The Jerusalem Council

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 15:1-12

If you’re one of those who thinks that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, you probably have little use for meetings. But let me tell you about some meetings that affected the course of the entire history of the Christian church.

Most of us have little direct experience of the deliberations of church councils and synods. (And no doubt we’re glad of it!) But make no mistake: at certain crucial turning points God has used such meetings and the decisions reached there to shape the future of the gospel and the entire worldwide Christian movement.

Here’s one example. In the year 325, a large and important group of Christian leaders gathered at the city of Nicea in southern Asia Minor. Christianity had grown to become the dominant faith of the whole Roman empire, and these bishops represented churches and Christians from throughout the Roman world. They had been called together in a great council in an attempt to preserve Christian unity.

There was a growing controversy in the church centering mostly over the exact nature of Jesus Christ. From the very beginning Christians had believed that Jesus was a real man, who at the same time was God in human flesh. Jesus’ disciples knew him as a fellow Jew. They ate with him, drank with him, laughed and cried with him. They watched him die. They knew he was no spirit or angel. Jesus was a man in the fullest and truest sense.

But the disciples also sensed that Jesus was much more than just an ordinary man. His teaching, his miracles, the claims he made about himself – these all pointed to his divine nature. And his resurrection from the dead clinched it for them. Jesus wasn’t just a good man; he wasn’t simply a prophet or a healer. He was one with God. He was the Lord, the living God in human form, worthy of all worship and praise.

Christians, as I said, had believed this from the beginning, but they didn’t know quite how to express it, what words to use to convey the complicated truth about just who Jesus was, or, for that matter, who God was. How do you explain that while the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all fully divine, God is still only one God? How is it possible for Jesus to be truly God and yet really human at the same time?

The Christian church wrestled with these questions for centuries. The very best thinkers struggled to find words to describe what they knew Jesus to be. Not everyone in the church agreed about the truth, or about the best way to formulate the truth.

So with division threatening to tear the church apart, the emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in an attempt to reach an agreement about Jesus’ nature and identity. And they did. The agreement these Christian leaders formulated, called the Nicean Creed, stated that the man Jesus Christ was at the same time fully and truly divine.

Christians today still hold to the consensus reached at Nicea more than 1600 years ago. Christian believers throughout the world confess their faith that Jesus, in the words of the Creed, is “God of God, Light of Light, of one being with the Father.”

Now, why should we care about all this ancient history? The fact is, Christianity is a historical faith. We would have nothing at all to believe if certain things hadn’t happened, actually happened in history. Our faith is based upon the fact that God has acted in and through particular events in our world, originally events in the history of the people of Israel, then supremely the events of the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

But God’s acts in history didn’t stop when Jesus ascended into heaven. There have been many times since then when the Christian faith has reached a crisis point. The church, the fellowship of Jesus’ followers, has regularly faced questions that threatened to tear it apart, as in the time of the Council of Nicea.

The future of Christianity has often hung in the balance as delegates met in synod or council to seek the truth of the Word of God and the will of the Lord. At such moments the gospel itself was at stake. And God has acted again in and through the decisions of the church’s assemblies to establish the truth of the gospel and preserve the future of the Christian faith.

This is especially true of the earliest council in church history, the Jerusalem Council. In Acts 15 Luke tells the story of this momentous meeting, where the basic nature of the Christian movement was defined for all time.

CONTROVERSY IN JERUSALEM

Let’s look at that story now. Following their first missionary journey throughout the interior of Asia Minor, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch in Syria, their starting point. While en route the apostles spent time “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them” (Acts 14:22) every place they had visited, as well as appointing leaders for the various churches they had started. Upon their return to the mother church in Antioch, “they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them” (v. 27) .

But the loving unity of the Antioch church and the well-deserved rest of Paul and Barnabas were shortly interrupted by trouble, which came in the form of “some men . . . from Judea,” as Luke describes them (15:1). These men showed up in Antioch with a conflicting message. They were representatives of what came to be known as the “circumcision party,” Jewish Christians who taught that all believers in Christ had to be circumcised -and thus obligated to keep the entire law of Moses – in order to be saved (v. 1).

Now this position had some things to commend it. There was biblical precedent for circumcision, from Abraham all the way through Jesus himself. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament. God had commanded it for Abraham, Moses, and all their descendants. This was one of the primary requirements of the Old Testament law. And didn’t Jesus himself say he had come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it?

There were also strong practical arguments for requiring Gentile converts to submit to this rite and to adopt obedience to the law in its entirety. With the growing numbers of pagans entering the Christian church, the original Jewish followers of Jesus were becoming uneasy. Most of these new Gentile believers had little understanding of the holy nature of God and the need for holy living. It seemed important to require them to observe the whole Old Testament law in order for them to be considered part of God’s people. Moreover, the already difficult task of winning more Jews to belief in Jesus the Messiah would become impossible if they were required to mix in the church with uncircumcised Gentiles. The future of evangelism among Jews seemed to demand that all Christians be forced to undergo circumcision and keep the entire ritual and ceremonial law.

