As Paul and Barnabas moved into new territory they evangelized the Gentiles directly. After the initial contact in a town at the synagogue, the work of evangelism focused on the Gentiles of the community. The new church was expanding into areas that the Jewish church would not have naturally seen as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law.
We know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-Fearer. Peter was hesitant to do so, and after he returns to Jerusalem the Jewish Christians there question Peter closely about why he had entered into the house of a Gentile. Peter appears to have understood that salvation was moving into the Gentile world. But Paul was doing more than preaching to God-Fearers in the synagogues who were keeping most of the Law in the first place. He was preaching the gospel to Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to keep the Law in order to be saved. This means that they did not have to worry about Jewish food laws or circumcision, two of the most fundamental boundary markers for the Jew in the first century.
The core of the problem is that up until Paul, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. The people that were accepting Christ in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law, they remained fully “Jewish” in every sense. They maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and they continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. This conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatains primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians and Colossians as well. Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age.)
Darrell Bock makes an excellent observation concerning this “council,” it ought to be called a “consultation” rather than a council since this is not anything like the later “church councils” that decided doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his doctrine that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to have it approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community. Rather, he reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” accept Paul’s position on the issue.
6 thoughts on “Issues at the Jerusalem “Council””
I like how Paul makes it a point to say “You know what everybody I was not commissioned by the Jerusalem church, I was given revelation by Christ to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Therefore I will not be asking permission, I will be giving you updates” (paraphrased by me). I really admire Paul at times; for him acting solely on the authority of Christ. If God gives him a mission that is his first priority not necessarily the will of men. When he brought his mission before the Jerusalem leaders the false brothers came in, and insisted that Gentiles converts be circumcised. “They wanted to take the freedom out of Paul’s law-free gospel. Paul did not yield to their pressure for a moment” (Polhill 112). Paul stood firm and did not budge against what he was commissioned to do.
I also admire Paul for what he did in this situation. He knew what had to be done and what had to be said in terms of gentile circumcision, and he refused to budge to the belief that the gentiles had to submit to this idea. “Paul’s main concern was that his gentile mission would not be in vain” (Polhill 111). He knew that if he allowed the judaizers to push their views and rituals on the gentiles then his mission would have been for nothing. This would have been a difficult ritual for gentiles to have to go through with and Paul understood that they didn’t need to take on this unnecessary yoke of the law.
Paul’s determination and firm belief in Gentile conversion shows at the Jerusalem “council”. In Luke’s account of the event in Acts 15 it says that Paul and Barnabas told about “the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (Acts 15:12). Paul shared about his missionary journey to the council, not because he wanted their approval, but because he wanted to tell them about the awesome work that God was doing. Even if the “council” did not approve, it would not have mattered. Paul was doing God’s work by evangelizing to the Gentiles. Polhill says, “In Acts, the expression ‘signs and wonders’ is shorthand for the work of the Spirit” (Polhill, 114). God was working through Paul and Barnabas to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles and in that preaching to them that they do not have to follow the law like the Jewish people. In James speech in Acts 15 he agrees with Paul on that issue when he says, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). Although, Paul did not need the agreement to continue preaching, they saw Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles as beneficial and necessary.
There are so many different aspects to Paul’s teachings and the main points that he hits in his ministry. But I think the most important point in the post is Paul’s pressing of the issue: the law can no longer sanctify. Like Plong had said in the post, Christianity was viewed as a Messianic movement; that being so, Jewish Christians still sought to find their identity in the traditions of the Mosaic law, which would have closed the door to the Gentiles. “Should the Christians have insisted upon them, it would have ensured that Christianity would stay a strictly Jewish movement with little impact on the Gentile world” (Polhill, 107).
Jews who had converted to Christianity were still abiding by Jewish rituals. Which in a sense, is not detrimental, unless the motive behind that was still believing that good works would sanctify or maybe “save you” even more…as if being saved by grace is not enough. I do not think that it would really be a problem if Jewish Christians were abiding by Jewish traditions, as long as they understood that there was no real sense in continuing those traditions because they held no value after being redeemed through Christ’s grace.
When Paul set out on his mission he knew what he stands on, and he believed that if the Gentiles believed that Jesus was the Messiah that is what all that matters. As Polhill said on page 111 Paul’s main concern was that he didn’t want the Gentiles that converted to turn into Jewish proselytes and be circumcised and follow the food laws. Paul didn’t want that for the Gentiles to fear that they would have to turn into a Jewish proselyte, and just wanted the Gentiles to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. It was a big victory for Paul when the Jerusalem Council agreed with him and that the Gentiles didn’t have to follow the food laws or be circumcised when they converted.