Skip to comments.The Jerusalem Conference of Acts 15: What Was Decided?
Posted on 09/12/2007 7:01:47 PM PDT by DouglasKC
Some people believe that the early Church's decision in Acts 15 freed Christians from the need to obey the laws revealed in the Old Testament. But is this the case? To understand what was really decided there, we need to look at and understand the historical, cultural and scriptural background.
From the beginning of gentile conversions, "certain men . . . from Judea" insisted that "unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). Notice that they viewed circumcision as a matter of salvation. It was a huge issue to them!
So Paul took the matter before Church leadership to be officially resolved (verse 2). "But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, 'It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses'" (verse 5). By the "law of Moses" they meant the imperatives of the Sinai Covenant, which would have included perhaps some of its rituals and ceremoniesand definitely circumcision.
At the Church conference in Jerusalem, both Peter and Paul addressed the assembled elders. The matter of circumcision, Peter noted, had already been settled by God Himself (verses 7-9). Peter's testimony gave proof that God gave the Holy Spirit to gentiles who were not circumcised (Acts 10:44-48). As a result, they could only conclude that God does not require the circumcision of male gentile converts.
Paul and Barnabas then spoke, describing how God had performed miracles through them in calling gentiles into the Church (verse 12).
Four restrictions on new gentile converts
James, the half-brother of Jesus Christ, then issued a concluding statement: "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" (verses 19-20, NIV).
Some people seize on these words to argue that nothing more was required of early Christiansthat they (and we) need not keep other laws found in the Old Testament.
But does this view really make sense? James said nothing about murder, stealing, lying, taking God's name in vain or a host of other sins. By this rationale, should we conclude that Christians are now free to do these evil things? Of course not! So why, then, did James list only these four restrictions"to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood"?
The link connecting each of these requirements is idolatry. Specifically, each was directly associated with the pagan forms of worship common in the areas from which God was calling gentiles into the Church. Each also violated specific biblical commands (Exodus 20:2-6; Leviticus 20:10-20; Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 7:26-27).
It is evident, however, that the apostles also had another reason for singling out these links to idolatry. They wanted to make sure that new non-Jewish converts would have immediate access to learning the teachings of God's Wordthe Holy Scriptures (Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:15).
Notice the reason James expressed for listing those particular prohibitions: "For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath" (Acts 15:21, NIV). The purpose for this somewhat puzzling concluding statement now becomes clear: The apostles wanted to ensure that every new gentile convert would be able to avail himself of that instruction as the words of Moses were "read . . . every Sabbath."
Access to the Scriptures
In that day no one had their own copies of the Bible. Scrolls were handwritten and enormously expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford any kind of personal library. The only places where one could hear the Bible regularly read was at the Jerusalem temple or in the Jewish synagogues that existed in larger cities of the Roman Empire.
By renouncing any associations with idolatry and choosing to worship only the true God of the Scriptures, these new gentile converts could attend the Jewish synagogue. There they would be able to learn the basic teachings of the Holy Scriptures every Sabbath. In areas where Christian congregations were not yet established, the synagogue was the only organized training center where the Scriptures could be learned.
Paul plainly confirms the importance of new converts being instructed from the Scriptures. In his letter to Timothya young minister who helped him serve these gentile convertsPaul makes the point that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable . . . for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16).
He even reminded the gentile converts in Rome that "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). At that time, the only "Scripture" and "word of God" they knew was what we today call the Old Testament. The New Testament didn't yet exist.
Paul clearly expected his gentile converts to put effort into both hearing and learning the inspired Word of God. Yet when the Church first began accepting gentile converts, it did not yet have the capacity to instruct non-Jewish believers in the Scriptures in every cityespecially in those cities having no Christian congregations.
But the Jews welcomed uncircumcised gentiles into the synagogue to learn God's truthproviding they made a commitment to serve only the true and living God of the Bible.
The New Testament shows that the earliest gentile converts quickly became familiar with those Scriptures. Because the Scriptures used by the Jews and Christians were exactly the same, the apostles were comfortable having new gentile believers join the Jews and Jewish Christians who attended synagogue services each Sabbath.
