A Christian Guide to Acts by R. David Pogge

Chapter 8

The Jerusalem Council

Acts 15

A big church board meeting was called to address the problem of Gentiles in the church.

Section 8.1 - How Jewish Does a Christian Have to be?

Here's the problem the Jerusalem Council had to address:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. [Acts 15:1-2]

Peter, Paul, and Barnabas all said that they had seen the Holy Spirit poured out on Gentiles. If God accepts Gentiles, why shouldn’t the church?

Apparently Peter was not “the first pope” because it was James who pronounced the decision of the council.

The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.  When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me.  Simon [Peter] has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:

“‘After this I will return
      and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
      and I will restore it,
that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
      even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—
       things known from long ago. 1

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.  Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.  For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” [Acts 15:12-21]

Yes, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas all made the argument that Gentiles should be included in the church because the Holy Spirit seemed to have accepted them; but what really sealed the deal was the prophecy in Amos Chapter 9. Without scriptural support, the miraculous manifestation of tongues might not have been enough to allow Gentiles into the church.

James decided (on behalf of the council) that Gentiles did not need to be initiated into Judaism first by being circumcised. Circumcision was a ceremony which designated a person as being a Jewish male. But, as Paul told the Galatians,

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:28]

You don’t have to be a male or a Jew to be saved, so women and Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised.

The Gentile converts were worshipping with the Jewish Christians in the synagogue on Sabbath. Presumably they were treating their parents well, not coveting their neighbors’ things, and not killing or stealing to get them. They were obeying most of the Ten Commandments.

The only issue was their failure to completely abandon their pagan practices. They were still eating food sacrificed to idols, which Paul diplomatically tried to discourage 2 and Jesus forcefully condemned. 3 (An explanation of the issue of food sacrificed to idols is in Appendix D.3 - Food Sacrificed to Idols.)

Furthermore, some pagan religions had temple prostitutes and were less strict about sexual purity. Therefore, the Gentile converts had to be reminded of the commandments against these pagan practices.

Among the laws of Moses the Gentiles were being taught in the synagogue on Sabbath were God's dietary restrictions. These restrictions don't just apply to Jews. God designated certain animals as unclean (unfit to eat, and unfit to sacrifice) long before the first Jew was born.

When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, they could not have eaten the forbidden fruit even if they had wanted to. Designating certain animals as unclean was the basis of a new test of obedience, replacing the test of the forbidden fruit.

We know the designation of clean and unclean animals was in effect at least 600 years before Judah (the first Jew) was born because God told Noah,

Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female. [Genesis 7:2 KJV]

Despite the fact that the laws of Moses were read to them every Sabbath by the Christian church leaders, some Gentiles apparently thought that the kosher laws did not apply to them. James made it perfectly clear that the kosher food laws 4 applied to Gentile Christians as well as Jewish Christians back then, and the kosher laws still apply to everyone today. It is a sin to eat the unclean foods listed in Section 6.2

Section 8.2 - Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas

Although the apostles agreed about doctrinal issues, they didn't always work well together.

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”  Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.  They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.  He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. [Acts 15:36-41]

God often uses unfortunate circumstances to produce favorable results. We have already seen how persecution caused the first Christians to scatter all over the world, taking the Gospel with them. Had Paul and Barnabas not disagreed, only one evangelistic team would have gone out. Instead, two teams went out, with Barnabas mentoring Mark and Paul mentoring Silas.

When difficulties arise, pray that God will show you how to turn a bad situation into a good one.

Back to Chapter 7 Table of Contents On to Chapter 9

Footnotes:

1 Amos 9:11-12
2 1 Corintihians 8
3 Revelation 2:14, 20
4 See Appendix D.