Acts 15:13-21 – James and the Jerusalem Council

One of the most interesting things about the Jerusalem meeting is that it is James who appears as the key leader and is described as rendering a decision on the matter of Gentiles and the Law (Acts 15:13-21). The structure of the Jerusalem community seems to center around elders, and James appears to be the leader of this group of elders. To take up a thread from earlier in the book, the Jerusalem community is living like a new Israel. In the early history of Israel, Moses led as a prophet, but through a council of 70 elders.

council-of-jerusalemWithin this community there are some who are “more conservative” with respect to the Law, primarily Pharisees (v.5). These Pharisees accept Jesus as the Messiah, but consider the Gentiles who are coming to Christ as a result of Paul’s mission as “joining Israel.” If the community thought of itself as new Israel, then Gentiles in Paul’s churches were like Gentiles who joined Israel in the Hebrew Bible. The ought to “convert” and accept Jewish Law and practice.

Luke intends his description of the meeting in Acts 15 to show to Theophilus that the church is an orderly independent entity that functions in a way that is similar to the Greco-Roman world. A question that effects the whole is presented to an assembly, which debates that issue and makes a decision that the whole accepts (Witherington, Acts, 451). Luke describes a report from Peter and Barnabas, explaining that the Holy Spirit has come upon Gentiles as it is the Jews at Pentecost, and that miracles are being done by the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles.

James states that it is not right to “trouble” the Gentiles with the Law. The verb παρενοχλέω is rare in the New Testament, only used in this passage. It does appears in 2 Macc 11:31 in a text describing the Jews being permitted to “enjoy their own food and laws” without being troubled by the Greek authorities. In that case, the Jews were not to be “troubled” over their keeping of boundary markers like circumcision or food laws, here in Acts the Gentiles are not to have the Law imposed upon them.

The position of James in the Jerusalem council bears on the date of the writing of the Epistle of James. While this cannot be stated too dogmatically, it appears that the letter of James written before the Council as well. He is clearly writing to Jews, especially those Jews that are living outside of Palestine. He is also dealing with the same sorts of issues, how do we “keep the law” in the new age? The fact that he deals with the same language as Paul (“justified by faith”) is remarkable, as if he has heard Paul’s teaching and is trying to clarify it for the Jewish audience.

Perhaps James is the best to make the statement since he stands between the two parties, the Gentile Party represented by Paul, and the Circumcision party represented by the Pharisees. It is hard to know just how much “power” James has at this point, but the resolution seems to keep both sides happy.

Does it seem like this solution satisfies everyone? Paul never (specifically) mentions it in his letters and he continues to have trouble with Judaizers.

13 thoughts on “Acts 15:13-21 – James and the Jerusalem Council

  1. I think that this response satisfied some of the Pharisees to a certain extent, because they are in agreement at the end of the chapter. They decide to send out a letter to the Churches outside of Jerusalem telling the Gentiles that they are not required to follow the Law any more to be saved. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid all these things” (Acts 15:28-29). They don’t require them to follow the whole law or specifically of circumcision but maybe the laws they did give them satisfied the Pharisees there. But I believe that it did not satisfy everyone, because one of Paul’s struggles in ministry is Gentiles turning to the law. In Galatians 3 Paul specifically addresses the problem of that church starting out following the message of Grace and then turning to the Law. Believing that to be saved one must follow the law. “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). The people in that meeting might have been satisfied but someone wasn’t and continued to teach a message that the Law or works is necessary. This can be seen throughout the world entire history where some people teach that works are necessary for salvation. The problem of needing works or the Law for salvation was not solved at that meeting as it continues to be disputed in different ways.

