. But in the book of Acts, all we read about are local churches. And those local churches are governed by elders. And the missionaries like Paul and Barnabas and the delegations like this one which went to Jerusalem are sent out by local churches, and they report back to local churches. So, it’s worth noting the importance of the local church in the book of Acts and the fact that even an apostle like Paul acted as a servant of the church.
The second thing to note in passing is to notice the the important role of the elders. We give so much attention to the apostles; and rightly so, because they were eye-witnesses to the Lord’s resurrection and were appointed by him to bear witness to all they had seen and heard. But perhaps we don’t give enough attention to the elders. And really, we should give them more attention, because whereas the apostolic office ceased whenever all of them had died, the office of the eldership has continued, down through the ages. In other words, it was the Lord’s will for the apostolic office to cease, but it is his will for the eldership to continue.
So, just as we rely on the message of the apostles in order to know what we’re to believe, so we need to rely on the continual oversight of the elders to help us to persevere in the faith. And so, we ought to give thanks to God for them. And we ought to pray to God to help them.
That’s as far as I’ll go today and I’ll save what happened in Jerusalem to the next time. But we should bear in mind the need to hold fast the truth that sinners like us are justified before God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone which is really the background to Paul’s dispute with these visiting speakers. Salvation is always by grace alone, because salvation is God’s gift to guilty sinners and none of us deserve his salvation. It’s always by faith alone, and not by works, because we can contribute nothing to our salvation at all. And always it’s in Christ alone, because he alone is the Saviour of the world, and his blood covers over all of our sins.
And so, we’re to point guilty sinners away from themselves and their own works and we’re to point them to Christ and his death on the cross. We’re to teach them to put their hope in Christ and not in themselves. We’re to tell them to trust in him, and in him alone, because whoever believes in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved.