Acts 15:1–21 . . .
“The Jerusalem Council”
As a result of the first missionary journey (which we've already studied from beginning to end in our Week 24, 25, and 26 summaries), Gentiles had come to faith in large numbers. While unbelieving Jews resisted the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles, some Jewish believers were insisting that Gentile converts must be circumcised and keep the Old Testament Law of Moses. Gentile converts were truly grateful to be included in the salvation that God brought about through the Jews, which is clear when you watch the video clip linked below this summary. To some, grateful Gentile converts submitting to circumcision and law-keeping might not appear to be such a huge concession. But they didn't understand the implications of circumcision. Paul did. He and Barnabas strongly opposed the teaching of those Judaizers who believed that Gentiles must enter into the faith by converting to Judaism. As a result, the first church council was called.
Let's listen well to the words of today's text, and let us attempt to learn what the Jerusalem Council meant for those that day, as well as for Christians today. We'll now concentrate on the first conflict between Paul and Barnabas and some overly Jewish Christians, as well as the Jerusalem Council that met to settle the dispute. We ought to take note of the way in which the problem was handled, as well as the basis for the Council's decision and its impact on many.
The Dispute that Began in Antioch (15:1–5)
The issue at hand in Antioch was that of the gospel itself. There were certain unnamed men who'd come down to Antioch from Judea, holding to a very different “gospel,” one that in reality was a false one. Their “gospel” might be summed up in this fashion: Christianity is Jewish. To be saved, one must believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. But, . . . in order to be a part of this covenant community of Israel, one must become a proselyte, which can be entered into only by circumcision, obligating the individual to keep to the Law of Moses.
Put differently, to these “Judaizers,” salvation meant identifying not only with Christ but also with the nation Israel. It meant placing oneself under the Mosaic Covenant and keeping the Laws of Moses, as defined by Judaism. We know for certain that these men who opposed Paul and Barnabas were from Judea. Verse 5 informs us that they were Jews who'd been and continued to be Jesus-following Pharisees. These men possibly claimed or implied that their position represented the viewpoint of the apostles and the church in Jerusalem; likely, they taught with great confidence and an air of authority. So, when Paul and Barnabas opposed them, sparks began to fly; neither party was willing to budge.
Paul and Barnabas responded with great dissension and debate. Evidently, neither side could convince the other, so the brethren in Antioch decided that Paul and Barnabas and some others should go up to Jerusalem to discuss this issue. This meeting of church leaders in Jerusalem is generally known as "The Jerusalem Council."
What was the bottom line of the debate? The issue was really whether Gentiles had to become Jews before becoming Christians, or whether they could become Christians simply through faith in Christ, without undergoing the rite of circumcision. Circumcision was no mere ritual — it was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. By being circumcised, men bore witness to their faith in the God of Abraham and in God's covenant with him and his descendants. Failure to circumcise his son nearly cost Moses his life (cf. Exodus 4:24–26); failure or refusal to be circumcised placed one outside the covenant community. And in order for one to participate in the Passover meal, one had to be circumcised; aliens (Gentiles, for all practical purposes) could participate in the meal, but only after being circumcised.
Was Christianity a sect of Judaism? Or was it something completely new and different? In the first missionary journey, God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. However, certain Judaizers were now making it difficult for Christians to get through that important door! Jesus broke down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile in his death, yet they were trying to build it back up. So, this was an extremely important theological issue that needed to be debated and resolved.
The Debate that Was Argued About in Jerusalem (vv. 6–21)
Even among the leaders there were differences of opinion. The dispute dragged on without coming to a resolution. Throughout the debate, four men represented the grace of Christ in this Jerusalem Council debate: Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James.
At first glance, what these Judaizers were demanding may not have seemed too much to ask. They wanted Gentile converts to undergo circumcision. But the "rite of circumcision," like baptism, was a symbol that implied much. To the Jews, being circumcised was viewed as a commitment to live under the Law of Moses, as the Old Testament Israelites had been doing. In our text, the implications of circumcision will be spelled out by Peter in only a few verses.
