Establishing Authority: A Study of Acts 15

By Marc Gibson

“And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, `Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Thus began what Luke describes as “no small dissension and dispute” among brethren in the first century. Issues and problems arise from time to time in the Lord’s church that threaten the unity and work of the people of God. Issues ranging from personal opinions to false doctrine have challenged God’s people from the beginning of the church. We should not be so concerned as to the fact of these problems as much as how we handle them. God now speaks to us through his Son (Heb. 1:12), and has given us all that we need to be “complete, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:1617). The revelation of the New Testament establishes the authority of God for us until the end of time. Our task is to search/study the Scriptures (Jn. 5:39; Acts 17:11; 2 Tim. 2:15) and determine to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17).

God’s Word and Our Thought Process

One blessing most of us enjoy is a mind and the ability to use it. God, therefore, appeals to the mind of man in the revelation of his mind and will (Eph. 3:15). We are called by the gospel of Christ to surrender our lives by faith in obedience to his will (Rom. 1:16; 2 Thess. 2:14). Man must respond in order to enjoy the free gift of his grace – salvation. As Christians we continue to surrender ourselves to God by living our lives according to the precepts and principles of his will revealed in the Scriptures (Rom. 12:12). But how do we determine what God has authorized or not authorized?

Everyday we put forth an effort to understand one another as we communicate through voice, signals, or the written word. Barely realizing it, we use basic methods of thinking and logic accepted by all such as direct statements, commands, examples, and necessary conclusions. Parents give rules to children and we follow the rules of the road when we drive. The concept of precedent is used in judicial rulings and we learn not to touch hot stoves by making some very necessary inferences (I hope you didn’t learn the hard way!). When we endeavor to study and rightly divide the word of God, we use the same methods of thinking. We must look for direct statements and commands from God, approved examples to direct our actions, and draw necessary conclusions from the stories and accounts recorded for our learning. This is not “human wisdom” as we are often accused of, but simply doing what God commanded of us. God revealed his mind; we study, learn, and apply. Is there some other secret, unknowable way to do it? Apparently not, for these are the methods used and accepted by the apostles and elders in Acts 15.

It is totally beyond me as to how people lose their ability to think straight when they deal with religious matters. Suddenly, accepted ways of understanding basic communication are thrown out the door in favor of “new” and superior ways of thinking (or no thinking at all). Talk about human wisdom! The call for a “new hermeneutic” and the reduction of New Testament teaching to the level of simple “love letters” (just suggestions devoid of any real authority) should be repugnant to all who love God and his word, and respect his authority. Thankfully, such an attitude would not win the day on that momentous occasion in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15.

Our Common Source of Authority

Did the brethren of the first century have a special means of determining and establishing the authority of God? Did the fact that they had apostles, prophets, and spiritual gifts give them an advantage? No, they settled disputes and questions with an appeal to the same data that we have access to – the revealed will of God. It is true that God’s word was in the process of being revealed in its entirety at that time, but it was always the final authority. We now have the faith once delivered, the doctrine of God. It is most timely for us to examine again how men who spoke by inspiration and possessed great faith established the authority of God concerning issues and questions of great importance to the faith and work of the church. You will not read about their “think so’s”; there are no appeals to human testimony. The Holy Spirit recorded their words that we might learn how to respect the authority of God. Are we listening?

Acts 15: The Issue

At the center of the controversy was the question of circumcising Gentiles who had become Christians and commanding them to keep the law of Moses (vv. 1,5). This was a serious issue that threatened the unity of the early Christians. Paul and Barnabas engaged in “no small dissension and dispute with certain men from Judea. There is nothing objectionable about honorable controversy, even in “dispute” (vv. 6,7). Granted there are some matters we are not to dispute about (see 1 Tim. 6:4), yet we are to exhaust every effort to settle important, doctrinal questions. It has been my experience to observe many a false teacher quit a scriptural discussion before it had hardly started. For shame! A faithful Christian should be willing to discuss any legitimate issue no matter how long it takes to search the Scriptures fairly and thoroughly for truth. The brethren of Acts 15 came together for this effort. It saddens me that so many people today are not interested in similar discussions. Such discussions are right and they are needed!

