Jerusalem To Rome

The Acts of the Apostles

By Charles Fremont Sitterly


Advance from the Capital of the Province to that of the Empire A. D. 44 To A. D. 62

Chapter 15

The First Great Doctrinal Controversy


Paragraph 1. ITS RISE IN ANTIOCH. Verses 1-5.

Meanwhile certain persons came down from Judea, and kept teaching the brothers, saying,

“If you are not circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

So there sprang up a serious dispute and not a little controversy between them and Paul and Barnabas, until it was arranged that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of their number should go up to Jerusalem to consult the Apostles and elders about this question. Thus they set out, accompanied for a way by the church, and as they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria they kept telling all the brothers, to their great joy, that the Gentiles were turning to God. On their arrival at Jerusalem they were welcomed by the church, the Apostles, and the elders, and they reported how that God had been with them, and all He had done. Some of the believers, however, who had belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and enjoined to keep the law of Moses.”  


No sooner does the Spirit of God inspire and thrust forth chosen men to take advanced steps in carrying out the great commission of the Lord than timid and conservative souls challenge and oppose the process. It was so in the case of Peter and his work at Caesarea, and now the wider breach which seems already made at Antioch threatens still greater danger. Busybodies are sure to take this occasion to sow dissension, especially as they feel that the old enmity against Saul of Tarsus is carried over even in the sincerest circle of believers to Paul of Antioch. And so it happened. These narrow and restless souls took it upon them to go down, doubtless on their own initiative, to see if they could not remedy matters. Of course they only fanned the flame the more, and it soon became clear that the issue would never be settled until a general council had passed upon it at Jerusalem. A delegation was chosen at Antioch, of which Paul and Barnabas were members, and sent to lay the situation before the mother church. That the church of Antioch accompanied them for the first stage of the journey shows their unanimous sentiment in the matter. It would seem that the committee went overland along the Phoenician coast road, stopping from time to time, and enjoying the hospitality and sympathy of the semi-Gentile churches on the journey. At Jerusalem, they found unexpected welcome and took courage to tell anew all that had happened in northern Syria, Cyprus, and Asia Minor. It seems that not a few Pharisees had accepted the faith in Jerusalem, and to these the accounts of Paul and Barnabas left much to be desired. They led a considerable party in opposition to the newer views and threatened to disturb the deep state of peace which had begun to develop.  

Paragraph 2. ITS TRANSFER TO JERUSALEM. Verses 6-12.

Then the Apostles and elders held a meeting to see about this matter, and after there had been a long investigation Peter arose and addressed them.

“Brother men,” he said, “you very well know that from the earliest days God chose from among you all that I should be the one from whose lips the Gentiles should hear the Word of the gospel and believe. Moreover, the God who knows all hearts attested this fact by giving to them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us, without discriminating in the slightest degree between us and them when Ele cleansed their hearts by faith. Now then, why are you tempting God by putting a yoke on the necks of the disciples which neither your fathers nor we were able to bear? On the other hand, we believe that we shall be saved just as they are, through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

Then the entire assembly was quiet and listened to Barnabas and Paul while they recounted all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.


  Finally, an assembly of the entire Jerusalem church was called and the case was traversed with care by all sides. Paul and Barnabas had private conference with the Apostles and leaders and seemed to make out their case there without difficulty. After the larger gathering had discussed the matter for some time, at length Peter rose and made a speech, favoring the liberal view and citing his experience at Caesarea. He was sure that the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles could not really be questioned nor denied, and that thus the divine seal was already set on this movement and further opposition should be looked upon as a contest with God. Salvation is free to all alike, and human ordinances are like a yoke of bondage marking inferiority outwardly, where no such thing inwardly exists. Peter’s testimony quieted the gathering and prepared the way for Paul and Barnabas, both of whom gave full testimony bearing out the newer practice, dwelling specially on the manifestation of heaven’s pleasure in miracles and signs of the most convincing sort. It is most interesting to note that neither Peter nor Paul is given undue prominence on this occasion, but that James, the brother of Jesus, dealt out righteous judgment, acting as judge between the chief and favorite leaders of each side.