Peter took the floor and rendered his testimony (vv. 7–11). He presented three arguments against requiring the Gentiles to be circumcised: (1) He reminded the church that God had sent him to share the gospel with the household of Cornelius the centurion, and when those Gentiles responded in faith to Peter's message, the Lord gave them the Holy Spirit, just as he'd given the Spirit to all believing Jews; (2) Peter reminded his hearers that the Law of Moses had always been a great burden on the backs of Jewish people — if they'd never been able to bear it, how could they expect Gentiles to bear it?; and (3) he stated that Jews, as well as Gentiles, are saved by grace, meaning that all men are saved by grace rather than their works. Peter held such respect that when he was done speaking, no one dared oppose him.
Paul and Barnabas (v. 12) then rose and reported. They spoke of the miracles that God had enabled them to perform among the Gentiles. Such miracles were proof that their missionary endeavors had the backing and blessing of God. Their labors illustrated the grace of God of which Peter had just reminded them. As an act of grace, God used the apostles to preach Christ to the Gentiles so that they might believe on him and be saved, i.e., saved only by God's grace.
James' judgment is revealed in vv. 13–21). Now stood the acknowledged church leader in Jerusalem whose voice carried the most weight with those Jews who were zealous for the Law. Note: This James is not the apostle James, whose martyrdom is recorded in 12:2. This is the one traditionally known as "James the Just," the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55), brother of Jude (Jude 1:1), and author of the book of James (James 1:1). There were [and are today] basically two ways of recognizing a work of God: (1) either by its connection with supernatural events displaying God’s hand or (2) by its agreement with God’s Word. In the ministry of Paul and Barnabas, God provided both kinds of proof. Both men had told the Council about those miracles that documented God's approval of their efforts to evangelize the Gentiles.
Next, James rose and demonstrated that the salvation of Gentiles was predicted by the Old Testament. He quoted Prophet Amos (vv.16–18), which states that God someday intended to bring men into the house of God from all over the world. The force of James’s argument rested on a surprising omission from the prophet’s words; namely, the utter lack of any suggestion that Gentile salvation would be accomplished by making them members of Israel. That route to heaven was available in Moses’ day, but didn't belong to a future dispensation. James and Amos were saying the same thing: Gentiles would be saved, not by becoming Jews but by believing in the One sent to be their Savior.
James concluded by affirming that those converts who'd been won over by Paul and Barnabas's ministry had indeed turned to God. Not only declaring his support for their missionary work, he sided with Peter’s judgment that to impose circumcision on Gentile converts would be wrong; it would certainly trouble them while discouraging them from continuing on the path of truth and righteousness. He then presented a formal recommendation. He called it a "sentence" or "judgment" (v. 19), which was essentially equivalent to what we in our tradition of representative government refer to as a "motion." He made a motion that the Jerusalem Council command the Gentiles to observe four rules: (1) that they abstain from idol pollution — in other words, that they refrain from eating meat previously dedicated to a pagan god; (2) that they abstain from sexual immorality, e.g., fornication with temple prostitutes, marriages with family members, and so on; (3) that they don't eat strangled meats, e.g., animal meat from which blood hadn't been properly drained; and (4) that they consume no blood. The fourth restriction enlarged the previous to include liquid blood, which some cultures had viewed as being drinkable.
Conspicuously missing from these rules was any mention of circumcision. Also missing was the suggestion that Gentiles must abide by the Law of Moses in its entirety. One reason James’ proposal gained ready acceptance was that his audience was already familiar with the four rules he'd presented. They were the same as those provisions in the Law of Moses that were applicable to "strangers" in the land; that is, to people of foreign extraction who came to live in Israel. All of these provisions appear in Leviticus 17 and 18.
James concluded his motion to the Jerusalem Council by asserting that the new rules wouldn't lead to a neglect of the Old Testament. The writings of Moses would continue to be read and revered wherever there were Jews. Sadly for James, he couldn't have anticipated what would eventually happen over time. As it turns out, Christ's church has continually been God's main instrument to perpetually preserve the Old Testament.
- Q. 1 Have you ever felt the need to be spiritually circumcised?
- Q. 2 Is there an area of your faith where you feel like Peter, as you go back and forth because you're not sure of what is right?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 15.]
† Watch this "Visual Bible" video clip: Acts 14:9–15:22, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
The Council in Jerusalem
15 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
6The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16 “‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’ —
18 things known from long ago.
19“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”