By Dr. Mark Scott
Church growth can be a pain. It demands more space, time, effort, and personnel. For some people it’s a real threat, but most believers know that it’s eternally worth it. What is typically called the first missionary journey (Acts 13, 14) was incredibly successful. Here are the statistics: two years, 1,200 miles, and six new churches. Not bad.
More than one church has had to call a meeting as a result of church growth. The stakes were high regarding this special council meeting in Acts 15. So many Gentiles were responding to the gospel that the church had to decide how it would deal with this growth.
Threat to Grace
Acts 15:1, 2, 5
The Antioch church began to overshadow the mother church in Jerusalem with regard to evangelistic zeal (Acts 11:19-30). When this growth became well-known in Jerusalem, certain people came down (went north) to Antioch. These people belonged to the party of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were closer to the gospel because they believed in resurrection (Acts 6:7).
But their problem was that they wanted a gospel that consisted of Jesus “plus.” In their case the addition was circumcision (a sign of the covenant for Israel). They said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” These people taught that the Gentiles must be required to keep the law of Moses.
The threat to grace was real. The missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, ended up in a sharp dispute with these believers. The debate was so significant that the missionaries and others were sent to the mother church to receive help on this important doctrinal topic.
Report on Grace
Acts 15:3, 4
This potential threat did not deter Paul and Barnabas from spreading the message that people are saved by grace. As they journeyed south through Phoenicia and Samaria to Jerusalem, they spread the good news of Gentile conversions.The result of this report was joy. The people who were told en route as well as the people in the Jerusalem church took great joy that it was just Jesus, not “Jesus plus,” who saved them. No doubt as these reports on grace were given, the circumcision party which accompanied Paul and Barnabas on this trip south felt chided. This gave rise to their strong plea in verse 5.
Testimonies of Grace
Three groups were involved in this special meeting—
apostles, elders, and the whole church. Watching how these three groups interacted in this meeting is a crash course on effective leadership. James, the brother of Jesus and author of the epistle that bears his name, presided at the meeting (Acts 15:13).
In church meetings it might be important for people to have their say. But not everyone can have his or her way. And not all testimonies are equal. Peter gave the first testimony as a way to take the pressure off of Paul and Barnabas as lightning rods of this debate. His voice was significant—he could point to God’s activity at Cornelius’s house. He reminded the audience of the content of Acts 10:1–11:18. He reminded the audience that he opened the door of faith to the Gentiles with the keys that Jesus gave him (Matthew 16:19). He reminded the audience that God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles like God had done for the Jews at Pentecost. He reminded the audience that God shows no favoritism and desires to save all people by faith.
Next Peter challenged the audience that the yoke of the law did not do the Jews any favor. They could not keep it, so why would they impose it on the new Gentile believers? Peter’s last words in the book of Acts are, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Essentially Peter endorsed Paul’s gospel.
Barnabas and Paul had the second testimony. They told the crowd about the miracles that happened on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:11; 14:3, 9, 10, 19, 20). James then summarized the meeting, told the crowd that the testimonies matched the teaching in the Word of God (Acts 15:16-18; Amos 9:11, 12), and suggested the writing of a letter (Acts 15:23-29) to preserve the unity of the church in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).
The Bible is clear. We are saved by grace (the love of God, that we do not deserve, expressed in Christ). Grace is not opposed to the imperatives of salvation (things we must do to be saved). Grace is not opposed to human effort—though it is the opposite of earning. At the end of the day Christian living is gratitude for grace. We are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8).
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.