Jerusalem Council   1 comment

This is part of a series. Check it out.

While Peter was having his ethnic food adventure in Joppa, there was a even stronger move toward contextualizing the gospel occurring in Antioch.

The church at Antioch in modern Syria was a cross-cultural church mostly populated with Hellenistic Jewish Christians who had been pushed out of Jerusalem by Jewish persecution. Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem church to check them out and call them to task if they were teaching a false gospel. He discovered they were true Christians, but felt they needed some deeper instruction, so he went and got Saul, the former Christian murdering Pharisee who had become a Christian about 14 years before, but had to retire to his home town of Tarsus because Christians didn’t trust him. Apparently the church at Antioch was more welcoming of this repentant man, so they allowed him and Barnabas to train them. Saul had, prior to his conversation to Christianity, sat under the legendary Jewish scholar Gamaliel. Barnabas may well become the writer of Hebrews, which is another discussion. In other words, they had the best possible training in Jewish theology, but their culture was not Jewish.

These were Hellenistic Jews and God-fearing Gentiles (like Cornelius). Hellenistic Jews like Saul/Paul and Barnabas were Jews by birth who had grown up outside of Judea. They tended to speak Greek as their primary language. Although they followed Jewish ritual law, they were more comofortable with interacting with Gentiles, which might lead to ritual uncleanness.

Paul and Barnabas were seeking diaspora of Jews to preach the gospel to. They were not actually seeking Gentiles, but when they were rejected at the synagogues, they ended up preaching to Gentiles. Whether by personal choice or by a command from the multicultural church that sent them, when Paul and Barnabas went to Asia Minor on the first ever mission trip, they were not seeking to advance Jewish culture, but the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gentiles they encountered accepted Jesus as Savior, not as cultural makeover guru.

This seemed all right when they were on the mission field and when they returned to Antioch, the church was excited, but almost immediately after returning home with some of their new converts, problems arose.

Now some men came down from Judea  and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate  with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they were relating at length the conversion of the Gentiles and bringing great joy to all the brothers. Acts 15:1-3

We know more about this event in the early church because of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Peter was there at the time. He’d been eating with the Gentiles, so it was likely after his vision of the sheet coming down from heaven. But the Judaizers (the name we now call these believing Pharisees) convinced Peter to withdraw from this practice. Paul had sharp words with him and he and Barnabas argued with the Judaizers.

It’s important to realize that these men were not sent from the church in Jerusalem, but had taken it upon themselves to correct the church in Antioch.

Theirs was not a universal view. As Paul and his group traveled to Jerusalem, they stopped at the churches along the way and there was great rejoicing among the believers concerning the conversion of the Gentiles. Titus was with them as an uncircumcised believer, but Paul had circumcised Timothy because his mother was a Jew. Presumably Timothy was okay with this.Brave guy – Timothy.

When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all the things God had done with themBut some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses. Acts 15-4-6

The thing I like to always remember is that there is nothing wrong with disagreements within a church and between congregations. It helps to clear the air and it allows us to think through out presuppositions.

The Pharisees were not necessarily bad people. They wanted to honor God to the fullest extend possible. Some of them had become believers — Nicodemus, for example, and probably Joseph of Aramithia were Pharisees before coming to Christ. Paul had also been a Pharisee, so didn’t follow immediately that Jewish Pharisees who became Christians would automatically insist that God only accepts Jews. Peter had already encountered these Judaizers in Chapter 14, upon his return from Tyre. The churches needed to deal with this and so they did. The Council of Jerusalem became the first great theological council of the Christian Church.

Both the apostles and the elders met together to deliberate about this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believeAnd God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faithSo now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.” Acts 15-7-11 

Peter had been considered the chief of the apostles when Jesus was alive, but you’ll notice he wasn’t considered to be the voice of God. His testimony was accepted and it was pivotal, but there was still more to be considered.

The whole group kept quiet and listened to Barnabas and Paul while they explained all the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. Acts 15-12-13

I always like that line — the whole group kept quiet –. They listened, instead of announcing their preconceived decision to the world. They didn’t have an answer right that moment. They needed to hear the evidence and they were silent so that they could hear God speak as well.

After they stopped speaking, James [Jesus’ brother, son of Joseph and Mary and by that time pastor of the church at Jerusalem] replied, Brothers, listen to me. Simeon [Peter] has explained how God first concerned himself to select from among the Gentiles a people for his nameThe words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written [from Amos 9],

After this I will return,

and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David;

I will rebuild its ruins and restore it,

15:17 so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord,

namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be my own,’ says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago. 

Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood. For Moses has had those who proclaim him in every town from ancient times, because he is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath.” Acts 15:14-21

James, as the pastor of the church at Jerusalem, had written a letter (perhaps the first letter of the New Testament) to Jewish Christians telling them how they should live, but here we see that he had a different view of Gentile Christianity. He remarks that the church at Antioch had been given the name “Christian” because they so exemplified Christianity. He noted that the prophets had foreseen the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s kingdom. He further noted that Moses was preached in every synagogue across the known world every Sabbath and so did not need a monument in the flesh of Gentile believers in Christ.

But notice that James does not make the decision. He only suggests a course of action.

Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to send men chosen from among them, Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, leaders among the brothers, to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Acts 15:22-23

The church, which included the apostles and elders, decided to send men with Paul and Barnabas to lend weight to the letter. It was a church-wide decision, not made by a pope or a pastor or even the apostles.

They sent this letter with them 

“From the apostles  and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile brothers and sisters in AntiochSyriaand Cilicia, greetings! Since we have heard that some have gone out from among us with no orders from us and have confused you, upsetting your minds by what they saidwe have unanimously decided to choose men to send to you along with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas who will tell you these things themselves in personFor it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us not to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rulesthat you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immoralityIf you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well. Farewell. Acts 15-24-29 

I plan to concentrate on the letter in a later posting because it relates to other passages from Paul’s letters. If you go back to Peter’s statement, you will see an early kernel of the topic in the Letter to the Romans, by the way.

So when they were dismissedthey went down to Antioch, and after gathering the entire group together, they delivered the letter. When they read it aloud, the people rejoiced at its encouragementBoth Judas and Silas, who were prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with a long speech. After they had spent some time there, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and proclaiming (along with many others) the word of the Lord. Acts 15:30-35

This contains some important elements to me. Notice that Silas and Judas did not just go on their own. They were sent by the church at Jerusalem. They gathered the whole group together. The letter wasn’t just for special ears and it wasn’t just for the Judaizers, but for the whole church at Antioch. Once their mission from the Jerusalem church had been fulfilled, however, Judas and Silas acted upon God’s guidance and preached. They then hung around and fellowshipped until the church at Antioch said they could leave. Paul and Barnabas, however, remained in Antioch where they were among many who were teaching and proclaiming the word of God.

The Jerusalem Council is a really good example of how churches ought make decisions, but it is also a really good example of diversity in the churches. We are not all the same and we are not meant to be. As long as our focus is on the Lord Jesus Christ and we are exemplifying Him and only Him, it is okay if we are not exactly the same as the church down the road or in another nation.

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  1. Pingback: Cultural Dance | aurorawatcherak

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