Home > Acts, Bible Study, S. Lewis Johnson > Acts 15: James’ words to the Jerusalem Council

Acts 15: James’ words to the Jerusalem Council


In my daily Bible Study time in S. Lewis Johnson’s Acts series, recently I listened to SLJ’s exposition of Acts 15, including the passage where James quotes from Amos 9.

It’s a familiar passage — and one often abused by amillennialists who claim that James is here claiming fulfillment of Amos 9 in the Church Age. As I learned through later study, and seriously looking at the actual words, James never makes any claim for fulfillment. He merely says that what is happening now is “in agreement with” what the prophets spoke of, about Gentiles being saved.

But S. Lewis Johnson brings up a few interesting things beyond what I had considered, as to why James is saying what he says in the first place. The context is the council, with an audience that includes believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees (verse 5). These evidently were true believers (unlike the Judaizers that Paul later contended with) who still had some confusion and error in their understanding. By this point in the chapter, Peter has spoken up, as have Paul and Barnabas. So now James speaks, with gentleness instead of a proud, sharp “I told you so” attitude. James does this by quoting from Amos, to point out that the prophets all spoke of a time of Jewish rejection; but the restoration will still occur. When James says “after this,” the “this” speaks of the current situation (the Jewish rejection of the Messiah), with assurance to the Jewish Christians regarding what is yet to come.

The next part, verses 19 – 21, relates to the matter of weak versus strong believers — also referenced in Paul’s epistles regarding meat sacrificed to idols, and Paul’s continual zeal to never offend a weaker believer. The whole point about the letter sent to the Gentile churches, telling them to abstain from certain things (meat sacrificed to idols, meat with blood in it, and sexual immorality), is based on the principle of not offending the weaker Jewish believers — and for consideration of Jewish unbelievers, matters that might hinder the spread of the Gospel. When James says in verse 21, “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath,” that is a reference to the fact that Jews were spread about everywhere in the Gentile world — and thus to not damage the consciences of weaker Jewish believers.

I found these observations interesting, and a great example of how we can sometimes, just quickly reading through a passage over and over, without in-depth study and the commentaries of Bible teachers, miss the significance of the words of the text. I was well familiar with the passage itself, but had never delved deeper into “why” James and the others said some of the things mentioned here. Yet the greater explanation, regarding the weaker Jewish believers and their consciences, certainly fits with the text and makes sense.

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  1. Rick Brownell
    April 8, 2012 at 8:01 am

    “But S. Lewis Johnson brings up a few interesting things beyond what I had considered, as to why James is saying what he says in the first place. The context is the council, with an audience that includes believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees (verse 5). These evidently were true believers (unlike the Judaizers that Paul later contended with) who still had some confusion and error in their understanding. By this point in the chapter, Peter has spoken up, as have Paul and Barnabas. So now James speaks, with gentleness instead of a proud, sharp “I told you so” attitude. James does this by quoting from Amos, to point out that the prophets all spoke of a time of Jewish rejection; but the restoration will still occur. When James says “after this,” the “this” speaks of the current situation (the Jewish rejection of the Messiah), with assurance to the Jewish Christians regarding what is yet to come.”

    I find it interesting that so many theologians can read different things into these passages. I would contend (not the main reason for my writing here) that Johnson’s is incorrect in his statement that “an audience that includes believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees (verse 5).” This is certainly a group of unbelievers due to their failure to grasp that justification by faith is the means to salvation rather than being circumcised and keeping the law (15:1, 5). This group clearly does continue to have “confusion and error in their understanding.” Why Johnson would so say they are not confused and in error is most interesting. The unusual use of the perfect active participle here for believed is exactly the same as John’s use of the perfect active participle in John 8:31 for a group of believing Jews that Jesus later says are “of their father the devil” (John 8:44). Both groups describe a faith that is full-orbed, perfected and final — albeit, full-orbed, perfected and final in the wrong object, namely, believing in something other than Christ for salvation.