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  2. I think that Luke focuses more on the Gentiles response than anything. 15:31 says, “The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.” For the Gentiles, this decision freed them from the Law and affirmed Paul’s ministry to them. They were encouraged and strengthened and Paul’s ministry moves forward from there. However, as P. Long mentions, it does not seem to solve his problems with Judaizers. Even in Acts 21 when Paul arrives back in Jerusalem, there is a concern that Paul was speaking against the Law. Someone was apparently trying to hinder Paul’s ministry by stirring up problems between the believing Jews and Paul. In Acts 21, Paul goes out of his way to prove that rumor wrong, but the fact remains that there were still problems in dealing with the Law and how it should be followed by people. I think that James making the decision to not trouble Gentiles was a way of upholding the truth of the Gospel while not completely offending the zealous Jews. It answered the question (15:5), but did not completely convince everyone to the point of solving an issue that Paul would encounter again in his ministry to the Gentiles.

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  3. Part of James’ statement reminds me of ones still made today. Sunday school teachers often remind me, “take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block” (1 Cor. 8:9). This verse, in fact, is referencing food that was offered to idols. I believe it was in NT Literature class that I learned most meat sold during this time was previously offered to idols, and the question was, “is it morally ok to eat such meat?” Paul’s answer was that even “if they had the right to eat in temples they should refrain from using this right out of concern for the spiritual well-being of the person whose conscience is weak” (ESV study notes 1 Cor. 8:9). This idea, like P.Long pointed out, sure sounds a whole lot like what James is saying about how to “keep the law in the new age.”

    In Acts 15:20, we also see this idea of abstaining from the things polluted by idols, as well as sexual immorality, strangled things, and blood. I thought it was interesting that “sexual immorality” was thrown into the mix with things that were optional to obey. Looking at the context, pointed out by the ESV study notes, we see that sexual immorality probably needed extra “emphasis because many Gentiles’ consciences were so corrupt that they did not hold to a high standard of sexual immorality.” As for the other three, I believe James’ reason was to say that Christians should “abstain from certain things because there are still Jews who observe these ceremonial laws and think them to be important.”

    Today, when I see the “stumbling block card” played, there is rarely any disagreement from the parties involved. This could be partly because it is almost a half-way ground. Who can argue against “one should not cause someone to sin?”

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  4. James is a peacemaker at the Jerusalem Council. Both the Pharisees and Paul respect him greatly. James settles the discussion by declaring that the Gentiles are not under the law. As P. Long says, “The fact that he deals with the same language as Paul (“justified by faith”) is remarkable, as if he has heard Paul’s teaching and is trying to clarify it for the Jewish audience” (“James and the Jerusalem Council” post). James must have been under the influence of Paul for his message to sound like him. James knew the Old Testament Bible very well. He quotes Amos 9:11-12 as he announces the Pharisees and Paul that the Gentiles do not have to abide by the law.

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  5. If James really was the half brother of Jesus then I could understand how he would end up in the highest position. The early Church probably assumed he had some of the same Holiness that Jesus had. If the Church was functioning as the new Israel it would make sense for why they believed the Gentiles had to follow the law. They did not fully understand the message of Jesus yet. We see that Luke has used some of his amazing literary skill to show us how it is not evident that there is a pattern to which the Holy Spirit comes upon someone. The law not being “troubled” upon the Gentiles is something that we also see in Paul’s letters multiple times. When reading the book of James we do know that he believed that only by faith are we saved, but James talks about works being a fruit of that faith.

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  6. P. Long writes, “James states that it is not right to “trouble” the Gentiles with the Law”. I’m curious whether or not he felt strongly about this before the council. Both Paul and James in this passage mention the burden of the law for the Gentiles. It doesn’t seem like this was something that they struggled with. It was kind of an obvious thing. Peter mentions that the Israelites themselves struggle following it, and it’s been a part of their culture for a long time. Although Peter and James were sent to the Jews. It is clear that they care about the Gentiles becoming party of the body of Christ. They don’t want to make it any harder on them than it already is. So were Peter and James pretty confident in this stance before the council? If so, I’m curious why this doesn’t show up as a major them in his letter. He was writing to Jewish Christians, and they are the one’s who were pressuring Gentiles into conforming to the law. I think it might have been beneficial for James to make this a focus in his letter to these people.

