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Acts 15:22-41 by Robert Dean
My way or the highway! Is that your attitude when you disagree with someone? Listen to this lesson to learn how to be gracious to others and seek the absolute best for them even when they don't deserve it. Discover five spiritual skills you need to practice so you can love others as Christ loves you. Find out how the early church handled people problems and how even a sharp controversy between Barnabas and Paul was handled graciously.
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:1 hr 7 mins 17 secs

Grace: The Law of Love. Acts 15:22-41

The pattern that we see here is a decision making issue. They have a problem, and the way they are going to solve the problem is that they are going to discuss it—sometimes in intense heat discussion—and they are going to base it on the Word. And we see that as Paul spoke, as Peter spoke, as James spoke; they each went to divine revelation. They each appealed to the one and only ultimate authority that we have, which is the Word of God.

We want to wrap up this chapter by looking at it in a little different lens in terms of what we learn from this chapter in terms of application. Because there is a pattern there in how they approached the problem. They key concept, the category that we plug this into that we are familiar with is grace. We have a category in terms of a spiritual skill: grace orientation. That is what is exhibited in this whole episode at the end. Then there is another issue that comes up with Paul and Barnabas, and again we see the same pattern exhibited.

So we have two problems. One is a theological problem that is generated by the Pharisee background believers who are now teaching that circumcision is necessary for salvation. They have to address that problem. Then there was another problem. That is, blending Jew and Gentile together from their different cultural backgrounds and how they can come together without getting an explosive, divisive, negative situation. And then they actually have a negative explosive situation that occurs in the subsequent episode, which has to do with Paul and Barnabas and the decision as to what they are going to do next and the procedure. None of this is theological or doctrinal, and that is where we live in a lot of different areas in our life: we are just trying to make a decision, it is not necessarily moral versus immoral, not theologically correct versus theologically incorrect, not conservative versus liberal; it has to do with non-moral, non-spiritual issues. But they are not totally divorced from applying biblical principles to those conflicts and problems. And the one umbrella issue that sort of wraps its arms around both circumstances is grace orientation. 

Grace is one of those biblical words we hear a lot—like holy, like salvation, like saint, like justification. They are words that because we are so familiar with them we don't hear them; they lose their power through familiarity. In the church age we have this word "grace" that is used by every branch of theology. They all believe in grace. In a theological sense we know that every world religion no matter what it is operates on a quid pro quo concept of God, that God is going to bless me if I do certain things. It is a concept that is equivocal: if I do X God will do Y. And yet grace nullifies all of that. That is the radical difference that we have in the Scripture.

Life works on grace. If somebody takes you out to lunch one week. The next week you feel like you have to return the favor. What if you are grace oriented? It is nice and it is good manners, somebody takes me out for lunch this week and I want to return the favor. But somebody may say they don't want me taking them out. That is grace; you have to get over yourself. That is a radical concept! I am going to do something for you but I'm not going to let you return the favor because that would break the pattern of grace. So we have to come to understand what grace is. But this concept of works, doing something for something, permeates—and that isn't saying it is wrong. The quid pro quo is not inherently wrong, but it is when we come to theology, and the term that is used in Scripture is the term "works."

Salvation is not by works of righteousness (Titus 3:5). Works are completely excluded, and that is radical to biblical Christianity. In other words, God doesn't treat us or deal with us on the basis of what we deserve. He is not going to return in kind what we give towards Him: for which we are grateful, because if He did none of us would be here; there would just be embers because that is what God's justice would demand. But God is not only a God of righteousness and justice; He is a God of love, and this is inherent to His character. So He deals with us not on the basis of what we deserve but on the basis of what is best for us, what is good for us despite whatever it might be that we have done. Grace really describes the positive action from God or from anyone that is neither deserved nor merited. It is doing something wonderful and generous for someone, not on the basis of who they are or what they have done. In fact, grace really is treating somebody in goodness and kindness and generosity when they really don't deserve it, when they really have done something that deserved the opposite. That is what we see in the pattern of God's grace.

