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The Spreading Flame - Series 4: Episode 5

Crisis - the Council of Jerusalem

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 15:1-35

An issue arose about the need for Gentiles to become Jews as part of being Christians , including the act of male circumcision. The Council of Jerusalem was convened and it was agreed that this was not right. guidance was given to the gentile believers to help them separate themselves from pagan rites.

An issue arose about the need for Gentiles to become Jews as part of being Christians , including the act of male circumcision. The Council of Jerusalem was convened and it was agreed that this was not right. guidance was given to the gentile believers to help them separate themselves from pagan rites.


Welcome back for the last episode in Series 4. If you’ve been following Series 4, you will see that we’ve been travelling with Paul and Barnabas as they’ve been planting churches in the area of Asia Minor - southern Turkey in modern terms. This is the first missionary journey after they were sent out from Antioch, as described at the beginning of Acts 13.

Background and Introduction

We are now coming to the end of this series. In the four episodes up till now, we described the dynamic and exciting journey Paul and Barnabas made - all the places they visited, the successes they had and the challenges - they had to leave certain places in a hurry as there was intense opposition from the Jewish community. We have seen the whole story and described it from the beginning to the end. They left Antioch in Syria and travelled to Cyprus, then into southern Turkey. They came back through all the cities they had been to and where they had planted churches.

In the last episode, I described how they established leadership structures through elders in every church, how they built up and strengthened the churches, and then they travelled back by sea across to Antioch in Syria - the church that had sent them many months before. We ended the last episode in a really lovely situation where they could go back and give a great story to the church. Everyone was thrilled about what had happened through many months of mission. You might think, ‘Well, that’s the end of the story. Great. Everything is going to go well from here: the churches have been established, they’ve got leaders, they’ve had teaching, they’re encouraged, and they’ve seen many miracles. What’s going to be the problem?’ But the book of Acts continually faces us with the fact that, as the Gospel advances, there are always counter-attacks, there are always challenges. We have advance and setback as a pattern in the book of Acts.

A Difficulty Arises

In this episode, a sudden dangerous crisis arises in the situation that we now have. The mother church is in Jerusalem where most of the Apostles are based and where Peter, the leader of the Apostles is based. Paul and Barnabas are based in Antioch in Syria, 300 km north of Jerusalem. That’s the resource church for the Gentile mission. So, we have the central church in Jerusalem and we have the resource church in Antioch which is very active in mission. We’ve seen that the Gospel has gone across ethnic boundaries starting amongst the Jews, going to the Samaritans and now most recently, in Series 3 and 4, to the Gentiles - to the non-Jewish people. An issue arises now concerning the Gospel crossing the ethnic boundary. When a new ethnic or racial group comes into the Church community it is always a moment of risk for the Gospel - tension between different ethnic groups. The issue that arises in this episode is concerning the connection of Christianity to Judaism. Paul and Barnabas had specifically preached on this missionary journey to Jewish groups that they met, as stated in Acts 13: 38 - 39,

38 through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification that you were not able to obtain under the Law of Moses.

Acts 13:38b-39: NIV

This passage and statement is very important. Paul and Barnabas are drawing a distinction between Christianity - the Gospel of Jesus Christ - and the Law of Moses, saying the Law of Moses is unable to bring salvation. They also taught that the Law of Moses, (all the rules that govern Jewish life, based in particular the books of Exodus and Leviticus) is now redundant, it has now become obsolete and has been superseded by the Gospel. This means that if a Gentile, a non-Jew, comes to Christianity, they don’t have to obey Jewish rules and customs in order to become a Christian. That was what they preached but not everybody agreed. Some of the Jewish converts to Christianity still believed that if a Gentile comes into the Church they have to become like a Jew first in order to become a Christian. In other words, they were mixing together the Old Testament laws and the Christian faith. The symbol of this was male circumcision. This was a sign of Jewishness that was unique in the ancient world, and not practised by any other ethnic group in any numbers. Some people were saying, “How can these Gentiles come into Christian faith but they’re not circumcised like us Jews?” This is the controversy that arose suddenly and dangerously as Paul and Barnabas ended their first missionary journey.

The Jerusalem Council

Acts 15: 1 - 5,

1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the Apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they travelled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the Apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. 5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses.

Acts 15:1-5, NIV

The meeting is took place in the central church, the headquarters of the Church. Paul and Barnabas felt they needed to go to the senior leadership, to the Apostles themselves, and have a consultation. They had to agree on what to do about this issue. They travelled and were welcomed by the Apostles and elders in the church in Jerusalem. They told them the incredible way that the Gospel was spreading far and wide to places that many Jewish believers in Jerusalem had never been to. Places that were hundreds of kilometres away in the north, in different parts of the Roman Empire. They were thrilled to hear the news but there was a minority of people who were not happy and these are described as believers who belong to the party of the Pharisees. They were mixing together Christianity and Judaism, they believed that Jesus was the Messiah but they also believed that Judaism was an exclusive religion and anybody who joined Christianity had to join Judaism as well - they had to become Jews on their way to becoming Christians. The sign of that was male circumcision which had to be practised by any Gentile who joined the Jewish faith. An argument is rising. We already know that Paul and Barnabas strongly disagree with this. They don’t want to impose on the Gentiles the Old Testament Law. They want them to come to faith by believing the Gospel, and for the power of their faith, the energy of their faith, to be the Holy Spirit living within them. This is the unique gift of Christianity - the Holy Spirit living inside a person replacing the need for a law structure. A controversy is taking place and a meeting had to be held. One of the most important meetings the Church has ever had, took place here in Jerusalem.

