In AD 48, some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem come to Syrian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas’ home church. These men from Jerusalem argue that Gentile Christians must be circumcised and adhere to the Mosaic Law if they want to be truly saved. Paul and Barnabas disagree, so the church in Antioch appoint Paul and Barnabas to go to the mother church in Jerusalem, where they will convene with the apostles and elders there.
The journey to Jerusalem probably takes a month or more, so Paul and Barnabas stop along the way and visit several churches in Phoenicia and Samaria. At each stop, they relay the news that Gentiles are converting in high numbers, and the news is met with great joy.
When they arrive at Jerusalem, they meet with the apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church, along with several other members of the Jerusalem church. Paul and Barnabas describe in detail the conversion of Gentiles during their first missionary journey into Asia Minor. After they finish speaking, a group of Christians who were formerly Pharisees rise to argue that these Gentile converts must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, writes:
It should come as no surprise that some of the Pharisees had become Christians. Pharisees believed in resurrection, life after death, and the coming Messiah. They shared the basic convictions of the Christians. Because of this they are sometimes in Acts found defending the Christians against the Sadducees, who had much less in common with Christian views (cf. 5:17; 23:8f.). A major barrier between Christians and Pharisees was the extensive use of oral tradition by the Pharisees, which Jesus and Paul both rejected as human tradition. It is not surprising that some Pharisees came to embrace Christ as the Messiah in whom they had hoped. For all their emphasis on law, it is also not surprising that they would be reticent to receive anyone into the fellowship in a manner not in accordance with tradition. That tradition was well-established for proselytes—circumcision and the whole yoke of the law.
A lengthy debate ensues, although Luke leaves out the details. After listening to both sides, Peter, as the leader of the apostles, stands to speak. In verses 7-9, Peter recounts his experience with Cornelius and his household (Acts 10), an event which had occurred some ten years earlier. The Holy Spirit had been given to Cornelius because his heart had been cleansed by faith, not by circumcision or by following the law of Moses. Peter then argues that to require Gentiles to follow the Law would be to challenge God Himself. After all, if God does not require circumcision and Law adherence, then why should the Christian leadership add these burdens to the Gentiles? Peter closes by reiterating that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
The whole assembly falls silent until Barnabas and Paul speak up again and describe the miracles that God performed during their mission trip to the Gentiles in Asia Minor.
James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the elders of the Jerusalem church, now stands to speak. James makes the case that Peter’s experience with Cornelius is a precise fulfillment of prophecy. Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, explains that “James’s quotation matches Amos 9:11–12 LXX with material in verse 18 from Isa. 45:21. Jeremiah 12:15 may be the source for the opening ‘After these things I will return,’ but this is less than clear, since the phrases may be only a transition into the citation that shows how James sees the timing.”
The reference to the prophets is important. James’s point is not just about this one passage from Amos; rather, this passage reflects what the prophets teach in general, or what the book of the Prophets as a whole teaches. Other texts could be noted (Zech. 2:11; 8:22; Isa. 2:2; 45:20–23; Hos. 3:4–5; Jer. 12:15–16). James is stressing fulfillment, for the prophets agree with what Peter has described. This is not an affirmation of analogous fulfillment but a declaration that this is now taking place. God had promised Gentile inclusion; now he is performing it. Paul cites a string of OT texts on this theme in Rom. 15:7–13.
The prophets predicted that the Gentiles would be added to God’s people. They would be added when the house of David was restored. The house of David was rebuilt in Jesus of Nazareth, the descendant of David and long-awaited Messiah. Bock notes that the
goal of this rebuilding work is to allow the rest of humanity, not just Jews, to seek God. This fulfills not only the promise to David about his line but also a commitment to Abraham that through his seed the world would experience blessing (Gen. 12:3; Acts 3:25–26; Gal. 3). Thus James argues that this Gentile inclusion is part of the plan of Davidic restoration that God through the prophets said he would do. The prophets affirm what is taking place now. So both divine events and Scripture sustain the church’s inclusion of Gentiles.
In James’ opinion, the Gentile converts need not be circumcised nor follow the law of Moses to be saved. He agrees with Peter that salvation is now by faith in Christ. But the problem remains that the Gentile converts, since they are new followers of Yahweh, are falling prey to the pagan religious institutions to which they once belonged. James believes that the church in Antioch should be sent a letter which states that Gentiles should “abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) explains:
The focus of the debate now shifts away from the question of what is essential for salvation to one of how to help Gentile believers break away from their idolatrous pre-Christian practices. Each of these four instructions relates to dangers associated with involvement in idolatry. James wants to make sure that these Gentiles make a clean break with their past when they embrace the living and true God. The instructions are, therefore, guidelines to assist their growth as believers, knowing full well that the Gentiles will continue to face significant cultural and spiritual pressures stemming from their past immersion in idolatry and ongoing association with family, friends, and coworkers still involved with it. These guidelines are a practical help in the spiritual and moral battle these Gentiles will face.
Arnold provides more details about each of the four proscribed sins. About the first item, “the Greek word alisgēma should not be limited to food, but should be understood as referring to any kind of contact with idolatrous practices.”
On sexual immorality, the
term porneia is used in Judaism to refer to any kind of sexual activity outside the bond of marriage. Porneia is roundly condemned throughout the New Testament. The sexual mores of the Greek and Roman world were much more lax than what was expected and practiced in Judaism and early Christianity. This was certainly one area where new Gentile believers needed admonishment. But illicit sexual activity also occurred in connection with the worship of other gods.
Arnold argues that the prohibition against strangled animals and blood also refer to pagan rituals. “Both Jews and the early Christians are convinced that demonic spirits were involved in idolatry. When writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote, ‘The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons’ (1 Cor. 10:20).”
Other commentators note that these four practices would be especially offensive to Jewish Christians and present a stumbling block to relations between them and Gentile Christians. In verse 21 James reminds the council that the Law of Moses has been read for generations in every synagogue on every Sabbath, so sensitivity is called for. James’ letter not only provides much-needed guidance to Gentile Christians about the dangers of pagan idolatry, but it also provides a way for Jewish and Gentile Christians to unite in Christian fellowship.
In the remainder of chapter 15, the letter is written and sent to the church in Antioch, where it is received with rejoicing.
Darrell Bock summarizes the lesson to be taken from this Jerusalem council:
On the one hand, salvation by grace is an issue of Christian truth that is not to be compromised. No particular work of the law was added as a requirement for salvation or membership in the new community. Salvation cannot be a matter of human works. It is about receiving God’s grace from start to finish. Faith means relying only on what God has provided in terms of forgiveness and the benefits of salvation that come with it. On the other hand, Christian fellowship means that grace should be shown for differences that are not central to the truth of salvation, as an expression of love. This deference preserves the church and protects it from fragmentation. In his discussion, Stott notes that Luther spoke of Paul as being hard, even adamant, on the gospel but soft and flexible when it comes to love—or, as Stott notes that John Newton said, an iron pillar in essentials and a reed in nonessentials.