At the beginning of Acts 15 there were certain men which came down from Judaea to Antioch and taught the Gentile brethren that if they were not circumcised after the manner of Moses they could not be saved. This did not set well with Paul and Barnabas who vehemently disagreed with them. Therefore the church decided to send Paul and Barnabas along with some local believers to Jerusalem to discuss this issue with the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.
When they arrived in Jerusalem Barnabas and Paul were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported everything God had done through them among the Gentiles. However, some from a certain sect of the Pharisees protested in opposition to the testimony of Paul and Barnabas; claiming that it was indeed needful to circumcise the Gentiles and command them to keep the Law of Moses. Therefore the apostles and elders decided to meet together to resolve this issue.
During the meeting, Peter stood up and testified saying the following:
Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, GIVING THEM THE HOLY GHOST, EVEN AS HE DID UNTO US; And put NO DIFFERENCE between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore WHY TEMPT GOD, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. (Acts 15:7-11)
Notice that Peter doesn’t say, “they shall be saved even as we.” Instead Peter says, “we shall be saved even as they.”
In the mind of the first century Jew, covenant relationship with God was dependent on Jewish membership and circumcision and allegiance to the Law of Moses.
However, God had done something so unexpectedly different and entirely new when he sent Peter to Cornelius’ house. He had called out a people from among the Gentiles for his Name and he had done it apart from the Law.
In Acts 15: 7-11 (cited above) Peter recounts his visit to Cornelius’ house (Acts 10). Peter along with the other Jews who accompanied him saw firsthand the salvation of Gentiles as Cornelius and his house were instantly filled with the Holy Spirit in similar fashion as the Jewish followers of Jesus had experienced in Acts 2.
When Peter returned to Jerusalem he was confronted by the Jews for lodging at the home of Gentiles and eating with them.
And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, saying, thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them. (Acts 11:2-3)
Peter then rehearsed to the Jews his experience from the beginning (Acts 11:4- 17). Notice the following from Peter’s explanation to Jews in verses 15-17:
And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God? (Acts 11:15-17)
Then in verse 18, the scripture says:
When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.
The evidence which convinced Peter and the Jewish believers at Jerusalem that the Gentiles had been accepted as the people of God, was the Holy Spirit. God had given to the Gentiles the same gift he had been given to the Jews at Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit had now become the new identity of the people of God replacing the old identity of physical circumcision.
This is the experience which Peter is recalling in Acts 15.
After Peter gave his testimony, Barnabas and Paul testified of the miracles and wonders God had done among the Gentiles by their ministry. After Barnabas and Paul testified, James stood up and said the following:
Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world. (Acts 15:14-18)
The apostle James makes appeal to a prophecy given by Amos concerning the rebuilding of the tabernacle of David, as the scriptural evidence that God would have a people apart from the Law of Moses.
The tabernacle of David can either be a reference to the tent that David pitched for the ark of the covenant after the ark was recovered, or a reference to the Kingdom under David’s descendant who is to reign forever: the Messiah. The latter seems to be the most likely as this theme appears multiple times throughout the book of Acts.
In Acts 15:16 -17, the apostle James makes reference to this prophecy specifically and applies it to the Gentiles becoming the people of God apart from the Law.
James goes on to say: Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.
It was therefore determined, based on the testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas; along with James’ interpretation of the scriptures, that the Gentiles were not obligated to come under the yoke of the Law of Moses.
Furthermore, it might be worth mentioning that it was the apostle James, and not Paul, who made the final decision to inform the Gentiles that they were under no obligation to be circumcised and to keep the Law of Moses. James says; “Wherefore my sentence is…” (Acts 15:19).
Afterwards we read, “then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church…” (Acts 15:22).
They then sent the following letter to the Gentile believers at Antioch:
Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For IT SEEMED GOOD TO THE HOLY GHOST, AND TO US, to lay upon you no greater burden than the necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. (Acts 15:24-29)
The council at Jerusalem – the apostles, the elders, and the church – came to the conclusion that if they required the Gentiles to keep the Law of Moses after God had established his name among the Gentiles, they would most certainly be in opposition to the work of God.
The testimony of God had already been established by the gift of the Holy Ghost being given to the Gentiles, and the Jerusalem council decided to agree with God. Therefore they said, “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us.” They were persuaded by the Holy Ghost and agreed!
Once this letter was delivered to the Gentile believers at Antioch, and read, the Bible says: “THEY REJOICED.” (Acts 15:30-31)