Grace is the foundation for all of God's actions towards the human race ever since Adam disobeyed God in the garden. From that point on the human race constitutionally in terms of our makeup, in terms of who we are, is totally undeserving of any merit or favor from God. But grace is God's pattern with man and it comes out of His love for human beings.


1.  It is the foundation of our salvation to overcome the deficit of sin: the fact that we have this constitutional defect of being spiritually dead has to be overcome. Titus 3:5, 6; Ephesians 2:8, 9. "Gift of God" explains grace. God says grace is a free gift; nothing is expected in return. But there is something that is a responsibility once the gift is accepted, but not to get it. Salvation is based on grace. God does the work and we just accept it as a free gift.  -…………

2.  The foundation for grace is a prime attribute of the essence of God. 1 John 4:8 says that God is love.

3.  How do we define love? That is a very difficult thing to do. If we pick up any number of dictionaries everybody messes this up because love is always viewed from the human viewpoint as some kind of emotion. But when we look at Scripture and our starting point for understanding love should be God there are a lot of interesting things that a loving God does. A loving God opened up the earth to swallow several thousand Jews who followed Dathan and Abiram in their rebellion against Aaron and Moses. God rained fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying everyone in the population, and that is a loving God. That is His justice, and it is not inconsistent with His love either. God turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt because she turned around and looked back; Uzzah put forth his hand to steady the ark and he died instantly. We have to be able to factor that into love. Love is not just warm feelings. Love has to do with a much broader concept; it is not just this sentimental warmth that we often get in our shallow culture. The best definition I've found for love is, love seeks the absolute best for its object. But as soon as we've brought in the word "best" we've brought a value in—there is good, there is better, and there is best. How do we determine best? Too often we immediately take that word "best" and add a little prepositional phrase to it (the hidden text): for me. But we have something objective in Scripture and that is why integrity has to go with love. And we only have that in the person of God. We know what is best because we know His Word. Since God is omniscient only God truly knows what is best for any of us in the objective sense. We have to base this on God's Word and our understanding of doctrine, something that for us is only going to grow. We love people not based on our limited, myopic framework of what we think they ought to do, but on the basis of the righteousness of God and the revelation of God. That is the standard. When we operate on that standard and only on that standard can we truly love other people, so it takes a long time to develop that in our lives.

4.  There are five spiritual skills that we have to develop in our lives at a basic level or we will never get anywhere in this life. Everything else is based on these five spiritual skills: a) Confession of sin; b) We have to make a decision after that to walk by the Spirit, which means we are in dependence upon the Spirit. But the Spirit doesn't operate apart from the Word, so we are obeying the Word and staying in fellowship, basically; c) the faith-rest drill. We trust the promises and the commands of God, and the rest part is that we put it in God's hands; we cast our care upon Him and let Him take care of what He can take care of, and we take care of the responsible part that we take care of; d) Grace orientation. That is foundational. We have to have our thinking shaped by grace. That starts by understanding the dynamics of the gospel but it goes beyond that. Grace has to characterize everything in our life when we deal with people. We are constantly having to deal with spouses who are fallen, corrupt creatures and children that are fallen, corrupt creatures, and employers and employees that are fallen corrupt creatures. And we have to deal with corrupt government. All systems in this world are corrupt at some level. We have to deal with all kinds of these systems and the only way to deal with it and survive in sanity is to deal with it in grace. Grace orientation involves a lot of different factors—humility to learn the Word, humility to submit to the authority of God and the authority of the Word—but it works itself out in how we treat others. One manifestation of this is just good manners, kindness, gentleness and civility; e) Doctrinal orientation. This means we orient our thinking to the teaching of God's Word.

