Commentary on Acts 15:1-18
Previously in Acts
Last week’s reading about the Ethiopian eunuch marks the dividing point between the ministry primarily to Jews and worshippers of Israel’s God (for example, Samaritans), and the ministry to Gentiles. In Acts 9-14 the church’s ministry to the Gentiles begins. These chapters include the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9), the Pentecost of the Gentiles (Acts 10), and the beginning of the ministry of Saul and Barnabas in Antioch (Acts 11), a town just south of the Anatolian peninsula. Saul formally takes the name Paul when he begins ministry among the Gentiles (Acts 13:9). As this week’s story begins, Paul and Barnabas have returned to Antioch from their first ministry journey among the Gentiles and have spent “some time” with the Gentile disciples in Antioch (Acts 14:28).
Entrance requirements? (Acts 15:1-5)
The story begins with conflict, a conflict between Christians about the requirements for salvation. Those from Jerusalem charge that all Christian men must be circumcised. Behind this charge is a desire to welcome Gentile persons into the family of Judaism, following the requirements set out for Abraham (Genesis 17:23-27). However, Paul and Barnabas have no such requirement of their Gentile converts. Such a requirement would have been culturally untenable, as many men of Paul’s day considered circumcision mutilating. Moreover, the charge contradicts the movement of the Holy Spirit in Acts 10:44-48 and Peter’s defense of the baptism of uncircumcised Gentiles in Acts 11:1-18.
Luke tells this part of the story in the form of a chiasmus:
The call for circumcision
Sending Paul, Barnabas, and other envoys to Jerusalem
Declaring the conversion of the Gentiles in Phoenicia and Samaria
Paul, Barnabas, and the envoys are received in Jerusalem
The call for circumcision is renewed.
Between the two calls for circumcision is a journey of at least three weeks, probably on foot and over land. On their way, the envoys visit the churches in Phoenicia and Samaria (Acts 15:3), both of which emerged out of the persecution of the church and the scattering of the Hellenistic believers in Acts 8:1b (see also Acts 8:4-24; 11:19). Preachers may want to imagine the hopes and anxieties inherent in such a journey. What will the Jerusalem elders say? How will it impact the small but growing Gentile church? At the same time, preachers should be wary about stereotyping the Pharisees in this story. Paul also is a Pharisee (Acts 23:5; 26:5), and all of the characters in this story are Jews. This is an internal squabble.
Peter’s story (Acts 15:6-11)
Here the scene shifts from the entire church (verses 4-5) to the deliberative body of the apostles and elders (verse 6), a shift from the leadership of the Twelve in Acts 6, for some of the Twelve have been executed by Herod Agrippa (see Acts 12:1-2). James, the brother of Jesus but not one of the original Twelve, seems to have risen to prominence during this time. However, after debate of an unspecified period of time, Luke gives Peter the first word. His testimony reminds the reader of his actions in Acts 10-11, and his baptism of Cornelius; moreover, Peter reminds the assembled that they already know (and have approved) this occurrence (see also Acts 11:18). For Peter, God’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his family (Acts 10:44-48) serves as divine testimony of the purity and worth of the Gentiles apart from the issue of circumcision. God here is called “the heart-knower,” an epithet unique to Acts (see also Acts 1:24).
Peter ends his testimony by charging that those who want circumcision require something too difficult to bear for the Jewish believers or their ancestors. Perhaps here he is speaking not about circumcision per se but rather circumcision as adult men.
Testimony and prophecy (Acts 15:12-18)
After the sounds of debate that underlie the previous verses, Acts 15:12 begins with silence. Readers should notice the presence of this silence in verses 12-13, as it is the pivot point of the narrative. During this pause, Paul and Barnabas tell the stories of actual people, but also of God’s outbreaking among those people, underscored by signs and wonders. “Signs and wonders” in Acts always points to the presence of God (see 2:19, 22, 43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 7:36; 14:3). Their appearance among Gentiles marks God’s presence at work. Preachers might consider here what signs and wonders mark for us God’s presence at work among those we may deem less worthy members, those on whom we wish to place requirements “too hard to bear.” What might happen if we kept silent and listened for God at work through unlikely people?
After the silence, James speaks, using the words of the prophet Amos (Amos 9:11-12) as found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the scriptures of Israel. The prophecy that Luke chooses here promises God’s divine rebuilding of Jerusalem after its destruction. Part of that restoration will be that both the remnant that has survived, along with the Gentiles whom God has called, will seek God.
Luke’s audience, hearing this story at least a decade or two after the Roman demolition of Jerusalem, would surely have heard in the words of Amos the promise that God would again restore Jerusalem. Moreover the Gentile conversions would have been seen as a sign affirming that eventual restoration.
Here the scripture for this Sunday ends, but the decision of the church is already evident. The Gentiles will be brought in as Gentiles, marked as holy and beloved by prophecy, the testimony of God’s signs and wonders, and the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. The doors of the church are open.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord of all,
In Jesus you have made us all sisters and brothers in Christ. There is no distinction between Gentile and Jew. There is no separation that can remove any from fellowship in Christ’s community. Blind us to our differences so that in unity we may proclaim your truth to all, for the sake of Jesus Christ in whom there is harmony and peace. Amen.
Te deum in C major, Benjamin Britten