Study 18: The first church council and its decisions
Paul and Barnabas had returned from their missionary journey to Galatia – part of what we now call Turkey. They were full of excitement at what God had done for them on their journey, but above all when they called the believers together they spoke about how God had opened the door of faith, not only to the Jews, but to the Gentiles also, Acts 14:26-28.
This journey into the unknown opened their eyes to what God was doing; and I suppose that if it had been you or me who had been on that trip, we could hardly have waited to get on the next ship and to experience again the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and the lives of others. But we would have made a mistake, because the experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives comes only when we do the will of God. If God has not authorised and approved of what we are doing, we are doing it in our own strength! These men knew the heart of God so clearly that they waited in Antioch. They were amongst people they knew; people who had sent them out in the first place in response to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Acts 13:1-3
If the Holy Spirit has a job for us to do, He will let us know. His job is to lead us into all truth. Therefore it was no accident that the two men were in the right place at the right time, Acts 15:1-3. ‘Some men’ arrived. The Bible is very particular with the terms it uses, and this Book of Acts is written by a doctor who was used to being very precise with the words he wrote down. So these ‘some men’ were just that. They were probably not believers, for if they had been, Luke would have said so; they were not men sent with authorisation from Judea, to help the believers in Antioch, Acts 15:24. No they were just some men, ‘loose cannons’ who wanted to show the believers they were wrong and yet they perverted the truth. These type of men exist today; they infiltrate the believers posing as Christians themselves; they enter churches, and some even hold high ranks within those churches. They might even have ‘credentials’ and plausible stories to back them up, but their real purpose is to destroy the Christian foundations in the hearts of men and women. In this case, they came, from Judea stating that you couldn’t be a Christian unless you adhered to an ancient Jewish ritual, namely circumcision. Now, Paul, Barnabas, and the other church leaders believed that the Old Testament law was very important, but it was not a prerequisite to salvation. The law cannot save; only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ can a person be saved, Ephesians 2:8-9
There was sufficient concern among the believers in Antioch that they decided to send Paul and Barnabas and others to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles there. They needed to refer back to the apostles who had been with Jesus, and who were regarded as the leaders in the expanding church. Remember that the New Testament had not been written at this stage.
His letter to the Galatians was written by Paul during the time following his first missionary journey while he was back at his home church in Antioch, and it addressed the very issues that these “some men” were using to try to divert those new believers from their new-found faith. This is what Paul wrote to them after he had been to Jerusalem and worth a read, Galatians 3:1-9
These people who were so easily dragged away from their roots in Jesus truly were “foolish Galatians”, so are we today if we allow ourselves to be so easily swayed and led astray by every wind of doctrine, Ephesians 4:14-15. You and I have a yardstick that can never be changed. It is the measure by which all things can be judged. It is the word of God – the Bible itself. It is our reference point which, if we use it, will keep us tight to our path.
So Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to check out the issue of Old Testament law getting mixed up with the freedom that comes from being born again by the Spirit of God. As they went, they encouraged the believers in Phoenicia and Samaria along the route. (See map Lesson 14 Page 3)
As you and I go about our daily business, we should not fail to encourage the believers along our route of faith, Isaiah 42:3-4. These believers may be in any location, in any state of heart or mind, perhaps even suffering, but if God has sent us on a journey, He may very well have specific people for us to contact. Do not be surprised by what happens to you. Just rejoice that God has given you a job to do, and that He has given it to you because He knows that you can complete it.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, the church, the apostles and the elders welcomed them, and they shared what God had done through them. Now, the thing about people becoming believers is that God calls them from all sorts of different situations and backgrounds. Unless we study the word of God for ourselves when we become a Christian, we can be easily persuaded that a certain tradition is truth when it isn’t. Personally, I was persuaded that the gifts of the Holy Spirit passed away with the apostles and I lived like that for the first twelve years of my Christian life! I could even explain to you why those that spoke in tongues were either easily led, misguided or just plain deceived. It was I, myself, who was deceived. I had listened to and believed people with a different tradition. I was not able to live in the full power of my faith for those twelve years and, it wasn’t until someone dared to share with me that he thought I was wrong, that God was able to break through into my life. So, this is a similar situation. Some of those believers who had been and were still Pharisees and subject to their system of beliefs and traditions, started to try to enforce those beliefs on all the believers. Their error was that they believed that Christianity was an addition to the Old Testament law instead of a replacement for it. They were bogged down in the traditions of men. (Matthew 15:6)
We cannot carry any of our traditions through into Christianity. Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. It is being in a real and close relationship with the very person who created the universe. Because He did, He knows how it was designed and what sustains it. It is one-to-one and Jesus loves us enough to die for us.
