Acts 15: What the Decision of the Jerusalem Council Means Today

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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The Background of the Jerusalem Council

Acts 15 is a pivotal chapter in the books of Acts, as, indeed, the event it relates, the meeting of the Jerusalem Council, is one of the most important events of the early church. Had this council gone differently, there would certainly have been a major split in the Christian church, dividing not only congregations, but the apostles themselves and the unity of their teachings. The importance of Acts 15 today stems not only from the lasting effect of this council on the unity of the apostles and the history of the church but also from the manner in which if affects our handling of the Scriptures. Acts 15 is often referred to today. Those who do not understand the decision reported in Acts 15 are likely to embark on a path that leads them away from true Christian spirituality.

In Acts, Luke indicates that the initial spread of the Gospel was to Jews. For instance, those who heard the first proclamation of the risen Christ on the day of Pentecost were Jews who either lived in or had made pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem for the purpose of worship. Because of this, some in the early church took the point of view that Christianity was a sect of Judaism, and that to become a Christian one had to become a practicing Jew.

As the Gospel spread to other areas of the ancient world, the universal nature of the Gospel call to Christ became evident. The church of Jesus Christ began to develop into two distinct branches, a Jewish church and a Gentile church. Those who believed that Christians were practicing Jews became offended by the Gentile Christians, believing that the Gospel was being perverted. The situation came to a head when some of these "Judaizers" traveled to the church at Antioch and began to contradict the teachings of Paul and Barnabus. The leaders of the church brought together a council at Jerusalem as a way to consider the issues and seek the will of God.

Those who believed that Christians were to be practicing Jews could look to the example of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Romans, Jesus was "born a descendant of David according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3). In Galatians Paul points out that Jesus was "born under the Law" (4:4) and died under the Law (3:13). Early Christians, even Paul, worshipped at the Temple as well as with congregations of Christians.

Those who believed that Gentiles were not obligated to obey the Law of Moses in the same manner as Jews believed, as Paul wrote, that the Law of Moses became "our tutor to lead us to Christ" (Galatians3:24, Romans 3:19-21). The finished work of Christ released Christians from the burden of keeping the entire Law. While there was deep reverence for the Law and respect for the Jews (Romans 3:1-2, 9:3-5), there was also the belief that the Law of Moses had been fulfilled in Christ, that Christians had a new freedom in Jesus Christ, one that did not require the Gentiles to observe the Law of Moses in the manner of the practicing Jews.

The Jerusalem Council, then, was to resolve the relationship between Christianity and the Law of Moses. The authority of the decision rendered there is great because it was not just a gathering of church leaders (elders), but a gathering of apostles, those whose leadership provides the foundation for the Christian church until Christ's return.

The Decision of the Jerusalem Council

This leads us to the question of what the council decided and how it is to be applied. In this we can look not only to the decision recorded in Acts 15, but the writings of other New Testament Scripture, most of which was written after the council, and, therefore, would have reflected the understanding of the apostles concerning the decision that was made there.

One of the keys to understanding the decision is found in the final verses of chapter 14 and the first verse of chapter 15. In the last part of Acts 14, Luke tells us that when Paul and Barnabus returned to Antioch, they related how successful they had been in their missionary journey, reporting how God had worked among the Gentiles (14:27). Perhaps it was because the Judaizers in Jerusalem heard of this that they journeyed to Antioch to promote their own teachings, counter to those of Paul and Barnabus.

These men from Judea were teaching that those who wanted to become Christians had to submit to circumcision (the pre-eminent indication of conversion to Judaism) and adhere to the entire Law of Moses. The Greek word "ethei" (from "ethos") in Acts 15:1 may be translated "custom" or "habit." It often indicates a personal habit or the customary action of a nation or group, and is so used in the New Testament in a number of places (Luke 4:16, Hebrews 10:25). However, in conjunction with the Law of Moses, it forms a technical term regarding the keeping of the entire Law as contained in the first five books of Scripture, the Pentateuch (cf. 15:5), and refers to the commitment of Jews to keep the entire Law (Galatians 5:2-3, James 2:10, Romans 2:13).

The Law of Moses was multifaceted. It not only brought spiritual truths and moral guidelines to the children of Israel, it also ordered their lives. Included in the Law were ceremonies (circumcision, sacrifices, feasts, holidays), dietary restrictions, health codes, and civil law.

There was no disagreement among the early Christians that all Old Testament Scripture, including the Pentateuch (the Law of Moses) pointed to Jesus Christ (John 5:39-47, Luke 24:25-27, Galatians 3:24, Romans 3:21, 16:25-27) or that Jesus lived and died under the Law. As a faithful Israelite, Jesus had kept the Law perfectly (John 8:46, Hebrews 3:1-6, 4:15), which enabled Him to be a perfect Israelite, and thus fulfill His mission as Messiah (I Peter 1:18-19, Hebrews 7:26-28, 9:13-14).

