Unity in Acts of the Apostles (Part 4: The Jerusalem Council)

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Unity in Acts of the Apostles (Part 4: The Jerusalem Council)

In Acts 10, we witness the first public conversion of a Gentile group to Christianity. One chapter later, Peter—the apostle who crossed age-old boundaries and entered Cornelius’ home—is brought into conflict with the Jewish leaders, who believed circumcision should be required of Gentile converts. The matter is settled for a brief period of time, but reappears in Acts 15—this time in reference to the ministry of Paul and Barnabas.

 

The two apostles travel through Gentile territories, preaching the Gospel and bringing people to a saving knowledge of Christ and into fellowship with the Christian church. However, their work is disrupted when a group of Jews follow them at Antioch, telling the Gentile converts that their salvation depends on their being circumcised.

 

This is a serious matter, because it is a matter of salvation. The Judaizers exhibit not only a brush attitude, but also a lack of understanding regarding the basics of salvation. In their minds, circumcision and salvation were so tightly interconnected that one cannot be saved without the ritual. Yet there is more to the conflict than this.

 

Ellen White explains that the…

 

Jews had always prided themselves upon their divinely appointed services, and many of those who had been converted to the faith of Christ still felt that since God had once clearly outlined the Hebrew manner of worship, it was improbable that He would ever authorize a change in any of its specifications. They insisted that the Jewish laws and ceremonies should be incorporated into the rites of the Christian religion. They were slow to discern that all the sacrificial offerings had but prefigured the death of the Son of God, in which type met antitype, and after which the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic dispensation were no longer binding.[1]

 

Not only were the Jews slow in understanding salvation through Christ, the role Israel was meant to play, and the purpose and limits of the divinely-appointed rituals; they also feared that with the addition of Gentiles into the Christian Church, they would lose their special status as the elect people of God. In this respect, they were not wrong. Unfortunately, these fears led them to bring unnecessary distress upon the Gentiles and the Christian missionaries. White writes:

From the result of the apostles’ labors among the Gentiles it was evident that the converts among the latter people would far exceed the Jewish converts in number. The Jews feared that if the restrictions and ceremonies of their law were not made obligatory upon the Gentiles as a condition of church fellowship, the national peculiarities of the Jews, which had hitherto kept them distinct from all other people, would finally disappear from among those who received the gospel message.[2]

In other words, the Judaizers were afraid of the diversification of the church; more specifically, they were afraid of losing their special status. Consequently, they sought to keep the church united by imposing the Jewish rituals and ceremonies upon everyone. Their focus shifted towards preserving the peculiarities of their culture, rather than emphasizing the saving grace of Christ. Certainly, they had yet to grasp the plan of salvation as the Scriptures portray it. As White put it, “The Jewish converts generally were not inclined to move as rapidly as the providence of God opened the way.”[3]

Paul and Barnabas engaged in “no small dissension and debate” (vs. 2) with this group. In other words, they fought. Paul had understood that salvation comes through grace alone, by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice. He understood that the rituals which foreshadowed the work of Christ were no longer necessary, and opposed the “false doctrine”[4] of the Judaizers. However, the Jewish party was strong and had gained much sympathy in Antioch.[5]

In order to solve the conflict, and “fearing that a division among them would be the outcome of continued discussion,”[6] the local brethren sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to settle the matter in collaboration with the apostles and elders. Thus, at the very beginning of Christianity, probably only years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we find the church in deep conflict over how to maintain unity in the face of a growingly diverse community.

At Jerusalem, the apostles were to attend a church council “composed of apostles and teachers who had been prominent in raising up the Jewish and Gentile Christian churches, with chosen delegates from various places. Elders from Jerusalem and deputies from Antioch were present, and the most influential churches were represented.”[7] The controversy was to cease until the council would come to a decision, which was to be “universally accepted by the different churches throughout the country.”[8]

The council at Jerusalem is the first one recorded in Acts and in Scripture. While the Bible doesn’t offer many details regarding how it was organized and functioned, Acts 15 gives us a good indication of process and dynamics involved in this particular situation. Several aspects stand out in these regards:

1) Paul and Barnabas agree to go to Jerusalem

Their willingness to comply with the request of the local brethren by journeying to the headquarters of the Christian church in order to bring the matter to the table for discussion testifies to their willingness to submit to the collective wisdom of the church, even if the matter was settled for them. White has some interesting things to say about this:

Paul had dedicated himself and all his powers to the service of God. He had received the truths of the gospel direct from heaven, and throughout his ministry he maintained a vital connection with heavenly agencies. He had been taught by God regarding the binding of unnecessary burdens upon the Gentile Christians; thus when the Judaizing believers introduced into the Antioch church the question of circumcision, Paul knew the mind of the Spirit of God concerning such teaching and took a firm and unyielding position which brought to the churches freedom from Jewish rites and ceremonies.[9] (emphases mine)

Next, the inspired author restates the close connection between Paul and God, underlining his submissive and collaborative spirit even though he already knew the direction God wanted him to take:

