The Expository Files


Acts 15 and Authority

Acts 15

Among brethren in the first century, two divergent points of view had arisen over the all-important question, “what must I do to be saved?” One group claimed that circumcision and the keeping of Moses’ law was essential in order to have God’s approval (Acts 15:1, 5). Others asserted that such was not the case at all. They taught that reliance on God’s grace, apart from circumcision and other works of law, was sufficient in order to have a relationship with God (Acts 15:10-11,19).

It mattered greatly which “position” one took relative to these two propositions. The salvation of one’s soul depended on arriving at the proper conclusion. There was no room for error. Therefore, the selection of a correct method of instruction that would bring people to the Truth regarding this matter was extremely important. How did the inspired men who had gathered in Jerusalem to discuss this question lead their hearers to see what was the will of God?

Peter spoke first (Acts 15:7-11) and based his appeal upon the example of what had happened when he spoke to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10). He referenced the vision that Cornelius had seen (10:3-6, 30-32; 11:13-14) as well as his own vision (10:10-17; 11:4-11). The examples of the Holy Spirit appearing (10:19-20; 11:11-12) and the speaking in tongues (10:44-46; 11:15-16) were also presented for the consideration of those to those in Peter’s audience. Based upon these examples Peter came to a conclusion, a necessary inference if you will, based upon them: "Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which
neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are." (15:10-11).

Paul and Barnabas spoke next (Acts 15:12) and in agreement with Peter. They recounted what had occurred on their first preaching tour (Acts 13-14) and used the examples of the “signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (15:12). Accordingly, they reached the same necessary inference/conclusion as Peter: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” Gal. 5:6

James spoke last (Acts 15:13-21) and while his approach differed somewhat from that of Peter, Paul and Barnabas, his conclusion was exactly the same. James cited statements from the prophet Amos (Amos 9:11-12) and then reached the necessary conclusion demanded by them: ““Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles,” 15:19

It should be noted that not one time in the addresses of these four inspired men do they issue a command regarding the correct conclusion. That was done by Peter in Acts 2:38 when questioned as to what was necessary in order to be saved. But on this occasion God’s will was determined in a manner that is scoffed at by so many today: examples and statements were set forth for examination and, as a consequence, the necessary inference was reached.

Pointing out and breaking with traditional practices and teachings is not an altogether bad thing. Jesus warned about adhering to tradition (Matt. 15:1-6; Mk. 7:1-13) and those warnings need to be heeded and taken seriously. However, just because some things have been practiced by churches of Christ and taught by gospel preachers for decades does not in and of itself mean these are mere traditions that we can and should discard. It is possible for those who are blinded by tradition in some areas (Pharisees, e.g.) to teach and practice some things that are exactly correct (Matt. 23:2-3, 23).

God, who is our ultimate authority, has expressed His will in the scriptures (Eph. 3:1-5). And in doing so He left for us commands, examples, statements and necessary inferences that we not only can but should use in determining today whether or not our activities, whether individually or collectively, have His approval. To ignore this approach insures departures from Truth every time it is done.

By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 16.3; March 2009