Acts chapter 15         Next chapter             Back to Bible Studies    

God's church is a Theocracy, not a Democracy

What we read in the first verse of this chapter is a reminder of what Jesus said in Matthew 16:5-12: "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees...". The reason why Paul and Barnabas disputed with these men so sharply was the nature of their statement - "unless you are circumcised...you cannot be saved" - they were making circumcision a prerequisite for salvation. The issue was so important that Barnabas and Paul, along with some other believers, were sent to Jerusalem for a final verdict from the Apostles in the church there. Some, like the Roman Catholic church and others, see the resulting council meeting in Jerusalem as the first 'Church Council' meeting and that this sets a precedent for all church council meetings to follow. However, it will be very good for us to study the circumstances surrounding this 'church council meeting' and it is very enlightening indeed. First of all, we must refer to Galatians 2:1-5 where Paul makes it clear that he went up to Jerusalem to this council meeting because God expressly laid it on his heart by revelation. Secondly, we find that the decision that is reached is not one that is reached by 'consensus' or by democratic vote, but in a different way: Peter, then Paul and Barnabas testify about what God had done through them among the Gentiles, pouring out His Holy Spirit upon them without them having to be circumcised. After this James speaks up and points out that these testimonies are in line with Old Testament prophecies regarding the Gentiles and then makes a clear judgement regarding God's complete acceptance of the Gentiles without them having to be circumcised. Thirdly, we find in v28 that the decsion was made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If Christians are going to use this first council meeting in Jerusalem as a model for all other church council meetings to follow, then all of these elements should be adhered to as well. Church council meetings would be so much more fruitful and pleasing to God if this were the case! We would do well to remember that God's Church is a Theocracy (The will of God), not a Democracy (The will of man)

In Peter's speech we find an interesting statement worthy of further consideration. We find this in verse 10: "Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither us nor our forefathers have been able to bear". The Pharisees seemed to have the erroneous idea that they and all Israel before them were perfectly able to keep the Law, but nothing can be further from the truth. Not only do we find Jesus repeatedly pointing out to the Pharisees that they were in fact not keeping the Law, but the entire history of Israel is full of instances where the people not only failed to obey the Law, but rejected it outright in favour of idols. We saw this by looking at a passage near the beginning of Israel's history (Exodus 32) and the end of Israel's history (Nehemiah chapter 13). Peter is saying that neither them nor Israel has ever been able to keep the Law and history proves the point. Following on from this, we need to consider that the Pharisees prided themselves on being Abraham's descendants (John chapter 8). Paul gives a beautiful illustration in Romans 4:1-12 and confirms that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness and he received the promise before he was circumcised, not after! Furthermore, we need to take careful note of what exactly Abraham was before God called him - he was an uncircumcised Gentile!    

In view of these facts, any logical, reasonable person would be persuaded that God intended salvation for all through faith in Jesus Christ and in fact we find that many Jews did indeed believe - Acts 14:1; Acts 2:36 - 47; Acts 5: 12 -14. This leads one to consider the reason why so many Jews did not believe while others did believe and accept Jesus as the Messiah. The answer is only to be found in the Greek word 'unbelieving' which Luke often uses in Acts to describe this group. The word is 'Apeitheia' which literally means 'Stubborn refusal to be persuaded'. The reason why they did not believe or accept Jesus as their saviour was not because Jesus, Stephen, Peter, Paul and James' arguments were not clear or logical enough or that the signs were not right or that it did not line up with Scripture. They simply stubbornly refused to be persuaded and actually, nothing was going to persuade them otherwise - as Jesus rightly explained in the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:29-31:"Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’  “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ even if the dead were to rise, they would not believe". We get a similar idea from Romans 10:21 "But concerning Israel he says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people." The conclusion is that the Jews who did believe and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Messiah, were in fact the ones who did what was right, who made the correct decision, based on the truth presented to them. Too often we tend to think "Yes, it must have been difficult for the Jews to see that Jesus was the Messiah, because so many things did not line up..." however, this is not what Scripture tells us. A multitude of Scripture passages, both in the Old and New Testaments, confirm that all the proof, all the signs were there - it was their stubborn refusal to be persuaded that was the problem.

In the letter sent to the churches from Jerusalem by way of Judas and Silas, we find something interesting that needs clarification in order that we may not misunderstand it. At a glance, it seems as if the letter contains instructions about the law - the very thing that the apostles were arguing against! However, the letter does not lay down laws, but instead imparts some valuable spiritual guidance. The letter from the council harmonizes with what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 regarding abstaining from eating certain foods as  not to be a stumbling block in another's way. (See also Romans 14:12-21). The instruction to abstain from sexual immorality is likewise a reminder for them to whom this type of behaviour was probably quite the norm and exhorting them in order not to give the devil a foothold. We see that the letter was received with great joy and the believers were strengthened and encouraged.

In the last few verses of the letter we find that Paul and Barnabas part company based on a disagreement about John Mark. It is clear that paul felt that Mark was a deserter but Barnabas, true to his name was willing to give him another chance. It is wonderful to refer to Paul's writings much later on, where he speaks well of John Mark, showing that God had worked in his heart as regards this young man - Colossians 4:10: "My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me." Philemon v24: "Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers." and 2 Timothy 4:11:"for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry." These words speak of a genuine love in Paul's heart towards Mark. Of course, God also used Mark mightily in the writing of the Gospel that bears his name.

© 2011 Werner Schreiber

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