Q: Should Christians obey Jewish rules?
- 15:1 Some men from Judea1 showed up and told people in the church, “Unless you men get yourselves circumcised, like the custom of Moses says, you can’t get saved.”2
- 15:2 Paul and Barnabas got angry like you wouldn’t believe. They argued up and down with those men. Antioch church leaders decided to send Paul and Barnabas and some others to Jerusalem to talk about this problem with the apostles and other top church leaders in the movement.
- 15:3 So the church sent them on their way. The men traveled south, passing through Phoenicia3 and Samaria.4 As they traveled, they told people all about how non-Jews were converting to the faith. This delighted believers everywhere.
- 15:4 When the men finally arrived in Jerusalem, apostles and other church leaders welcomed them. The men from Antioch told the church leaders about everything they saw God do.
- 15:5 One group of believers didn’t like what they were hearing. They were Pharisees5 who had come to believe in Jesus. They said, “People who want to get saved have to obey the laws of Moses, including the law about circumcision.”
- 15:6 That topic is the very reason the apostles and other church leaders had called this meeting.
- 15:7 The debate went on for a long time. Eventually, Peter stood up and said, “My dear brothers, you know that a long time ago God picked me out of this crowd of leaders. He chose me as the one who would be the first to deliver the good news to non-Jews, so they could hear the story of Jesus and believe it.
- 15:8 God, who knows what’s in the heart of each one of us, confirmed that the non-Jews were authentic believers. He did this by giving them the Holy Spirit, in the same way he gave the Spirit to us.
- 15:9 It didn’t make any difference to him that they weren’t Jews. He cleaned their hearts because of their faith, just as he did for us.
- 15:10 So why on earth are you pushing back against God and trying to saddle these new, non-Jewish believers with our baggage? Admit it, even we couldn’t carry that load. Our ancestors couldn’t, either.
- 15:11 We believe we’ll be saved through the kindness6 of the Lord Jesus. Our non-Jewish brothers believe exactly the same thing.”
- 15:12 The room slipped into silence. After the pause, everyone listened to Barnabas and Paul tell about the miracles God did through them as they ministered to non-Jews.
- 15:13 When the two men finished speaking, James said, “My brothers, please listen to me.
- 15:14 God cares about the non-Jews. He wants to make them his people. Peter7 reminded us of how God revealed that to him first.
- 15:15 What Peter reported tracks with what the prophets predicted:
‘I will come back.
David’s house8 is in ruins, but I will rebuild it.
I will make it like new.
I’m doing this so all humans can have access to the Lord.
That includes non-Jews who show their faith in me by taking my name.
God has spoken. He said these things long ago.’9
- 15:19 Here’s what I think we should do about it. In my judgment, we shouldn’t make it tough on the non-Jews who are putting their faith in God.
- 15:20 Instead, let’s write them a letter. Let’s ask them to follow just a few of our rules. We’ll tell them to stay away from anything associated with sacrifices made to idols. Don’t commit sexual sins.10 Don’t eat meat from strangled animals.11 And don’t drink blood or eat meat with blood still in it.12
- 15:21 Since ancient times, we have taught these laws of Moses. And now we read them in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Jewish letter: “Dear non-Jews…”
- 15:22 Top leaders in the church—apostles and the older men—decided James had a good idea. So did the whole group of believers. They would send two delegates to Antioch, with Paul and Barnabas. These delegates, leaders in the church, were Judas, also known as Barsabbas, along with Silas.13
- 15:23 The men took this letter to believers in Antioch:
“Dear non-Jewish believers who live in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia,14
We send our warmest greetings to you.
We’re your brothers—the apostles and other church leaders in Jerusalem.
We got word that some of our church folks came to you recently and said things that confused you and stirred up trouble. We want you to know we didn’t send them.
We have since talked about the problem and reached an agreement. We decided to send men back to you. They are coming with our dearly loved Barnabas and Paul,
both of whom put their lives on the line, spreading the word about the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have sent you Judas and Silas as our representatives. They’ll talk with you about our decision.
Here’s what we decided, under the direction of the Holy Spirit. We won’t ask you to do anything more than the following.
Stay away from meat sacrificed to idols, blood, animals strangled, and sex sins. If you can do that, you’ll do great. So long for now.”
- 15:30 So the men went to Antioch. They called a meeting of all the believers and delivered the letter.
- 15:31 When they read the letter, the locals got happy-wild. The letter gave them a huge boost of encouragement.
- 15:32 Judas and Silas were both prophets who delivered God’s messages to people. That’s what they did in Antioch, encouraging the believers and building them up. They talked a long time.15
- 15:33 The men stayed for quite a while. When it came time to say goodbye, believers sent a warm greeting to the church in Jerusalem, wishing them peace.16
- 15:34 Silas decided it would be a good idea to stay in Antioch.17
- 15:35 Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch. Like many others, they taught and preached the message of the Lord.
Paul picks a new traveling buddy
- 15:36 One day Paul told Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we told the folks about the Lord. That will give us a chance to see how they’re doing.”
- 15:37 Barnabas was all for it. He wanted to take John Mark18 again.
- 15:38 Paul didn’t think it was the smartest idea—taking the guy who bailed on them during the first trip, after they arrived in Pamphylia.
- 15:39 The two got into a hot-headed argument. It ended with them parting company. Barnabas took John Mark and sailed off to Cyprus, to visit believers there.
- 15:40 Paul picked a new partner: Silas. They hit the road after believers in Antioch entrusted them to God’s kindness and care.
- 15:41 Paul traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, encouraging and strengthening the churches in those territories.
