First international church meeting
Church leaders grapple with a problem1Fourteen years later I went back up to Jerusalem. I took Barnabas and Titus along. 2I went there because of a revelation I experienced. When I got to Jerusalem I met privately with the top leaders of the church. I told them about the message I was preaching among the people who aren’t Jews. I did this to help make sure the trip wouldn’t be a waste of time.
3I can tell you this, Titus is a Greek who isn’t circumcised. And the church leaders didn’t ask him to get circumcised. 4This topic of circumcision came up because of some counterfeit Christians who slipped into the meeting. They came as spies to learn about the spiritual freedom we have because of the Messiah, Jesus. They wanted to make it church policy that everyone has to obey the Jewish laws, including believers who aren’t Jews.
5We didn’t give into them for a second. We couldn’t. The truth about the Good News needed to win the day, for your sakes. 6People in the meeting who seemed to be leaders agreed with what I said and didn’t try to argue with me. Whether or not they were actual leaders, I didn’t know and I don’t care. In God’s eyes, we’re all equal. 7Instead of arguing with me, these people saw that God had trusted me with the job of preaching the Good News to people who weren’t Jews—to the uncircumcised— just as God had trusted Peter with the Good News for Jews, the circumcised people. 8The one who gave Peter the power to serve as an apostle to the Jews is the same one who gave me the power to serve the non-Jews. 9James, Peter, and John were widely recognized as top leaders in the church. And they could see that God, in his kindness, was working through me. So, they welcomed me and Barnabas as colleagues. They agreed that we should continue our work among the non-Jews while they continue their work among the Jews. 10They had just one request: Help the poor. That’s something I’m eager to do.
Paul gets in Peter’s face11Later, when Peter came to visit the church in Antioch, I had to get in his face. I publicly condemned him for something he did that was terribly wrong. 12His visit was going fine until some men came from Jerusalem, sent by James. Before they got here, Peter used to eat with the non-Jewish believers. But when the Jewish believers came, Peter backed away. He stopped associating with the non-Jewish believers because he was afraid of what these men from Jerusalem would say. They were part of the circumcision party. 13When local Jewish believers saw what Peter was doing, they joined him. Even Barnabas got suckered into this hypocrisy.
14When I saw them acting this way, which was absolutely inconsistent with the truth we’ve been preaching about the Good News, I confronted Peter right there in front of everyone. “Doggone it, Peter. You were born a Jew, but you don’t live like it. You don’t observe Jewish laws anymore. So why on earth are you trying to get non-Jews to live like Jews? 15You and I were born into the Jewish religion, not into the sinful life of the non-Jews. 16We know that our relationship with God is good because of the faith we have in Jesus the Messiah. It’s not because we obey the Jewish law. That’s why we came to believe in the Messiah, Jesus. We wanted a good relationship with God. And we wanted it through our faith in the Messiah—not through obeying the law. We know we can’t have a healthy relationship with God simply by obeying the Jewish rules.”
The law worked itself out of a job17Let’s say we Jews seek a good relationship with God through the Messiah alone. Does that mean the Messiah is leading us into sin because he says we don’t have to obey the Jewish law anymore? Not a chance.
18Here’s what would make me a sinner: going back to my old way of doing things, which I had given up for good reason. 19The law worked itself out of a job. It was because of the law that I stopped living for the law. I did it so I could live for God.
20I’ve been crucified with the Messiah. I’m not alive anymore—not the old me, anyhow. It’s the Messiah who’s living in me. So, the life I’m living in this flesh-and-blood body is a spiritual life. It’s based on my faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave his life for me. 21I’m not dissing the kindness of God. Just the opposite. His kindness gave us the Messiah who died for us. If we could earn our spiritual goodness by obeying the law, the Messiah died for nothing.
Paul may be talking about what Bible experts usually call the Jerusalem Council meeting, though some scholars disagree and say it was a separate meeting. “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” (Acts 15:2).
“Revelation.” See the footnote for 1:12. Here, Paul is apparently talking about a new message he got from God in a vision or dream or perhaps an inner impression from the Holy Spirit.
This James is not the disciple of Jesus who was also the brother of John; that James had already been executed by King Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2). This other James was the brother of Jesus. He seemed to serve as leader of the Jerusalem church. He’s the one whose speech summed up the agreement in this meeting (Acts 15:13-20).
