The Jerusalem Council
The Jerusalem Council was the first General Conference of the Christian Church. It was called on, by a delegation from the church in Antioch, to settle a theological debate over salvation (Acts 15:1-5). Paul and Barnabas had been preaching the great doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone for salvation to Gentiles, as well as to Hellenistic Jews, especially during their first missionary journey into the nation of Galatia as well as in the city of Antioch. However, there were “Pharisees who believed”, or claimed to believe, who fiercely opposed the gospel. And later on, after the Council decided in favor of the gospel, these Pharisees continued to actively put it down.
Before the time of the Council, Peter had his thinking rearranged regarding Gentiles and salvation when he shared the gospel with Cornelius, a Roman military officer. This led to Peter’s statement in the Jerusalem Council (you can read this in Acts 15:7-11). He spoke and came to the defense of Paul and Barnabas regarding the gospel in that meeting in Jerusalem. The memory text for this week is taken from Peter’s testimony.
Paul and Barnabas were accused of tearing down the law by the “Pharisees who believed.” They claimed that law keeping (in this case, the ceremonial law) was essential to salvation (Acts 15:1). After much debating during the Council, Peter said “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ WE [Jews] shall be saved in the same manner as THEY [the Gentiles]” (Acts 15:11). He did not say Gentiles shall be saved in the same manner as the Jews, but rather the Jews were to be saved in the same manner as the Gentiles. More on this later. First some background.
Antioch was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. The city was an important intersecting point for a number of roads. It is about 300 miles north of Jerusalem. If travelers averaged 20 miles a day it would take about fifteen days of walking from Jerusalem. If donkeys, the preferred “beasts of burden,” were employed, it would take seven to ten days of travel from Jerusalem to Antioch.
In Antioch a new center for the gospel was established. Jerusalem was the original headquarters for “Christians.” But after it was destroyed, Antioch became the Church’s new headquarters and remained as such for some time. It was in Antioch that believers in Christ were first called “Christian” (Acts 11:26). The Christian Church was not in a church building, but in congregations that met in homes and outside in the open air. Congregations were established when people accepted the gospel. It was one to two hundred years later when Christians settled into church buildings.
The church in Antioch was an exceptional missionary church. It was from here missionaries were sent westward, northward and eastward. Benjamin Wilkinson in his book Truth Triumphant wrote about the spread of the gospel from the Syrian Church of Antioch. He wrote about the Waldensians in Europe, of Paul and Barnabas in Asia Minor and Europe, and of Thomas who was sent to India from Antioch. Chapter 19 of his book is full of sources regarding Thomas in India. Wilkinson wrote, “Libraries are full of literature telling of his founding churches in India.” Truth Triumphant p. 293. He presents a valuable history of the early church onward into the dark ages.
Returning to the problems in Antioch and Galatia over the gospel—Christian Jewish believers who continued their ceremonial practices, such as circumcision, were shocked to see Gentiles coming into Christianity through justification by faith in Christ alone. To the Jews these converts must first become proselytes to Judaism; then they were to enter into the new faith of Christianity. They depended on circumcision as a major practice in order to become a Jewish convert and also to be saved. Let’s consider the biblical evidence by which these people were motivated.
Circumcision was commanded to be performed on males as the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham (Genesis 17:10). It was first given because of Abraham’s unbelief. He lost faith in the promise of God and depended on his flesh to fulfill God’s promise of a son. But this did not produce the promised offspring. His union with Hagar was the production of an old covenant experience which depended on the activity of the flesh.
However, God turned circumcision into a sign of the new covenant experience. It became a sign of righteousness by faith with total dependence on God. Abraham, of course, was accounted righteous before he was circumcised. Thus, his circumcision became the sign of righteousness by faith which he received before the operation was performed on him (Romans 4:9-11). From the beginning circumcision of the flesh was an illustration of God’s work in the heart producing love to God (Deuteronomy 30:6, 8) and to man which is authentic commandment keeping.
The Jews missed the spiritual lesson of circumcision and provided “proof-texting” as evidence for their ritual performance of the ceremony. Consider the method used in their attempt to force Gentiles into this ceremonial custom. When God gave the command to Abraham He said, “The uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people” (Genesis 17:14). This was a death penalty—to be cut off from life and thus from his people. This argument was augmented in the experience of Moses when he headed back to Egypt to deliver his people from Egyptian bondage.
On his way to Egypt, with his family, Moses was struck down by a sickness that was death threatening. It is written that “Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on a donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt…. And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him” (Exodus 4:20, 24).
Immediately Zipporah, his wife, circumcised their uncircumcised son. She “took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet (made it touch his feet, margin), and said, ‘Surely you are a husband of blood to me!’ So, He let him go” (Exodus 4: 25-26).
Evidently the first son had been previously circumcised, but this tenderhearted mother set her mind against surgery on their second son—that is until Moses was about to die on the way to Egypt. Zipporah knew exactly what the problem was and she performed the operation on their son and Moses was restored to health.
So here are two compelling and persuasive Scripture passages (Genesis 17:14 and Exodus 4:24-26) doubtless used by the “Pharisees who believed” as proof that Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be saved. To those Jews, faith in Christ alone was not enough. To them it was faith in Christ plus works of the law which brings salvation.
Consider what they missed, but what Paul knew: When Christ was “cut off” or crucified, He fulfilled the ceremonial type of circumcision. Paul wrote of this to the Colossians: “you are complete in Him…in Him, you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:10–11).
From Daniel we further learn of the direct connection between Christ’s crucifixion and circumcision. Christ, the Messiah was to be “cut off, but not for Himself” (suffer the death penalty, margin, Daniel 9:26). The term “cut off” is the identical word used in Genesis 17:4 and Exodus 4:25 regarding the death penalty because of the rejection of the word of God. Christ was “cut off, but not for Himself.” He was “cut off” for us. He was “cut off” from life because of our uncircumcised hearts.
This point was completely missed by the “Pharisees who believed” insisting on an old covenant circumcision of the flesh and refusing to believe in Christ crucified as the antitype of circumcision. Consequently, they resisted and fought against the “good news” of salvation by forcing their false gospel upon the Gentiles. Because of their activity of determined opposition to the gospel in that great missionary church of Antioch, the church sent representatives, including Paul and Barnabas, to Jerusalem for a decision on this theological debate.
The debate was decided in favor of the gospel as taught by Paul and Barnabas. A letter was sent from the Jerusalem Council that caused much rejoining in the church in Antioch. The letter is recorded in Acts 15:22–29. It reads:
22“Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. 23They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. 24Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment—25it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
Let’s return to Peter’s statement: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ WE [Jews] shall be saved in the same manner as THEY [the Gentiles]” (Acts 15:11). A.T. Jones wrote the following:
Peter himself had made in his statement of the truth of the gospel in his own experience, in the council at Jerusalem…. “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, EVEN as THEY.” Note again: not they shall be saved even as WE; but WE shall be saved, even as THEY. And “THEY” were justified by FAITH without the deeds of any law—they must be; for they did not have any; and “WE” the Jews, being saved even as THEY, must be justified by faith without the deeds of any law, even though “WE” had all the laws that ever were” (A. T. Jones RH, October 3, 1899).
In closing, the gospel of salvation was triumphant in the days of the early church. Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” ( Mark 16:15). This happened by missionaries sent out from the church in Antioch (Colossians 1:23). And it will be repeated by the Remnant before the return of Christ “the Lord Our Righteousness” (Revelation 14:6).
~ Jerry Finnemanfinn