Acts 15 – What Was the Jerusalem Council?

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 church was expanding into areas where the Jewish Christians 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. By Acts 15 enough Gentiles have accepted Jesus as messiah and savior that some Jewish Christians in Jerusalem argue they ought to start keeping the Law, beginning with circumcision but food taboos (implied from decision in Acts 15:24-29; but see also the situation in Galatians 2:1-11-15).

We know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to 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.

Not Like This

Not Like This

Until Paul reached out to Sergius Paulus in Cyprus, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. People who were accepting Jesus in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law. They remained fully “Jewish” in every sense other than they believed the resurrected Jesus is the Messiah.T hey appear to have 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 In Acts 15 between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatians primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians, Colossians; Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age).

Acts 15:1 indicates some people came from Jerusalem to Antioch and said “unless you are circumcised according to the customs taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This means a Gentile God-fearer like Cornelius must fully convert to Judaism in order to be a real follower of Jesus. This group of Jewish Christians are usually called the Judaizers, although scholars working on Galatians call them “the agitators” or simply “Paul’s opponents.” Since Galatians implies these opponents were sent by the Jerusalem community, some scholars call them the “men from James” (Gal 2:11-12, sometimes using the modifier “allegedly”).

From the book of Galatians it is clear Paul told his Gentile converts they ought not submit to circumcision since they were not under the old covenant. In fact, there is neither Jew nor Gentile in this new age. Gentiles were not converting to a form of Judaism, nor are Jews rejecting Judaism and becoming Gentiles. For Paul, what is happen is something new and radical, God is accepting both Jew and Gentile by faith apart from the works of the Law. (See this post on whether Galatians was written before or after Acts 15). The relationship between Paul’s Galatian opponents and the “certain men” who traveled to Antioch to tell Gentiles circumcision was required is complicated; for now it is important to observe there are some Jewish believers in Jesus who understand this new movement as a kind of reform movement within Second Temple Judaism and not a new religion.

In his commentary on Acts, Darrell Bock makes the excellent observation that this “council” ought to be called a “consultation” since it is not like the later church councils which decide doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although (in my view) Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his teaching that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to be approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community. Rather, Paul reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” appear accept Paul’s position on the issue.

What is at stake in the Jerusalem Council? We know the Jerusalem community agrees with Paul that Gentiles ought to be free from the “yoke of the Law” as Peter puts it (15:16), but there are some issues which will cause friction in Christian communities with both Jewish and Gentile believers. What are the implications for Paul’s mission if the Jerusalem community disagreed with his law-free Gospel for the Gentiles?

16 thoughts on “Acts 15 – What Was the Jerusalem Council?

  1. It is interesting to see Peter and Paul moving in the same direction towards salvation through grace but also that salvation was now for the Gentiles as well. They had different views and ways of going about it, however. Peter was preaching more to the God-fearers who were already keeping much of the Jewish Law. Paul, however, was much more abrasive in the sense that he was preaching to the Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to follow the Law in order to be saved; salvation was completely through grace alone and not through works. This was a massive movement for Christians to begin evangelizing outside the realm of the Law. Therefore, conflict arose between thinkers like Paul and the Jewish Christians who kept the Law. Paul and Barnabas simply relate to the Council the sign and wonders that God had been doing through them among the Gentiles (15:12). James suggests that they should tell the Gentile converts that they should abstain from things polluted by idols, sexual immorality, etc. The Council seems to agree with this and accept what Paul says about what is happening with the Gentiles.

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  2. I like how Paul and Barnabas handled this the way they did. Instead of trying to defend their faith off the top of their head they wanted to truly know the answer. So they went to the “council” in Jerusalem to figure out why these men that were teaching about circumcision was wrong. And one of the men in the council, Peter, stood up to address this question. In my own words, Peter said ” God excepted the uncircumcised just like he axcepted us. To him there is no difference”. Peter knew that it was “the grace of our Lord Jesus” (v.11) that made them saved. Then James said they should not make it difficult for the Gentiles and that they should write a letter to them telling them what to actually worry about. Although I agree that this “council” is not like other councils later in the church, they handled this situation well.

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  3. It is interesting that the Jerusalem council was not a time in which Paul had to defend his ministry to the apostles. He merely came to them and reported all that God had done through them (Acts 15:4). So it does not sound like the apostles and elders were in conflict with Paul and Barnabas, they seemed to be somewhat on the same page. It is also important to note that Paul’s call to go to the Gentiles came from God and not from the apostles in Jerusalem. “Paul did not volunteer for missionary service. He was not commissioned by the apostles in Jerusalem, but he was sent by Jesus Christ and by God the Father” (Schnabel 124). This gave Paul and Barnabas’ report much more credibility.
    The conflict was therefore with the Pharisees that said the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law (15:5). I would agree with Laura that the gospel they were preaching outside the realm of the Law would be a big deal. Maybe this was the reason for having ‘much discussion’ in regard to the Pharisee’s question (15:7). But once the apostles and elders make their decision and Peter and James speak, there is no argument. The miraculous signs and wonders that Paul and Barnabas speak about leave no room for questioning as it is obvious the Holy Spirit is moving in the lives of Gentiles.