The law of love. The foundational passage in John 13:34, 35 NASB "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

a.  Jesus is saying that the pattern isn't like in the Old Testament. It is not love your neighbor as yourself; it is love one another as I have loved you. So the stakes are really high. The pattern is a perfect pattern. We have to love one another like Christ loved us.

b.  This exhibits to others the fact that we are Christians. John 15:12, 17. That is a lot of repetition to emphasize this one principle within just a short time of perhaps an hour of each other. Romans 12:10 NASB "{Be} devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor." Romans 13:8 NASB "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled {the} law." This introduces the concept of the law of love for the Christian life. Galatians 5:13 NASB "For you were called to freedom, brethren; only {do} not {turn} your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." Ephesians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 4:9; 1 Peter 1:22; 3:8; 4:8; 1 John 3:11; 3:23; 4:7, 11, 12; 2 John 5.

When we have read through the text of Acts 15 and understand the theological, doctrinal implications, there is a pattern that is emphasized here. They are trying to solve two problems. One is the problem if theology, and that is solved; there is no requirement to be circumcised in order to be saved. The other problem has to do with people. There was the problem of bring the people together from different cultures. It was not that it was right or wrong it was just that they lived very differently and they had to come together as one in the body of Christ and not make non-issues and non-essentials essential. What do you do in bringing people together socially so that they don't go to war with each other? 

In doing that you have to apply a biblical framework to the issue. It is a decision-making illustration. There is not necessarily a right answer or a wrong answer. There may be wrong answers and there may be several ways to approach it, but what we see the apostles and the pastors doing is they think through all the issues biblically, wrestling with what the Word of God says and coming out with some suggestions. This isn't a doctrinal type of issue. 

Acts 15:22 NASB "Then it seemed good …" The Greek word dokeo which basically means to think or to consider. In the active voice it has an unstated or impersonal use, and basically it is saying "it pleased the apostles and the elders." The apostles and elders aren't the subject. So, "it was considered good with reference to the apostles and the elders." It has an active voice verb so it has this sort of impersonal third person subject. "… to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren." Notice v. 25, "it seemed good to us." It is the same word, dokeo. Verse 28, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit." Verse 34, "it seemed good to Silas to remain there."

So Silas has to make another decision after they go to Antioch. Is he going to stay there or is he going to go back to Antioch? Notice that in none of these passages does it say, "And they prayed to God and God told them to do X." That doesn't fit the paradigm for a lot of Christians. They want God to tell them how to make every single decision. They are going to pray "until God gives them peace." But that isn't what the Scripture says. That isn't how the apostles operated. They studied the Word and then on the basis of the Word of God in a non-moral, non-spiritual issue they took the Word of God and work it to learn the principles and then make a decision. Silas could go back to Jerusalem or stay in Antioch. God doesn't care! Do we get up in the morning and say, "God, do you want me to put my right shoe on first or my left shoe?" It doesn't matter. God says, "I'm going to direct your path. You are going to get where I want you to go because I'll take you there." God says to make our decision based on using the Word of God to the best of our ability and He will get us where we need to go.

They came to their decision, and we see this in three passages. It was very important at that time. It isn't so important today in terms of the specifics of this because these issues aren't in our world; it was in their world. What is important is how they made decisions. They decided there were four things that were to be suggested to the Gentiles that they not engage in. Acts 15:19, 20 NASB "Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood." These four things are repeated three places in Acts. 

The first word is the word for "contaminated by idols." The Greek word alisgema means pollution related to idols. It describes spiritual uncleanness, contamination or defilement as a result of participating in idolatry. So it has to do with ritual contamination, not real contamination. The whole Greek phrase is alisgematon eidolon, and often that is just reduced to the word for idolatry. That occurs in seven other places in the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:19; Revelation 2:14, 20. What is interesting if we look at those passages related to idolatry they each relate not so much to the ritual act of worshipping an idol, but they are all related to food. Food is in the context of everything.