The Bible itself records that many gentiles first heard Paul's preaching in the synagogue where they were attending alongside the Jews (Acts 17:1-4, 10-12, 16-17). Both the synagogue and the Holy Scriptures were central to Paul's work in converting Jews and gentiles alike.
Both Paul and his converts regarded the Holy Scripturesas taught by the Jews in the synagoguesas the foundation of their beliefs. Thus he did not always have to explain every detail of the way of life these new converts were to learn. When he was in a city for only a short time, Paul could concentrate his efforts on explaining the role and mission of Jesus Christ and then move on to another city.
He knew that gentile converts could continue receiving basic instruction in the Scriptures and God's way of life by attending the regular synagogue services. And the fact that, in his letters to gentile congregations, he quoted extensively from the same Scriptures used by the Jews provides clear evidence that all gentile converts had access to that instruction regardless of where they lived.
Yes...it is, and yes...it is.
Paul describes the reasons for the council a little differently than Luke: [Galatians 2:1-5] Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain. But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.
Yup....circumcision was the subject. [11-12] But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision.
There was evidently a powerful faction in the Jerusalem Church holding to the necessity of circumcision. As explained in your article.....God had already shown this was unnecessary for salvation.....good for health reasons...... but unnecessary for salvation.
Nothing was discussed about abolishing God's Sabbaths and Feast Days.....or The Ten Commandments!
Thanks for that Diego. It’s funny how many times I’ve read Galatians 2 and never made the connection with Acts 15!
“He knew that gentile converts could continue receiving basic instruction in the Scriptures and God’s way of life by attending the regular synagogue services.”
There is no mention of synagogue or synagogues from Acts to Revelation. There are numerous mentions of “church” and the gifts of preaching, teaching and evangelizing given to the church. In fact Paul’s home place of worship was the church at Antioch, with teachers and prophets, not a synagogue.
Jesus told the disciples they would be put out of the synagogues and they were with the persecution of Stephen and every where that Paul preached. The synagogue rulers followed him from city to city to break up his meetings. To say that Paul expected new converts to attend regular synagogue service for basic instruction flies in the face of scripture, especially when it says Paul appointed elders of the churches in every city and in 1 Timothy states Bishops and Deacons should be “apt” to teach.
I'm not sure if you read the whole article or only latched onto the last line or two:
Act 9:20 And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.
Act 13:5 And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister.
Act 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
. To say that Paul expected new converts to attend regular synagogue service for basic instruction flies in the face of scripture, especially when it says Paul appointed elders of the churches in every city and in 1 Timothy states Bishops and Deacons should be apt to teach.
You have to remember that the events in Acts 15 occurred very early in the gentile history of the church. There were likely few, if any, organized churches of Christians save for Jewish Christians who worshipped in synagogues.
Acts 15:23 says there were churches in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. Paul’s letter to the Galation Churches was written soon anfter the Jerusalem Council. He and Barnabas had just finished the first missionary journey establishing churches in Asia Minor before the Jerusalem Council meeting. Philip had started churches in Samaria and Acts 8:4 says those scattered because of Stephen preached everywhere they went. The Jerusalem Council happened some 20 years after the resurrection and app. 16 years after Paul was converted.
The church was growing and the Jerusalem Church was losing its legalistic control. That was the reason for the council. They were learning that you can’t put new wine in old wine skins.
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The very first gentiles weren't granted God's spirit until Acts 10, which if I remember right was about 10 years after the resurrection. However, it's likely that even these gentiles were proselytes to the Jewish religion:
Act 10:1 There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,
Act 10:2 A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always.
Cornelius was a gentile, yet was NOT in idolatry. He worshipped the true God.
It's pretty fair to say that any gentiles who came in initially were much the same.
However, by the time of the events of Acts 15, it's likely that more and more gentiles who were formerly pagans were being called into the church.
The church was growing and the Jerusalem Church was losing its legalistic control. That was the reason for the council. They were learning that you cant put new wine in old wine skins.
They were forced to re-evaluate their understanding of the new covenant and Christ's coming. One area was circumcision. God HAD apparently granted his spirit to uncircumcised, pagan gentiles. They needed to deal with that and they did.
I have always thought that this was the First Catholic Council of the Catholic Church with Peter speaking thus he is cast as the leader by the author of Acts (Luke).