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  4. It’s evident through Scripture that the Law was incredibly valuable to the Jews. For them, the Law was a necessary element to their way of life. In fact, without it, the Israelite’s would be a complete different group of people with a different history. Having said that, once Paul began preaching to Gentiles and they started becoming believers there was a problem within the church. The cultures of Jewish believers and Gentile believers started clashing. And this isn’t necessarily a surprise. The same thing would happen today if there were two cultures that made up the congregation of a church. It’s possible that because Jewish Christians have always believed in God, they naturally thought they had some kind of authority over Gentile Christians. Therefore Gentile Christians may have thought less of themselves compared to the Jewish Christians. This is why there may have been such a pressure on the Gentiles and influence from the Jews to conform to the Law. I think it’s interesting that in the letter sent out to the Gentile believers there were still a couple things they wanted them to follow. “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29). They must have thought that if the Gentiles followed these it would create the best environment of fellowship with the Jews possible without them having to bear the yoke of the Law. Or maybe they left them with this statement because they knew that this is what would be best for them and their relationship with God. “The problem of sin in the life of a believer cannot be solved with the help of the law” (Shnabel 126). Only through the belief in the gospel can this be accomplished.

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  5. I found it interesting the the council appears to take this as easily as they do. Even in the case of Peter when he returns from his trip to Cornelius’ home the council questions him but once he explains himself there doesn’t seem to be much fuss over it. In the same way as it was said Paul simply reports what God is doing to the council. They never seem overly bothered by it and accept it. Considering how important the law is to the Jews, especially circumcision and food laws I am impressed and surprised that the council so quickly accepts Paul’s teachings on these issues.

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  6. This post really pointed out something that I had not yet thought of or seen. The fact that Paul and Barnabas return had nothing to do with approval from the Apostles, but to help persuade the Jewish population that wanted gentiles to follow the law that this was wrong. “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.” Peter made it clear that it was wrong of these Jews to try and burden the gentiles with something that they could not even follow correctly. “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?” (Acts 15:10) Peter tells them that they are putting God to the test which is not correct and then has Paul give them evidence of the gentiles not needing to follow the law. This was an important situation to address because of the reasons John talked about in his post. The gentiles who came to faith obviously were going to look to the Jews for more guidance and a model to follow. Many of these Jews thought they had the authority to tell gentiles to follow the law and so this issue had to be addressed. They had to straighten out the confusion so that gentiles where not lead astray by confused doctrine. The meeting was to clarify to those Jewish people who were trying to force gentiles to follow the law.

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  7. I am thankful that our salvation hadn’t been left up to Peter from acts 10 who wasn’t ready to accept that God was reconciling Gentiles to himself. But in chapter 11 Peter has a vision and starts to see that God makes no distinction between Jew or Gentile. Peter does a good job of Paul on the other hand deals with this issue, the matters of keeping the law and becoming Jewish, “circumcision” very well. He doesn’t argue but defends his calling and opens the others eyes to seeing that God no longer looks at just Jews but also offers forgiveness to everyone. Because the Jews had rejected Jesus, they were not necessarily the ones Paul was supposed to go to. God sent him as a light to the Gentiles and he knew that, he did a great job at showing the others that as well and explaining what God had revealed to him. it was curious that the men from verse one are never named and then mentioned in passing when some of the men went to the gathering at the temple. I think also that in defending our faith, this is a good example of how we shouldn’t argue but use examples of what God is doing, as Barnabas and Paul did in verse 12. “they told of all the signs and wonders that the Holy Spirit did through them among the Gentiles.”(ESV) This seems like the deal closer to me. they gave a solid statement with solid evidence to the fact that God looks at the heart and no longer sees a difference. Amen to that!

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  8. I think that it is interesting to think that the first real issues of Christianity were the Gentiles. It is foreign to think that the first Christians did not change from their Jewish behavior but accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Thankfully for the gentiles the Messiah came not only for the salvation of the Jewish people, but for all people. The fact that Paul and Barnabas return to address the issue show the importance of unity among believers, as well as the essential need for truth. I don’t think that the Jew’s completely understood gentile involvement in the plan of God. The culture of the law was (and is) so ingrained within the Jews that they could not understand something that was different than what they had known. However through revelation to Peter and Paul the issues of the law were settled.

