Following the 1st missionary journey, Antioch became the scene of an important dispute. Certain men from Judea taught that Gentile converts must be circumcised and follow other rules for converts to Judaism before becoming Christians (Acts 15:1-2); this theological disagreement led to a church council at Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas were sent here to report how God had given them success in bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. The council decided that Gentile converts did not have to be circumcised.
It was in Antioch that Paul, the Apostle to the uncircumcised (Gentiles), withstood Peter, the Apostle to the circumcision (Jews), concerning his prejudice (Gal.2:11-14).
To understand the disagreements that led to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), we begin with this excerpt by Charles Williamson. This example shows in a small way how these early Christian leaders must have wrestled with deep personal concerns related to these conflicts, and the consequences their conclusions may bring. It helps us to identify with the difficulties we all face when dealing with moral and religious convictions, especially when desiring to be a witness or ministering to others.
“My father was a Presbyterian minister who grew up in a time when the ‘rules’ for Christian living were stricter than they are now. In my father’s rigid upbringing, movies and other such frivolous entertainment were regarded as morally questionable, so he never went to movies. After graduating from seminary, he accepted a call to a struggling new congregation. To help the church grow, he made a concerted effort to reach out to young people and draw them into the church. One Saturday he organized a youth gathering. It was well attended and a good start to what he hoped would grow. When the program ended, some of the young people decided to go to a movie, and they invited my father to go along. What was he to do? Should he refuse to go, citing his principles? Or should he go along in order to help build a relationship with the youth? It was for him a genuine moral dilemma.
The decision my father faced was a micro-version of a crucial issue that was before the early church. It was an issue that would have far reaching consequences for Christians, and the decision did not come easily.” These types of decisions usually provoke disagreements because of our need to separate Biblical convictions from our preferences or opinions. On 1 side is religious legalism (wrong standards), on the other side is liscense/lust (no standards), and in the middle stands Jesus Christ, HIS Cross and Spirit, and the truth of HIS Word (the true standard)!!!
I. The Background: What’s going on here?
It’s important to remember that the first disciples were so deeply entrenched in the belief that salvation was only for the circumcised (Jews) that it took angelic visitations, great persecutions and graphic visions of unclean animals before Peter and many others would even take the Gospel to God-fearing Gentiles like Cornelius.
Since every one of the followers of Jesus (and Jesus himself) traced their religious roots back to the Old Testament (to King David, Moses and Abraham), it was natural that they would be drawn toward those who shared this heritage. When Paul would enter a town to tell them of Jesus, he would first go to the familiar surroundings of the synagogue. Many of the first Christians came directly from the Jewish tradition, and they continued to observe the Old Testament laws that governed the kind of foods to eat and many other aspects of daily living. The customs of Judaism were very dear to these Jewish Christians.
However, at the same time, there were also people who had not been raised in the traditions of Judaism who were being drawn to the gospel message that the disciples were preaching. These Gentile converts to Christianity were evidence that the disciples were taking seriously Jesus’ call to be witness “to Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 8 tells us that Philip, Peter and John (v.25) all proclaimed the good news in the towns and villages of Samaria. The doors of the church were cracking open a little wider to these people who had not been welcome before. The Christian church was changing as people from different traditions and cultures were finding their way into the church, and it was inevitable that the different cultures would clash.
II. The Arguments & Issues:
The issue at the Council of Jerusalem was circumcision. This was a vital question in the apostolic age because it involved larger questions about keeping the laws of Moses, and the relation of Christianity to Judaism. Men from Judea came to Antioch and taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation. Paul realized that the essence of the Gospel was at stake and had “great dissension and debate with them.”
These “men” were Judaizers; which meant they were Christians in name, but narrow minded leaders who were zealots for Old Testament law. For them, circumcision of the flesh and dietary restrictions were more important than circumcision of the heart (Rom.2:29, Gal.5:6, 6:15, Col.2:11, 3:11). They were more concerned with outward legalistic observances than a changed life, faith confession or relationship with Jesus.
It seems they hated or feared Paul as a rebel against their traditions, and allowed envy and jealousy to mix with their religious pride and prejudice. They were concerned with the progress of the Gospel among the “unclean” Gentiles and thought the new converts threatened the purity of their church. Today we would call people like that “very religious or legalistic.”
Q-“What is legalism?”
