THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
The Church Council at Jerusalem
It is by no means an accident that Acts 15 lies smack right in the middle of the book of Acts. It is not only central in location but also in importance to the history and future direction of the Christian church. It would be likened to a "watershed" event in which all the different streams before it lead up to it, while everything afterwards flows from this one major event. Although this episode was meant to deal with the issue of how the Gentiles were to be admitted into the church, it eventually became the event which determined how anybody, Jew as well as Gentile, was to enter the church. Do people come to God for salvation by works of law or only by faith? Although this was not the issue the church came together to debate, it became the issue it ultimately addressed.
CONFLICT IN ANTIOCH (15:1-2)
Sometime after Paul and Barnabas' successful missionary journey to Cyprus and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), some men come down from Jerusalem to Antioch and begin preaching to the Gentile Christians that they must be circumcised if they are to be saved. Just who were these men, and what did they basis this claim on?
From what we read later (15:5), these Jewish Christians most likely came from the ranks of the Pharisees who had joined the church. This might surprise us in light of the fact that the Pharisees had been Jesus' primary opponents during His earthly ministry; however, there was much in common on the surface between Pharisaism and Christianity: both believed in angels, in the resurrection from the dead, and the coming of the Messiah. It would have been far easier for them to make the leap to Christianity than the Saduccees who rejected these theological tenets. The only problem with this group was that they adhered strictly to the Law of Moses, observing strictly the law of circumcision in addition to the food laws. Although Luke does not tell us here, apparently these men claimed to be official representatives from James, the Lord's half-brother, who was now the dominant figure in the mother church at Jerusalem. They claimed that they spoke for James himself. They proved to be a force to be reckoned with.
What did they base this claim on? On Genesis 17:9-14. They correctly believed that God had made a contract with Abraham and his descendant(s) (see Gen. 12:1-3 and Gal. 3:16). In this contract God promised to save Abraham. (Although the word "saved" is not used in Gen. 12, this came to be the meaning of the word "bless" used in this passage.) The Jews correctly claimed that the way Abraham was saved was the way his children were to be saved. According to the Jews Abraham was not saved until he submitted to the rite of circumcision; therefore, if you were really his child and were saved, then you too submitted to circumcision. In other words, in order to become a Christian, you first hard to become a Jew.
How important was circumcision to the Jews? By their practice it was the most important of the laws of Moses. We think of the Sabbath laws as being so important to the Jews. The fact though is that the law of circumcision trumped even the Sabbath laws. The Sabbath laws dictated that you could only walk the length of a "Sabbath mile" on the Sabbath, while the law of circumcision mandated that you had to circumcise the male child when he turned eight days old. What would happen though if a child was 8 days old and the rabbi lived more than a Sabbath mile away? You would break the Sabbath and walk the extra distance. Circumcision was not to be tampered with; therefore, if circumcision was THE law and if it was not necessary for salvation, then no law was necessary for salvation. [Although Luke does not describe Paul's response to this specific argument, Paul claims that Abraham's faith is what saved him. He appeals to Gen. 15:6 which states that Abraham was already saved at least 13 years before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:9-12). Luke quotes Paul using another argument which will be just as compelling.]
A firestorm breaks out in Antioch between these Judaizers and the church at Antioch. Leading the counterattack for the Gentile Christians in Antioch are Paul and Barnabas. The argument is so intense and serious that the church at Antioch realizes that this argument must be settled in Jerusalem, the home of the apostles. They correctly surmize that the Gentile Christians will either not be accepted into the church by the Jewish Christians or else be relegated to the status of second-class citizens of the kingdom unless this issue is resolved. As a result the church sends Paul and Barnabas and certain others to Jerusalem to debate the issue before the apostles.
One of the others who went with them to Jerusalem was a Greek Christian named Titus who had been converted in Asia Minor during Paul and Barnabas' missionary journey and who had come back with them to Antioch to assist them in their work (Gal. 2:1, 3). Because Titus was a Greek, he had not submitted to circumcision. As a result his going down to Jerusalem was to serve as a kind of test case. If he came back from Jerusalem circumcised, it meant that Paul and Barnabas had lost the debate and that Gentiles now had to become cirumcised in order to be saved. If he came back uncircumcised, it meant that Paul and Barnabas had won the debate and that Gentiles in fact did not have to become circumcized in order to be saved. (If I had been Titus, I am not sure I would have agreed to go to Jerusalem on these terms!)
