CONTROVERSY AT JERUSALEM: LAW OR GRACE?
An Examination of Acts 15:1-30


And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."

These words in Acts 15:1 introduce an issue which challenged the Christian church soon after its inception and would continue to be debated among the believers for years to come. But where did this controversy originate? Why was it such a crucial matter for the early church? How did the apostles deal with this challenge to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and what were the repercussions of their decision?  This essay is an attempt to answer these and other questions surrounding this intriguing central episode in the book of Acts. First, the background and cause of the circumcision question will be considered; secondly, the nature and implications of the question itself; thirdly, the process of debate and decision followed by the Jerusalem council; and finally, the ramifications of the apostles' edict for the early church as a whole.

The Cause
In order to trace this issue back to its roots, one must go back to the Old Testament and consider what it has to say about the relationship between Jew and Gentile. In the Garden of Eden and in the world of Noah's day, there was no separation between the two groups. The Law had not yet been revealed, and men were governed solely by conscience (Rom. 2:14-15). Certain admonitions and restrictions were given to Noah by God after the flood (Gen. 9:1-7), but these were few and general in nature. Not until God chose Abraham and his descendants to become his unique and special chosen people, Israel, and not until He raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage and to communicate to them His Law, did a clear distinction emerge between Jew and Gentile.

Once the distinction appeared, however, God made it clear that He wished the separation between His people and the pagan nations to be readily apparent at all times (Deut. 7:6). First, all Jews were to undergo circumcision as an indelible mark of their relationship to God (Gen. 17:10-13). Of course, Israel was not the only middle eastern nation to practice circumcision, but for the Jews the ritual had special significance. In addition to this distinguishing mark, God gave the Israelites a detailed and complex set of dietary, religious and social laws designed to remind them of their call to holiness and to prevent them from associating too closely with their Canaanite neighbors (Lev. 20:23-26).

Although Jewishness was largely a matter of ancestry -- descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- it was nevertheless possible for a non-Jew to become part of the nation. If, however, a Gentile wished to leave his pagan gods for the worship of Yahweh and enter in to God's covenant with Israel, he must first be circumcised (Ex. 12:48-49) and then accept the Mosaic Law as binding on himself. One could not claim to be a worshipper of Yahweh and yet refuse to revere and keep the Law. There was no other means of approach to God save through the Mosaic ritual and regulations.

For centuries -- even millennia -- this pattern persisted. Then the Lord Jesus Christ came, bringing with Him a new covenant in His blood (1 Cor. 11:25, Heb. 9:11-15). At first His exclusively Jewish disciples understood the message of the gospel as belonging to the nation of Israel alone, but the Holy Spirit soon directed otherwise, and the message spread through Philip to the half-Jewish Samaritans (Acts 8:5-8) and the non-Jewish proselytes to Judaism (Acts 8:26-36), through Peter to the uncircumcised "God-fearers" like the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1-2), and finally through Cypriot and Cyrenian disciples to the pagan and idolatrous Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21). With the advent of the apostle Paul's ministry, great numbers of Gentiles began coming to the Lord (Acts 13:48-49). The issue of how these non-Jewish believers were to be incorporated into the church body, therefore, became crucial.

The earliest converts to Christianity had been the Jerusalem Jews who heard Peter's stirring sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36). They had been "pierced to the heart" by his call for repentance, and some three thousand of them had been baptized on that first day alone (Acts 2:37, 41). It was only natural, therefore, that these Jewish believers would feel anxious about seeing so many Gentiles entering the fellowship without undergoing the traditional conversion process. After all, in the past no Gentile could be counted among God's people unless he was circumcised and submitted to the Law: why should it be any different now?

So it was that while Paul was ministering in the Gentile territories of Asia, he encountered a number of Jewish Christians who had traveled up from the Jerusalem area to make sure that the Gentiles understood their legal obligations.

The Controversy
Paul's Pharisaic background (Phil. 3:5) certainly gave him a ready understanding of the Judaizers' position, but on the basis of his knowledge of the gospel of grace, he strongly opposed their teaching. Years later he would explain to the Galatians: 

A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus... by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified... if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly. (Gal. 2:16,21)

Paul and Barnabas fought the Judaizers in Antioch for some time before it became clear that the debate must be resolved by official means (Acts 15:2). At last the church at Antioch decided to send a delegation, led by Paul and Barnabas, to Jerusalem to consult the apostles and elders there. Whatever was decided at the council would determine the practice of the Gentile believers throughout the Roman Empire and throughout subsequent history.

