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The council of Jerusalem (Acts 1/2)

07 Dec
Council’s background

In the 15th chapter of the book of Acts we read about conflict between Antioch Christians and the Judea Christians, group of past Pharisees that came to visit them. It happened in the time, when Paul and Barnabas were in the city of Antioch, when Pharisees were appealing on members of Antioch church to be circumcised as they said; “You will not be saved until you are circumcised according to the law of Moses.”(1) Paul and Barnabas disputed and discussed with them but as the resolution, they left to visit Jerusalem so this problem would be solved. When they came to Jerusalem the story almost repeated. Jerusalem’s believers from the party of Pharisees stood up and said; “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.” (2) This was followed by discussion between apostles and elders and speeches of Peter, Paul with Barnabas and James. The outcome of this council was a letter of recommendations for Antioch church. But why did Jerusalem council played such a special role in early church and why it is so important for today? To find out the answer, we need to answer several questions.
 
  • Why did this council occurred?
  • What exactly happened in this council?
  • How did the council of Jerusalem’s effect Christianity?
Conflict in Antioch

As we see, this conflict arose between the party of Pharisees from Judea (3) and Christians from gentiles from Antioch. There was a huge cultural difference between Judea and Antioch. Judea with it’s capital Jerusalem, where all of the Judaic religion was practiced, was living with a high moral standard. In comparison, Antioch was dealing with different issues of mostly sexual perversions like homosexuality or pedophilia those were publicly accepted. We see this cross-cultural tension that induced the uttering of belief, that gentiles need the law of Moses so they could be saved. They wanted them to be circumcised according to the law of Moses. The way of accepting non-Jewish people into Jewish nation was as God commanded Abraham;For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner – those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised.” (4) If somebody wanted to enter the God’s chosen nation he had to be circumcised.

Circumcision (5)

Why was circumcision that weighty? According to the Law of Moses, everybody who was not circumcised had to be excluded from the nation. What made this topic even more crucial was that with legalization of circumcision and with its acceptance whole Law of Moses had to be accepted. However, it would mean an inefficiency of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, what more inefficiency of everything what was connected to Christianity. Circumcision as visible sign of the covenant wa
s a sensitive subject and nobody touched it for a long time. Jesus talked about it only marginally. There was no new dogmatics built up for this topic since Jesus’ left the world. The council of Jerusalem could be the place were everything would be changed.

Council of Jerusalem

The council of Jerusalem played an important role in the borning Christianity. Straight after Paul with Barnabas came to Jerusalem and shared their news from gentile provinces, different party of Pharisees rose up with the same subject as in Antioch: “Gentiles should be circumcised according to the law of Moses.” Big debate started about this topic, but let us look at what were the reactions that Luke recorded.

A) Peter’s speech

 Peter comes back to his experience which we can read about in the Acts 10 , which was his first experience with the gentile mission. At first, he mentions how he brought gospel to the house of Cornelius, through the grace of Christ. Second point states that God actually accepted the gentiles, when He gave them His Holy Spirit. This point just proves what he already said after the experience in the Cornelius’ house. At last, he spokeaboutthe clarity, which was not from the physical expurgation but it was in the clarity of heart. Soever, we are not able to ensure our clarity, it is only God who cleanses us. After this argument, Peter could easily offend Pharisees and asked them; “why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (6)   The law of Moses could not be filled. It was only by the grace of Jesus Christ that they were saved. Through this, Peter emphasizes that there are no differences between Jews and gentiles.

B) Paul’s and Barnabas’ speech

Luke did not capture wording of this second speech, but we now that both, Paul and Barnabas were men of faith and God was working through them. This testimony they offered council, was declaring the power of God which was proving the words of Peter. There are no differences between Jews and gentiles. God is giving his blessings, his Holy Spirit and everything what both, Jews and gentiles need for salvation.

C) James’ speech

James’ speech was specially important in this council as he was really respected person by Pharisees, both converted and Judaic Pharisees. He was “champion” of the circumcision group and the second man in the Early church. Everyone called him James the Just and what more, church fathers say that James was actually one of Jesus’ relatives. His speech supported all Peter, Paul and Barnabas said. He ended his speech quoting prophecy of Amos; “In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,”(7). This prophecy was just once again confirming the truth. Gentiles are part of God’s nation through Christ and there was nothing more they could do about it. James then in the end of his speech brought in the idea of sending a letter that they would abstain from:
 
  • things polluted by idols
  • sexual immorality
  • strangled animals / animals with blood
These points were created to keep the unity in church, as there were a lot of people taught the law of Moses around Antioch. Let us look more into the letter.

Council’s letter

Council unanimously decided to send the letter to church of Antioch. They sent it with Paul and Barnabas, and also Judas and Silas who adjected to them. Judas (called also Barsabbas) was a Hebrew believer, about whom we do not know anything closer from scriptures, accept that he was maybe a brother of Joseph Barsabbas. Silas, whose Latin name was Silvanos a Hellenist who was a Roman citizen about who we later read in Acts 16 in connection with Peter and Paul. Both Judas and Silas were the men of quality and they were able to explain what exactly was stated in the letter. Letter itself encouraged the believers in Antioch and Silas with Judas also encouraged the congregation with prophetic words as they were prophets.

