Difficulties and Disagreements

Acts 15

There are two problems in this chapter: the first is doctrinal and the second is personal. The first issue is resolved in a spiritual way; the second causes a division between friends.

The key point in this section is that God has a purpose in our problems. In this case, it is that His power, John 9. 3, and glory, John 11. 4, may be seen. Almost every New Testament letter is written in response to a church problem – we have a wealth of inspired teaching that emerges from trouble.

Doctrinal difficulty

Is Christ alone sufficient for salvation? Jewish teachers, v. 1, and Pharisees, v. 5, were claiming that non-Jewish believers needed to observe Old Testament ritual. Paul confronts this issue when he writes to the Galatians, although it is not clear whether Paul wrote that letter before the events of this chapter.1 As far as Paul is concerned, Christ plus anything makes nothing at all. Jewish ritual is irrelevant. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, Eph. 2. 8-9. Various modern cults present the same insidious message as the Judaizing teachers – they deny the perfect sufficiency of the work of Christ for salvation.

Paul and Barnabas take a firm stance, v. 2. Paul would make concessions regarding his lifestyle, e.g., 1 Cor. 8. 13, but, when the essence of the gospel is attacked, there must be no compromise. They cannot leave this problem unresolved, so they travel to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the Christians there. On the way, they present reports of their missionary experiences, vv. 3-4. There is rejoicing as churches learn of the spread of the gospel: earth mirrors heaven in expressing joy because sinners repent, Luke 15. 7.

When Paul and Barnabas arrive at Jerusalem a meeting is convened.2 Mature believers carefully consider the problem, its background, its relation to scripture and their own experience. They seek to understand God’s will. We must have similar calm behaviour in the face of problems today. After initial general discussion, the council listens to two witness statements: first from Peter, vv. 7-11, then from Paul and Barnabas, v. 12. This follows the practice established in the Old Testament, Deut. 19. 15.

Peter recalls his experience with Cornelius. He emphasizes the necessity of faith, hearing, and the word of God in salvation, cp., Rom. 10. 17. He describes how the Holy Spirit gave confirmation of genuine conversion – without any recourse to Jewish ritual. The key words in Peter’s testimony are ‘no difference’, v. 9. Paul takes up this phrase in his later writings, Rom. 3. 22; 10. 12.

Barnabas and Paul’s testimony follows. They report on their missionary journey. They describe the work of God and the response of faith from the non-Jewish believers, v. 12. God’s grace is apparent to all.

Finally, James sums up. Paul describes James as a ‘pillar’, Gal. 2. 9, a steady, dependable leader in the early church. He is probably the same man who authored the Epistle that bears his name. James shows that the verbal testimony is consistent with scripture, v. 15. He gives an overall conclusion, v. 19. Gentiles do not need to follow Jewish religious practice in order to be saved. However, he has four advisory prohibitions. These are generally related to social interaction in first-century society. At pagan feasts (1) idolatry and (2) immorality were commonplace. James warns believers to avoid these sins, v. 20. Also, animals were not slaughtered in accordance with Jewish food laws, i.e., (3) strangulation and (4) blood were commonplace. If Gentiles ate such food, they would offend their Christian brothers who came from a Jewish background. In line with Paul’s teaching, non-Jewish believers should respect their Jewish counterparts, Rom. 14. 21; 1 Cor. 8. 9.

This conclusion is transmitted to the wider Christian community by open letters and reliable messengers. Clear and consistent communication is vital in the event of disputes and debates.

Personal problem

The second problem in this chapter concerns John Mark. He is the cause of severe disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. It is not obvious which party is in the right. The narrative gives no verdict. However, Barnabas might have been influenced by family ties, Col. 4. 10. Barnabas displays determination, v. 37, whereas Paul has doubts, v. 38. There is a sharp disagreement between the pair, leading to separation. Sadly, there is no record that they ever meet again. Even in this trouble, God brings blessing. Now there are two missionary teams to strengthen new churches across the region, vv. 39-41. Eventually, there is reconciliation between Paul and Mark – the one-time runaway becomes ‘profitable’, 2 Tim. 4. 11. God’s grace overcomes human failure



Tenney has a full historical discussion: Merrill C. Tenney, Galatians: The Charter of Christian Liberty, Eerdmans, 1991.


Often known as the ‘Council of Jerusalem’.