Although Peter did speak, James spoke more and seemed to have been in charge...or at least it was he who rendered the final decision:
Act 15:13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:
Act 15:19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:
I am speaking my opinion. Is that OK?
no foolin’ around of any kind
no eatin’ road kill
1 [1-35] The Jerusalem "Council" marks the official rejection of the rigid view that Gentile converts were obliged to observe the Mosaic law completely. From here to the end of Acts, Paul and the Gentile mission become the focus of Luke's writing.
2 [1-5] When some of the converted Pharisees of Jerusalem discover the results of the first missionary journey of Paul, they urge that the Gentiles be taught to follow the Mosaic law. Recognizing the authority of the Jerusalem church, Paul and Barnabas go there to settle the question of whether Gentiles can embrace a form of Christianity that does not include this obligation.
3 [6-12] The gathering is possibly the same as that recalled by Paul in Gal 2:1-10. Note that in Acts 15:2 it is only the apostles and presbyters, a small group, with whom Paul and Barnabas are to meet. Here Luke gives the meeting a public character because he wishes to emphasize its doctrinal significance (see Acts 15:22).
4 [7-11] Paul's refusal to impose the Mosaic law on the Gentile Christians is supported by Peter on the ground that within his own experience God bestowed the holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his household without preconditions concerning the adoption of the Mosaic law (see Acts 10:44-47).
5  In support of Paul, Peter formulates the fundamental meaning of the gospel: that all are invited to be saved through faith in the power of Christ.
6 [13-35] Some scholars think that this apostolic decree suggested by James, the immediate leader of the Jerusalem community, derives from another historical occasion than the meeting in question. This seems to be the case if the meeting is the same as the one related in Gal 2:1-10. According to that account, nothing was imposed upon Gentile Christians in respect to Mosaic law; whereas the decree instructs Gentile Christians of mixed communities to abstain from meats sacrificed to idols and from blood-meats, and to avoid marriage within forbidden degrees of consanguinity and affinity (Lev 18), all of which practices were especially abhorrent to Jews. Luke seems to have telescoped two originally independent incidents here: the first a Jerusalem "Council" that dealt with the question of circumcision, and the second a Jerusalem decree dealing mainly with Gentile observance of dietary laws (see Acts 21:25 where Paul seems to be learning of the decree for the first time).
7  Symeon: elsewhere in Acts he is called either Peter or Simon. The presence of the name Symeon here suggests that, in the source Luke is using for this part of the Jerusalem "Council" incident, the name may have originally referred to someone other than Peter (see Acts 13:1 where the Antiochene Symeon Niger is mentioned). As the text now stands, however, it is undoubtedly a reference to Simon Peter (Acts 15:7).
8  Some manuscripts add, in various wordings, "But Silas decided to remain there."
9 [15:36-18:22] This continuous narrative recounts Paul's second missionary journey. On the internal evidence of the Lucan account, it lasted about three years. Paul first visited the communities he had established on his first journey (Acts 16:1-5), then pushed on into Macedonia, where he established communities at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Beroea (Acts 16:7-17:5). To escape the hostility of the Jews of Thessalonica, he left for Greece and while resident in Athens attempted, without success, to establish an effective Christian community there. From Athens he proceeded to Corinth and, after a stay of a year and a half, returned to Antioch by way of Ephesus and Jerusalem (Acts 17:16-18:22). Luke does not concern himself with the structure or statistics of the communities but aims to show the general progress of the gospel in the Gentile world as well as its continued failure to take root in the Jewish community.
It's not a caucus thread so feel free.
Thank you for your contribution. Those notes will provide a good study.
Acts 15:6 Now the apostles and elders came to consider this matter.
While James was given a lot of respect it is clear decision making was as a group and included more than the apostles. Peter was always the quickest to voice his opinions, or take action, but that does not mean he was a "supreme" leader.
I have sat through many sermons which tried to make the point that all other requirements were done away with, except the four mentioned. This was done once in response to my question of keeping the Biblical Sabbath. “So you see, there is absolutely no imperative to observe the Sabbath.....” was the conclusion. I no longer attend that particular church.
Which is exactly the way the early Church worked.