Arriving at Jerusalem, Paul and his company were welcomed by the apostles and gave a full report of their ministry among the Gentiles (vs. 4). However, when the specific reason for Paul's visit was discussed, some of the believers of Pharisaic background immediately declared their support for the Judaizers. Not only must the Gentile believers be circumcised, they said, but they must be made to observe the Law as proselytes to Judaism had done in the past. Otherwise they were not truly saved (vs. 1,5).

Was this really such an important issue? Couldn't the Judaizers have been allowed to prevail to keep the peace, or, as a compromise, couldn't the issue have been left up to individual conscience? The apostles and elders quickly saw the foolishness of any such superficial means of dealing with the situation. No, it must be discussed and debated thoroughly, and a firm decision made, even though large numbers of Jewish believers and potential believers might be alienated if the ruling were not in the Judaizers' favor. The issue was crucial because it struck at the very center of the Christian faith -- the belief that the Lord Jesus Christ had provided the ultimate and perfect sacrifice for sin, and that no further works of men could add to or complete the salvation and justification of those who trusted in Him. If it were deemed necessary for a Gentile believer to accept circumcision and follow the Law, then this would show that Christ had not done all that was necessary to atone for sin and make men right before a holy God, and would ultimately lead to an understanding that faith in Him was superfluous, since nothing He had done or said on earth had changed the means by which men approached God.

The debate among the apostles and elders went on at length, possibly for several days. No doubt many scriptures were consulted, many arguments raised. Luke does not record all the deliberations and all the evidence, but he does supply for us the closing remarks which decided the issue. First Peter rose up to speak, followed by Barnabas and Paul, and the final pronouncement was made by James "the Just", the half-brother of Christ who had become prominent in the Jerusalem church.

The Conclusion
Peter's attempt to persuade his brethren was based on his personal experience of how God had worked in the hearts and lives of the Gentiles who had believed through his ministry. He described how God had not only directed him to share the gospel with pagan people, but had showed His approval by bestowing the Holy Spirit on those who had believed (vs. 8). By giving the Spirit He had clearly shown that in His sight the Gentile believers were no different from and no less privileged than the Jewish believers. This being the case, what grounds were there for saying that the uncircumcised Gentiles were inferior in God's sight and needed to do more to complete their salvation? Had God Himself made a mistake in giving the Spirit prematurely to people who were not truly saved? Surely not, said Peter. Why, therefore, were the Judaizers attempting to be more strict than God Himself in this matter? The burden of keeping the Law was heavy, and no man had ever been able to fulfill it completely (vs. 10). Therefore the Law could never be the means by which salvation came. Salvation was through the Lord Jesus Christ as a free gift, and this was just as true of the Gentiles as it was of the Jews (vs. 11).

Paul and Barnabas's subsequent address to the council is not recorded, though it is summarized by Luke in verse 12 of the chapter. Their approach was similar to Peter's, in that they argued their case by relating their personal experience of God's mighty work among the Gentiles. Perhaps they related the incident at Lystra where God used Paul to heal a lame Gentile who had believed (Acts 14: 8-10) or told how God had set his stamp of approval on Paul's witness to the Gentiles by reviving him after he was stoned by a mob in the same city (14: 19-20). In the face of the mounting evidence the crowd was silent, considering carefully the things they were hearing. But the final word must belong to James.

James was known and respected, even among unbelieving Jews, as a pious and Law-abiding man. His testimony in the world was impeccable and his authority highly regarded in the church.  Because his love for the Old Testament was so well known, it was likely that the Judaizers believed he would be on their side. They were in for a surprise. James opened his argument with a quotation from the Old Testament, but the verses he gave came not from the Law but from the Prophets. Using a prophecy recorded by Amos, James described how in the past God had revealed that the Gentiles would come in to God's kingdom and be called by His name. God would surely support and strengthen Israel (vs. 16), but not for her own sake: rather, she would be used to draw the rest of the nations to Himself (vs. 17).