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  9. There are some key differences we see in the ministry of Peter compared to the ministry of Paul. As we read through the scriptures we see that Peter was commissioned to go to the Jews and the Nation of Isreal as apposed to Paul who was called, by Christ, to go to the Gentiles and preach the revelation of the Mystery that had happened at the cross. Through these differences we can see how the two preach salvation to the people they come in contact with. Paul preaching salvation through faith, and Peter, salvation by works and holding to the old law.

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  10. I always thought it was interesting that Paul was called to be an apostle. God already had the other 11 (soon to be 12), why was Paul needed? And this text is precisely why. The apostles were given specific instructions from Jesus to reach the Jews. In Matthew 10, they are told only to go to the lost sheep of Israel. So the disciples were ingrained with this idea of only reaching the Jews, but it runs even deeper than that. They were Jews through and through who were waiting for the coming day of the Lord, the messianic kingdom. The Jews were also very proud of their heritage, and often did not want to share being the “chosen people” of God. How did they feel when Peter got his message about the unclean foods and reaching the gentiles. I’m sure it was a, “if i have to attitude” where they only talk to them in the synagogues and made them in nearly every form Jewish. By doing this, they are not really reaching the Gentiles, they are turning the Gentiles into Jews! Paul comes around with these crazy ideas saying that they didn’t even have to follow any parts of the law. That must have infuriated the Judiazers! And yet the disciples will see that they will eventually have to leave the comforts of Judaism and the Law to truly spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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  11. How perfect it is that the first major issue in the Church was an issue of tradition. This has, and probably always will be the major issue in churches, because people do not often like to let go of the way things have always been, but this is the only way to real growth. The Jews refused to let go of their Mosaic traditions, both in food, and in circumcision. But, Paul comes in the scene, and and takes Peter’s “eat meat” message further than the Jews could handle. Paul wants the Jews to realize that salvation is not about following the Law, and it is not about circumcision, or food laws; it is about the Holy Spirit. I think that we can learn from this example to solve, at least part of this problem, in churches today. Paul, in a very basic sense, was pointing out the things in salvation that really matter, and the Jewish-traditional Law was not one of those things. I think that often, just as Paul does, churches ought to take a step back, and remember the things that really matter, and hold fast to those; and let go, at least a little, of the things that are less important.

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  12. I believe that there has been a recent “movement” in the church that can put things in perspective for us as to what the “Gentile Christian” had to go through contrary to the “Jewish Christian.” The comparison that can be made from the modern church is that traditionally in west Michigan there is an abundance of Reformed and Baptist churches who informally have a strict dress codes and musical traditions. But as of late more and more churches have been relaxing the dress code as well as modifying and updating the tradition music to more modern music to appeal to a younger and different crowd. When this first started to take place a lot of traditional churches in the area felt as though other churches were becoming to liberal and not respecting the house of God. I remember specifically in my own church when I was younger the pastor was preaching about how we wanted to reach a different crowd and in order to do that we must accept anyone into the church no matter how they may appear. I know that this is a bit of a stretch to compare this to what the Gentile Christians had to go through when they rejected the traditional food laws and circumcision, but it does put things in perspective for us. This is because as the post says, “The conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians was the first major problem in the church.” What we have to realize is that as Christians God has called us to reach all people, including Gentiles and nonbelievers that may not appear or follow the traditional ways of our church. This does not mean we waiver on our core fundamental Christian values, but instead it means that we accept and minister to all people. I believe as modern Christians, instead of judging the people that may not dress the same as us or like the same style of music, we should reach out to them and worry more about things that effect eternity. This is so evidentially displayed in Acts 15:18-21, where the council is declaring that they should not be worried about the small things but instead they should focus on the eternal things for which the Gentiles are avoiding.

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  13. Had the Jewish Council decided that Gentile’s conversions required circumcision, Paul’s ministry would have been severely hindered. First of all, since the gospel of salvation by faith alone would have been strongly opposed by the Council, he would not have been supported by them at all. This could have hindered his ministry even outside of Jerusalem since those from Jerusalem would most likely be unable to provide him with financial support and encouragement. Secondly, this decision would have created a rift not only in the Council itself but in each of the new Churches; especially those made up of mainly Gentiles. Many churches, especially those near Jerusalem, were beginning to be made up of both Jews and Gentiles alike. A ruling of mandatory circumcision among Gentile converts would not have been seen as beneficial by many of these church members. Lastly, it is unlikely that Paul would have respected and followed this decision had he not agreed with it (Paul was rarely seen compromising his beliefs). However, had he decided to preach the gospel to Gentiles on the condition that they additionally become circumcised, his ministry would have most likely struggled among the Gentile nations. And again, while it is unlikely this would have happened, it could be assumed that the gospel of Jesus Christ would never have taken root among many Gentile nations had the decision of the Council been to uphold the Law and circumcision among Gentile believers.

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