The Council of Jerusalem

While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch in Syria after their first missionary journey, a controversy occurred that resulted in their being sent with some other believers to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders. The council that followed was a key step in transforming the fledgling Christian movement from just another jewish sect into an independent religion.

The Controversy (Acts 15:1-5)

1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

We call the men who told the Gentiles Christians at Antioch that they could not be saved unless they were circumcised Judaizers. They probably argued from Genesis 17:9-14 that circumcision was an indispensable sign of the covenant between God and His people. They may also have pointed out that Jesus was circumcised and that he never indicated that circumcision would no longer be necessary.

Paul probably argued against them much as he did in Galatians, where he says:

2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Galatians 5:2-6)

Rather than making accusations against the Judaizers on their way to Jerusalem and during there welcome there by the church and the apostles and elders, Paul and Barnabas declared “all that God had done with them” and “the conversion of the Gentiles.” However, some believers who belonged to the Pharisees, a Jewish sect noted for its strict observance of the law of Moses and of oral tradition, objected that the Gentiles should be circumcised and commanded to obey the law of Moses.

The Discussion and Decision (Acts 15:6-21)

After considerable discussion of the matter by the apostles and elders, Peter got up and reminded them of how God had showed his acceptance of the Gentiles gathered in the house of Cornelius by giving them the Holy Spirit (Acts 10), concluding:

10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.

F. F. Bruce notes that the term “yoke” is particularly appropriate here, explaining that “a proselyte [to Judaism], by undertaking to keep the law of Moses, was said to ‘take up the yoke of the kingdom of heaven” (The Book of Acts, rev. ed. The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988], 290). Bruce goes on to observe that, although not all Jews thought of the law as an intolerable burden:

Peter spoke as a representative of the rank and file of Galilean Jews. He knew enough to refuse nonkosher food and not to fraternize with Gentiles (10:14, 18), but he and people like him could not be expected to know or practice all the details of legal tradition. By contrast with those “heavy burdens, hard to bear” (Matt. 23:4), he and his associates had learned to rejoice in their Master’s easy yoke (Matt. 11:29-30). They recognized that their own salvation was due to the grace of Christ; were they to acknowledge a different and more burdensome principle of salvation for Gentile believers? (291)

There was no further discussion and the whole assembly listened to Barnabas and Paul tell about the signs and wonders that God had done among the Gentile believers through them.

When they had finished, the leader of the Jerusalem church–James, the brother of Jesus–spoke up. After referring to what Peter had said, he demonstrated that the calling of the Gentiles had been foretold in the Old Testament, quoting from the LXX version of Amos 9:11-12:

16 After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.

James then gave as his judgment that they should not trouble Gentiles who were turning to the Lord except to tell them to abstain from a few things especially disturbing to Jews (see “the Letter” below) because “Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

R. C. H. Lenski comments:

James was not governed by logical or theoretical considerations but only by the different needs of the Gentile Christians in their peculiar situation at that time. On the one hand they were surrounded by their pagan connections, and on the other they found themselves in the same Christian congregations with Jewish members (The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1934], 617).

The Letter (Acts 15:22-35)

The apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to send two of their men, Judas Barabbas and Silas, to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas with this letter:

23 The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.

The Jerusalem church may have based their claim that the Holy Spirit had shared in their decision on such sayings of Jesus as “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things” and “[W]hen the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 14:26; 16:13).

They regarded the four requirements as a concession to, not as a burden on, the Gentile believers. Ernst Haenchen explains:

The “burden of the law from which the Gentiles are to be relieved comprises, firstly and above all, circumcision, then the countless other legal prescriptions nad prohibitions. All this for them now falls away … The Apostolic Council’s edict is … the final recognition of the mission free from the law, hence of Gentile Christianity free from the law. {The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971], 449 and 459)

The men delivered the letter to the church at Antioch, with the result that joy replaced the discord of a few days earlier. After spending some time there encouraging the Christians, Judas and Silas returned to Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching (along with others) the word of the Lord.

“The effects of the decision [and the letter embodying it] were far-reaching,” claims Richard N. Longenecker, going on to give three:

In the first place, it freed the gospel from any necessary entanglement with Judaism and Israelite institutions. … Second, attitudes to Paul within Jewish Christianity were clarified. … Third, the decision of the council had the effect of permanently antagonizing many Jews. (“The Acts of the Apostles,” in vol. 8 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981], 450.

And in doing these, the Jerusalem Council became, as I said in introducing this article, a key step in transforming the fledgling Christian movement from just another Jewish sect into an independent religion.

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2 thoughts on “The Council of Jerusalem

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      I think that the council laid those four requirements on the Gentiles, instead of something like the Ten Commandments, as a compromise between the positions of Paul and of the Judaizers. Requiring Gentiles to obey the Ten Commandments could be taken as requiring them to become Jews, and not requiring anything of them could offend the Jews (Acts 15:21).

      Reply

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