The Jerusalem Council: A Study of Acts 15
Introduction: From time to time, Christians have to get together and try to figure out things. Sometimes these have to do with our beliefs or with the applications of our beliefs in society. In the Baptist tradition, we call these business meetings. We’ll get a bunch of ordained ministers and deacons or other church leaders in the room and grapple with some divisive issue or issues. Frankly, I don’t like the sense of tension and strain that I feel in meeting like this. But the tradition of trying to arrive at a biblical conclusion goes all the way back to Acts 15, and to the first Jerusalem Counsel. This was the first great theological disagreement in the early church, and it had to do with the nature of salvation.
Here’s the story. Paul and Barnabas had just finished their first missionary trip, and they had planted churches in the region of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) known as Galatia. Right behind them came some Judaizers, who were Pharisees who had converted to Christianity but they were still quite legalistic. In fact, they believed that one had to, in effect, enter Christianity through Judaism. Their message was this: “Jesus was a Jew, and Christianity is a fulfillment of Judaism. It did not abolish Judaism, but it fulfilled it. And to be a Christian, you have to become a Jew; you have to be circumcised; you have to respect the Jewish diet and calendar. You cannot just bypass all that.”
But Peter and Paul had been preaching that you could indeed bypass all that. Salvation was for everyone on earth, for the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and it required simple faith. We are saved by grace through faith, and Gentiles didn’t need to observe any of the precious Jewish traditions.
That created a great conflict, which led to two major events in early church history, which probably happened in a short span of time.
The first was the writing of the book of Galatians. I suspect that Paul wrote Galatians just before the Church Counsel in Jerusalem, because if he had written it afterward I think he would have referenced it. (In fact, he may have referenced it in Galatians 2, but many scholars believe the Galatians 2 reference pre-dates the Jerusalem Conference and refers to a prior visit Paul made to Jerusalem). Here in Galatians, he attacks the Judaizers and warns the Galatians not to listen to them.
The second is the Jerusalem Counsel, which convened to discuss this issue. We believe the date was about AD 49, which would have been roughly twenty years since the Day of Pentecost. That’s the primary subject of Acts 15. The chapter opens with Paul and Barnabas back in Antioch, their sending church, after their trip through Galatia.
Verse 1: 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.”
We’ve come to refer to these false teachers as Judaizers. As they grappled with this issue, Paul and Barnabas realized this was a problem that was arising everywhere in the church. And they decided they needed to consult with the apostles and the church leadership in Jerusalem so the matter could be resolved in churches across the empire.
Verses 2-4: This 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. The 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. When 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.
It wasn’t exactly safe to be a Christian in Jerusalem during those days, and I’d be curious to know where and under what conditions they found and met with the church leaders, but Luke doesn’t tell us.
Verse 5: Then 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.”
Now, the Sadducees could not possibly become Christians without changing their core theology, because they were so liberal they didn’t believe in heaven or hell or angels or eternal life. But the Pharisees were the religious conservatives among the Jews, and some of them did accept Christ as Savior. But some of these converted Pharisees still clung to the legalism of their Jewish traditions.
Verse 6: The apostles and elders met to consider this question.
Two groups were together. First, any of the apostles who were still in Jerusalem. Perhaps there were eight or nine of them; we don’t know. And then the leaders of the local congregations, who were pastors or overseers or elders. One of those was James, the half-brother of Jesus, who was recognized as the bishop or leader of the church or house-church network in Jerusalem. The apostles and elders let the debate go on for a while, and then Simon Peter spoke up.
Verse 7: After 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 heart from my lips the message of the Gospel and believe.
He was referring back here to what happened in Caesarea, when the Roman centurion, Cornelius, had gathered some Gentiles in his home, in Acts 10. He invited Peter to share the Gospel, and as Peter preached the people believed and the Holy Spirit fell on them and indwelled them. This was the Gentile Pentecost. Peter took the Gospel through the doors of the Gentiles, which God had opened in Caesarea.
