Acts 15:3-21 - Look to Scripture

Acts 15:3-21 – Look to Scripture
Diving Deeper Lesson Outline for Acts 15:3-21

The title is drawn from how the apostles and church at Jerusalem refuted the claims of the Judaizers.
The title also describes the way we will understand the compromise made with the Pharisee believers.


It is important for us to examine how the Judaizers’ claim is refuted.

Peter Speaks:
Acts 21:7-11, Peter refers to his role in bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Acts 10:44-48 is his point of reference.
His point is if God “bore witness” to them through the Holy Spirit, we can’t disqualify them based on our standards.
It is grace through faith that saves us and the Gentiles, not bearing the burden of the yoke of the law.
So God authenticated the Gentile believers through the Holy Spirit.

Paul & Barnabas Speak:
Acts 15:4 & 15:12, Paul & Barnabas share what “signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.”
Their point was to demonstrate how God manifested his grace through signs & wonders for the sake of the Gentiles.
God did more than just bear witness to the Gentiles through the Holy Spirit.
He was working signs & wonders through Paul & Barnabas on behalf of the Gentiles (Judaizers had no S&W).
So God authenticated the Gentile believers through the Holy Spirit and through the signs & wonders of the Apostles.

James speaks:
Acts 15:13-21, James turns the whole discussion to Scripture.
He quotes Amos 9:11-12 to make his point.
According to those in the know, the verses refer to the future millennial kingdom.
The verses paint a picture of the remnant of Israel and the Gentile elect together in the new Jerusalem.
James’ point is apparently that in this Scripture we have confirmation that believing Gentiles are part of God’s plan now because they certainly will be in the future.
So God authenticated the Gentile believers through the Holy Spirit, through the signs & wonders of the Apostles and through Scripture.

The matter is settled:
In Acts 15:19 James, based on all that we have just considered, proclaims “my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God…”
So the Judaizers claim is soundly defeated; salvation is by grace through faith!
I think we need to see this as a remarkable instance of submitting to the authority of Scripture.
Despite the experience believing Jews have in being Jewish, they let Scripture have the final say on what salvation is.
And it rightly demonstrates that Scripture should have the last word, not experience.

Or, is it:
In Acts 15:20-21, James goes on to say the Gentiles should abstain from a number of unclean behaviors.
What is this all about?
To consider this we will come back to the verse we dealt with last week, Acts 15:5.

POI – It is important to note that the disagreement is settled based not just on Peter’s experience.
It is settled based not just on Paul and Barnabas’ experience.
But, it is ultimately settled based on the authority of Scripture – Scripture had the last word!
It amazes me that the testimonies of Peter, Paul and Barnabas weren't the final authority.
Their experiences were subjected to the Scripture test.
And not only did Scripture refute the Judaizers' claims about salvation, but it also validated the ministries of Peter & Paul because their testimony lined up with Scripture.


The Pharisee believers saw this meeting as an opportunity to address a concern.

What was their concern:
In Acts 15:5, believing Pharisees stated it was necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and have them keep the Law.
Since they were described as believers, we can assume they understood “saved by grace through faith.”
Their concern, then, was over the relationship between unclean Gentiles and ceremonially clean Jewish Christians.
This is what James was addressing and conceding to in Acts 15:19-21.
BTW - If a concession had been made by James to the heresy in Acts 15:1, Paul would have freaked out.
The only logical conclusion is James made a concession to their concern over believing Jewish/Gentile relations.
To sum up, the Judaizers in Acts 15:1 believe you have to become a Jew to be saved.
The Pharisee believers knew salvation was by faith, but “believers were still obligated to keep the law.” – J. MacArthur.

Was their concern reasonable:
First, in Acts 21:17-26, we are told Paul teaches the ceremonial law of Moses is over.
Hebrews 8:13 says the new covenant makes the old one obsolete.
But, James says Jewish Christians (& Jews too), like our Pharisees in Acts 15:5, have a problem with this.
At James’ request, Paul agrees to purify himself before entering the temple to “live in observance of the law.”
The church at Jerusalem must have felt evangelizing unbelieving Jews would be hindered by “unclean” believers.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23, we get a glimpse of why Paul agreed to James’s request – for sake of the Gospel.
So, if the Gospel is furthered and not trampled, Paul appears to say the concern is not ideal but neither is it unreasonable.

Second, in Romans 14:13-19, Paul teaches on being a stumbling block.
He states that in Jesus nothing is unclean in itself unless you think it unclean for you.
1 Corinthians 8:7-10, Paul shows how those weak in the faith can easily stumble.
So, as frustrated as Paul was with the churches view on Mosaic ceremonial law, he compromised.
He says in Romans 14:20, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.”
So, if conceding to the concerns of others builds up and doesn’t destroy the work of God (Gospel), it’s not a ditch worth dying in.

The compromise made:
“The danger was that the Gentiles, reveling in their freedom in Christ, would pressure the Jewish believers to exercise that same liberty and violate their consciences.” – John MacArthur
So to combat this, James asked the Gentiles to abstain from a variety of unclean things.
In verse Acts 15:21, James gives the “this is how it has always been” argument as a legitimate reason to be sensitive to the issue.
The Jerusalem church then writes a letter to the church in Antioch outlining all that had been decided.
This letter, in Acts 15:19-29, covers all that we have discussed thus far.

POI – It’s interesting to note though Paul compromised with James, he apparently did not while on his own.
Again, reference Acts 21:17-26 and Acts 24:5 where Paul is described as a plague who tried to defile the temple.
There was clearly some aggravation between Paul and the church at Jerusalem.
In Acts 21:17-26, we see Paul had more patience for the truth than for compromise – I love it!