We call it the Council of Jerusalem at a moment of crisis. The risk was the Church was going to split at this point. If the Jerusalem elders said, “Yes, everybody needs to be circumcised”, then Paul and Barnabas would have to split off from them, and we’d have a Gentile church over here and a Jewish church over there. This had to be resolved.

Peter’s Position

It was resolved by intensive discussion and listening, and ultimately by the wisdom of the senior leaders involved. Acts 15:6 to 11 tells us how the discussion went.

6 The Apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved, just as they are.

Acts 15:6-11, NIV

Peter was recalling in his mind and telling the story of the amazing conversion of Cornelius. This was the decisive moment in his thinking. If you recall us going through that story in Acts 10, you’ll remember what happened. This had a huge impression on Peter’s mind, his imagination and his theology because, as he was preaching to Cornelius and his household in Caesarea - who were all Gentiles as far as we know - he didn’t even finish his talk before the Holy Spirit came down in such power on Cornelius and his family and friends, and they started exercising spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues and prophesying. This happened so powerfully that Peter hadn’t even finished his message, he hadn’t even come to the point of inviting a response. It was a demonstration of divine inclusion of the Gentiles, through the power of the Spirit in their lives, just like the Jews had experienced on the Day of Pentecost. Here Cornelius and his family had what some theologians call a Gentile Pentecost. This convinced Peter fundamentally that there are no preliminary steps that people need to take before they become Christians. There are no ritual steps they need to take. There is no circumcision they need to go through. They don’t need to obey the Jewish food laws. They don’t need to follow the Jewish sabbath rules in order to become a Christian. In other words, you don’t have to become a Jew before you become a Christian, you are invited into the family of God as your own ethnic identity - as a Greek, as a Roman. You don’t have to change your ethnic identity. You are invited in. He then points out that the Law of Moses had become a burden or yoke to the Jewish people. It was hard to obey and its time had passed. It helped to frame the culture of the Jewish nation in the Old Testament period but now a new covenant had come. The Church had to adapt to this new covenant by allowing people in without going back into the old regulations. That was the argument that Peter put at that point.

Paul and Barnabas’ Position

Verse 12:

12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.

Acts 15:12, NIV

Paul and Barnabas basically said, “What happened to Cornelius and his household also happens to lots of other Gentiles. The Holy Spirit just came on them as we preached. We don’t need circumcision, it’s a burden, it’s a problem, it’s a confusion. It muddles the issue of justification by faith alone through the grace of God alone, through believing in Christ’s salvation and his resurrection and receiving his forgiveness.” Paul and Barnabas are endorsing what Peter says, “Peter had this experience here in nearby Judea, in Caesarea. We’ve had this experience all over the Gentile world. The same thing is happening.”

The Conclusion

We come to the conclusion of the discussion. It is interesting that at this point, another person speaks - not Paul, not Barnabas, not Peter. They’ve had their say. Now the leader of the Jerusalem church, James, who we described in an earlier episode as being the half-brother of Jesus - not James the Apostle, the brother of John, who had been martyred by this time - who Jesus made an Apostle with the Twelve in the time of his resurrection, as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. This James has emerged as the leader of the church in Jerusalem and one of the wider group of Apostles - a man known for wisdom. He spoke at this point and gave a verdict. Acts 15: 13 - 22:

13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon (Peter) has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16 ““After this I will return and rebuild David’s tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17> that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— 18 things known from long ago. 19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 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. 21 For the Law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” 22 Then the Apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (also called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers.

Acts 15:13-22, NIV

James first refers to the prophets and to Amos, Amos 9: 11 - 12. Let me explain the meaning that he draws from these verses. He says,

16 “After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,”

Acts 15:16, NIV

That metaphor, ‘the tent of David’, refers to the monarchy, the kingship in Israel. David was the first of God’s chosen kings and God promised him a monarchy that would go on permanently. It was interrupted through political issues and through the invasion of the Babylonian people. The monarchy of David had been abolished and it wasn’t functioning but the prophet Amos said that the kingship of David was going to be restored in Israel. Essentially, Jesus was a direct descendant of David and known as the ‘son of David’, and prophesied as the one who was going to restore God’s kingship in Israel. So, verse 16 is saying that the kingship of David is being restored and has been restored through Jesus. Then verse 17 indicates the implication of this. This is a divine kingship rather than just a human government. This divine kingship, what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, brings the implication,

17 “that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name”.