The issue here in Acts 15 is the same issue as in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. It is a social thing, whether or not eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols: has this been tainted in such a way that prohibits absolutely from eating it? The idea here relates to food contextually. So if we are looking at that as a word study this is similar to the issue related to the weaker brother—eating food sacrificed to idols. This same term occurs in the Apocrypha in 4 Maccabees 5:1, 2 where it describes the attempt by Antiochus IV to compel the Jews to eat pork. Again it is a context of food. So this is really a dietary kind of issue, not a an absolute moral issue.

porneia is the same issue, usually translated "sexual immorality." What is interesting is that in the majority of New Testament passages it seems to have that emphasis on literal sexual immorality or promiscuity. In some of those passages where people think it does it really relates to the broader sense which as to do with unfaithfulness to a contractual relationship. That is what it means in the divorce passages. I don't think it is talking about sexual immorality or adultery where you have porneia mentioned there because of the next point, which is in the Old Testament in the LXX where the word porneia is used about 50 times it almost always relates to spiritual unfaithfulness. It is violating a contract. There are a lot of ways to violate a marriage contract other than just sexual immorality, so I think that porneia is a much broader term than moicheia, the word for adultery. It has a broader sense in those passages than just physical sexual immorality. It is not a synonym for morcheia.

So the context is really going to determine whether it is talking about a moral problem, or once again we are dealing with a situation of somehow doing something that has been involved with an idolatrous worship.

haima is the word for blood. Bloodshed is usually used in relation to murder. There are about four different ways haima is used, but usually it is in relation to dietary laws again. It does not mean eating rare meat. That was not what was prescribed by the law. What was prescribed by the law was eating meat that has not been properly drained of blood. This relates to the next word pniktos, which means choked or strangled, where the blood wasn't drained. In a lot of pagan cultures they would eat like blood pudding and things like that where they were eating the blood. Scripture talks about "the life is in the blood." There was a symbolic significance to that that was prohibited. So the issue: What are they appealing to here for these standards?

Different people will say they got this from the rabbis in pre-Christian rabbinical thought, or maybe they got it from Leviticus in the dietary laws there, or it comes out of the Naohic covenant. I think it is all three. There are a lot of similarities in those three. Generally within Jewish culture there was just a view that you avoided anything that had any association with idolatry. So the conclusion that we reach is that the source of these prohibitions was related to the Jewish social custom that had been shaped by a combination of rabbinic teaching, the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 17, 18) and the Noahic covenant. These three influences together had developed a mentality among the Jewish background believers where certain social and eating practices by Gentiles were a problem so that they couldn't have fellowship around the table. Now that is a big deal. We are Christians, what do we do when we want to celebrate? We eat. So what these restrictions were designed for was to help them be able to get together socially without a problem. 

Acts 15:23 NASB "and they sent this letter by them, 'The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.'"

Notice v. 25, "it seemed good to us"; v. 28, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit." These are phrases that they developed because it is the result of their Bible study. God did not appear to them in a dream and give them the answer to a test question. And that is the same thing for us. God has given us everything we need to reach a conclusion on what the wise course of action will be in any decision making that we have to make. But it comes from a study of the Word. Take all of the doctrine that you have had in the past and use that. You pray; you ask for the Holy Spirit's guidance and direction, but He is not going to give you the answer. You have to exercise your volition to come up with the answer on your own.

The result: They make the decision to send Paul and Silas and others back to Antioch with the answer. Acts 15:22 NASB "Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren." Silas is also known as Silvanus, his Latin name.

Acts 15:30 NASB "So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. [31] When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement." "Encouragement" is a word that we find in verse 32. It is the word parakaleo which means to urge someone to do something, to challenge someone to do something, or just to point them in the right direction, to give them focus and direction. [32] "Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message." This is in the transition period of the early church where the gift of apostle and prophet was still available. The gift of prophecy isn't necessarily foretelling the future; it is a revelatory gift from God. The Holy Spirit is working through them, because they don't have a New Testament yet, to guide them and give them the content of their teaching. "Lengthy message—they didn't teach a 45-minute Bible class. (I have friends who have travelled to India and after three hours of teaching and they were ready to quit were told, "No, no, no, we have travelled 200 miles, we want another three hours. Americans won't do that. After 30 minutes it is time to go to the ball game!) The function of the communicative gifts—pastor-teacher, evangelist, prophet—is to teach, to encourage and to strengthen. The word parakaleo I often translate "to challenge people to do what they have learned." And the word episterizo means to strengthen or support someone in their spiritual life. It is comparable to edify them, building them up.

