Acts 15. The Jerusalem Council.
Criteria For Being a Christian, Either Jew or Gentile.
Key Notes: Jews, Gentiles and legalism. Peter and Paul argue in Galatia. Circumcision's two meanings.
15:1–2 The problem began when Jerusalem believers came to Antioch and taught the church that unless they were circumcised according to the custom of Moses, they could not be saved. Paul and Barnabas argued against them.
The background for the confrontation began, we believe, in Paul's ministry to the Galatians. Galatians 2:11–21 describes a a similar incident where Hebrew Christians from Jerusalem came to Galatia and caused a stir by their presence. Peter was visiting the church and stopped eating with Gentiles when Hebrew Christian brothers arrived. Barnabas and others also withdrew from Gentile fellowship. Paul accused Peter in front of the group of trying to compel the Gentiles to follow Jewish customs because he had fallen back into Jewish ways--and they would surely follow him. Gal.2:14
Paul also had to convince the Galatian churches that he was not following Peter and Barnabas because his inspiration came directly from God, and not from the Jerusalem Church. However, he was not out of fellowship with the Jerusalem Church. He had received their hand of fellowship (Gal.1:11–2:10), and was prepared to collect an offering for the poor in Jerusalem.
15:2–4 Jewish Christians also came from Jerusalem and pushed the church at Antioch on the question of circumcision. Circumsion was a mark of the covenant with Abraham (Gen.17:9–14) and was binding on all males in subsequnt generations. (Josh.5:2 is a dramatic example.). But Paul teaches us that the larger meaning of circumcision is symbollic: "In Him you were circumised with a circumcision made without hands by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ." (Col.2: 11). Moses had spelled it out 1500 years before: "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart and be no longer stubborn." (Deut.10:16). So getting rid of the fleshly self--the old nature--is the real priority. And circumcision reminds us that putting off the old nature is a painful process.
15:5 . So Paul and Barnabas headed a delegation to bring the question of obligatory circumcision to the Council of the Jerusalem Church. The issue before the house: The Gentiles must be circumcised and are required to obey the Law of Moses in order to be saved.
15:7–12 After general discussion, Peter, as he had in the previous Council meeting (Acts11:4–17), reviewed his experience with Cornelius. He argued that the Gentiles should not have to bear the yoke that Jews had not been able to bear, as Jesus Himself had said. (Lk.11:46). He was referring to the tens of thousands of extra-biblical legal regulations that defined Jewish life.[ Jesus, however, upheld the heart of OT law. Matt.5:17]. Peter ended with "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." Then Paul and Barnabas added their work among the Gentiles with signs and wonders as proof. Acts 13:11; 14:3,10
15:13–21 James, the head of the Jerusalem Church, made the final decree.
•God has extended salvation to the Gentiles, quoting Amos 9:11–12.
•We should not make it difficult for those Gentiles who turn to God.
•Tell them only to abstain from food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from meat strangled and from blood.
15:22–29 The delegation returned to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by Judas and Silas. They carried an official letter sent by the hand of "our dear friends Paul and Barnabas--men who have risked their lives for the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ", stating their conclusions.
15:30–35 The news was joyfully received. Judas and Silas did much to encourage the church.
Comment: This is the second time the Jerusalem church has considered Gentile salvation The first time, Peter had to defend himself for evangelizing Cornelius, an Italian and a Gentile. This time the opposition was organized against allowing a route to salvation outside of Judaism. We note that circumcision was the main question and it was not covered in the final statement. The Council was bent but it did not break.
It appears that the Jerusalem Church was intent on following the will of God, but that there were members of the Church who were still bound by Jewish law and did not agree. They were called Judaizers and intended to impose Judaism on Christianity wherever they could. They kept pressure on the Church leadership and continued to harass Paul on his missionary journeys.
The Jerusalem council settled the question about the obligations of Gentile Christians to the Law of Moses. Abstaining from meat offered to idols was a topic Paul would later take up with the Corinthians. (ICor.8–10). Sexual immorality was and always will be against the will of God. Abstaining from blood and meat not bled out were concessions to Jewish sensitivities. But how were Jewish Christians to live? Paul was later confronted (Acts.21:21) with the accusation that "you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not circumcise their children or observe the customs". In other words, they accused Paul of trying to get rid of the Law of Moses for Jews too. But the answer is not simple.
For answers to this charge, please look at Galatians, the epistle of the Christian's liberty. (Read the whole book of Galatians if possible.) Some of the major points in Galatians are outlined here.
“Again I declare to every man (Gentile is implied), who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.” (Gal.5:3)
“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.” (Gal.5:6)
However, hygiene is another matter. Circumcision has important physical advantages for males, decreasing the risk of infection and cancer.
•On keeping the Law:
“You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Gal.5:4)
“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse. (Gal.3:10)
“Wherefore the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ that we might be justified by faith.” (Gal.3:24 KJV)
The Law describes sin but cannot change the heart and those who try to live by it die trying.
•On observing the customs:
"You are observing special days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you." (Gal.4:10).
So the accusation is correct. Paul is trying to get rid of the Law of Moses as a way to righteousness, but it is not clear that Paul was addressing Jews alone. He was probably not, but the believing Jews in the Empire will be likely to follow his actions and teachings closely.
On other occasions, Paul demonstrated his sensitivity to Jewish Christians. He had Timothy circumcised. (Acts 16:3). Timothy had a Jewish mother and would be considered Jewish and Paul wished to avoid unnecessary harassment in his evangelistic work. Later he cut his own hair after making a vow (Acts 18:18) and carried out a Jewish ritual as a concession to the Jerusalem Church. (Acts 21:20–26). So to the Jews, he was as a Jew, to the Gentiles as a Gentile. He was "all things to all men if by any means he might save some." I Cor.9:19–22
Paul is the "Apostle of Liberty". He understood grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit. He knew that ultimately Jews must be freed from their thousands of burdensome regulations. But he also knew that liberty was not license. He warned the Galatians "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature...." Gal.5:13
So Law is kicked out the front door of salvation only to be brought, by necessity, in the back door for holiness. The use of the law for believers is to remind us of the will of God for our lives. The Ten Commandments are as relevant today as ever. The churches--and society--swing between extremes, between legalism to lawlessness. Legalism makes obedience to laws the test of salvation. Lawlessness says there are no rules and you can do as you please.
The Church is currently in an antinomian (lawless ) phase. But legalism was not successfully purged by Paul, nor were the Judaizers converted. That generation of Judaizers had to die out before the truth would prevail. Let us not make their mistake--legalism--or its opposite--lawlessness.Truth is in the middle. Of the two, lawlessness is far more deadly. As my young son said, " Dad, I think the Commandments are to make us healthy."