Paul used the Aramaic form of Peter’s name, Cephas. Aramaic was a language spoken by people in many countries of the region. Many Jews spoke it, along with Hebrew and Greek.
The meeting report in Acts says church leaders asked this of non-Jewish believers: “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” (Acts 15:28-29). The most important outcome of the meeting, as far as Paul was concerned, was that church leaders decided not to order non-Jewish believers to follow the Jewish laws. They did not have to become good Jews in order to become good Christians.
Antioch in Syria (Antakya today) was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire, possibly number three or four. Population estimate: half a million. The city is roughly 500 miles (800 km) north of Jerusalem. That’s about a month-long walk. It was a 10-day sea voyage from the port town of Caesarea, which is about 70 miles (110 km) north of Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas led a church there (Acts 11:19-30). Many people in that congregation were non-Jews.
A group of Jewish Christians who taught that any man who wanted to be a Christian needed to get circumcised and follow all the other Jewish laws.
Literally “our relationship with God is good” comes from a Greek word often translated “justification.”
This verse is hard to unravel, even with the context clues of the surrounding verses. A more literal translation, apart from the implied context clues: “If Jews who want to be justified in Christ find out they are sinners, is Christ serving sin? No.”
The Greek word, charis, is often translated “grace.” It also means “loving-kindness,” “good will.” And it often refers to the merciful kindness of God.
Paul said that he went to a meeting of church leaders “because of a revelation” (2:2). If this was the Jerusalem Council meeting, his description of why he went there isn’t how Acts 15 reports the story. “Some men from Judea 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.’ 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. So the church sent them on their way” (Acts 15:1-3). How do you react to that apparent discrepancy?
Curious souls with an eye for detail might notice that just about every time Bible writers talk about going to or from Jerusalem they say they are going “up to Jerusalem” (2:1), or they are headed home “down from Jerusalem” (Luke 10:30). It doesn’t matter if the writer is talking about going north, south, east, or west. It’s always “up” to Jerusalem and “down” from Jerusalem. Care to venture a guess why?
Why do you think Paul was so bitterly opposed to fellow Jewish Christians who sincerely believed that Jesus wanted people to continue to honor and obey the Jewish laws that God gave them through Moses? After all, Jesus himself had probably observed them throughout his life.
Do you think Paul sometimes comes across as overly defensive when it comes to comparing himself to other church leaders? Maybe as though he might have felt he needed to justify himself as an apostle, which was the top office in the early church. For example, he referred to people at the Jerusalem meeting as folks “who seemed to be leaders… Whether or not they were actual leaders, I didn’t know and I don’t care. In God’s eyes, we’re all equal” (2:6).
Do you see any racial problem in the agreement the leaders made? The agreement was that Paul and Barnabas would continue to focus their ministry on people who were not Jews while just about everyone else, it seems, would focus their ministry on Jews?
The requirement that Paul said the Jewish leaders placed on him was a little different than the requirements reported in Acts. Paul said, “They had just one request: Help the poor” (2:10). As the footnote to this verse in the Casual English Bible indicates, the Acts version of the Jerusalem Council’s decision was this: “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” (Acts 15:28-29). How do you think we should handle the apparent discrepancy?
What do you think about Paul giving Peter what for in front of the entire group of Christians? “I publicly condemned him” (2:11). Why do you think Paul didn’t politely pull Peter aside and talk with him man-to-man?
Why do you think Peter acted like a hypocrite and ate with the Jewish Christians, while shunning the non-Jewish Christians? After all, he had already taken Paul’s side in the argument that in God’s eyes the non-Jewish people were kosher (Acts 15:15). And even before that, God had given Peter a vision to teach them that non-Jews were kosher. In fact, the first reported non-Jewish convert to the Christian movement was a Roman officer that Peter baptized (Acts 10:48).
“The law worked itself out of a job. It was because of the law that I stopped living for the law. I did it so I could live for God” (2:19). What an odd thing to say. Bible experts have different views about how to interpret not only this verse but this section of the chapter. If you had to guess, what do you think Paul meant by this?
LIFE APPLICATION. It’s a pretty abstract thing to say: “I’ve been crucified with the Messiah. I’m not alive anymore—not the old me, anyhow. It’s the Messiah who’s living in me.” How could Christians today possibly relate to that, some 2000 years after Jesus walked on the planet?