Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. 3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this [c]matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that [d]in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (Acts15:1-11)
Among other things, a consideration of the events known as the Jerusalem Council reminds us of the thoroughly Jewish nature of the Church’s origins. Writing in his epistle to the Romans, Paul referred to Gentile Christians as wild and unnatural branches grafted into the good olive tree that was the Jewish nation (Rom11:24). These origins tend to be obscured by the hostility and unbelief of a substantial remnant of Jews who opposed the gospel and its propagation. However, the problem that the mid-first century Church also faced was that some Jews who had accepted the Christian faith insisted that it was necessary for believers including Gentiles to observe the essentials of the Mosaic Law.
The passage I have selected deals with Peter’s response to the issue. He recounts to the Jerusalem Church how God had foreordained that the Gospel should be preached to Gentile hearers and that they should receive the Spirit and have their hearts cleansed by faith just as believing Jews did. As we have shown in previous posts, this had not been anticipated in Old Testament prophecy and was initially as much of a surprise to Peter as it was to his fellow Jews (Acts11:17-18)
The passage also has implications to modes of Church governance, Catholic and Orthodox Christians in particular believing the Jerusalem Council to be a prototype of later “ecumenical councils” through which the Church should be governed. The resulting letter distributed to the Gentile believers in Antioch and Syria does indeed indicate that the apostles and elders believed themselves to have been directed by the Holy Spirit (v28) in their deliberations, the precise nature and implications of which I won’t elaborate upon in this post. The principal point I want to draw out is that this event is the contextual background to the Apostle Paul’s later teaching concerning Law and grace. In Galatians chapter two the apostle directly refers to the Jerusalem Council with his description of “false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage” (v4). This as we shall see later is the context of the apostle’s frequent assertion that justification is by faith rather than “works of the Law” – a reference which was misunderstood even in the apostle’s time (cf. 2Pet3:15-16), confounded, I believe, by Augustine and still more so by Luther – a matter examined in chapter three of my book**.
** Free PDF HERE