Because of the busyness of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I did not post anything the last couple of weeks. I trust that all of you had a joyous time of celebrating the birth of our Lord and the New Year. Now we can get back to our study of the book of Acts, our present project. Blessings, Bob
In out last essay we studied Acts 14, which completed Luke’s account of Paul’s first missionary journey. In this essay we are studying Acts, chapter 15, in which we find an exceedingly important meeting of early Church leaders usually called the Jerusalem Council, or Jerusalem Conference. By the time of this council, Gentiles had been accepted in the church for several years. But the trickle of Gentile converts in the early years was becoming a flood, and that fact was causing new tensions.
In previous years it had been assumed that Gentile believers would be circumcised and become Jews. But that wasn’t what was happening. Many Gentiles were being baptized and accepted into the fellowship of the church without circumcision or acceptance of the Mosaic Law. In other words, they were becoming Christians without becoming Jews. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Jerusalem Council as it dealt with this issue, and Luke was correct to present it as a pivotal point in the church’s early history.
As we study the chapter, notice that Jerusalem still is the geographical center of Christianity; but Syrian Antioch, with it’s mega-church had become a large, new, and important center for the faith. Notice that Peter has an important role in the Council story. But this is the last appearance of Peter in Acts. The focus will now shift to Paul and his wide-ranging ministry, mostly to Gentiles, in Asia Minor and Europe.
Now then, let me remind you of some things that happened earlier in the book. In chapter 10 God led Peter to baptize Cornelius and his household, which brought the first true Gentiles into the fellowship of the church. At the time there were some Jewish believers in Jerusalem who challenged him, but the apostles approved what he had done. Then in chapter 14, our last lesson, Paul and Barnabas reported that they had success converting Gentiles (on the first missionary journey), and again the apostles in Jerusalem approved.
But now, as you can see in 15:1-5, some Jewish believers from Judea came to Antioch and began to teach the church there that circumcision was necessary for salvation. This group became known as the “circumcision party,” or the “Judaizers.” In addition to insisting on circumcision for Gentile converts, these teachers were insisting that Gentile converts had to follow the Law of Moses (v. 5).
Well, Paul and Barnabas had been preaching and teaching for years that one is saved by faith in Jesus, not by circumcision or keeping the law. So a serious, and apparently contentious, debate ensued, a debate that they could not settle in Antioch. So Paul, Barnabas, and several others were chosen by the Antioch church to take the matter to the apostles and the mother church in Jerusalem (v. 2). Now it’s important to realize that this meant the entire leadership of the early church was gathered. At that time, Jerusalem and Syrian Antioch were the only two major centers of the faith. So when their leaders were gathered, the leadership of the entire church was gathered.
As I mentioned earlier, this gathering of church leaders is often called the Jerusalem Conference, or the Jerusalem Council. This conference represented the first occasion when all the leaders of the church came together to discuss issues and to make decisions that would affect the church as a whole.
This debate was absolutely critical to the future of the church, because the way of salvation was at stake. If the Judaizers won, faith in Jesus would not have been enough to save Gentiles. In order to be saved they also would have had to be circumcised and keep the law. If Paul and his allies won, only faith in Jesus would be required for salvation. In the former case, Christianity would have become a sect within Judaism. In the latter case, Christianity would not be able to remain part of Judaism, and it would become a separate religion, which is what happened.
When Paul and the other Antiochene delegates arrived at Jerusalem, “they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. “But,” verse five tells us, “some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees, stood up and said, ‘it is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’” Thus the theological battle was joined.
In verses 6-11 we see that the apostles and elders called the entire group together in order to deal with the matter (v. 6). Thus the historic Jerusalem Council was officially called to order. Luke tells us that there was much debate (v. 7). Then Peter stood to speak. We don’t know if this was the first time he spoke at the conference, but it certainly was one of the key speeches of the gathering. Peter reminded the delegates that years earlier God had chosen him to bring the first Gentiles into the fellowship of the church. And God gave his personal approval of them “by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (vv. 8-11).
There are three parts to Peter’s argument. First, God had chosen him to bring the first Gentiles intro the church. In other words, it was God’s idea, not Peter’s. Second, God had poured out the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles just as he had poured him out on the Jewish believers. So God himself demonstrated his approval of them. And third, God had cleansed their hearts by faith, just has he had done for the Jewish believers. Therefore Peter declares that God clearly made no distinction between Jewish and Gentile believers. In verse ten Peter accused the Judaizers of laying a heavy yoke on the necks of the Gentile believers that the Judaizers themselves, as well as their ancestors, could not bear. Then finally, Peter concluded that Gentiles and Jews alike are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus.
In verse 12 Luke gives the briefest possible report of speeches by Barnabas and Paul. He simply says that they reported on the miracles that God had worked in their ministries with the Gentiles. From Luke’s point of view, the only importance of their accounts was to support what Peter had said.
Now then, verses 13-21 contain a final speech at the conference. It is by James, the Lord’s brother, who had become the leader of the Jerusalem church. He rather obviously was the chairperson of the conference, and in that role he summarized the situation and rendered a judgment. That didn’t mean that he necessarily made the decision himself. Rather he was announcing the decision that the Council had come to.
Notice that James referred to Peter by his Hebrew name, “Simeon.” James began by affirming what Peter had said, and then he tied Peter’s testimony in with the prophetic scriptures by quoting Amos 9:11-12 (LXX). The point of doing that was to give biblical authority to the decision. Then he declared that they would not “trouble” the Gentile believers. But they would write a letter to them asking them to abstain from four particular practices that were especially offensive to Jews.
They asked them, first, “to abstain from things polluted by idols.” In other words, don’t support the pagan religions by buying and eating meat that the pagan priests were selling out the back doors of their temples.
They requested, second, that the Gentile believers abstain “from fornication [or sexual immorality, NIV]. Converts from the nations had to make massive changes in lifestyle in this area, because they were used to satisfying their sexual desires when and with whom they pleased. But they were asked to stop doing that. In Christ certain standards of decency have to be maintained.
Third, the leadership asked the Gentile believers to abstain “from whatever has been strangled.” This was a practice of eating meat that had been cooked with the blood in it, rather than drained out of it. The practice was common among Gentiles; but it was disgusting to Jews, who were strictly forbidden to eat blood. Therefore if Gentile believers would eat that kind of meat, they would have disrupted their fellowship with the Jewish believers.
And fourth, the leaders requested that the Gentile believers abstain “from blood.” By this they meant that the converts were not to shed blood, to commit acts of violence, cruelty, or murder, and the like.
To summarize the four requests in a sentence, the leaders of the Church told the Gentile believers, to be a Christian, you do not have to become a Jew; but you must not be a Pagan either.