Although Jesus had kept the Law perfectly, and such as Paul kept the Law blamelessly (at least before any human court, Philippians 3:5-6), the apostles and elders recognized that the Law of Moses was a heavy burden for anyone to carry (15:10). No doubt they remembered the traditions, found in our Gospels, where Christ continually pointed out the failure of Jews, teachers and lay people alike, to keep the Mosaic Law. Further, inability to keep the Law in its entirety, in spite of one's best efforts, was one of the lessons the Law was supposed to communicate - thus leading to salvation provided in Christ as the only path to righteousness and the forgiveness of sin (Romans 3:9ff., Galatians 3:22).

The decision of the council showed unanimity between the apostles and elders gathered at Jerusalem. At the suggestion of James, who presided over the meeting, they sent an official letter to Antioch to avoid any misunderstanding. The letter informed the brethren that the Judaizers had never been sent out by the apostles and, therefore, never had the authority to teach as they had. The letter made clear that the apostles embraced the ministry of Paul and Barnabus. This meant that it was not necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised upon conversion to Christianity, and that Gentiles were not bound to adhere to the entire Mosaic Law.

We should recognize that in confessing Jesus Christ, the Gentiles drew a sharp line between themselves and the pagans they lived in the midst of. It was still not easy to be a Christian. However, the severe burden of following all of the Jewish dietary, ceremonial, and civil laws was not added to the burden of confessing Christ before an unbelieving world. In addition, we should notice that Jewish Christians were not prohibited in any way from practicing their traditions just as before. They were free to practice, but not impose upon others, circumcision and other Jewish customs that derived from the Law of Moses.

The apostles and elders at Jerusalem did, however, demand that the Gentile Christians observe four requirements of conduct that derived from the Law of Moses. First, they were to abstain from "things contaminated by idols." In view here was meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Eating this was tantamount to approving the sacrifice, so Christians were to avoid eating meat if they knew it had been involved in sacrifice. Secondly, they were to avoid eating animals that had been strangled. This also had to do with animals that had been sacrificed in pagan rituals. However, even if killed outside pagan rituals, there was the matter that to eat animals that had been killed in such a manner was completely abhorrent to practicing Jews. Therefore, a matter of fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians was involved. Thirdly, Gentiles were to abstain "from blood." Some commentators believe that this meant abstaining from blood vengeance. But inasmuch as it is not made clear, it seems best to interpret this as another dietary restriction having to do with pagan sacrifices and fellowship with Jewish Christians, who, again, would have found eating this loathsome. Finally, the Gentiles were charged to abstain from fornication. Again, commentators differ somewhat on the scope of what was being prohibited here. Sexual immorality was commonly accepted in the Gentile world. In addition, intercourse with temple prostitutes was practiced as a form of pagan worship. Certainly these forms of immorality were inappropriate for Christians. If we extend the scope of this prohibition even wider, it might include a prohibition against violating the requirements for marriage taught in the Old Testament, charging Gentiles not to marry close relatives for example, and not to marry those who did not share true faith in God or His Christ, and prohibiting easy divorce. Whatever the exact scope of the original instruction as given by the council, the general meaning is clear: Gentiles were to keep themselves pure from sexual immorality.

These requirements were not unique to Acts 15, we see hints of them, for example, in the message from Christ to the church at Pergamum and the message from Christ to the church in Thyatira in Revelation 2:14 and 2:20. The letter from the apostles and elders concludes, "if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well" (Acts 15:29).

Implications for Christians Today

What viewpoint should modern Christians take towards the decision of the Jerusalem council?

First, it is clear that the apostles and elders embraced salvation by grace through faith in God's work through Jesus Christ. As if this point was not clearly made in the Gospels or Acts, the letter to the Hebrews and Paul's letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Romans, and Titus make this very clear. Those who saw the keeping of the Law of Moses, or indeed any Law, as a way to salvation were mistaken.

Secondly, not only forgiveness of sin comes by faith in Jesus Christ, but the ability to live blamelessly before the Lord comes by the grace of God through Christ. Paul told the Corinthians that those who are in Christ become a "new creation" (II Corinthians 4:17). He told the Colossians that the "hope of glory" was "Christ in you" (Colossians 1:27). He told the Thessalonians that they could be sanctified wholly and live blamelessly because "Faithful is he who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass" (I Thessalonians 5:24). At the Jerusalem Council, the proof that Peter offered that the Gentiles were being truly saved was that, "He (God) made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith" (15:9).

Those who are new creatures in Christ have the indwelling Holy Spirit to cleanse and guide them. By His cleansing they put to death that which is evil and become alive to the service of Christ. Therefore, the Law is not needed in the same sense as for those who wish to do evil. Christlikeness of character is produced by the indwelling Spirit of Christ (Galatians 5:16-26, Romans 8:4ff., I Timothy 1:8-9).