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  7. I would say that it probably did satisfy most of them! James makes a good point when he told them not to pester the Gentiles turning to God. Rather, they should be encouraging them for making the correct decision. I think what we see here on behalf of the Jews is something prevalent in our churches right now. People have an idea of what it looks like to be Christian/Jewish/whathaveyou. But the important thing is to remember that they are ultimately entering into a right relationship with God and are embarking on the greatest journey ever. More effort should be put into fellowshipping with new believers and teaching them scripture, rather than our own preferences on certain topics.

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  8. The biggest problem with James’ letter I think is that it fails to address the issue of Jews and Gentiles in table fellowship. Can Jews dine with Gentiles as they eat non-kashrut foods? Paul probably would have liked James to have said more.

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    • This is a problem, although in Acts 15 the issue was circumcision. The four prohibitions do have food in mind, but perhaps the most egregious examples of offensive food to Jews (blood, sacrificed meat, meat eaten in the context of a Roman banquet at a temple, etc.)

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  9. The Jewish people, specifically the Pharisees, were not happy with the Gentiles joining their beliefs and “Jewish ways.” This is mostly due to the fact that the Gentiles were not getting circumcised or following food laws after they believed in Jesus (Long). James was an elite person in Jewish culture, so his words held a lot of weight within his community. His argument was that “there is harmony between Israel’s Scripture and the mission to the Gentiles” (Jipp 83). God intended to save the Gentile people, therefore, the argument is valid that they should be accepted into the body of believers. James is pushing for the Jewish people to accept the Gentiles in the same way God had, without the Law. The important part about their salvation was the Holy Spirit coming upon them, not the Law being held over them. James’s plea is that the Gentiles will not try to push the Law on these new believers. He said, “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). He was suggesting that they should not be making it hard for those people to follow God by enforcing their Law-based traditions. It seems that this is enough to satisfy both sides of people. He had offered proof from the Prophets that God had chosen these people. He had made it clear that the Law was not what saved them, but grace. It is true that Paul continued to face controversy from many Jewish people throughout his ministry, but this specific group had a change of heart and mind. It was a step, not an ending to the battle of accepting the Gentiles.

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  10. I would say that this resolution does satisfy both parties. I think as long as they are living in a way that honors God, it’s alright for Gentiles to be themselves, and for the Pharisees to continue their practices. It’s important that people know that the Law is no longer needed, even though that would be hard to wrap one’s mind around as a Pharisee. If people worship best that way and understand that Christ is the Messiah, then I think following their traditions is more than fine. But to say that the Gentiles need to convert to Judaism would defeat the purpose of what Christ did. James is right to say that the Gentiles shouldn’t be troubled with the Law. It’s understandable that the Pharisees want people to convert; since the traditions are so deeply rooted in worshiping God, they think it’s necessary to follow Him. Ultimately, as long as the Gentiles believe as well as the Pharisees that Christ is the Messiah and that they are justified by faith, then that’s what matters. It would be silly to force Gentiles to be circumcised and to practice food laws when they aren’t necessary for salvation, so this is a good resolution that invites both parties to faith without alienating them.

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  11. It seems as if the Jerusalem Council or consultation, as Dr. Long calls it, ends in an agreement or settlement between the Jews and the Gentiles. The resolution to the uneasiness of circumcision and table fellowship was that the Gentiles did not have to keep the Law of Moses (Long 94). However, out of respect for the Jews as later seen in Romans 14, it was requested that the Gentiles refrain from dealing with blood, idols and fortification (Acts 15:29). Knowing that the Pharisee’s set up fences around the law in order to protect themselves from breaking the original law, I wonder if they tried to do the same thing to the Gentiles or if they were purely focused on the original laws that traditionally separated Jews and Gentiles. Although Paul was right all along in his thinking that Gentiles should not be held to the same standard as the Jews, it is interesting once again to talk about the difference between converting to Judaism versus accepting Christ as their personal Lord and Savior (Long 94). When I think of Gentiles I think almost of atheists and not pagans. If they were pagan it would be a conversion between the two religions, since they had no faith I imagine it would be the standard salvation story.

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