“Legalism is emphasizing things that God doesn’t emphasize…and being religious is embracing an unhealthy affinity for specific forms and styles, and taking offense at things that do not offend God.” –Pastor Tom Tanner
Webster’s defines legalism as “a strict adherence to law; in theology, the doctrine of salvation by works.” Legalistic people are bound to various rules and regulations by a man-made view of holiness (Col.2:21-23), and pursue a doctrine of salvation or sanctification by their own good works rather than by grace, faith or abiding devotion in Christ (Jn.15). Legalism is marked by religious, misdirected zeal without knowledge (Rom.10:2). Legalists lack love and wisdom; and like Pharisees, tend to accuse, condemn or judge those around them. Being judgmental means they’re always making comparisons, and legalism drives them to performance-orientation. These unrealistic expectations of others create an ungodly rating system by which many measure and grade each other (2Cor.10:12). Legalists actually believe that their efforts will earn them favor, and that keeping their rules will make them acceptable and pleasing to God.
Legalism, using the ‘letter of the law, kills’…it brings death to emotions, hopes, dreams, relationships and joy. It destroys passion and vision, especially among youth and new believers. The man-made ‘lists of do’s and don’ts’ and useless attempts of our flesh to keep these rules of strict conformity for acceptance, merit or identity only bring condemnation, frustration, guilt and shame.
Legalism also works in the home and office as well as in religion. In disputes when someone insists on having the last word, or when controlling/demanding to have everything done their way (many opinions are idols). Legalism may operate whenever one person suppresses another with certain spurious demands.
This is all related to choosing between the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or the tree of life (which is Christ). As God’s children we are not primarily called to be a moral people, but a Christ-like people. The Christian journey is not about right and wrong or good and evil, but is about life or death. Ethics and morals do matter, but are not of 1st importance, nor are they to be embraced/enforced arbitrarily or in unbiblical/un-Christ-like ways. Being a Christian is not about trying to live for Jesus or become a better person (no one can do that); it’s about knowing and trusting God, to have Jesus Christ living in and through you. As C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good (earned, merited or deserve it), but that God will make us good (a fruit of His Spirit) because HE loves us.”
The real issue being debated was the nature of the Gospel; and specifically, the requirements for salvation. The Gospel of God’s grace teaches that Christ finished the work necessary for salvation on the Cross. All a sinner needs to do is believe and receive Him by faith. If other conditions and requirements are added, then it is no longer a gift but a debt…and salvation is the gift of God that cannot be earned.
III. The Council’s Answers:
The history-making Council of Jerusalem (around 50 A.D.) was an event that Luke clearly gives much attention to, and consequently attaches great importance to. The disturbance of these Judaizers brought the Christian Church (20 years after Pentecost) perilously close to a split which would have seriously hindered its progress and damaged its influence. To avoid this potential disaster, and to settle this escalating-unrestrained conflict, the Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch decided to hold a conference on the subject. “Rather than do what churches often do on such occasions—flee from the fight, submerge our differences, or else storm off in a huff—these Christian leaders demonstrate that the gospel has given them the resources to confront controversy without being destroyed by it” –William Willimon.
In Acts 15:19-20, 28-29, we find the Council’s conclusions. The new Gentile believers were “to abstain from:”
- “Pollutions of idols”-the word pollutions means any kind of defilement; and here it’s apparently used in reference to the flesh of animals that were offered in sacrifice to idols. That flesh was often sold later in the market or served at feasts (1Cor.10:25-29). It may not have been morally wrong to eat (1Cor.8:4-13), but it would be offensive to some; so because of sensitivity and for expediency (1Cor.9:19-22), it was advised that they should abstain from it.
- “Fornication”-all kinds of sexual sin; which would mean abstaining from lust-driven lives, pornography, sex outside of marriage, and the perverse practices that were acceptable to Gentiles, even in their worship (1Cor.6:12-20, 1Thes.4:3-7). This matters because of the sacredness and spiritual nature of sex, as well as the serious, immediate or potentially lasting consequences of this type of sin.
- “Things strangled and blood”-This means the eating of blood (Lev.17:11-14) that was forbidden by Jewish law, and was often a part of pagan worship. These prohibitions go back to the covenant with Noah (Gen.9:4) and pre-dates the Law of Moses. This unique command whether for health, respect for life or some other reason was given to humanity and still matters today.
At first, it may appear that this advice is putting people back under legalism. However, this was not pertaining to salvation because that subject had already been settled (15:7-11). This advice had to do with fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers.
In conclusion, the decisions of the Council were sent in a letter and carried by Paul, Barnabas and others as representatives back to Antioch. The final verdict was: The Apostles released the Gentiles from the obligation of circumcision, but urged them to abstain from practices offensive to Jews, or that would hinder their witness and ministry among them. This decision was a declaration of the sufficiency of faith in Christ, an affirmation of the true nature of the Gospel, and it ensured the universality of Christianity and its mission.