The Jerusalem Council
The success of the first missionary journey resulted in many Gentiles believing and coming into the church. In addition, God had brought many Gentiles into the church in Antioch. Word of this made its way to Jerusalem. The first great theological controversy arose from it.
The Theological Dispute
Men from the Jerusalem church, or at least from Judea, showed up in Antioch. They taught that the Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved. They meant that the Gentile had to become circumcised and follow the Jewish law in order to be a Christian. They taught a faith plus works salvation.
Paul and Barnabas debated them. Given what we know Paul later wrote about the issue, we can assume the debate was intense. The Antioch church appointed a group, including Paul and Barnabas, to go to Jerusalem and put the matter before the apostles and elders there.
This shows us the apostles, as those who were taught by Jesus, are still the authority, but the elders have risen to a place of respect and authority also.
The Joyful News
Paul and Barnabas did not waste any time. Even on the way to Jerusalem to face this dispute, they stopped along the way, telling of the conversion of the Gentiles on their missionary trip. The news brought great joy to the “brothers”, or believers. Despite the existence of a few who brought the dispute, it appears that most were thrilled to hear of Gentiles coming to faith in Christ. This was true in Jerusalem also, as they were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders, as they told them of all God had done.
The Issue Stated
Despite all this good news and joyful reception, some were there to argue. These were believers who were Pharisees. The Pharisees were the Jewish party which taught strict adherence to the law. Their point was this: that the Gentiles must be circumcised and taught that they must keep the law of Moses.
In effect, the Pharisees claimed that the Gentile Christians must become observant Jews to be saved, in addition to believing in Jesus. Circumcision was the sign of belonging to the Old Covenant nation of Israel. Then they would be expected to obey all of the Old Testament ceremonial and dietary laws.
The Meeting of the Council
The apostles and elders considered the question. There was much debate. Peter then stood to speak. Somehow you would just expect him to be the apostle that spoke.
Peter pointed out that he was the apostle God chose to witness to the Gentiles. That gave him some extra weight in the discussion. Peter testified that God knew the heart of those Gentiles and gave them the Holy Spirit just as he had given the Jewish believers at Pentecost. Peter was speaking of his encounter with Cornelius and his household in Acts 10.
God knew the hearts of those Gentiles and so knew that they had come to faith in Christ. God confirmed their conversion by giving them the Holy Spirit. He emphasized that God cleansed their hearts through their faith just as he had done to the Jewish believers. If they were saved by faith, not works, why would they want to place the yoke of the law on the Gentiles, since the Jews historically had not even been able to bear it. (10)
At first glance, this last part seems practical rather than theological. But Peter was likely trying to say to the Pharisees that they were wrapping themselves in the law as though Israel had always faithfully kept it and needed no deliverance for it, when, in reality, they had constantly failed to keep it and had often been punished for it.
Peter’s words were effective enough to silence the debate. The church again listened to Paul and Barnabas tell of the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles. (12)
The conclusion of the Council was brought by James, the brother of Jesus. He is obviously an elder and, apparently, the leader of the Jerusalem church. We can see his authority by the fact that spoke last and gave his “judgment’ on the matter.
James gave his answer according to events and to Scripture. First, he said that Peter, using his Hebrew name of Simeon, had shown by the vision God gave him and by his experience with the Gentiles’ conversion, that God was taking a people for his name from among the Gentiles.
James’ use of “a people for his name” has Old Testament roots. The Jews considered themselves the people taken for God’s name”. God referred to them as the people called by his name in 2 Chronicles 7:14. But God always intended to add the Gentiles to that people called by his name. Israel, true Israel, is composed of believing Jews and believing Gentiles.
James quoted Amos 9:11-15 as proof, saying “the words of the prophets agree”. James was saying that God’s promise to rebuild and restore Israel is fulfilled in the coming of the Gentiles into the church through faith in Christ. They are the “remnant of mankind” who seek the Lord and are called by his name.
Notice that experience outside of Scripture did not win the day. It was experience in agreement with Scripture, even foretold by it.
James’ conclusion was that they would not trouble the Gentile believers by ordering them to obey the law. However, he also wisely thought they should instruct them to avoid behaviors that would offend the Jewish believers, for there were Jews in every city. They should not eat food offered to idols or from animals that were strangled, and should not eat blood. They should also avoid sexual immorality. The food related instructions were from the ceremonial law which was no longer in effect, but still observed by many Jewish believers. James was asking the Gentiles to respect that. The call to avoid sexual immorality was part of the moral law, which is eternal. The Gentiles, from Greek culture, would have likely had a greater tolerance for sexual immorality and needed the reminder.
The church, led by the apostles and elders, wrote a letter about these things and sent it to Antioch with men from the Jerusalem church, including Judas Barsabbas and Silas. They are described as leading men, likely respected elders. They accompanied Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch to deliver the letter. The personal delivery was both a gesture of good will to the sister church and a guarantee that the letter was genuine. A further gesture of good will was the reference to “our beloved Barnabas and Paul”. (26)
The letter stated that the circumcision advocates had not been sent by the Jerusalem church, but had come on their own. (24) The letter gave the same instructions that James had advised.
The church in Antioch rejoiced at the encouragement of the letter. (31)
As an additional benefit, Judas and Silas, who were prophets, stayed a while and taught the church. (32) The church then sent them off “in peace”, showing the two churches were in harmony with each other. Barnabas and Paul stayed in Antioch. They continued to preach, along with many others. (35)
The first great heresy of the church was defeated by Scripture. The first attack on the fellowship of the believers was defeated by love of others, a love for Jesus, and a love for those who followed Jesus. The fellowship was not preserved by accommodating error or heresy, but in a love for the truth that held them together in opposition to error.