The Problem Surfaces (15:1-5)

The grand reunion at Antioch continues for some time (14:28). And in due course some from Judea come and begin to teach (edidaskon imperfect is ingressive) "another gospel." They baldly claim, Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved. This incident may have been the same as the one described in Galatians 2:11-14, although from what we learn at the council the visitors should not be organically linked to Peter or James. Though they claim the latter's name, they are probably more rigorous concerning the law than he. It is likely that they come from among the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees, since their doctrine is the same (15:5).

These teachers are adding a performance condition to salvation: circumcision and, as their Jerusalem compatriots articulate it, obedience to the law of Moses. Such a "proselyte model" of Gentile conversion was natural to Jews steeped in the Old Testament, which promises that in the last days Gentiles, through the witness of a restored Israel, will flow to Jerusalem and be incorporated into the one people of God (Is 2:2-3; 25:6-8; 56:6-7; 60:2-22; Zech 8:23).

Paul and Barnabas disagree so strongly with this group that a sharp dispute, turbulent quarreling, arises as they debate the issue (compare 23:7, 10). When the church (including its leaders—Longenecker 1981:443) sees that discussion is not producing a resolution, it orders that a delegation be sent to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem to address the problem. Such an appeal is most appropriate, for the Judean visitors came from the Jerusalem church, and naturally it is the next highest court of appeal. Not only do Jesus' apostles lead this original post-Pentecost church, but it is also the mother church of Antioch (11:19-21) and has expressed some proprietary interest (11:22-23).

The behavior of Paul and Barnabas teaches us that it is right to contend for the truth of the gospel in spite of the debate that may ensue. No local church or denomination should settle for politically expedient peace at the expense of doctrinal purity. At the same time, Antioch's decision to appeal to Jerusalem shows us that doctrinal purity maintained in an atmosphere of contentiousness—at the expense of peace—is an equally wrong situation.

Sent . . . on their way, escorted some distance by the church, the delegation travels by land, visiting fellow believers in Phoenicia and Samaria. These rejoice at the report of the conversion of the Gentiles (14:27; 15:12). What a contrast to the suspicious reaction of the teachers from Judea! Luke's note shows not only that the Judaizers are in the minority but, positively, that joy is the appropriate response to news that persons of any cultural group have come to salvation (Lk 1:14; 15:7, 10, 32; Acts 11:23). One of the best litmus tests for the presence of the saving grace of God in our hearts is whether they overflow in joy at the news that another has found the Savior.

The church and its leaders welcome the delegation and receive a report of everything God had done through (preferably "for"; Bauer, Gingrich and Danker 1979:509; compare 14:27) them (15:4). A Judaizing response comes from the Pharisaic party (hairesis—not heresy or sect, but "wing," like evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics in the Anglican Church). To them, to allow Gentiles to be converted and incorporated into the church by faith and baptism is a truncated approach: The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses. Before we are too hard on these zealous Jewish Christians, let's ask ourselves, What cultural dos and don'ts have we appended to the gospel as conditions for church membership?

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