    Furthermore, how Johnson sees this section as speaking to Jewish rejection is equally troubling, as the context appears to be strictly speaking about Gentiles (Acts 15: 3, 7, 9, 11, 12, 14, 17, 19). It would seem that rather than “the ‘this’ speaks of the current situation (the Jewish rejection of the Messiah), with assurance to the Jewish Christians regarding what is yet to come”, James was quoting Amos 9:11 and that the words “after this” are Amos’ words. Amos was actually saying that after his (Amos’) time God would rebuild the tabernacle. James ruled that the account given by Peter (read Acts 15:7-11) proved that Amos’ prophesy on the rebuilding of the “tabernacle” had been fulfilled in Peter’s presence (Acts 15:14, 15).

    • April 12, 2012 at 10:55 am

      Well, if you had actually listened to the full S. Lewis Johnson message I was referring to, his point would be more clear than the brief summary in my post. Luke refers to those men in Acts 15:5 as believers — confused believers evidently, but believers nonetheless. Many believers can be wrong about certain doctrines, and can even be false teachers in need of better instruction, but that does not mean they are not believers. Even today some Christians tend toward legalism, but that doesn’t mean they’re not believers. Dr. Johnson’s view on Acts 15 is not unique, either; reference, for example, Dr. Ironside and John MacArthur. Verse 21 sums up the reason why they sent the letter to the Gentiles, “for from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him,” — Jews and Jewish believers (who were weaker in their faith) amongst the Gentiles in the Roman empire.

      As for the specifics of Greek grammar: Dr. S. Lewis Johnson was far excelled in his mastery of Greek, at a far higher level than most others even among scholars, as attested by other scholars and by his many teachings over the years and his scholarly papers (and he was on the committee that published the original NIV in the early ’70s), so I’ll take his word over someone I’ve just met in the blog meta. The context at any rate determines the meaning, and nothing in Acts 15 says that they were not true believers — whereas the context, the actual conversation in John 8, makes their true spiritual condition very clear.

      I’ll repeat here what I’ve previously said in another of my posts:
      To those who would re-interpret references to David as meaning the church (as with the Acts 15 text: David is mentioned 54 times in the New Testament, and always the word refers to David, not the church. Furthermore, the Amos text cited in Acts 15 talks about “rebuilding” the tabernacle of David. When is the Church ever referred to as something to be RE-built? (No, Christ told Peter He would “build” His church.) Or as something to be rebuilt from ruins, “as in the days of old”?

  2. April 12, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    I thought you said you were a Calvinist. If one does not believe in justification by faith alone, in Christ alone — can one still be a true believer? I think one can be misguided and incorrect in several areas (some forms of eschatology), and still be a genuine believer, but not in this one. At least you can’t be wrong here and still be a Calvinist.

    These Pharisees had a faith that the *language* deems full-orbed, assured, and complete, but in this instance, and in John 8ff, in the wrong thing! They are making the case that circumcision is deemed divinely necessary for salvation as well as possessing faith in Christ. No Calvinist, or any believer who understood justification by faith would go along with this as belonging to genuine faith. So believing with full assurance in the book of John or anywhere else for that matter can mean that one has a genuine faith that trusts Christ as the Son of God, the Redeemer, or that one has an assurance of their faith but in the wrong object as well. The Jews in John 8:31 and in Acts 15 have an assurance in what they believe, but that assurance is a false assurance because the object of their faith is not in Christ alone. The analogy of faith, then, as a general principle of interpretation, aids us in illuminating the true meaning of a common biblical word in any given context by showing us how the parameters of the meanings in any given word become clear after we understand the various uses of it in Scripture. As an interesting note, John uses the perfect tense with the word faith six times in his gospel, and twice in his first epistle, and every other time he uses faith in the perfect tense, it’s always in the context of a saving faith that correctly sees Christ as the Son of the living God, except here in John 8:31. I would put the Acts 15 use of the word here as well.

