Darrell Bock makes an important observation concerning this “council.” He suggests it ought to be called a consultation rather than a council since it is not like the later “church councils” which decided doctrine for the church (Nicea, for example). This is true, although I think Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not submit his Gospel to the elders at Jerusalem and he certainly is not requesting permission to waive the requirements of the Law for Gentiles. Nor is he described as arguing his case or reaching a compromise with the apostolic community in Jerusalem.
As Paul and Barnabas moved into Asia Minor they evangelized Gentiles who were not connected with a Synagogue. These are not God-fearing Gentiles like Cornelius. Paul was expanding his mission into areas (geographically and culturally) the Jerusalem church would not have naturally considered 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. These teachers are sometimes called “the Judaizers” since they were interested in converted the Gentiles to a form of Second Temple Judaism.
The core of the problem is that up until Paul, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. The people 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 may have continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. For many of the earliest followers of Jesus, Christianity was not a “new religion” as much as a reform movement within Judaism.
This conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church Luke reports, although Gal 2 describes Paul’s conflict with Peter and Barnabas over table fellowship. It is possible Luke alludes to the the Antioch Incident in Acts 15:1-2, but this is unlikely since the main issue in Acts is circumcision of Gentile converts, not eating with Gentiles.
Acts 15:1-2 says people from Jerusalem travelled to Antioch and were teaching people were not saved unless they were “circumcised according to the custom of Moses.” I will deal with the idea of “circumcision for salvation” in my next post, but at this it is enough to observe that some Jews refused to recognize Gentiles as “right with God” if they were not fully converted to Judaism, including circumcision.
Is it surprising there was a serious break between some teachers in Jerusalem and Paul with respect to Gentile salvation? This is the first generation of the Church, yet there is a serious problem caused by Gentiles accepting the Jewish Messiah as savior. How deep is the rift between Paul and these teachers?