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THE DECISION OF JERUSALEM COUNCIL

Acts 15:1-15:35
Key Verse: 15:11

We could see that through Paul’s first missionary journey along with Barnabas God worked powerful among the Gentiles in Cyprus, Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. A great number of Gentiles believed in Jesus who died for man’s sins and rose again from the dead. They were so delighted to receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life and the hope of the kingdom of God. These amazing blessings came to them only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, nothing else. They happily identified themselves as disciples of Jesus and Christian community members. All this happened because God opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. It was a very significant moment in the history of God. Then some men came to undermine the gospel work in Antioch. It was a very serious matter when the Gentile churches began to grow vigorously in God’s blessing. The council of Jerusalem was held and an important decision was made regarding salvation and Christian life. It was also for further advancement of the gospel until it would reach the end of the earth. Let’s think about the council of Jerusalem.

First, “unless you are circumcised” (1). Look at verse 1. “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’” These some men were from the church of Jerusalem and they came without the authorization of the church (15:24). They made a strong statement in saying this. We remember how the church at Antioch was pioneered and grew. Unknown scattered Jewish believers came to the city and told the good news of Jesus to the Greeks. The Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. The church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas, who encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord. Then through Barnabas and Paul’s devoted Bible teaching disciples were raised and they were called Christians first at Antioch because of their love and zeal for Christ Jesus. The church at Antioch even became a missionary-sending church. As they were called Christians, their faith in Jesus was genuine and wholehearted. Nonetheless to say, they were saved because of their true faith in Jesus.

Then why did the some men teach the brothers in Antioch: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot saved”? Were they really concerned about the salvation of the believers in Antioch? It is questionable. It was likely that to them the Gentiles too easily believed and were saved, while they themselves made much human effort in believing. The Gentiles’ belief and salvation seemed too lightweight to be assured. They thought the Gentiles believers should be like them, the Jewish believers, to be saved, basically undergoing circumcision according to Moses’ teaching. Yet, the underlying reason of their saying was that they themselves were not clear about the sure way of salvation.

To the Jews circumcision was substantial. It began with Abraham, the ancestor of the Jews. As the sign of God’s people the LORD commanded Abraham to circumcise all the people around him including himself so that the sign of God’s chosen people, the people with God’s covenant, would be in their flesh. Those who were not circumcised would be severed from being God’s people. It was a painful operation done on the part of the body. As for Abraham, the circumcision meant to cut off his human desire to be just a noble father of one son Ishmael, the son of flesh, and accept God’s desire for him to be a father of many nations. Since then all the males in the Jewish households were circumcised. It was their visible identity as God’s people. In the book of Joshua when the new generations of the Israelites did not have time to be circumcised in desert, God commanded Joshua to circumcise them even right before the battle against the Canaanite countries. God wanted them to prepare themselves by obeying God’s command and consecrating themselves as God’s people. All the new gens were circumcised and God gave them one victory after another. That much circumcision was important to them. We remember David who as a mere boy fought against Goliath the Philistine champion and defeated him, saying, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” David really had a healthy pride as a circumcised people differentiating himself from the uncircumcised (1 Sa 17:26). However, as time passed by, circumcision lost its meaning. The circumcision became formal and ritual. The prophets told the people to circumcise their hearts (Dt 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4). Actually Moses taught the circumcision of the heart. Jesus was circumcised after eight days of his birth. Jesus worked only in the country of the Jews and circumcision was not an issue. Yet, Jesus never put circumcision as a condition for salvation. In Acts, the apostles, Peter and John, preached to the Jews and circumcision was not a matter also. But, they also never said of circumcision as a requirement for salvation. Paul was an apostle for the Gentiles and had so many conflicts with the matter of circumcision. He said in Romans that circumcision should not be merely outward and physical, but of the heart, by the Spirit” (2:28,29). He also said in Galatians, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation” (6:15) And he said in Colossians that in Christ circumcision was putting off the sinful nature being buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him (3:11,12)

Christianity is never to be outward and ritualistic, but of the heart. Outward ceremonies and physical conditions would never bring salvation but inner faith in Christ Jesus. We should watch our for legalistic ceremonies and formal practices and performances without meaning.

Second, through by the grace of our Lord Jesus (2-18). So when they said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved”, this brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. 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.

Then what happened next? Look at verse 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 obey the law of Moses.” These were the same group of people with the some men who came to Antioch. Now their claim was stronger. Circumcision and obedience to the law of Moses became “must.” The law of Moses is basically Ten Commandments. But broadly speaking, the law of Moses is written in the five books of Moses, called Pentateuch, having so many meticulous rules and regulations with detailed and specific sacrificial systems. No Jew would be able to obey the law of Moses perfectly before God. According to God’s standard, breaking just one law is breaking the whole law (James 2:10). So when they said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses”, it showed their superficial understanding of obeying the law of Moses. It seemed that in their shallow understanding of the law of Moses and bigoted Jews’ mentality they tried to make the Gentile Christians into Judaists, so making Christianity incomplete and even ineffective.

