The Jerusalem Council
After more than two years, Paul and Barnabas returned to Syrian Antioch. Because the whole church there had been involved in sending them out as missionaries, it was natural that they would give a report to the church. The report’s emphasis, however, was not on what they had accomplished but on what God Himself had done through them.
The object of the report, of course, was the success of the mission among the Gentiles, though many Jews had also come to faith. Since the episode of Cornelius, however, the conversion of uncircumcised Gentiles had become an issue (Acts 11:1–18), but now that large numbers of them were being admitted to church membership, things became particularly complicated. Many believers in Jerusalem were not happy. For them, Gentiles would need first to be circumcised, that is, to become Jewish proselytes in order to become part of God’s people and have fellowship with them.
Acts 15 is all about the Gentile problem reaching a critical level and about the church working together to find a solution. The Jerusalem Council was a turning point in the history of the apostolic church in relation to its worldwide mission.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, August 25.
From the beginning, the church at Antioch consisted of both (Hellenistic) Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles (Acts 11:19–21, Gal. 2:11–13) who apparently lived in peaceful fellowship with each other. That fellowship, however, was shattered by the arrival of a group of believers from Jerusalem.
Traditionally called Judaizers, those individuals from Judea were possibly the same ones identified in verse 5 as believing Pharisees.
The presence of Pharisees in the church should not surprise us, as Paul himself had been a Pharisee prior to his conversion (Phil. 3:5). This group seems to have gone to Antioch on their own initiative (Acts 15:24), though another episode that also took place in Antioch some time later shows that most Jews, including the apostles, were not very comfortable with the presence of uncircumcised Gentiles in the church (Gal. 2:11–13).
In his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul does not speak positively about the Judaizers, dubbing them as troublemakers (Gal. 1:7, 5:10, ESV) and “false brothers” (Gal. 2:4, ESV) whose real motive was to undermine the spiritual freedom of the gospel and bring the Gentile converts into the slavery of legalism.
Their point was rather simple: unless the Gentiles were circumcised and kept all the other Jewish ceremonial laws, they could not be saved.
Salvation—so they believed—was to be found only within God’s covenant community and, according to the Old Testament, there was no other way to become part of God’s chosen people except through circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14, Exod. 12:48). In short, Gentiles could be saved only if they first became Jewish proselytes.
Paul and Barnabas, of course, could not agree with such requirements, which went against the very nature of the gospel. The aggressive approach of the Judean visitors, however, generated a heated discussion; the word in Acts 15:2 (stasis) has the sense of “conflict” or “dissension.”
Yet, the matter was too important to be dealt with at the local level only. The unity of the church was at stake. The brethren of Antioch then decided to send a number of delegates to Jerusalem, including Paul and Barnabas, to find a solution.
One of the great issues in this conflict was circumcision. This was not a human institution (contrast Matt. 15:2, 9). Rather, it had been commanded by God Himself as a sign of His covenant with Abraham’s descendants as His chosen people (Gen. 17:9–14).
Read Exodus 12:43–49. In addition to Israelite males, who else was supposed to be circumcised?
The blessings of the covenant were not restricted to born Israelites but were extended to any slave or sojourning stranger who wished to experience it, as long as he were to be circumcised. After circumcision, the stranger would have the same status before God as the born Israelite: “He shall be as a native of the land” (Exod. 12:48, NKJV).
Circumcision, therefore, was indispensable (for a male) to be a full member of God’s covenant community. And because Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, it seemed natural that the Judaizers would insist that no Gentile could benefit from His salvation without first becoming a Jew.
By saying that no Gentile could be saved without first joining Judaism, these men were mixing up two distinct concepts: covenant and salvation. Being a member of God’s covenant community did not guarantee salvation (Jer. 4:4, 9:25). In addition, Abraham himself was saved (justified) by faith, which happened before, and not because, he was circumcised (Rom. 4:9–13). Salvation has always been by faith, whereas the covenant was a gracious provision through which God would make Himself and His saving plan known to the entire world. Israel had been chosen for this purpose (Gen. 12:1–3).
The problem, however, was that by too closely associating covenant and salvation, these believers came to view circumcision as meritorious.
God’s saving grace, however, does not operate where human works operate. So, to impose circumcision on believing Gentiles as a means of salvation was to distort the gospel’s truth (Gal. 1:7, 2:3–5), nullify God’s grace (Gal. 2:21), and make Jesus of no benefit (Gal. 5:2).
Furthermore, it was a denial of the universal character of salvation (Col. 3:11, Titus 2:11). Paul could never agree to this type of thinking.
Luke, of course, does not report all the proceedings of the meeting. It would be interesting to know, for example, the supporting arguments of the Judaizers (Acts 15:5), as well as Paul’s and Barnabas’s responses (Acts 15:12). The fact that we have only Peter’s and James’s speeches shows the importance of these men among the apostles.
In his speech, Peter addressed the apostles and elders, reminding them of his experience with Cornelius years before. In essence, his argument was the same one that he had used before the brethren in Jerusalem (Acts 11:4–17). God Himself had shown His approval of Cornelius’s conversion (even though he was an uncircumcised Gentile) by giving him and his household the same gift of the Spirit that He had given the apostles at Pentecost.
