Friday, 3 March 2023
Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. Acts 15:2
The previous verse told of the Judaizers coming to Antioch and telling the brethren that unless they were circumcised, they could not be saved. With that remembered, it next says, “Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them.”
The first word, translated as dissension, stasis, was used concerning Barabbas in Luke 23:19 and translated as insurrection or rebellion. It is the etymological root of our current word, stasis, which is used at times to refer to a civil war. The sides were drawn up and there was no agreement to be found between them. Paul will say to the Galatians these words –
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? 2 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? 4 Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” Galatians 3:1-4
The answer to the question for the Galatians to consider was obvious. They had heard the gospel, they had received the Spirit, and they were saved. Why would they need to then be circumcised if God had accepted them as they were? But just like in Galatia, this is what the Judaizers were trying to get those believing Gentiles in Antioch to do. Obviously, Paul and Barnabas would not budge an inch. The Spirit had accepted the Gentiles as they were. Unless the Spirit was fickle and the giving of the Spirit was not a sound guarantee, there was nothing necessary to be added to His work.
The next word, translated as dispute, zétésis, is translated elsewhere as controversy, speculation, and so on. It signifies “a searching.” The YLT translates it as disputation. It is as if they had set forth a formal debate in order to settle the matter. They presented why they believed what they believed in order to convince others. But a resolution was not forthcoming. Hence, “they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem.”
This is the logical avenue to take in this case. There was an unresolved dispute, the apostles had been set forth as those who were to speak on behalf of the Lord, and so the matter would rightly be elevated to them. Paul, even though appointed an apostle, would certainly have agreed to this because he knew that:
1) God is not fickle. He had called Paul to this ministry and had given him sufficient instruction to know that what he was doing was right and appropriate. As this is so, He would not suddenly call out Paul’s stand as incorrect and requiring amendment.
2) The Lord had approved of the actions of Paul and Barnabas through “signs and wonders” (Acts 14:3, etc.). Thus, He would certainly be among the apostles to support the work that had already begun and which was approved by Him.
3) At whatever point in the timeline it had actually occurred, the conversion of Cornelius and those with him was prior to this time. The Spirit had come down upon those Gentiles without any hint of law observance. Peter and those with him were witnesses to this fact and he would have to acknowledge this, thus making a logical and indisputable defense for Paul’s position.
Along with this, Albert Barnes provides further reasons for why these Judaizers would also surely be happy to have a trial in Jerusalem. He says –
(1) That Jerusalem would be regarded by them as the source of authority in the Christian church, as it had been among the Jews.
(2) most of the apostles and the most experienced Christians were there. They had listened to the instructions of Christ himself; had been long in the church; and were supposed to be better acquainted with its design and its laws.
(3) those who came from Judea would not be likely to acknowledge the authority of Paul as an apostle: the authority of those at Jerusalem they would recognize.
(4) they might have had a very confident expectation that the decision there would be in their favor. The question had not been agitated there. They had all been Jews, and it is certain that they continued as yet to attend in the temple service, and to conform to the Jewish customs. They might have expected, therefore, with great confidence, that the decision would be in their favor, and they were willing to refer it to those who resided at Jerusalem.
These points are validated by the next words, which note that they were going up to Jerusalem “to the apostles and elders.”
If the Lord had established a New Covenant and there was a new direction in the redemptive events taking place among the people, it would be appropriate to go to the body that was designated by Him to conduct the affairs of that body. There would be no need to go to the stewards of the Mosaic Covenant because they had missed the train on what God was doing. And so, it was to the body who were assigned to the affairs of the New Covenant that the men were sent “about this question.”
The word translated as question is zétéma. It is found four times, only in Acts. It is from the same root as the word translated above as dispute. This refers to the underlying idea behind the dispute. It is intended to probe the principle at stake. In order to obtain a resolution, the matter will be fully explored and contemplated.
Life application: God provided revelation to the people under the law as He saw fit. An explanation of this was given as the first words of Hebrews were penned –
“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son.” Hebrews 1:1, 2
This was needed during the time before and during the law. The reason for this is that the Old Testament was not yet complete. Prophets spoke to instruct the people. But the words of many of them were recorded. Eventually, the Old Testament was complete and the prophetic word ceased. The time after the final words of the Old Testament were received is known as the intertestamental period.
With this body of literature complete, the people waited for the Messiah. God again spoke to the people at the time of the coming of John the Baptist. However, the record of that is found not in the Old Testament, but rather the New. The Old Testament stood as its own witness and it was sealed as complete.
With the coming of Christ and the completion of His work, God moved among the people once again. This, as in the completion of the Old Testament, would eventually end. With the completion of the New Testament, there is – like during the intertestamental period – no longer a need for the prophetic word in visions, dreams, or other various ways.
And so, we must each question where we will set our doctrine. Is it in the completed canon of Scripture or are we still seeking out more information? The surest way to run off course is to deviate from what God has conveyed to us in His word. Israel continuously failed to discover this, and the church in large part has failed to pay heed. Be content that God has provided all we need to rightly conduct our affairs and know what He expects as He has detailed in Scripture. Hold fast to the word! The apostles have spoken and the word is compiled.
O God, it is such a blessing to our souls to know that Your word is written and that it is sufficient for us to know what You expect of us. We can easily ignore those who claim a word from You today, knowing that we have THE WORD from You. With this knowledge, we are sure to be kept from going astray. Thank You for this precious gift. Amen.
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