    Since Scripture is authored and sourced in God, what is taught in one passage of Scripture cannot contradict what is taught in another passage. When a word like believe occurs in an obvious negative and condemning sense as opposed to how it is normally used, we need to understand that the meaning of that word in the difficult passage is established after careful consideration of the entirety of its use in other passages.

    We all know that any human interpretation can be wrong, whether it’s mine or MacArthur’s or Dr. Johnson’s. The one with the most doctorate degrees doesn’t win in theology. Men are not infallible and neither are our interpretations. I am not familiar with any of Dr. Johnson’s teaching. But you being such an admirer of John MacArthur, as you should be in most subjects, must also know that he was wrong about the Eternal Sonship of Christ. http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/sonship/sonjm00.htm

    • April 12, 2012 at 12:50 pm

      I only brought up the theologians because of your reference to the Greek as though to somehow “prove” something from the Greek text that isn’t clearly seen in the English. Suffice to say that many believing scholars, who do know the Greek, take a different view of Acts 15:5.

      Actually I appreciate S. Lewis Johnson’s teaching even more than that of MacArthur, but that website you linked, Middletownbiblechurch, is well-known as an anti-MacArthur site with obvious bias and incorrect information. But for the record, here is MacArthur’s own statement regarding the Eternal Sonship issue:

      http://www.gty.org/resources/Articles/A235/Reexamining-the-Eternal-Sonship-of-Christ

      Regarding the issue of the OT law versus justification by faith: this is a common confusion for supersessionists, to not understand an important point — the law never did save anyone; the blood of animals never did atone for sin. The Old Testament is also quite clear on that point, with several references in the prophets to times when God hated the people and refused to accept their offerings, even though those offerings were made according to the Mosaic law. It was always the heart attitude of the person, their faith in God (as best as they understood it, that God would provide the true sacrifice for sin, even though they didn’t know His name as Jesus of Nazareth). In the Old Testament, outsiders did join the faith as proselytes to Judaism. But again, OT Judaism never was based on the works of the law, it was always of faith, even as Jonah proclaimed, Salvation is of the Lord.

      If OT Judaism taught salvation by works of the law, then what about the times in the book of Acts when Paul did things that were part of the law: circumcising Timothy (Acts 16), taking a vow in Acts 18:18, and even paying for the expenses of vows taken by four other Jewish men in Acts 21? The early Jewish Christians as referenced in Acts 15 were still thinking in OT times in reference to the fact that previously Gentile converts joined to the Jewish nation and faith. It was a point that even Peter had been unclear about, as brought out in Acts 10 and 11 (and his “Not so, Lord” protest), which is why Peter again brings it up in Acts 15.

      Just because some of the people of Jesus’ day, such as the Jews in John 8, thought that they were saved by the law, does not mean that a) the OT scriptures actually taught what they thought it did (salvation by following the law), or that b) all Jews of that time all thought the same thing, that they all thought they were saved by following the law. That was an error of the unbelieving leaders, to so distort and misinterpret the scriptures as to mean something else, as well as their error of putting their own human rules and traditions on a higher level than the scriptures. The Old Testament itself always taught salvation by faith, not by works, and the believing Jews understood that.
      But back to the main point of the Amos quotation in Acts 15, again: the Amos text cited in Acts 15 talks about “rebuilding” the tabernacle of David. When is the Church ever referred to as something to be RE-built? No, Christ told Peter He would “build” (future tense) His church. Or as something to be rebuilt from ruins, “as in the days of old”?

      As Dr. Barrick well noted on this issue:
      “The Church has never been scattered in discipline among the nations, so how can it be the one regathered? The church has never been in a civil war that resulted in two kingdoms, called Israel and Judah, so how can the church fulfill Ezekiel 37? The church has never been promised restoration to land and mountains of Israel. The church cannot be in view when the scripture says they will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. That’s not true of the church. If this were in any conceivable sense referring to the church, why does the scripture say that the Gentiles, seeing this occur, will recognize who God really is when He makes Israel holy and makes Israel His sanctuary and abides among His people Israel forever?”

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