Verse 8: God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us.
These Gentiles – Cornelius and his family and friends, did not embrace Judaism. They were no circumcised. They did not start observing the Jewish hours of prayer. They didn’t change their diets. Yet God saved them and the Holy Spirit fell on them.
Verse 9: He did not discriminate between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith.
Notice those words: “…by faith.” That’s the qualification and condition for salvation.
Verse 10: Now, 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?
Peter was marshaling his arguments here. He was saying, first, we are saved by grace through faith because that’s what happened in Caesarea. Second, because trying to be saved by keeping the Jewish law is hopeless. Not even we Jews can do that, let alone the Gentiles.
Verse 11: No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.
Notice Peter’s key phrases: by faith and through grace. This is true for the Jews (“we are saved”) and for the Gentiles (“just as they are”). Both Jews and Gentiles are saved by grace through faith.
Peter sat down, and we don’t hear his voice again in the book of Acts. These are the last words Peter spoke that are recorded in the book of Acts. From this point on, the story belongs to Paul. And so when Peter sat down Paul stood up. Wouldn’t you have loved to been there? What if we could have heard Peter give his message and then Paul share his testimony? Peter gave some history of the doctrine and an important theological argument. Paul augmented it with stories of what happened during his and Barnabas’ missionary trip.
Verse 12: The 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.
And now, James stood to speak and to express the consensus that had emerged among the majority. This was not the apostle James, the brother of John, for that James had been slain by Acts 12. He had died for his faith, the first apostle to be killed. This James in Acts 15 was evidently the half-brother of Jesus who had become the leader or bishop of the church in Jerusalem. He is known to history as James the Just. He’s the man who wrote the epistle of James in the New Testament, and, in fact, it’s likely that he had already written his epistle and it was in circulation. It might have been the first of all the New Testament letters. So James was a very powerful figure in the apostolic church, even through he wasn’t an apostle. According to Josephus, he was stoned to death in AD 62. Here in Acts 15, we can see that he occupied a great position of authority in the church. He was a control-taker. He was also very Jewish. He was not a Judaizer; he agreed with the principle of justification by grace through faith, but he was a conservative Jew and I get the idea that he wasn’t totally comfortable with the liberty Paul took in disregarding Jewish traditions. So now, having allowed the debate to go on, having heard from Peter, having heard from Paul and Barnabas, James spoke up.
Verses 13-14: When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon had described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for His name from the Gentiles.”
He acknowledged the story Peter told about Cornelius and its theological implication. And now James did what any expositor would do. He appealed to the Scripture. Since – excerpt for his own letter and perhaps the book of Galatians – there were no New Testament writings yet, he quoted the Old Testament, from the book of Amos. He quoted from Amos 9:11-12.
Verses 15-18: The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear My name, says the Lord, who does these things—things known from long ago.”
Now, when I turn over to Amos to study that quotation, it reads differently in my NIV. James was quoting or paraphrasing from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, which had been translated during the inter-testimental period. Expositors are perplexed by the way James treated this text from Amos, and it seems to refer to the Millennium when the Jews will be restored and the Gentiles will see the Lord. But when it comes down to its simplest point, what James was saying was this: God has promised to restore the Jews to the fullness of His promises, and He has also promised that the Gentiles will seek Him. God is concerned about both Jews and Gentiles.
Verse 19: It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
That was the decision. That was the crux of the matter. The Gentiles could come to Christ following the simple route of grace through faith. But James just cannot help himself. There are a few Jewish convictions that he wants to toss in there from Leviticus 17 and 18 – four of them, in fact. He wants to make sure that as the Gentiles are saved by grace through faith, they at least be aware of several things that might upset Jewish believers.
Verse 20: Instead 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.
First, so as not to offend the Jews, they should abstain from food polluted by idols. Later Paul indicated that there might be some room for Christian liberty on this issue. Second, from sexual immorality. That’s a given for both Jews and Christians. Third, from the meat of strangled animals; and fourth, from blood.