Effect of council

 Is salvation from the law or from the faith? The reason why this council was and still is so important is that apostles were dealing with the question of salvation. In whole new testament, emphasis is on the faith. Even some people have questions about the epistle of James, still he never said that man can be excused because of his good deeds according to the law. One sin means death. God is holy and nothing sinful can not stand his holiness. Somebody would ask; “Did God change his mind? Is He not changeless?” And really, it looks like Old and new testament are in contrary. But already in the roots of covenant we can see, that God planned this time of grace in Christ. Paul analyzes this theme in Romans 4:9-12, where he argues that already Abraham was not justified by his good deeds but according to his faith. Abraham is the father of uncircumcised and circumcised which shows that gentiles and Jews are in Christ really equal and have same right to be inheritors of kingdom of God. As we see this topic was relevant in age of New testament in Galatians 3:11-14 and Galatians 5:1-6   Paul opens this chapter because again, it was necessary. Many of the Pharisees parties wanted to pluck Christians back to Judaism. Even Peter had to be rebuked by Paul when they met later in Antioch as he was acting hypocritically (Gal 2:11-13). Early church was growing fast and huge numbers were joining church maybe also because of this council. All the barriers between nations were slowly destroyed.

Antioch

When we come back to Antioch, there were these three things in the letter which apostles required to be filled. Regarding sexual immorality, this was never changed and definitively with Jesus, law was not destroyed (8)  but fulfilled. However in Christ all Christians were called to freedom and that is what this letter did not deal with perfectly. Things polluted by idols and animals that contained blood, this looks like human solution of problem even there is some indication of that apostle maybe did not want to offend some of the brothers. This however is not a good excuse for building the dogmatics. Jesus was facing similar problem and we read it in Matthew 15 (9). Jesus here calls all the believers to spiritual and practical clarity not to the literal clarity according to tradition but to the clarity of whole person. Paul in 1. Corinthians 8:7-8 says that; ”But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” So later in fact it was corrected but it take some time to apply. Still it stayed as a question of faith as everything what is not according to faith is a sin. (10)

Gentiles

Looking at gentiles and early church, for sure, there were still some difficulties about acceptance from the Jewish side and Christians never got completely accepted. But without this council there would be a really big danger for Christianity of becoming one of Jewish sects. Thanks to Jerusalem’s council, Christianity became unique continuation of what God commenced in his chosen nation. In the beginning it was much easier to function under the auspices of Judaism but then later it was a must to say strict “No!” to likening these two. Christianity became a living and independent religion and nothing could stop its growth. In spite of all persecutions and unacceptance from Roman Empire, Christians and mostly gentile Christians who were the majority, could resist the pressure even it was difficult. Through Israel, all the Christians are blessed.


Nowadays church

These days we are in advantage in comparison to past. We have all the knowledge, perfect teachings, amazing applications, “How to” manuals for christian life, but still, there is something missing. We are not really acting our faith out. Our “Western World” lives in freedom and grace. The council of Jerusalem expressed our right to be free from the law, but church, throughout centuries split and is sparely finding the new unity. It is a pity, we did not take more from the Jerusalem’s council. The whole council was lead by Holy Spirit, in love, understanding with respect for authority. Today we need to learn how to respect others, how to deal with problems but mostly, how to be united. Holy Spirit is present in the places, where we together as brothers and sisters persist on our knees. Faith is given to us by God’s grace, and through the faith we can be sure that we will be saved.

Conclusion

The conflict in Acts 15 was well solved. One of hardest theological questions was simply and peacefully answered. The council of Jerusalem shows us how to better handle these situations in the church and is encouraging us to work in unity. Jerusalem’s council played amazing role in the expansion of church but this occasion will never repeat again. There are different challenges before us nowadays. That is why we still need to be founded in Jesus. Through faith we are saved and we live in freedom from the law of death.


Sources

John Stott (2009), “The Message of Acts”, Inter-varsity press (p.240-257)

Utley, R. J. D. (2003), Vol. Volume 3B: Luke the Historian: The Book of Acts. Study Guide Commentary Series (p. 181). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.

F.F. Bruce (1984), Peter, Stephan, James & John, (p. 86-90), Grand Rapids

John J.Parsons, Hebrew for Christians; Should a Christian be Circumcised?
http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Articles/Circumcision/circumcision.html

Footnotes 
[1.] Acts 15:1
[2.] Acts 15:5
[3.] Utley, R. J. D. (2003). Vol. Volume 3B: Luke the Historian: The Book of Acts. (p.181) This refers to a group of believing Jews who were committed to Judaism and Jesus. They saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the OT faith, not a rival or substitute for it (cf. 11:2; 15:5; Gal. 2:12). These persons’ theology is related to the false Jewish teachers (Judaizers) referred to in Galatians. These men were somehow connected to the church in Jerusalem (cf. v. 24), but they were not official representatives.
[4.] Genesis 17:12-13a
[5.] Day, C. A., Collins Thesaurus of the Bible. Bellingham, WA (988 ritual)
Every male shall be circumcised (Gen. 17:10); every eight-day old male (Gen.17:12); circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin (Gen 17:11); circumcised on the eighth day  (Lev. 12:3) circumcision will be the sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:11); he gave him the covenant of circumcision (Acts 7:8); Moses gave you circumcision (John 7:22); every slave must be circumcised (Gen 17:12; Gen. 17:13); a slave may eat the Passover after he has been circumcised (Exod. 12:44); a sojourner who wants to celebrate the Passover must have his males circumcised (Exod. 12:48)
[6.] Acts 15:10
[7.] Am 9:11-12
[8.] Matt 5:17
[9.] Matt 15:17-20
[10.] Romans 14:23
written by Jakub Kriška 
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Posted by on December 7, 2010 in Theology

 

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