Because this was the first time that the problem had been debated, there was discussion amongst the apostles and elders to decide the issue. This has become known as the “Council at Jerusalem”. Finally, Peter got up and made the statement – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – that has affected every believer down through the ages. Basically, he said: God has made all men equal, and those who draw near to Him do so by faith and not on the basis of the works they have done or the rules they have kept. Nobody has the right to put burdens on them that they were never intended to carry; instead it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved – Jews and Gentiles equally with no added requirements. The “good news” (gospel) is that it has all been done for us (God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense). All we have to do is to receive the amazing gift of God: salvation.
Then the whole assembly listened to the testimony of Paul and Barnabas about what God had been doing amongst the Gentiles as they shared the good news (the gospel) of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Finally James stood up. (James was the brother of Jesus and the recognised leader of the church.) He referred what had been happening to the Old Testament in order to make his judgement. (See Acts 15:16-18.)
His comments were as follows:
“19 It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21)
In other words, keep it simple and encourage all men everywhere. No church has the entire picture. No group, whether they be Anglicans, Baptists, Free Church, Non-denominational or whatever, has the right to speak against any other. Why? Because the relationship is not one of local church or denomination to God, instead it is a one-to-one relationship with Jesus for everybody. As we all look to the Head of the church – Jesus – we will grow in power and into our gifting and, therefore, into our place in the Body of Christ. Your place is not my place. Neither is mine yours, but if we each encourage the other, we will together discover God’s purpose for our lives!
It was decided to send a letter to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, and to additionally send two other believers (Judas and Silas – they were both leaders in the church) with them to deliver the letter and to back up the Council decision.
Leaders stand out from ordinary people in a church. A Christian leader knows what being a follower is all about because he follows Jesus. Everything a Christian Leader does elevates Jesus; everything he does also points his own followers to Jesus. John the Baptist is probably the most outstanding example of a Leader in the Bible other than Jesus Himself. Everything he did pointed people to the One Who was to come the ‘latchet of Whose shoes John was not worthy to undo’, and yet he led, bullied and cajoled people to focus on Jesus in preparation for the salvation that would come through Him. Finally, John handed all his followers over to Jesus, before he paid the ultimate sacrifice for his faith – an ignominious death at the hands of a weak-willed worldly tyrant (the world called Herod Antipas a ‘leader’) who had made a promise to a woman from which he could not escape even though he knew it to be wrong.
When Paul and Barnabas, Judas and Silas reached Antioch and reported the decision of the Council to the church, it encouraged them. They now had confirmation of what they had known to be right all the way along. They rejoiced. Judas and Silas were prophets. A Prophet is one part of the five-fold ministry given by God to the church. The gifting of a Prophet permits him to speak out God’s Word and it is mainly about the future of the church. This ministry allows God to speak to the hearts of the people in order to prepare them for things that are going to happen in the future and to prepare either the church as a body of people or individuals for future events. It may not be so that they can avoid them, but so that they might be strengthened or better prepared to go through the events. A good example of this is Agabus from Judea seen in a later study, Acts 21:10-15
Judas and Silas encouraged and strengthened the church for the next stage of its journey of faith, and returned to Jerusalem. Some manuscripts add that Silas also decided to stay there. Whatever happened, Silas figures strongly in the next part of the Book of Acts as he joins Paul on a new journey. Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch and joined many others in preaching and teaching.