The Speakers: Their Method and Message

Peter took opportunity to remind the brethren how God had by him preached the gospel to the Gentiles (v. 7). This was his experience with Cornelius and his household (Acts 10). The facts were that God “acknowledged them” by the giving of the Holy Spirit and “made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (vs. 89). Peter had learned these truths by making necessary conclusions (inferences) from his experiences with the vision on the rooftop and events at Cornelius’ house. No one could dispute his conclusions any more than the events of that day. Based on those necessary conclusions, Peter describes their contention concerning circumcision and the Law of Moses as testing God and shakes them up by stating that “we (Jews) shall be saved in the same manner as they (Gentiles)” (vv. 1011). Peter, therefore, uses both an approved example (conversion of Cornelius and his household) from which he drew necessary conclusions (God’s acceptance of the Gentiles without the yoke of circumcision and the Law of Moses).

Paul and Barnabas then “declared how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles” (v. 12). They were speaking of work done during their first missionary journey, especially beginning at Antioch where, in disgust with the rejection of the gospel by the Jews, they turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13:4249). They had been openly reporting these things to many brethren (Acts 14:27; 15:13). This is a case of establishing authority by approved example, approved by God in the working of miracles and wonders. God had approved the work of Paul and Barnabas in the converting of Gentiles, and no circumcision had been involved. The examples spoke for themselves as to what God had authorized in the salvation of the Gentiles. Approved examples are a legitimate part of the oracles of God. They are binding upon us in demonstrating the authority and wisdom of God. God did not give us “suggestions” on how to do our work as Christians and as his church. He gave us the doctrine of Christ. Are we listening? Are we obeying?

James then speaks by quoting a passage of Scripture that supported the conclusion that Peter had reached. He quoted Amos 9:1112, a direct statement of God concerning the Gentiles being called by his name and a part of the rebuilt tabernacle of David. A direct statement or command speaks for itself in establishing the authority of God. With the direct statement of God, the approved examples, and the necessary conclusions, James is able to make a proper application of truth to the question of circumcision and the Gentile Christians. He concluded “that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God” but only to keep a few important matters that were necessary (vv. 1920). God had spoken. The matter was settled. Men, using the thinking ability of the mind and considering carefully the evidence of God’s revelation, were able to understand the will of the Lord. He speaks to us now through the same revealed word. Can we not use these same scriptural methods to determine the authority of God? If not, why not?

Respecting God’s Truth and Authority

In the letter that was shortly thereafter sent to the troubled brethren, they were told that “no such commandment” had been given, affirming the respect we should have for the silence of God. Let us only speak as God has spoken, just as Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James did. If we confine our study and conclusions to the oracles of God and preach the word, no more and no less, we can give credit to whom the credit is due, God. They gave credit to the Holy Spirit (v. 28) for the truth that was understood that day in Acts 15. The authority of God has already been established; we must understand and accept it by faith. Give God all the glory and praise.

Faithless men today may continue to ridicule commands, examples, and necessary inferences as human wisdom and legalism. Apparently some have become so “wise” as to now proclaim scriptural methods as foolish. I make no apologies for using methods used by men who spoke and acted by the direction of God. God recorded Acts 15 for our learning and I intend to follow its example. But I fear that the doctrines and commandments of men are the culprits that have led these ones to deny the faith, deny authority, and deny the scriptural method of determining truth. We must oppose their error with no compromise. They preach peace, but there will be no true peace in the hearts and ranks of those who deny the authority of God. The peace and joy of God reigns in the heart of the Christian who knows and does the will of the Father, because “whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of tire Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). Then, and only then, can we have the same wonderful feeling as those good brethren who read that letter from Jerusalem, for “… they rejoiced over its encouragement” (v. 31).

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 19, p. 3-5
October 6, 1994