A Brief Bible History/Section 2/Lesson 18

A Brief Bible History, Section II
J. Gresham Machen
Lesson 18: The First Missionary Journey and the Apostolic Council


The First Missionary Journey and the Apostolic Council

Acts 11:27 to 12:25

After a time of rapid growth in the Antioch church, a prophet, Agabus by name, came down from Jerusalem and prophesied a famine. The disciples determined to send relief to their brethren in Jerusalem. This they did by the instrumentality of Barnabas and Paul. Acts 11:27–30.

Meanwhile the Jerusalem church had been suffering renewed persecution under Herod Agrippa I, who, as a vassal of Rome, ruled over all Palestine from a.d. 41 to 44. James the son of Zebedee, one of the apostles, had been put to death, and Peter had escaped only by a wonderful interposition of God, Acts, ch. 12.

Acts, Chapters 13, 14

After Barnabas and Paul had returned to Antioch from their labor of love in Jerusalem, they were sent out, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, upon a mission to the Gentiles, which is called the first missionary journey. Acts, chs. 13, 14. This missionary journey led first through the island of Cyprus, then, by way of Perga in Pamphylia to Pisidian Antioch on the central plateau of Asia Minor.

At Pisidian Antioch, as regularly in the cities that he visited, Paul entered first into the synagogue. In accordance with the liberal Jewish custom of that day, he was given opportunity to speak, as a visiting teacher. The congregation was composed not only of Jews but also of Gentiles who had become interested in the God of Israel and in the lofty morality of the Old Testament without definitely uniting themselves with the people of Israel—the class of persons who are called in the book of The Acts "they that feared God" or the like. These "God-fearers" constituted a picked audience; they were just the Gentiles who were most apt to be won by the new preaching, because in their case much of the preliminary instruction had been given. But the Jews themselves, at Pisidian Antioch as well as elsewhere, were jealous of the new mission to the Gentiles, which was proving so much more successful than their own. Paul and Barnabas, therefore, were obliged to give up the work in the synagogue and address themselves directly to the Gentile population. So it happened very frequently in the cities that Paul visited—at first he preached to both Jews and Gentiles in the synagogues, and then when the Jews drove him out he was obliged to preach to the Gentiles only.

Being driven out of Pisidian Antioch by a persecution instigated by the Jews, Paul and Barnabas went to Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, which, with Pisidian Antioch, were in the southern part of the great Roman province Galatia, but not in Galatia proper, which lay farther to the north. Then, turning back from Derbe, the missionaries revisited Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch, strengthening the disciples and appointing elders; and then returned to the church at Syrian Antioch from which the Holy Spirit had sent them forth.

The Epistle of James

During the progress of the Antioch church and of the mission which had proceeded from it, the church at Jerusalem had not been idle. At the head of it stood James, the brother of Jesus, who was not one of the twelve apostles and apparently during the earthly ministry of Jesus had not been a believer, but who had witnessed an appearance of the risen Lord. James was apparently attached permanently to the church at Jerusalem, while the Twelve engaged frequently in missionary work elsewhere. From this James there has been preserved in the New Testament a letter. The Epistle of James, which is addressed "to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion." This letter was written at an early time, perhaps at about the time of the first missionary journey of Paul. In the letter, James lays stress upon the high moral standard which ought to prevail in the Christian life, and he has sometimes been regarded as an advocate of "works." But this judgment should not be misunderstood. The "works" of which James is speaking are not works which are to be put alongside of faith as one of the means by which salvation is to be obtained; they are, on the contrary, works which proceed from faith and show that faith is true faith. James does not, therefore, deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Only he insists that true faith always results in good works. Paul meant exactly the same thing when he spoke of "faith working through love." Gal. 5:6. Paul and James use somewhat different language, but they mean the same thing. Faith, according to both of them, involves receiving the power of God, which then results in a life of loving service.

Acts 15:1-35; Galatians 2:1-10

The wonderful success of the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas caused great joy to the Antioch church. But the joy was soon marred by certain persons, commonly called "Judaizers," who came down to Antioch from Jerusalem and said that unless the Gentile converts kept the Law of Moses they could not be saved. The demand was directly contrary to the great principle of justification by faith alone; for it made salvation depend partly upon human merit. The entire life of the Church was in danger. But Paul, guided by a revelation from God, determined to comply with the wishes of the brethren at Antioch by going up to Jerusalem with Barnabas and certain others, in order to confer with the leaders of the Jerusalem church. Paul did not need any authorization from those leaders, for he had been commissioned directly by Christ; nor did he need to learn from them anything about the principles of the gospel, for the gospel had come to him through direct revelation. But he did desire to receive from the Jerusalem leaders, to whom the Judaizers falsely appealed, some such public pronouncement as would put the Judaizers clearly in the wrong and so stop their ruination of the Church's work.

The conference resulted exactly as Paul desired. Acts 15:1–35; Gal. 2:1–10. The Jerusalem leaders—James, the brother of the Lord, Peter, and John the son of Zebedee—recognized that they had absolutely nothing to add to the gospel of Paul, because he had been commissioned by Christ as truly and as directly as the original Twelve. Joyfully, therefore, they gave to Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship. God had worked for Paul among the Gentiles as truly as he had worked for Peter among the Jews. With regard to the propaganda of the Judaizers, the Jerusalem church, after speeches by James and Peter presenting the same view as the view of Paul, sent a letter to the Gentile Christians in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia declaring them to be absolutely free from the Mosaic Law as a means of salvation, and directing them to refrain, out of loving regard for the Jews in the several cities, from certain things in the Gentile manner of life which were most abhorrent to Jewish feeling.

Such was the result of the "Apostolic Council," which took place at about a.d. 49. It was a great victory for the Gentile mission and for Paul, for it established clearly the unity of all the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. No wonder the church at Antioch rejoiced when the letter of the Jerusalem church was read.


  1. Describe in detail the release of Peter from prison in the closing days of the reign of Herod Agrippa I.
  2. Enumerate the visits of Paul to Jerusalem which have been studied so far.
  3. What happened, on the first missionary journey, at Paphos? at Perga? at Pisidian Antioch? at Lystra?
  4. Describe the Apostolic Council in detail. What was the meaning of the letter which was sent out from the council?