THE JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM (15:3)
Paul, Barnabas and their entourage head south for Jerusalem to debate this issue. Since the trip covered 250 miles, the delegation from Antioch chose to make the most out of their trip. Along the way they stop at the various churches in Phoenicia and Samaria, and declare to them the incredible success God had given Paul and Barnabas in the mission to the Gentiles of Asia Minor. They probably also threw in the fact that God had saved the Gentiles there without their having to be circumcised. The churches rejoice greatly at what God had done through the 2 apostles in their mission work. (For all practical purposes this served as a kind of campaign swing. The apostle either intentionally or unintentionally were gathering support and momentum for their belief that faith and not works is the only way to receive God's salvation. Although what Paul and Barnabas did would have seemed to overwhelm their opponents, the truth is that their Jerusalem opponents were not "overwhelmable." The Jerusalem opponents were more than up to the challenge Paul and Barnabas were about to present. Somebody greater than these 2 was going to be necessary to win the day for the gospel of grace.
THE DEBATE IN JERUSALEM BEGINS (15:4-7a)
When the delegation from Antioch arrives in Jerusalem, it is received by the church, the apostles, and the elders. These 3 groups are going to play a pivotal role in what is about to occur. The apostles refer to the 11 who had originally been Jesus' disciples plus Matthias who was added after Judas Iscariot's defection and death (Acts 1:15-26); this group was headed by Simon Peter. The elders refer to the pastors of the house churches in Jerusalem; they were headed by James, Jesus' half-brother. The church refers to the remainder of the Christians in Jerusalem. (Notice that a select group of Christians does not determine the outcome of this conference. Although leaders will play a prominent role in this conference, the entire church makes the final decision.)
After these 3 groups welcome the delegation from Antioch, some of the Jewish Christians who had originally been members of the Pharisaic religious sect stood up and began to argue that circumcision was necessary for salvation. This is not a debate following Robert's Rules of Order. The words Luke uses to describe this indicate that bedlam broke out. The arguments are heated and intense.
PETER'S ADDRESS TO THE CHURCH (15:7b-11)
In the midst of the debate Simon Peter stands up and addresses the church. In this address we see why Cornelius' conversion and Peter's escape from prison are so important. Peter is the Rock, the one upon whom Jesus said that He would build His church. You see how in an historical sense Peter and his teaching serve as the foundation for the church. What he says here will determine the future of the church.
Peter first reminds the Jerusalem congregation of the conversion of Cornelius which occurred 10 years ago. Peter tells them that of all the people God could have used to bring the Gentiles into the church, He chose him, Peter, somebody who would have credentials and credibility with the church as a whole. The whole issue of whether a person or not has to be circumcised in order to be saved has already been settled by God Himself. There at Cornelius' conversion God poured out His Spirit upon Cornelius and his household even though they had not been circumcised or had even performed any parts of Moses' law. All they had done was to exercise faith. God endorsed this as the means to be saved when He poured out His Spirit upon them. [Remember that Peter is assuming that we all realize that the presence of the Spirit in a person's life is the undeniable piece of evidence that that person has been saved (see Rom. 8:9).] Peter then argues that if God has endorsed faith as the way to salvation, then they would be putting God to the test if they insisted upon circumcision as also being necessary for salvation. When it is all said and done, the Judaizers did not have a beef with Paul and Barnabas but with God Himself.
Finally, Peter appeals to the experience of the Jews themselves with regards to the Law. The Judaizers were not being honest with themselves if they insisted upon circumcision and the keeping of the Law as being necessary for salvation since even they had been unable to keep the Law. To be sure they had kept parts of the Law; however, consistently they had broken the Law. Not only had the Gentiles been saved on the basis of their faith; even the Jewish Christians standing before him right then were saved on the basis of faith.
JAMES' ADDRESS TO THE CHURCH (15:12-21)
After Peter has spoken, the congregation has quietened down considerably. Not only would it have been hard to argue with Peter's logic, it would have been hard to argue with Peter himself because of his association with Christ. The quieter atmosphere gives Paul and Barnabas a chance to address the congregation and affirm everything that Peter has said. Not only did God pour out His Spirit upon Cornelius when he believed, He did the same when the Gentiles throughout Asia Minor believed without being circumcised. Cornelius' experience was not a unique event; it was a defining event in the history of salvation.
