God is doing amazing things. The people are coming to Jesus. The legalists emerge. They sense fresh meat and pounce. Converts to legalism are important. The rules say they must get circumcised. Follow the rules they clamor.
I must choose a side. Will I be on the side of grace and salvation or works and keeping the rules? It is important for me to resolve that.
Salvation is a gift of God. It is through belief in Jesus as the Son of God, that he died to redeem me for the penalties associated with missing God’s goals and that He rose from the dead in an incorruptible body and ascended to heaven. There is good news. There are no rules I can follow to earn salvation. None, nada, zilch!
Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved.” After Paul and Barnabas had engaged them in serious argument and debate, Paul and Barnabas and some others were appointed to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this issue. When they had been sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and they brought great joy to all the brothers and sisters.
When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” | Acts 15:1-5 (CSB)
It all started when some legalistic Jewish teachers and religious elites came to Antioch and taught that the Gentiles, in order to be saved, had to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. These elites were associated with the Jerusalem congregation but not authorized by it. Identified with the Pharisees, these teachers were “false brethren” who wanted to rob both Jewish and Gentile believers of their liberty in the Messiah Jesus.
It is not surprising that there were elites in the Jerusalem church who were strong advocates of the Law of Moses but ignorant of the relationship between Law and grace. These people were Jews who had been trained to respect and obey the Law of Moses; and, after all, the books of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews had not yet been written! There was a large group of priests in the Jerusalem assembly, as well as people who still followed some of the Old Testament practices. It was a time of transition, and such times are always difficult.
What were these legalists actually doing and why were they so dangerous? They were attempting to mix Law and grace and to pour the new wine into the ancient brittle wineskins. They were stitching up the rent veil and blocking the new and living way to God that Jesus had opened when He died on the cross. They were rebuilding the wall between Jews and Gentiles that Jesus had torn down on the cross. They were putting the heavy Jewish yoke on Gentile shoulders and asking the church to move out of the sunlight into the shadows. They were saying, “A Gentile must first become a Jew before he can become a Christian! It is not sufficient for them simply to trust Jesus the Messiah. They must also obey Moses!”
Several important issues are involved here, not the least of which is the work of Jesus on the cross as declared in the message of the good news. God pronounces a solemn anathema on anyone who preaches any other good news than the good news of the grace of God found in Jesus the Messiah His Son. When any religious leader says, “Unless you belong to our group, you cannot be saved!” or, “Unless you participate in our ceremonies and keep our rules, you cannot be saved!” he is adding to the good news and denying the finished work of Jesus. Paul wrote his Epistle to the Galatians to make it clear that salvation is wholly by God’s grace, through faith in the Messiah, plus nothing!
Another issue involved was the nature of the church’s missionary program. If these legalists and elites (we call them “the Judaizers”) were correct, then Paul and Barnabas had been all wrong in their ministry. Along with preaching the good news, they should have been teaching the Gentiles how to live as good Jews. No wonder Paul and Barnabas debated and disputed with these false teachers! The Antioch believers were being “troubled” and “subverted”, and this same confusion and disruption would soon spread to the Gentile assemblies of disciples Paul and Barnabas had founded. This was a declaration of war that Paul and Barnabas could not ignore.
God gave Paul a revelation instructing him to take the whole matter to the Jerusalem church leaders, and to this the Antioch assembly agreed. The gathering was not a “church council” in the denominational sense, but rather a meeting of the leaders who heard the various groups and then made their decision. Though the “mother church” in Jerusalem did have great influence, each local church was autonomous.
Christian Standard Bible. (2017). (Ac 15:1–41). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, pp. 461–462). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.