JERUSALEM COUNCIL Acts 15
“Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the Apostles and elders about this question” (Acts 15:2).Differences must be faced and resolved.
A doctrinal dispute over whether Gentile believers must adopt Judaism (15:1) brought representatives of the Antioch church to Jerusalem (vv. 2–5). A council of leaders determined that Old Testament Law was not binding on Gentile Christians (vv. 6–19), but asked them to be sensitive to Jewish convictions (vv. 20–21). The Antioch delegation returned with a freeing letter from the Apostles (vv. 22–35). But a personal dispute between Paul and Barnabas could not be resolved, and the two separated (vv. 36–41).
Understanding the Text
“Unless you are circumcised . . . you cannot be saved” Acts 15:1. The earliest Jewish Christians lived as Jews, committed to the the Old Testament Law. As Gentile churches were established outside Judea, a critical question arose. Did these Gentiles have to abandon their own culture and adopt Jewish customs to enjoy the salvation offered by Israel’s God? The Old Testament frequently predicted that Gentiles would be saved. But most such references linked their salvation to Israel’s resurgence under the Messiah. But now Gentiles were coming directly to God, apart from Jewish faith and practice! This many believing Jews did not understand—or appreciate! And so some Jews began to travel and teach that to really be saved, a person must convert to Judaism as well as to Christ. Today we call this ethnocentrism: the idea that one’s own customs and practices are right, and others’ are wrong. It crops up in missions as it did in Antioch so long ago. Many a church service has been set in Africa or Asia for 11 A.M., in spite of local customs, just because the missionary’s home church meets then. And many a hymn tune has been transferred from West to East, despite the fact that Eastern musical traditions are completely different from our own. You and I too need to watch out for ethnocentrism. Let’s not assume that folks who are different from us are either wrong or inferior. Faith in Christ and love for Jesus can be expressed in a variety of ways besides our own. “To go up to Jerusalem to see the Apostles and elders” Acts 15:2–5. The attempt to impose Judaism challenged the validity of Gentile conversion, and questioned the nature of the Gospel itself. Was the Good News really that God forgives the sins of anyone who believes in Jesus or not? To say, “You can be saved if you believe AND are circumcised AND keep Moses’ Law” is not the Gospel Peter preached to Cornelius, or that Paul preached on his travels. We need to be just as clear today that salvation is through our faith in Jesus Christ, with no ANDs at all. As the old hymn says, “Jesus paid it all.” The new life of love and obedience that we adopt after salvation is a consequence, not a condition of salvation. How freeing it is to realize that our salvation rests on what Jesus has done, not on what we must do. Like the early church, we need to be on guard against any teaching that would rob Christ of His preeminence, or faith of its centrality in Christian experience. “God . . . showed that He accepted them” Acts 15:6–11. It was not easy for pious Christian Jews, dedicated to their traditional customs and still worshiping at the temple, to face this issue. But Peter had a compelling argument. God showed that He accepted Gentiles as well as Jews when He purified the house of Cornelius by faith and gave them the Holy Spirit. God thus “made no distinction between us and them.” It was clear that all are saved “through the grace of God.” Keeping Jewish Law was not at issue. Let’s keep the focus on grace today too. Salvation is by grace through faith, with no other condition. To insist that others conform to purely cultural standards to be welcomed into full fellowship is wrong. The issue isn’t as abstract as it may seem. Some of us resist fellowship with folks who raise their hands when praying, while others can’t relate to those whose worship is liturgical. How irrelevant these things are! Let’s affirm each other’s freedom to differ, without a hint of criticism, knowing that the God who has accepted us in Christ also accepts our worship as an act of love. “The words of the prophets are in agreement” Acts 15:12–19. Paul and Barnabas joined Peter in arguing from evangelistic experience that God accepted Gentiles “as is,” without requiring them to adopt Judaism first (v. 12). James, the brother of Jesus, highly respected for his piety, showed that what Peter and Paul reported was in harmony with Old Testament Scripture. After all, Amos spoke of “all the Gentiles who bear My name.” Clearly Gentiles as Gentiles were expected to bear God’s name in the Messianic Age, which had now come in the person of Jesus. Evidence from Christian experience is important. But we must always check to see that our experience