In this situation the apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion Peter got up and addressed them. Obviously his address is noteworthy. Firstly, God let the Gentiles to hear the message of the gospel and gave them the Holy Spirit as they believed the message. This was just as God did to the Jews. This work of God was an undeniable evidence that God accepted the Gentiles. God purified the hearts of the Gentiles when they put their faith in the message they heard. In this God also made no distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles. They received the Holy Spirit and were purified in heart by faith, and accepted by God. All was done for their salvation. So demanding them to keep the law of Moses was wrong. It was like putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither they themselves nor their father had been able to bear. It was trying to test God, which is a dreadful thing. Then Peter concluded, “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Here we see Peter’s clear point: “Just as he did to us” “no distinction between us and them,” and “just as they are.” In letting the people hear the message of the gospel, giving the Holy Spirit, purifying the heart, and saving, God treated the Jews and the Gentiles in the same way with no distinction. No human difference was there. No human qualification was involved. The conclusion is that the Jews are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus and also the Gentiles are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. No circumcision is needed. No keeping the law of Moses is required. Salvation is only through the grace of Jesus who died for our sins and rose again from the dead. This has been a consistent message in Acts. Peter said in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” He also said in Cornelius house, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43). Paul said in Pisidian Antioch, “Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses” (13:39). And in the Jerusalem council Peter addressed, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” The grace of our Lord Jesus can be all about Christianity. The grace of Jesus is that he gave himself as a ransom sacrifice so that we might be redeemed. The grace of Jesus saved us from our sins and eternal punishment into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The grace of Jesus made us the children of God. The grace of Jesus is God’s love that came to undeserving sinners.

Look at verse 12. “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders Go had done among the Gentiles through them.” When they finished, James spoke up: ‘Brothers, listen to me. Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself.” This is James’ view of Peter’s message. God took from the Gentiles a people for himself, who believed the message of the gospel and so would be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. As for Peter, he spoke out of his experience, how God led Cornelius and his household to hear message of the gospel through Peter and receive the Holy Spirit and be baptized and saved. Barnabas and Paul also told how God worked among the Gentiles through them. Then all their experiences had to be understood in the light of the Scriptures and so confirmed. In this sense James played an important role. Look at verses 14,15. “Simon has described us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’ that have been know for ages.” In the history of Israel David’s kingdom was the glorious one where righteousness and peace ruled through the king David, and all the people of the kingdom were happy. But David’s kingdom fell, being divided into two in Solomon’s time and then destroyed by Babylonians and the people exiled. Although the nation was restored with the people returning from the exile, the glorious kingdom of David was not. David’s fallen tent would be restored through Christ Jesus not only for Jews but also for all the Gentiles. This was God’s promise all along given to the Israelites, and fulfilled through Jesus’ death and resurrection and through the preaching of the message of the gospel to the Gentiles. In this way James understood Simon Peter’s experience and that of Paul and Barnabas in the picture of world salvation according to the words of the prophets.

In this part we learn that sinners are saved only through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, nothing else. God’s salvation work included the Gentiles and all nations from the beginning and had been spoken through the prophets. It is in the work of David’s fallen tent being restored, which is the kingdom of Christ. Circumcision and keeping the law of Moses should not block the way of God’s salvation and work for the whole world. Throughout history people try to add something to the work of Christ, his death and resurrection, which are sufficient for mans’ salvation. They, out of pride, have tried to put human effort on what Christ has done. It is actually to not accept their total sinfulness before the holy God, and to not accept Christ’s accomplishment fully. Even in our times, people try to make humans and human knowledge and technology and human achievement and religious performances big and so make the grace of Jesus ineffective and obsolete. It is to test and challenge God. And it is so easy to be human centred and self-righteous. In this atmosphere may we keep the grace of our Lord by coming up to him as a forgiven at each time and humbling ourselves before him, and grow deeper into it and proclaim it until our Lord Jesus comes again.

Third, things to abstain from (19-35). Look at verses 19-20. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 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.” People may wonder why this abstinence is needed. The reason is written in verse 21. “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” James was not only mindful for the Gentiles, but also the Jews. Eating the food polluted to the idols would not be a problem to the Gentiles believers. But it would be breaking the law of Moses and thus a big matter to the Jewish believers. When we read the law of Moses in the Old Testament, God strongly forbade eating food sacrificed to idols and the meat of strangled animals and blood, which were prevalent among the Gentiles. God did not want his people to follow such pagan customs which were detestable to God. The Gentiles did not have right concept of sexual relations. They practiced it even among the family lines and even further with animals. God really set the strict and detailed instructions about sexual relations in even one whole chapter, Leviticus 18. He clearly said, “Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs…do not defile yourselves” (Lev 18:30). Then why not abstain it for the sake of the Jewish believers? Especially, Bible deals with sexual immorality very seriously among the believers. As for those who are cleansed by the blood of Jesus, there should be no hint of it and the Christian community be kept pure and holy in the grace of Jesus.

As the Jews should not burden the Gentile believers by demanding them to keep the Moses’ law, so the Gentile believers should not do the act that would make the Jews’ conscience bothered and troubled. The Jews and the Gentiles should be mindful of each other in Christ, acting in love, not destroying the other part’s faith (Ro 14:13,15,16,20). We may say, then, that the Jerusalem Council secured a double victory—a victory of truth in confirming the gospel of grace, and a victory of love in preserving the fellowship by sensitive concessions to conscientious Jewish scruples. So, ‘as concerning faith we ought to be invincible, but as touching charity, we ought to be soft, and flexible.

In the rest part, in verses 22-35, the Jerusalem council decided to choose Judas and Silas, two leaders among the brothers and with them sent the letter, which contained their full agreement and choosing the two men to send and the abstinence. The letter showed the Gentile believers the respect of the apostles and elders of Jerusalem for them. The believers in Antioch were greatly encouraged by the letter and by the words of Judas and Silas. Judas and Silas were sent off to Jerusalem. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord. They went back to the Bible, which is the essence of their belief.

The long description of the Jerusalem council’s decision and the letter and sending the two men showed the factuality of the Jerusalem council and their contribution for the Gentile believers. The council of Jerusalem showed a good example for the generations to come in the Christian history.

Thank and praise God for the grace of Jesus through which we are saved and all those who put their faith in him. May our faith in the gospel of grace be absolute and may we also be mindful for other Christians and their faith. May the gospel of grace be advanced and Christ’s kingdom be expanded.

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