In His divine providence, God had used no less a person than Peter to convince the Judean believers that He makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles with regard to salvation. Even if they lacked the purifying benefits of Old Covenant rules and regulations, the believing Gentiles could no longer be considered unclean, because God Himself had cleansed their hearts. Peter’s final statement sounded very similar to what we would expect from Paul: “ ‘We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are’ ” (Acts 15:11, NIV).
James’s speech suggests he was in a position of authority (compare with Acts 12:17; 21:18; Gal. 2:9, 12). Irrespective of what he might have understood by the rebuilding of David’s tabernacle, which in Amos’s prophecy refers to the restoration of David’s dynasty (Amos 9:11, 12), James’s main purpose was to demonstrate that God had already provided for Gentiles to join, in a sense, a reconstituted “people of God,” and thus they could be incorporated into Israel.
Because of this, his decision was that no further restrictions should be imposed on Gentile converts, other than those that normally would be required from foreigners who wished to live in the land of Israel.
The main issue for which the council had been convened was satisfactorily resolved. Because salvation is by grace, believing Gentiles were exempted from circumcision when they joined the church. Yet, they should abstain from four things: (1) meat offered in sacrifice to idols in pagan rituals and then served in a temple feast or sold in the market; (2) blood consumption; (3) meat of strangled animals, that is, meat whose blood had not been drained; and (4) sexual immorality in its various forms.
Most Christians today treat the dietary prohibitions (prohibitions 1–3) as temporary recommendations. Because those things were particularly repulsive to Jews, the prohibitions—they argue—were intended only to bridge the gap between Jewish and Gentile believers. It also often is claimed that all other Old Testament laws, including the Levitical food laws (Leviticus 11) and the Sabbath commandment (Exod. 20:8–11), which are absent from the list, are no longer binding for Christians.
The so-called apostolic decree, however, was neither temporary nor a new code of Christian ethics that excluded everything else related to the Old Testament. In fact, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), the apostles and elders of the church reproduced the regulations of Leviticus 17–18 only concerning Israel’s resident aliens.
In the context of Leviticus, these prohibitions mean the renunciation of paganism. Any foreigner who wished to live in Israel had to abdicate those pagan practices to which he or she had grown accustomed (Lev. 18:30). Likewise, any believing Gentile who wished to join the church was required to take a firm stand against paganism.
This, however, was just the first step. Once in, he or she naturally was expected to do God’s will by obeying those commandments that are universal, pre-Mosaic, and not intrinsically ceremonial, such as the Sabbath (Gen. 2:1–3) and following the differentiation between clean and unclean food (Gen. 7:2).
That the decree was not temporary is clear, for example, from Revelation 2:14, 20, where the first and the last prohibitions are repeated, implicitly contemplating the other two, as well. In fact, historical evidence shows that the decree was still considered normative by Christians long after the New Testament period.
The first measure was to write a letter to the Gentile believers in order to inform them of what had been decided. The letter, written in the name of the apostles and elders of Jerusalem, was an official document that reflected the ascendancy of the Jerusalem church— certainly because of the apostles’ leadership—over the other Christian communities. Written in a.d. 49, which is the most probable date of the council, this letter is one of the earliest Christian documents we have.
The Jerusalem church also decided to appoint two delegates, Judas Barsabas and Silas, to accompany Paul and Barnabas to Antioch; their assignment was to carry the letter and confirm its content.
When the letter was read, the church was filled with great joy because of the encouraging message: circumcision was not to be required from Gentile converts. They also raised no objection to the demands of the letter (the fourfold apostolic decree). The first most serious division in the early church was thus reconciled, at least in theory.
At the close of the council, Paul’s gospel was fully recognized by the church leaders in Jerusalem, who extended to him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship as a sign of acceptance and trust (Gal. 2:9).
Yet, those Jewish Christians who continued to live by the Jewish law would still find it highly problematic to have table fellowship with the Gentiles, who, for all intents and purposes, did remain ritually unclean.
This issue is shown, for example, by the incident involving Peter in Galatians 2:11–14. “Even the disciples,” says Ellen G. White, “were not all prepared to accept willingly the decision of the council.”—The Acts of the Apostles, p. 197.
Further Thought: “The Jewish converts generally were not inclined to move as rapidly as the providence of God opened the way. From the result of the apostles’ labors among the Gentiles it was evident that the converts among the latter people would far exceed the Jewish converts in number.
The Jews feared that if the restrictions and ceremonies of their law were not made obligatory upon the Gentiles as a condition of church fellowship, the national peculiarities of the Jews, which had hitherto kept them distinct from all other people, would finally disappear from among those who received the gospel message.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 189.
“The Jewish Christians living within sight of the temple naturally allowed their minds to revert to the peculiar privileges of the Jews as a nation. When they saw the Christian church departing from the ceremonies and traditions of Judaism, and perceived that the peculiar sacredness with which the Jewish customs had been invested would soon be lost sight of in the light of the new faith, many grew indignant with Paul as the one who had, in a large measure, caused this change. Even the disciples were not all prepared to accept willingly the decision of the council. Some were zealous for the ceremonial law, and they regarded Paul with disfavor because they thought that his principles in regard to the obligations of the Jewish law were lax.”—Page 197.