It is now time for the decision to be rendered concerning this issue. Although James cannot make the final decision on his own, his input will be the final nail in the coffin of legalism. James is not only Jesus' half-brother, he is also the leader of the elders/pastors of the Jerusalem congregations. Although the Jerusalem church did not have to follow his and Peter's leadership, it will.
James first of all endorses what Peter says. God had demonstrated that people are saved by faith alone through Cornelius' experience. This was not just Peter's opinion; it was the Lord's will. Furthermore, this method of salvation was prophesied by the OT itself. Amos had prophesied that one day God would restore the dynasty (throne) of David. Because of David's and Solomon's sins, the dynasty had been destroyed; however, one day God would raise up a descendant of David who would assume his throne and reign eternally over all the Gentiles (Amos 9:11-12). Notice that Amos does not say that this king would rule over just the Jews. If he had said this, then all Gentiles would have had to become Jews before they could have entered into Jesus' kingdom and be saved. Instead, this king Jesus would rule over "the nations," that is, the different types of Gentiles. Even when we become Christians, we remain Gentiles. Some of us are still white, while others remain black, red, brown, or yellow.
The glory of the Lord is not seen in us all becoming lily-white, socially sophisticated "Christians." It is seen in us being who we are--red, yellow, black, white, poor, rich, socially sophisticated, socially inept, brilliant intellectually, ignorant intellectually--following the lordship of Jesus Christ. This is also seen in Revelation. When Christians enter the new Jerusalem, they don't enter as a homogenized group; they enter in as the nations (Rev. 21:24, 26). Even though we are being transformed to the image of Christ, we retain our distinctives. Unity, not uniformity, will be the order of the day.
On the basis of this principle James says that they will not "trouble" the Gentiles with the need of first becoming Jews. All James asked was that the Gentile Christians agree to some dietary restrictions so as not to offend the Jewish Christians. This would enable Jewish Christians to eat with Gentile Christians. He asked them not to eat food which had been sacrificed to idols in the pagan temples, not to commit fornication, not to eat blood, and not to eat meat which had not been drained of the blood in it. This should not be any major burden to the Gentiles, since for over a few hundred years they had heard these exact same things preached in the synagogues in the cities where they lived. It was a way of extending an olive branch to Jewish Christians in order to promote harmony between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul's instructions in 1 Cor. 5 and 1 Cor. 8-10 show that Paul honored these specific requests from the Jerusalem apostles and elders.
Although Luke does not explicitly state this though, the fact is that James implies that Jewish Christians are still going to keep the Law while the Gentile Christians won't have to. Although James did not intend for this to happen, his actions ultimately resulted in the death of Jewish Christianity. As Paul claimed, any time you bring in legalism, you introduce death, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, etc. Because James did not press the issue of Jews living solely by the leadership of the Spirit instead of by the Law of Moses, he sounded the death knell for Jewish Christianity. Within a few decades Jewish Christianity will melt back into Judaism. Jesus will be honored as a good man, a good prophet, but not as God the Son whose death on the cross alone provides for salvation.
THE RESPONSE OF THE CHURCH (15:22-29)
The church adopts the course of action James promotes: "Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. . ." The church endorses James' decision and selects men from the Jerusalem congregation to deliver the decision of the Jerusalem church to the church at Antioch. The 2 men they select are Judas called Barsabbas (meaning "son of the Sabbath" or a "man born on the Sabbath") and Silas, 2 leaders of the Jerusalem church.
In addition to sending the 2 men back with Paul and Barnabas, the Jerusalem church sends a letter with them informing the Antioch church of its decision. First, the letter greets the Christians in the area surrounding Antioch and informs them that it had nothing to do with the group which had plagued them earlier. Although that group had claimed to represent authoritatively the will of the Jerusalem church, it did not. Second, it praises Paul and Barnabas because they had risked their lives for the cause of Christ. Instead of Paul and Barnabas being wrong, they had been right about this issue. This is a subtle way of affirming Paul and Barnabas and their doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone. The letter has its desired effect upon the church at Antioch. The Christians there rejoice and are encouraged by its contents.
Although it appears like the conference laid this issue to rest, it did not. This issue will continue to plague Paul the rest of his life. In fact because the Judaizers refused to give up, they are eventually able to stir up enough trouble for him that the Romans eventually arrest him (see Acts 21:17-34). Because of this unresolved issue though he will compose 2 of his greatest letters, the letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, probably the 2 greatest legacies he left to the church.