In light of this prophecy, James explained, it would be wrong to hinder the Gentiles from receiving the gospel by putting extra requirements upon them. The Gentile nations as a whole had never been given the Law; the Law had been given to Israel. In the past Gentiles who wished to follow God had joined the Israelite nation, but this was no longer the case: now they were joining themselves to a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ. In the past few Gentiles had believed; now great numbers were coming to faith. It was clear that something significant had changed in God's dealings with mankind, and this could not be ignored. No, the Gentiles were not to be burdened with the observance of the Law. Rather they were to be encouraged and supported in their newfound faith in Christ, the One who is the ultimate goal and fulfillment of the Law (Rom. 10:4, Gal. 3:24-25).

Nevertheless, the issue of how to facilitate closer relations between Jewish and Gentile believers could not be ignored. There was no reason that Gentiles should give needless offense to the Jews by continuing in strongly pagan practices, and it was also necessary that Gentile believers should maintain some standard of godly conduct which might make them a testimony to their neighbors both Jewish and Gentile. Perhaps James also had in mind the basic commandments given to Noah prior to the Law, which Jews today still consider to be binding upon Gentiles. He ruled that although the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised nor to accept the Mosaic Law, they ought to follow a few basic principles of morality. Firstly, they should stay away from food which had been ritually offered to idols. Later, in his first epistle to the believers at Corinth, Paul would show his approval of this teaching, pointing out that although such food was not evil in itself, and it was possible for a believer to eat it with a clear conscience, nevertheless Christians ought to refrain from such things if they caused others to stumble (1 Cor. 8:1-13, 10:19-20). James's second ruling was that the Gentiles should stay away from sexual immorality, which was an extremely common practice among the pagans who regarded sexual activity with cult prostitutes as a form of worship. Paul also reiterated this teaching to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:15-20). The third ruling was not repeated by Paul in his epistles and may have been a temporary measure to avoid stirring up needless offense and controversy among the strong Jewish contingent: the Gentiles were to abstain from the meat of strangled animals and from the eating of blood.

None of these commandments were unreasonable or unduly burdensome, and they served to give some moral direction to the Gentiles and to remind them to be considerate of their Jewish brethren, while at the same time rebuffing the Judaizers. The whole council, including Paul and Barnabas, seems to have agreed willingly with James. A letter was drafted to send to the Gentile churches in Syria and in Asia Minor to notify them of the council's official decision. This letter served four purposes: one, it made clear that the Judaizers who had come from Jerusalem were not officially sent by the apostles and did not have their approval (vs. 24); two, it showed unconditional approval for Barnabas and Paul in their ministry among the Gentiles (vs. 25-26); three, it commended Judas and Silas to the work among the Gentiles (vs. 27); and four, it laid out in writing the simple requirements the Gentiles were to follow, so that no legalist might misrepresent or add to them (vs. 28-29).

The Consequences
When the meeting at Jerusalem concluded, Barnabas, Paul and their new companions Judas and Silas promptly carried the apostolic letter to the church at Antioch, where it was received with great rejoicing (vs. 30:31). Although the issue of whether or not circumcision and Law-keeping were necessary to salvation remained a hotly debated one in the Christian community for some time afterward, and Paul was soon forced to write a lengthy epistle to the church at Galatia to counteract the grievously effective work of the Judaizers among them, there could no longer be a doubt as to the opinion of the leading apostles and elders on this question. The official statement had been made: Gentiles were justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone, and neither circumcision nor observance of the Mosaic Law was necessary to complete their justification. Jewish believers, too, could see in this ruling a new freedom: knowing that the Law was not necessary to salvation, they could enjoy the positive aspects of their Jewish heritage while not being burdened by it. Now all who were willing to listen to the teaching of the apostles could rest secure in the atoning work of Christ on their behalf.

Nevertheless, the question of what place the Law plays in the lives of Gentile believers is apt to arise even today.  The testimony and ministry of many a church has been shipwrecked as its leaders fell prey to legalism and human pride which would justify itself by the works of the Law. Instead of depending wholly on Christ and glorifying Him as the Author of salvation, too many professing Christians have sought refuge in codes of behavior which give an outward appearance of piety but which have no value in restraining fleshly indulgence (Col. 2:21-23). If, however, believers consider carefully the deliberations and determinations of the Jerusalem council at the beginning of the Christian church, they will avoid legalistic extremes while still recognizing their individual responsibility to be sensitive to the weaknesses and concerns of their brethren.

Rebecca J. Anderson 1993


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Gaebelein, Arno C. The Acts of the Apostles. New York: Loiseaux Bros., Inc., 1961.

Kistemaker, Simon J. New Testament Commentary: Acts. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990.

Marshall, I. Howard. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Acts. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983.


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