is in harmony with the Word of God. When experience is confirmed by Scripture, we can act confidently, as did the Jerusalem church. The council’s decision was that Gentiles are not subject to the Law God gave to Israel, nor must they live like Jews to be acceptable to God. “We should write to them, telling them to abstain” Acts 15:20–21. The three issues raised here have been much debated. Why these three? And what is their significance? If “from sexual immorality” is understood as referring to marriages between persons whose union is prohibited in the Old Testament, it seems that the Jerusalem Council asked Gentile converts to be sensitive to their Jewish brethren’s convictions. We certainly need to be sensitive to others today. Later Paul would write to the Romans and to the Corinthians, and encourage them not to misuse their freedom, but to avoid giving unnecessary offense to those whose convictions might differ from their own. As the letter the council sent to Antioch and beyond said, “You will do well to avoid [such] things” (v. 29). “They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas” Acts 15:22–29. It was customary in Judaism to send two sages with any official communication from the Sanhedrin to Jewish communities abroad. The early church adopted this wise custom, and sent two prophets along with the letter that explained the Council’s decision. The letter brought relief. The two messengers, who “said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers,” communicated love. The personal touch is vital in our own relationships with others as well. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit” Acts 15:28. The Jerusalem Council seemed so sure that they had the mind of the Spirit. How did they know? First, they had gathered the leaders together, being careful to communicate the process to the “whole church” (vv. 4, 22). Different viewpoints were openly expressed (v. 5). They went through a process of “much discussion” (v. 7). They tried to discern God’s will by recognizing what God had taught them through His past working among them (vv. 8, 12). They compared this with Scripture (v. 15). And they reached a consensus, expressed by James (v. 19). The achievement of a consensus after working through this careful process was the Spirit’s stamp of approval. Churches would do well to adopt the same approach to problem-solving. Our goal is the same as that of the first church Council: not to make the best decision we can, but to discern what God’s will is.
Differences That Divide(Acts 15:36–41)
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it. The doctrinal differences we seem to be able to handle. It’s those interpersonal conflicts that really divide. When I was a teen we visited one of my dad’s friends, a retired man who had a cottage on a lake. On the way home Dad remarked that when his friend was a child, he’d been to a church supper and asked for a piece of a cake he’d seen earlier in the kitchen. The lady at the counter said the cake was gone. But a few minutes later, he’d seen her, sitting in the kitchen, eating a piece of that very cake. Dad’s friend never went to church again! It wasn’t doctrine that turned him off. It was a woman’s lie about a piece of cake. The early church was able to work out the doctrinal conflict between Hebrew Christians who felt strongly that Gentile believers should be circumcised and those who felt strongly they should not. But when Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, his nephew, along on another missionary venture—oh, no. Paul just wouldn’t have it. Mark had left them in the lurch on the first missionary trip (13:13), and Paul had no sympathy with quitters. Luke said that “they had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (15:39). Barnabas took Mark and went off one way. Paul took Silas and headed off a different direction. Doctrinal disputes they could handle. A personal conflict? No way. If I can’t have my piece of cake, I’ll quit, and go on home. So there! Actually, there is a way to deal with interpersonal conflicts. Jesus spoke of remembering that we human beings are all like sheep, sure to go astray. We have to be brought home lovingly and with rejoicing (Matt. 18). Paul himself would one day write, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3–4). Interpersonal differences don’t have to divide Christians. But the separation of Paul and Barnabas reminds us how vulnerable we all are. Disputes will certainly divide. Unless we are sensitive, and humble as well.
It’s often more important to be loving than to be right.
“I used to think that God’s gifts were on shelves one above the other, and that the taller we grew in Christian character the easier we could reach them. I now find that God’s gifts are on shelves one beneath the other. It is not a question of growing taller, but of stooping down, to get His best gifts.”—F.B. Meyer