However, we can easily press this too far. If it is true that Christians do not need instruction or discipline to serve Christ well, if they need only the indwelling Spirit of Christ, why did the Jerusalem Council need to send a letter to tell the Christians in Antioch what kind of behavior was expected of them? Why were there four conditions rather than simply an exhortation to walk with Christ? Why did the spiritual leaders in Antioch have to relate the decision through a special meeting convened for that purpose (15:30-35)? In Galatians 5:19-21, as in other places in Scripture, there are lists of attitudes and actions that are evil. In Galatians 5 this list is in the midst of a discussion of being led by the Spirit of God (16-26). Obviously, there is more to being led by the Spirit than subjective impressions and guidance. There is the guidance of mature spiritual leaders given through their instruction, their example (Philippians 3:17), and the guidance of the Old Testament Scriptures themselves. The guidance of the Holy Spirit comes through other members of the Body of Christ and the Scriptures.

In I Corinthians 10 Paul makes it very clear that the Old Testament, including the incidents related in the Law of Moses, the Pentateuch, are important for the Gentile Christians to know (10:1-10). "Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (10:11-12). The clear implication here is that heeding the lessons of the Law of Moses is the only way for the Corinthians to know how to live for Christ, the only way for them not "to fall.". This same truth is implied in Paul's charge to Timothy to ". . . give attention to the public reading of Scripture" (I Timothy 4:13). Clearly, it was as important to Paul as it was to the psalmist to know God's Word in order to avoid sin (Psalm 119). This is not an avoidance of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is humbly accepting one of the most important means whereby the Holy Spirit leads us, Holy Scripture.

Finally, while the Jerusalem Council made clear that the ceremonial, civil, and health requirements of the Law of Moses are not binding upon Gentiles, it nowhere implied that the spiritual or moral lessons of the Law of Moses were unimportant for Christians. It is a simple thing to come to a certainty that this is true. Focus upon only a small part of the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments. The four requirements of the Jerusalem Council do not prohibit a Gentile from telling a lie. Does that mean that it was acceptable for a Gentile Christian to be a liar? These four requirements nowhere tell Gentile Christians to honor their parents. Does that mean the Jerusalem Council believed that it was acceptable for Christians to treat their parents with contempt? The requirements of the apostles and elders do not prohibit stealing. Did those at the Jerusalem Council believe it was a small thing for a Gentile Christian to become a thief? We have touched upon only a few of the Ten Commandments. We could easily go on, but the point has already been made clear. Certainly the Jerusalem Council was not saying that they could overlook immoral behavior by Gentile Christians. They were saying that only the moral and spiritual lessons of the Old Testament were binding, not the ceremonial ones, not the ones, like circumcision and the celebration of the Passover, that were simply binding upon the Israelites to whom God delivered the Law.

Jesus' teaching on divorce shows us that the teachings of the Law of Moses were sometimes not the final word on morality and spirituality (Matthew 19:3-9). However, the morality and spirituality found there are at least foundational. In any case, the Law itself is not evil. Paul's arguments to this effect in Galatians and Romans are closely reasoned, but the point is made clearly, nevertheless. The Law of Moses served a purpose, and when seen in its proper perspective, it fulfills that purpose. "So then, " wrote Paul, "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Romans 7:12). Surely the two commandments that Jesus taught summarized all of the Law of Moses are still important for Christians (Matthew 22:34-40, Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18). Much of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is instruction in the correct application of the Law of Moses. Its inclusion in the Gospels is indication that the early Christians did not believe this part of the sermon to be irrelevant to Christians. In other words, they believed that Christians should be students of the Law, but from the perspective of the Gospel, the New Covenant, not the perspective of the Old Covenant.

Even those parts of the Law Gentiles were not charged with keeping can provide lessons for Christians. For instance, we may not live by the dietary laws of the Mosaic Law, but we can learn that God wants us to pay attention to how we eat and to have a diet that is nutritional. Dangerous foods, foods likely to be contaminated, are to be avoided. We may not follow the health requirements of the Law, but they certainly exhort us to live in the healthiest possible manner. We do not worship at the Tabernacle defined in the Law of Moses, but we can learn from the spiritual lessons taught there and see how they are fulfilled in Christ (Romans 3:21).

The Jerusalem Council provides a clear statement of belief in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The decision of this council, however, is not justification for Christians to abandon the study of the Old Testament Scriptures, nor is it justification for Christians to ignore the spiritual and moral lessons of the Law of Moses. Rather it calls upon all Christians to see them in their proper light, and to use them in such a manner that they have a closer walk with God.

If this is true, then what was the purpose of the four requirements of the Jerusalem Council concerning the conduct of the Gentiles? No matter how they are interpreted, these instructions either emphasize parts of the moral teachings of the Law of Moses that were particularly important for Gentiles given the religious environment in which the Gentiles lived, or they were instructions given to promote fellowship between Gentiles and Jews within the Body of Christ, asking the Gentiles to treat Jewish Christians according to the Golden Rule in matters of diet.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.