Notwithstanding the fact that Paul was personally taught by God, he had no strained ideas of individual responsibility. While looking to God for direct guidance, he was ever ready to recognize the authority vested in the body of believers united in church fellowship. He felt the need of counsel, and when matters of importance arose, he was glad to lay these before the church and to unite with his brethren in seeking God for wisdom to make right decisions […] With Peter, he taught that all united in church capacity should be ‘subject one to another.’ 1 Peter 5:5.[10]

While this quote, along with the Biblical evidence, indicates Paul’s willingness to submit himself to the council, the inspired writings make it clear that his first commitment was to God, and that he was ready to make sacrifices in order to maintain this loyalty. In his ministry—one of complete dedication and numerous sacrifices, Paul…

…was often compelled to stand alone. He was specially taught of God and dared make no concessions that would involve principle. At times the burden was heavy, but Paul stood firm for the right. He realized that the church must never be brought under the control of human power. The traditions and maxims of men must not take the place of revealed truth. The advance of the gospel message must not be hindered by the prejudices and preferences of men, whatever might be their position in the church.[11] (emphasis mine)

2) The dispute continued during the council

 

After Paul and Barnabas were received by the apostles and elders, they began to “declare all that God had done with them” (vs. 4). Their testimony, however, was interrupted by the sect of the Pharisees, who “rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses’” (vs. 5).

 

The dynamic of the text is quite vivid. The abrupt interruption steered the council into “much debate” (vs. 6), which subsidized only when Peter stood up and began to speak. He recalled his experience with Cornelius, reminding everyone that salvation is impartial, and that salvation is by grace alone: “…we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (vs. 11).

 

3) Listening occurred at the council too

 

Peter’s speech appears to have lessened the spirit of hostility: “…all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (vs. 12). Paul and Barnabas were able to continue their testimony, now in the full hearing of an audience willing to listen.

 

Next, but only “[a]fter they finished speaking” (vs. 13), James took the stand, beginning his speech with the words: “Brothers, listen to me” (vs. 13). He backed Peter’s testimony by sharing Amos’ prophecy, and finally expressed his opinion that the Gentiles should not be troubled unnecessarily with things unimportant, while at the same time they should be encouraged to uphold the moral standards of Christianity.

 

4) The council brought up issues which required further study

The Judaizers expected the Gentile converts to follow the entire Jewish ceremonial law. Naturally, questions arose about the nature and purpose of this law. Two specific issues the Gentiles were prone to be confronted with was (1) eating meat offered to idols, and (2) eating meat with blood. On the former issue, White notes that “God had given these injunctions to the Jews for the purpose of preserving their health[, but t]he Jews regarded it as sinful to use blood as an article of diet.”[12]

In other words, they had made sin a practice which God had asked them to observe as a health law. The Gentiles, however, used the blood when cooking meat. Evidently, this dietary difference would pose a practical concern about eating together.[13] Deeper study is often needed when an issue presents itself in the context of a conflict, because arguments have to be made or strengthened.

In this case, the Christian Jews were faced with new possible interpretations of the rituals they had been faithfully keeping for centuries. While, in the end, the council decided to encourage the Gentiles to abstain from these things, this was not presented to them as a matter of salvation.

5) The council agrees on a cultural compromise in order to preserve the unity of the church

The matter of the circumcision is settled once again in Acts—this time ratified by an official council recognized by the entire Christian church. This council made a decision “in accordance with the dictates of enlightened judgment, and with the dignity of a church established by the divine will. As a result of their deliberations they all saw that God Himself had answered the question at issue by bestowing upon the Gentiles the Holy Ghost; and they realized that it was their part to follow the guidance of the Spirit.”[14]

In other words, the church’s decision to not impose circumcision upon the Gentile converts merely recognized the clear guidance the Holy Spirit had already given on the matter (see the encounter between Peter and Cornelius here). Ellen White is clear that, while the “various points involved in the settlement of the main question at issue seemed to present before the council insurmountable difficulties [,…] the Holy Spirit had, in reality, already settled this question, upon the decision of which seemed to depend the prosperity, if not the very existence, of the Christian church.”[15]

Conclusion

Faced with the threat of splitting at the very beginning of its existence, the Christian church found a way forward by coming together to discuss the issues. Despite the initial abrupt approach, the attendees are eventually able to listen to each other. Ultimately, the council determines what the Holy Spirit had already shown through direct guidance.

In essence, the unity, and, as Ellen White suggests, the very existence of the church at this early stage, depended on the church being willing to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, even if that meant compromising on cultural aspects, embracing a tolerant attitude towards those who are different, and rethinking how long-standing practices recorded in Scripture reflect the Divine intention.

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Notes.

[1] Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles, (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911; online edition, http://www.whiteestate.org/books/aa/aa.asp, accessed November 3, 2017), pg. 189.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, pg. 190

[7] Ibid, pg. 196

[8] Ibid, pg. 190

[9] Ibid, pg. 200

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, pg. 199-200

[12] Ibid, pg. 192

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, pg. 196

[15] Ibid, pg. 192

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About the author

Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.