Verse 21: For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.
In other words, almost every city is filled with Jews, and there’s no need for these Gentile Christians to flaunt their liberty; so, yes, tell them we are saved by grace through faith. But in exercising that freedom, they should remain sensitive to Jewish convictions about some of these matters. There’s a principle here about contextualization. We all live and minister in a given context, and so we want to be sensitive to that context
I may be wrong about this, but I’m prone to think James’ decision was probably a little more conservative than Paul would have liked. I think Paul would have preferred a simple statement that we are justified by grace through faith, and that becoming a Jew isn’t necessary to becoming a Christian. The four considerations were subordinate to the main argument. But this was a compromise Paul could live with that. He and Peter had won the crux of the argument, and the rest he could explain in his own terms. So that became the decree, which was codified in this letter.
Verse 22: Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers.
Silas was to become an important companion to Paul, as we’ll see at the end of the chapter.
Verses 23-26: With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul—men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Notice the commendation they gave Paul and Barnabas. They are our dear friends, and they are men who had risked their lives for the Gospel.
Verse 27: Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing.
Paul and Barnabas would be corroborated by two witnesses.
Verse 28: It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:
In other words, you do not have to keep all the rituals and regulations of the Old Testament Mosaic Law. You don’t have to obey everything in Leviticus. James said that was a joint decision reached by them with the aid of the Holy Spirit. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us. That phrase is so important in Christian decision-making. We should have an awareness that the Holy Spirit is guiding our thoughts as we prayerfully determine our steps.
Verse 29: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.
And that was that.
Verse 30: So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter.
The letter was short and to the point, but I’m sure that Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and the others provided background information, commentary, preaching, and an evangelistic appeal every time they shared this news.
Verse 31-35: The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught the preached the word of God.
Conclusion: I can’t imagine being in meeting with those giants – Peter, James, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and others. The church was facing a crisis. The tension was palpable. But as they gathered together they appealed to what God had revealed to Peter, what He had done through Paul and Barnabas, and to the message of Scripture that James quoted. And they arrived at consensus. The sentence that spoke most to me was: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” The church today is facing some major issues. The evangelical church in America is at a crossroads on several issues of cultural significance. And every month at this church, we face hard choices in knowing how to be in the world but not of the world. In any marriage, church, denomination, or Christian organization, we face differences of opinion. It’s so much better when we can work through things, appeal to Scripture, and arrive at a consensus, and feel that we have ascertained the mind of the Holy Spirit. I’ve had a policy for many years with the deacons here at TDF that we work on a consensus basis in decision-making.
We don’t have to make decisions by ourselves. We don’t have to come up with all the needed wisdom just from our own minds and mouths. We can pray. Interestingly here in Acts 15, it doesn’t say that they prayed. It says they discussed and decided. But we would assume they prayed together before they began, and throughout the entire meeting each one was whispering prayers for wisdom. And when they arrived at a conclusion, they felt they had the mind of the Spirit.
You would think that everything would be well after this, but in the last paragraph of Acts, Paul and Barnabas have a falling out over John Mark. Verse 36 says: Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas want to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.
- Notice verse 39: They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.
- Now go back to verse 2 about the earlier theological problem: This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.
At the beginning of the chapter, there is a sharp dispute; and at the end of the chapter there is a sharp disagreement. The sharp dispute was resolved, but the sharp disagreement wasn’t. And the very first missionary team in church history split in two. Verse 39b goes on to say: Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
I cannot explain this, why these two men couldn’t come to terms. Yet in the final analysis, it led to good for now there were two missionary expeditions going forth. And later, in 1 Corinthians and Colossians, Paul commended Barnabas; and in 2 Timothy, he spoke of how useful Mark had been to him in his ministry. By the end of the New Testament, time had healed the division.
Sometimes we just have to part ways; but whenever possible, it’s wise to find consensus and guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.