The primary focus of this chapter is what has been called “The Great Jerusalem Council”, where the dissension that we’ve seen over the past few chapters between Jews and Gentiles gets addressed through a gathering in Jerusalem. The predominant question of this council is “how Jewish does a Gentile need to be to be a Christian?”.
15:1 Some men come down to Antioch from the area around Jerusalem and begin teaching Christians that salvation is not only dependent on Jesus, but also on any converts to Christianity also following Jewish law. Here is given the example of circumcision, but it includes more than that. This is a figure of speech called “synecdoche” (sin-NEK-de-kee) that involves using just a part of something to stand for the whole thing, or vice versa. So here, naming circumcision implies the whole submission of the Jewish law, because circumcision was the entrance into that whole life.
The people who insisted on that are sometimes described as “the circumcision party” (e.g. Acts 11:2). This conflict is a key theme of Paul’s letter to the Galatians as well, where he describes what “false brothers” (Galatians 2:4) did as they tried to bring this Jewish life into the Christian one. As you’ve already surmised with these comments and references, this is not something that God has called Gentile Christians to do.
15:2-4 Paul and Barnabas dispute the need for Gentile Christians to be Jewish in practice, and then the church sends them and others (notice again the idea of appointing or sending by the church) to consult with the leaders in Jerusalem. Even on the way, they get to encourage other Christians as they go.
15:5 Some Pharisees had become Christians, just like Saul/Paul. But these ones demanded that Christ wasn’t enough; observance of the Jewish Law was needed. (this verse helps illustrate the synecdoche of verse 1).
15:6 When the Bible uses the word “apostle” it always signifies the Twelve. They are distinguished from other leaders because of their direct calling by Jesus. In general, today we use a capital-A (Apostles) to denote the Twelve, to be specific over against more general “sent ones” (which is what the word apostles means) and self-described apostles who want to set themselves up as being similar to the Twelve. So here we have a gathering of the Apostles and elders/pastors of the church in Jerusalem.
15:7 The group debates. Though Peter will speak (as he often did - again, this is a sort of synecdoche where Peter represents the Twelve), there isn’t simply one person making the decisions.
15:7-11 Peter refers to the events we heard about in chapters 10-11. He describes the desire to have people follow Jewish law as a “yoke” (verse 10), a burden that not even the people of old could follow anyway. He states that Jews and Gentiles are all saved the same way: by grace through faith in Christ.
James (not the brother of John who was one of the Twelve, but the half-brother of Jesus) summarizes the decision and gives his judgment. It’s evident that his position is the decisive one here, but again he doesn’t act alone. He’s been part of the conversation, and then it is left to him to make a judgment about what seems best.
15:14 “Simeon” here is the Jewish name of Peter (Simon/Simeon).
15:15-18 Even in the Old Testament, God had in mind that not only Jewish people would turn to Him. So here James applies that to the current situation.
15:19-21 Nothing outside of Christ is necessary for salvation. The encouragements here relate more to moral issues than ceremonial, and are best understood as “brotherly advice”. This is not a decree handed down from on high, similar to what’s been called a “papal bull”, where the Pope makes a proclamation of some kind of doctrine or practice that must absolutely be followed. The point here is freedom in Christ. Christians are free to follow Jewish customs, as long as they do so with the understanding that what they are doing in no way adds to their merit before God. A Christian can abstain from eating certain foods, but whether abstaining or partaking doesn’t matter in view of salvation. At the same time, there are continuing moral implications of Christianity, and some of them are addressed here: idolatry, unchastity, and the shedding of blood.
15:22-35 Once again we note the communal nature of all of this. The assembly agrees to the decision and commissions some to take the message of the decision to those who have been troubled by it. Nothing is done by one person putting himself forward, but the community acts, and certain individuals are commissioned to carry out certain tasks.
This is a rather extraordinary account which is described quite matter-of-factly. There is a “sharp disagreement” (ESV) between Paul and Barnabas over taking John Mark with them on the next journey because he left them on the first one (recall 13:13-14). This disagreement is so sharp that they feel the need to not travel together anymore. Coming on the heels of the Jerusalem council, this strikes us as odd. At the same time, it shows the reality of issues that may arise in the Christian Church, even between such people as Paul and Barnabas! And yet, though working separately now, God’s work is still being done.
There’s no reason to imagine that the groups went their own ways in anger. It was that their convictions were different and they were each compelled by their consciences. In terms of John Mark specifically, though Acts will turn to focus on the work of Paul, there will be reconciliation evidenced later on (e.g. Colossians 4:10, 2 Timothy 4:11).
And yet again we note the commending/commissioning of this work (15:40). God’s work doesn’t rest on any one individual outside of Christ, but we all are called according to His design.