These arguments of the Judaizers were persuasive. Many in the new, mostly Gentile church at Antioch were influenced by them. But Paul disagreed violently and in Luke’s words, “entered into sharp dispute and debate with them” (v. 2). Why such a strong reaction against a position that had both biblical grounds and evangelistic benefits?

For two reasons: First, Paul opposed the Judaizers because in this controversy the truth of the gospel was at stake. Notice what these people were saying – without circumcision “you cannot be saved” (v. 1); that was their line. “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (v. 5). In other words, these people held that simply believing in Jesus as Savior and Lord was not enough to save people. One couldn’t become a Christian just by putting his trust in Christ, by committing her life to Christ. It was faith plus circumcision, Jesus plus Moses, gospel plus law.

If the circumcision party was right, then salvation was not by God’s grace alone through faith alone (as the evangelical Reformers insisted during yet another time of crisis centuries later). It was by faith plus obedience to the law. And Paul saw clearly that this introduced human works into the equation and thus destroyed the gospel. The good news of the gospel is that we are saved not by anything we do, but only by what God has done for us on the cross:

We . . . know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified . . . I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.

Gal. 2:15-16,21

If we are saved at all, we are saved by faith in Jesus, period. Not faith in Jesus plus circumcision, not faith plus good works, not faith plus anything.

The second reason Paul resisted these advocates of circumcision was that the very life and nature of the church were also at risk. What the circumcision party was actually proposing, in effect, was that Gentile converts to Christianity also become Jews in order to be incorporated fully into the people of God. Their position, if adopted, would have had the result of turning the infant Christian community into just another sect within Judaism, one that acknowledged Jesus to be the Messiah, but still existed within the boundaries of the law’s ceremonies and rituals.

Following these Judaizers would have betrayed the purpose of God, which was to create as a people for himself a new community, one that was trans-national, multi-cultural, ethnically diverse, whose only entrance requirement was submitting to the lordship of Jesus. This is why Paul fought so stubbornly. If he had lost, there would be no Christian church today.

THE CHURCH COMES TO AN AGREEMENT

The church’s response to the crisis triggered by these Judaizers was to call a general meeting to decide the question (vv. 2-4). The Council of Jerusalem, as it has come to be known, was held in about the year 49 a.d. It is one of the most important events in all of Christian history. Fundamental issues were at stake, as we have seen, and the controversy was growing. Representatives of the circumcision party were actively spreading their views far beyond Antioch.

We know from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which was probably written in this same time period, that these proponents of the ceremonial law had also visited the churches Paul and Barnabas had planted on their first missionary journey. Their arguments were persuading some of the new Christians to undergo circumcision. More seriously, in Antioch Peter himself began to vacillate, and even Barnabas was drawn along, so that Paul openly rebuked them, standing alone for the truth of the gospel

Gal. 2:11-14).

It must have been with considerable excitement, not to say apprehension, that the apostle Paul faced the prospect of the Council of Jerusalem. The future of his life’s work in taking the gospel to all nations and peoples was at stake. But so was the future of the church itself. Would a split occur between Paul and Peter, or Paul and James, that would divide the growing church into competing sects and relegate them all to obscurity and eventual extinction? Would this new gospel, offering such hope to the world, end up leading to the creation of just one more exclusive ethnic enclave?

By the grace of God, the answer was no. In the course of lengthy discussion and thorough debate (v. 7), the principal apostles all spoke in turn: first Peter (vv. 7-11), then Barnabas and Paul (v. 12), and finally James (vv. 12-21). And they were unanimous in their agreement. Peter stated the truth for everyone:

We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as [the Gentiles] are (v. 11).
Peter made amends for his earlier weak waffling – not the first time in his life he had to do this – by boldly testifying to the gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone. And James, the Lord’s brother and the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church, whose backing some of the Judaizers had been claiming (cf. Gal. 2:12), stood with Peter and Paul. Quoting an Old Testament passage which predicted the future inclusion of the Gentiles among the people of God (vv. 15-18), James clinched the matter:

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God (v. 19).

The only addition to this basic truth, this gospel principle, was the requirement that Gentile believers (like all Christians) should strive to live moral lives and be sensitive to certain elements of the ceremonial law which might have a negative effect on their fellowship with Jewish Christians (v. 20). So the Holy Spirit-inspired decisions of this council preserved the gospel, saved the church, and upheld the principle that Christians must be sensitive to the consciences of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

May all the church’s assemblies today stand as faithfully and sensitively for the gospel as the Jerusalem Council did!