We see this emphasized in many passages in Acts. Acts 14:22 NASB "strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith …" 15:41 "And he [Paul] was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches." 16:40 "They went out of the prison and entered {the house of} Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed." 18:23 "And having spent some time {there,} he left and passed successively through the Galatian region and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples." So that is a function of the pastoral ministry: to strengthen and edify. How? By teaching the Word of God.

Acts 15:33 NASB "After they had spent time {there,} they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out. [34] [But it seemed good to Silas to remain there.]" He had an effective ministry he could have their and he felt he would be more effective there than leaving. Do direction from God, but he decides it is better to stay there. What happens because he stays? Paul needs someone to go with him and he is going to go with Paul. By making a positive decision to stay there it opens alternatives and options for him in a few weeks. He is going to travel with the apostle Paul. 

We are also told that Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch. Acts 15:35 NASB "But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching with many others also, the word of the Lord." They are teaching and proclaiming the gospel. In a lot of cases "the word of the Lord" doesn't refer to the Bible. The word logos can also mean message. In a lot of cases it would be better to translate it "the message of the Lord"—with the gospel. That is a specific message. They have a specific message that they are communicating.

Acts 15:36 NASB "After some days Paul said to Barnabas, 'Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, {and see} how they are.'" There we have the word katangello again, which means to proclaim the word of the Lord—the message of God. They don't have a closed canon yet, so they are not preaching the Bible. They are preaching the message of the Lord; they are teaching and instructing people, as we have seen. Notice: God doesn't say, "Paul, you need to go back to the cities." In his maturity Paul is taking the Word is applying it to the situation, that this is what they need to do.

Then they get in to a kafuffle. Barnabas was determined to take with them John Mark. Remember what happened last time. John Mark was young and he couldn't hack it. For some reason when they left Cyprus and went on the mainland Mark went home and Barnabas went on. Whatever the problem was Paul decided he didn't want to have to wet nurse Mark anymore, so he doesn't want to go with him. Remember, Barnabas's name is really a nickname: son of encouragement. Barnabas wants to take along those who are not really ready yet and now he wants to focus on John Mark and help him so that he will grow up and mature. But Paul didn't want to do that and they really have a disagreement over this; this isn't just a minor disagreement. Barnabas in going to take John Mark and he is not backing off. Paul insists that they should not take the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 

Acts 15:39 NASB "And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus." The word there for "disagreement" is the Greek word paroxusmos. This is a strong, heated, emotional argument between Barnabas and Paul. We have the English word paroxysm that comes from this. So the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. They agreed to disagree. There are no harsh words between them. Barnabas remains good friends with Paul. Paul has many good things to say about Barnabas in his subsequent epistles.

Acts 15:40 NASB "But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. [41] And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches."

The interesting thing is that eventually Mark grew up. Several times in later epistles Paul is travelling with Mark and when Paul is in prison in Rome he calls for Mark to come and visit him. So eventually Mark got past that early growth stage and he became a vital part of Paul's entourage and ministry. What we should see here is that they treated this in grace. They had a person problem; they had a conflict of vision, and they applied grace in how they worked out the problem and how they divided their labor and went in different directions so that it did not become a destructive, divisive factor in the ministry of the church. But it doesn't mean that they didn't have strong opinions and that they didn't express those strong opinions, and that didn't mean that they didn't have a heated, emotional argument about what they were going to do. But ultimately they work it out under the authority of God and dealt with each other in grace. It was not something that they held against each other or had mental attitude sins about for the subsequent days and years. They moved on, God used both of them in their ministries and they complimented each other in many different ways.