Acts 15:17a, NIV

Amos is prophesying that at the time that David’s monarchy is restored, the door will be open to the Gentiles. At the time the monarchy is restored, the door will be open for the Gentiles to believe. That was the prophecy of Amos. James says, “That is what is happening now. The monarchy is restored because Jesus came as the son of David, the Kingdom of God has come, and it’s a signal for the Gentiles to come in. So, we’ve got to be ready for that reality”. Then he makes a judgement which, no doubt, he had discussed already in the wider discussions as his proposals, that they should not tell the Gentiles that they have to obey all the laws of the Old Testament, but give them guidelines on two key issues that really mattered. One of them was participating in the worship of Greek, Roman and other gods - idol worship. They gave them three regulations here which are about those worship ceremonies. One is about food - the food in idol worship, not participating in that food, not using that food during the worship ceremony. The other two regulations that relate to that are, the meat of strangled animals and the drinking of blood. Animals were strangled frequently in the idol worship and some of the worshippers in those contexts drank blood. In other words, those three actions are all associated in the culture with worshipping Greek and Roman gods. James says, ‘we don’t want the Gentiles to do those things, because we want them to separate from those gods.’ That was the first issue he regulated. The second issue was sexual morality because sexual immorality was always associated with Greek and Roman culture and also with pagan worship, where there were many forms of prostitution and sexual immorality and unfaithfulness. He made those regulations, not as part of the Law of Moses, but as relevant considerations to help the Gentile believers be separate in important ways from those who worshipped pagan gods. Those were the regulations he gave, and those were the reasons for them. Then they appointed two leaders, Judas and Silas, who were leaders in the Jerusalem Church, to go and give the message to the church in Antioch that everything was okay. People don’t have to go by the Law of Moses.

Guidance for the Gentile Disciples

Acts 15: 23 - 35:

23 With them they sent the following letter: The Apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. 24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. 30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. [34] 35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.

Acts 15:23-35, NIV

The crisis is over and the unity of the Church has been preserved. It will come under threat again in the future but for now the crisis has been averted.


As we come to the end of this episode, I’d like to reflect on a few things I think we can learn from this very unusual passage. It is about the issue of legalism - bringing laws into Christianity that are not part of the Christian faith. This is an issue in all cultures. It’s not surprising that the issue came up at the very beginning of the Church and the Apostles had to make a very clear statement about it, which they did, at the Council of Jerusalem. There are a number of things that we need to be aware of. There is a risk for Christians to take parts of the Old Testament law and apply them to all believers. That’s a risk because we are not permitted to do that, unless that particular law is restated in the New Testament and applied to the Church. In a few cases, this is true; some of the Ten Commandments are reiterated in the New Testament, so they become part of Christianity but almost all the Old Testament laws, (there are more than 600 laws in the Law of Moses) are not reiterated in the New Testament and therefore they’re not applicable to the Church. That’s one danger.

The other danger is that generally, as human beings, we tend to want to please God by following regulations. We find it’s a secure way of thinking that, ‘Somehow or other I need to achieve these regulations, follow these moral rules and these ritual rules in order to please God’. It’s the way most religions operate but Christianity doesn’t operate on that basis. The status of pleasing God has been fundamentally achieved by Christ on the cross. We are in a relationship of peace with God, we have been justified by faith, our sins have been forgiven. This is the starting point of Christianity. We don’t need lots of regulations to get us to that point.

We have the risk, not only of maybe adding in regulations from the Old Testament and applying them to the New Testament church, but also other regulations which we draw from our cultural background. We might, for example, say that certain foods are prohibited to Christians universally, or certain drinks are prohibited to Christians universally, or certain dress codes are essential for Christians in public worship. Elements of our culture then become rules that we apply to everybody. That’s modern legalism. It is very similar to what was happening here, that the Apostles decided against. We have to be very careful. In order to be right with God, we need to remember the basis of our salvation, and then confess any known sin that the Holy Spirit points out to us. That’s the pattern of being right with God and it doesn’t depend on rituals, and on rules and regulations - on a legalistic mentality. People generally are very inclined to think in terms of achievement but Christianity says the achievement is Christ’s. He achieved all we need. We need to appropriate it, or take hold of it by faith. That’s really what this battle was about in the Council of Jerusalem.

The second reflection and application I want to make, as we conclude, is to allow this passage to be a springboard for us to think about how we incorporate, in church communities, people from different cultural backgrounds. It is God’s will that we should be able to come together, although we have different cultural backgrounds. Tensions often arise and the Antioch church was a good example where there were many different ethnic groups. The leadership team in the church in Antioch was from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds, as we saw when we looked at the beginning of Acts 13 - some Africans, some Jewish people from various different geographical areas. They were forming a multi-ethnic church. The principles of this passage will help us as we consider how to do that in our own environments.

Thanks for joining us for this last episode in Series 4. We move on to the next exciting series as the Gospel moves across to Europe as we begin Series 5. Hope you’ll join us.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How are you tempted to please God by your actions? What does please God?
  • Discipleship
    1. How can we guard against being legalistic?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What aspects of Judaism were causing most difficulty here? How did the leaders resolve the situation?
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