After they had finished speaking James said: “Brother men, listen to me. Symeon has told just how God first visited the Gentiles to take from among them a people to bear His name. Moreover, this agrees with the words of the Prophets, just as it is written:







“Hence, I am of the opinion that we ought not further to trouble those who are returning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we ought to write them to abstain from whatever is polluted by idols, from fornication, from the flesh of animals strangled, and from tasting blood. For Moses has had for generations those preaching him in every city, and he is being continually read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath.”



Free and full discussion was encouraged; the precedent of Peter’s like action at Czsarea is adroitly laid as a governing principle and the prophecy of Amos is shown to find fulfillment in just such action, the main point being the real turning to God in penitence and faith of contrite men, whoever and wherever they may be. Under this strong putting of the merits of the case, the opposition appears to have signally weakened, if not to have openly yielded, and James offers a plan which could not fail to strike them as magnanimous. and all that they had any right to ask. It will be seen that the decision frees the Gentiles from the outward limitations and restraints of the Mosaic law, while strongly insisting upon their observance of its inward or moral claims, with fourfold and most explicit injunctions against every form of impurity in public and private life. The injunctions against using meats connected with idolatrous rites and those containing blood were reasonable concessions to the Jewish party and made possible easy social communion between them and the Gentiles, which was in that day of paramount importance. This last is stated in the concluding paragraph in broad terms and with a form of suave impressiveness calculated to soothe his Hebrew hearers, and in words so like those of their Scripture writers as to seem quoted from them. No slight compliment is implied in the reference to the widespread dispersion and influence of the nation “in every city” of the empire.  


Then the Apostles and elders, with the assent of the whole church, decided to select men of their own number and to send them with Paul and Barnabas unto Antioch. So they chose Judas, who was called Bar-Sabbas, and Silas, leading members of the brotherhood; and they wrote and sent this letter by them:

“The Apostles and the Elder Brothers

“To the Brothers of the Gentiles throughout Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: Greeting.

“Since we have heard that some from among us have troubled you by their teaching, continually unsettling your minds without any such instructions from us, we have one and all decided to choose certain of our number and send them to you in company with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, and they are bringing you the very same message by word of mouth. For it seemed good unto us together with the Holy Spirit to lay no heavier load upon you than these needful things: you must abstain from food offered to idols, from tasting blood, from animals strangled, and from fornication. By keeping yourselves clear of these things you will do well. Farewell.”  


Altogether, the outcome of this most important conference is one of the happiest proofs of the guidance and control of the earliest church leaders by the Holy Spirit that the book affords. The unanimity with which the plan proposed by James, which was in no sense coercive, is freely adopted by “the whole church” and their acceptance as well of his formulation of it, which is repeated in the official minutes as quoted by Luke, shows that the Lord’s brother rightly read the mind of the Spirit as moving upon that first Ecumenical Council. Again we come upon evidence of the fine sense of courteous atmosphere in which all the social amenities are observed without strain or emphasis withal in the election of formal delegates from the Jerusalem Church, “chief men among the brotherhood,’ to accompany the Antiochian commission on their return journey, and present personally the official findings to the daughter church. In Judas, called Bar-Sabbas, and Silas, we have two new names out of the inexhaustible background of men of leisure whom we find devoted to the new faith whenever the curtain is accidentally drawn aside. Silas in particular we shall have much more to do with, as he, like John Mark, appears in the sequel to be a staunch supporter and friend both of Paul and of Peter. It may be worth while to recall that the alternate candidate to Matthias, Judas Iscariot’s successor, elected in chapter i, was a certain Joseph Bar-Sabbas, a close companion of Jesus during His ministry, and that Judas Bar-Sabbas here was quite probably his brother. As we find Mark at Antioch in the next chapter, it would seem that Barnabas persuaded him also to join him with Paul, Silas, and Judas on their return journey. Turning to the document which Luke has preserved for us, we find still further proof of the high conceptions common to early church utterance and intercourse. The beautifully expressed compliment to Barnabas and Paul as “our beloved . . . men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” together with the delicacy and restraint of the phrasing throughout this brief document, places it, all in all, on a par with, if not above, any similar note in classical or later literature. The inclusion of Cilicia in the salutation lends color to the view that prior to his call to Antioch Paul had evangelized that province. This is confirmed by the fact that he and Silas visit “the churches of Cilicia” on their journey to Galatia.  

Paragraph 5. RETURN AND REPORT OF THE DELEGATES. Verses 30-35.