Read Acts 15:36-41
Some time later, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they should return to the towns and cities where they had preached the Gospel on their first Missionary Journey. Barnabas (the son of encouragement) wanted to take John Mark with them on their journey. John Mark had been with them on their first journey and had deserted them, (Acts 13:13) so Paul opposed this suggestion. Paul and Barnabas fell out over this, and although they were reconciled some time later, they were never to continue with their missionary journeys together. Barnabas took John Mark with him to Cyprus, while Paul selected Silas and left on what is known as Paul’s second Missionary Journey. The Bible implies that only Paul and Silas went with the blessing of the church in Antioch, and that seems to be borne out by the results that were gained as they pushed back the frontiers of Satan’s kingdom as far away as Athens, Corinth, Thessalonica and Philippi.
If you and I are going to be successful in our work for the Lord, we must look for His blessing but like Paul that is often in trials. Like Job we can expect double blessings for our trouble. Always be guided by Him. Men can help you, but God’s guidance is paramount and guaranteed.
Study 18: The first church council and its decisions – Challenge Questions.
Please complete all questions marked with * and then complete the rest of the study. The more you look in God’s word the more you will get out of it.
Read the chapter at the beginning of the week then you have time to meditate on it, rather than rushing! Make God’s word your number one priority.
1. *Read the Notes and the Bible Verses referred to in them. Highlight the points that ‘speak’ to you and share with the group.
2. What speaks to you in the story about ‘some men’? Can you relate this to any church situation you have been involved in or heard about?
3. What do you think of the points about leaders? Write points that you look for in a leader you would be willing to follow.
4. *What do you think about the fall out between Paul and Barnabas? Could that happen today? Can you share any examples?
Read Acts 16:1-5
5. Paul and Silas met Timothy at Lystra. Paul was re-visiting that town. What happened there at his last visit with Barnabas? Timothy joined the group as they journeyed on. Do you think this Journey had any effect on Timothy’s Christian faith? Explain.
Read Acts 16:6-10
6. *Why did they not visit the Turkish Provinces of Asia or Bithynia at that time? What do we learn from this fact?
7. Where did they go instead? What did they conclude that their purpose was in going there? How did they discover that they should go there?
Read Acts 16:11-15
8. *Write some points about Lydia.
9. *Lydia was baptised. Was anyone else baptised with her? What is the purpose of Baptism? Does Baptism ensure salvation? Were Paul and Silas convinced that Lydia’s salvation was genuine? How do we know that?
Read Acts 16:16-40
10. Paul and Silas were followed by a demon-possessed slave girl. She was a fortune-teller. Is fortune-telling wrong? Why? In what way was she being exploited?
11. *What did she have to say about Paul and Silas? When she was telling the truth about their mission, why did they have such a problem with her? What did they do about it? On whose authority did they command the demon?
12. Was everyone happy about the demon being cast out of her? If not, who was unhappy and why? What did they accuse Paul and Silas of doing? Why were they permitted to go to court on account of such a thing?
13. Paul and Silas were handed to the Jailer. What was he threatened with? Where did he place them for safety?
14. *What was the reaction of Paul and Silas? Do you think that they were intimidated by what had happened to them? Why did they react in such a strong way? Did it affect the other prisoners?
15. *Did God respond to their praises? How? Why is it important for us to praise God in difficult circumstances? Will praising Him make a difference a) to us, b) to others? Explain your answer.
16. What happened to the jailer? To his household? Why do you think none of them ran away?
17. In the morning, the judges sent instructions to the jail to set Paul and Silas free. Did they accept the freedom immediately? What did the judges have to do to persuade Paul and Silas to leave the jail? Had the judges betrayed their positions of authority? Why were the judges scared??