Judea was the territory around Jerusalem.
First of all, “ouch.” For many people, the hardest part of converting to the Jewish faith was circumcision along with the kosher food restrictions. That’s why some people in synagogue services were described as people who respected God, but were not considered full converts to the Jewish faith. Many Bible experts say that the Jewish Christians who came from Judea were essentially telling non-Jewish followers of Jesus that in order to become a Christian, they had to first become a Jew and obey all the laws the Jewish people are supposed to obey. If these Judeans had won the argument, Christianity may have become just one more branch of the Jewish faith. Three main branches today are Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Christians could have become the fourth branch: Messianic, Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah.
Lebanon today, on Israel’s northern border.
Samaria was a region in what is now the central part of Israel and the West Bank Palestinian Territories.
Pharisees were one of several groups of Jews. It was a bit like Methodists being one of many groups of Christians. Pharisees were known for not only strictly keeping the laws of Moses, but also for keeping hundreds of other laws that were a bit like the rules in church manuals today. For example, Jewish law said Jews should not work on the Sabbath. Pharisees defined what they considered work – such as healing people. Pharisees taught that practicing medicine on the Sabbath was forbidden except when someone was at risk of dying that day.
Often translated “grace.”
James actually spoke the Jewish version of Peter’s name, “Simeon.”
“David’s house” is another way of saying “David’s kingdom.” It’s a reference to the widespread Jewish belief that a savior known as the Messiah would come from the descendants of David to restore David’s kingdom to the kind of glory it once enjoyed.
James is drawing mainly from Amos 9:11-12. But the idea shows up in several prophecies. Examples: Isaiah 45:21, Zechariah 2:11, Jeremiah 12:15-16.
Some Bible experts say James was probably thinking of sexual rituals associated with idol worship.
Strangling the animal instead of cutting the animal’s throat keeps the blood inside. Many consider the meat tastier with the blood left in it and cooked rare. But Jews were not allowed to eat meat with blood in it (Leviticus 17:11).
See Leviticus 17:11; 19:26.
Many Bible experts say this Silas was probably the man, also known as Silvanus, who later joined Paul on mission trips (Acts 15:40; 2 Corinthians 1:19).
The apostle Paul came from the region of Cilicia (Acts 21:39), in what is now southern Turkey. Asia was an important region in what is now Western Turkey, along the coast. Ephesus was perhaps the most important city in that area.
Which might suggest that they weren’t just prophets, they were preachers. See Acts 20:7-11.
Paul later sent such a greeting to believers in Rome: “May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace” (Romans 1:7 New Living Translation).
Many Bibles today skip this verse because it’s not in some of the most reliable ancient manuscripts. And the phrasing disconnect with the rest of the chapter, some scholars say, makes it read like a later editorial addition, perhaps to help the storyline better fit with what follows in 15:40.
Barnabas and John Mark were cousins (Colossians 4:10).
Why do you think Jerusalem Christians who were racially Jews would feel compelled to go to the church in Antioch, Syria some 370 miles (600 km) north—a church full of non-Jews—and refute the teaching of Paul and Barnabas? Instead of welcoming the non-Jews, as is, they said, “Unless you men get yourselves circumcised, like the custom of Moses says, you can’t get saved” (15:1).
Most of the Christians in the Jerusalem council meeting were probably Jews by race, yet Christians by faith. Some wanted all Christians to obey the Jewish laws. Others argued that there was no reason for non-Jews to have to obey Jewish laws. “The debate went on for a long time” (15:7). What do you think might have been some of the arguments on each side?
If the Pharisee Christians had won the debate, Christianity might have become just another branch of the Jewish religion, like Orthodox and Reform Jews (see second note for 15:1). Why do you think Paul and Barnabas thought that was a bad thing?
When Peter argued against imposing Jewish laws on non-Jews, he said something that sounds surprising. Describing the law as baggage, he said, “Admit it, even we couldn’t carry that load. Our ancestors couldn’t, either” (15:10). What do you make of that?
First-generation Christians who were Jews by race often quoted their Bible, which Christians today usually call the Old Testament. They pulled quotes from the prophets and lyrics from the songwriters of Psalms, and they applied them to Jesus—sometimes in ways that seem like a stretch, taken out of context. What do you think of the quote James pulls from Amos (15:16-18)?
- The words seem to reinforce his point.
- Whether the words make sense or not, James took the quote out of context.
- It’s in the Bible, so it’s got to be accurate and relevant.
- Prophecies in ancient times can have meaning and value at different points on the timeline: for Amos, for New Testament times, and perhaps for today.
Why do you think church leaders came up with the four rules they asked non-Jews to obey? The rule against eating steaks cooked rare (with blood still in it) seems like it belongs in a different category than the rule against committing “sexual sins” (15:20).
What do you make of the fact that Paul later dropped the laws about eating kosher food? He left that matter to each individual: “Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember, all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat something if it makes another person stumble….if you have doubts about whether or not you should eat something, you are sinning if you go ahead and do it” (Romans 14:20, 23 New Living Translation).
Barnabas wanted to take his cousin, John Mark, on the second mission trip. Paul absolutely refused. The two men parted company over the argument. Barnabas and John Mark went to their home turf, the island of Cyprus. Paul and Silas went to his native region, in what is now southern Turkey. What do you think about that? Was it petty of the two to split up over this?
LIFE APPLICATION. If church leaders today, like the Jerusalem church leaders in Paul’s day, could write a letter to your church, advising the people to obey just four rules (15:29), what do you think would be on the list—for better or worse?