When, therefore, these had been sent on their journey they came down to Antioch, where they called together the entire company and gave them the letter. When they had read it they rejoiced at the comfort it gave them. Both Judas and Silas also, being prophets, with many addresses encouraged and helped strengthen the brothers. After they had spent some time there the brothers sent them back with a blessing of peace to those who had commissioned them (verse 34, not in the Greek). Paul, however, and Barnabas remained at Antioch, teaching and with many others preaching the Word of the Lord.



It is difficult fully to appreciate the deep relief which came to the churches of northern Syria and Asia Minor through the settlement of this vexing question. Not only did the Apostles read the Epistle that had been sent, but presented the Jerusalem delegates, who proved to be able preachers of the Word and who did much to strengthen the provincial congregations. Finally, their mission being ended, Judas at least returns to his home. It would seem that Silas felt free to continue at Antioch, and an old reading, still reflected in the Authorized Version, says so, though it is not of the highest authenticity. For a while Paul and Barnabas, with other leaders whose names are not given, worked in the Syrian capital and the neighborhood until it appeared as though they might well be spared again and had better revisit the congregations already established outside of Syria, among other reasons, doubtless, in order to deliver in person the decree which the mother church had placed in their hands and with which they might hope to win over some most desirable converts who were standing out on the very grounds it was intended to remove. The issue as between the bondage of Pharisaic Judaism and the complete emancipation which pure Christianity brought was sure to rise in every community where there were Jews, and the inevitable battle must be prepared for and joined with undaunted courage and without any thought of compromise. Paul saw this clearly from the moment of his own conversion as no other early leader did or perhaps could do, and his years of intense thought and reading of the Scriptures in Arabia and Cilicia since that time had deepened his conviction and now he sets forth with a resolve to yield nothing to the arch enemy as he conceived him of his only Sovereign and King.  


After some time Paul said to Barnabas,

“Let us go again and visit the brothers in every city where we have proclaimed the Word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.”

But while Barnabas wanted to take along John, called Mark, with them, Paul did not think that one should accompany them now who had left them in Pamphylia instead of standing by them when it came to real work. So sharp a controversy arose that they separated, Barnabas taking Mark with him and sailing for Cyprus, while Paul chose Silas, set forth, commended to the grace of God by the brothers, and passed through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches.  


The proposal for this second foreign tour comes from Paul, and Barnabas, possibly not so keen as to the need of pushing the battle for complete spiritual freedom among the Jews of the Dispersion, suggests that they take along Mark and have him as before for companion. In Galatians, chapter ii, verse 13, we find that Barnabas either before or after the Jerusalem Council “dissembled” on the question of circumcision, and, like Peter, was inclined to be somewhat double-faced; therefore we can understand his apparent lack of enthusiasm, and his suggestion as to Mark may be only a polite way of showing it. This, if true, only stirred Paul the more, and as he had in mind a more strenuous campaign even than that from which Mark had withdrawn in Pamphylia, he took the proposal of Barnabas as sufficient ground for making up a different party altogether. Instead of Barnabas, he very fortunately was able to persuade Silas to join him on this journey, which was destined to be in some respects the most important adventure of his very adventurous career. Silas also enjoyed the advantage of being a Roman citizen, many think, and that gave him favor with Paul and fitted him for this tour in particular. In case Dr. Luke was also of the party, Paul had a strong force with which to undertake his memorable campaign of the next two years. Barnabas and Mark sail away to Cyprus, and Luke does not again refer to them. Evidently, the church at Antioch has now come to esteem Paul as the greater leader, since it bids him formal farewell, and commends him and Silas to a gracious Providence as they take their departure. Ramsay says “The expression of the passage seems designed to show that the Antiochian church sympathized rather with Paul, who was continuing the forward movement, than with Barnabas, who went away into the backwater of Cyprus and passes out of history. . . . The fate of the church lay in the work of Paul and his coadjutors. We part from the honorable and great personality of Barnabas with deep regret; but history marches with Paul.” As Barnabas had already sailed for Cyprus, Paul and his company choose the overland route, going from point to point in Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches. This passage and the inclusion of the churches here mentioned in the decree of the Council in verse 23 is the only reference we have to them in the book. Thus, again almost unconsciously, Luke has drawn aside the veil, disclosing a wide area of activity totally aside from his chosen field of history.