Most associations of Christian churches, commonly called denominations, regardless of their system of government, hold national conferences where matters that concern the movement as a whole are discussed. Sometime these deliberations are reported in the media, especially when there is some controversy on the agenda. But most of the time these national convocations are largely unnoticed by the rest of Christendom. Each group has its own matters to attend to, and others are largely unaffected by their proceedings. But the first century Christian church was quite different. Acts chapter 15 records the deliberation of the first meeting of the leaders of the only Christian association that existed, and the agenda included a discussion that would set the tone of ministry for the infant Christian movement forever. In fact, had the deliberations concluded with a decision that went any way other than the way than it did, there would be no Christian church today. Let me explain.
During Paul’s first Missionary Journey, the Gospel of Grace developed and was preached in the cities of South Galatia (see below for a comment on this comment!) This Gospel proclaimed that a person is saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This gave anyone, Jew or Gentile, the opportunity to receive the gift of eternal life by trusting in the work of Jesus on the cross, apart from performing any meritorious religious works, namely obedience to the various laws set out in the first five books of the OT. Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, and secular Gentiles all responded to this message and to the Church, much to the displeasure of some believing Jews who insisted that while faith in Jesus was necessary, no less necessary was adherence to the Law, particularly the law of circumcision. Much of the persecution against Paul and his team during his first missionary journey originated with these legalizers. And when he returned to Antioch, the controversy returned with him.
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Act 15:1 NIV)
In an attempt to deal with this issue once and for all, the Antioch church appealed to the Jerusalem church, sending Paul and Barnabas, along with a few other representatives, to what is commonly known as the Jerusalem Council. The agenda was simple.
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 some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. (Act 15:4-6 NIV)
After much deliberation, which included an address from Peter concerning how God used him to share the gospel with Gentiles, it was the unanimous decision of all present that it was not necessary to follow the laws of circumcision in order to be saved. Salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ plus nothing. The following letter was drafted and sent back to the Antioch Church.
The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul– men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. (Act 15:23-29 NIV)
The significance of this decision cannot be overstated. The legalizers were troubling their minds with their insistence on circumcision. The conclusion was that this influence was without authorization. There would be no burden imposed in order to be saved, that is, no requirement to follow the Law of Moses, specifically circumcision. The only consideration was the courtesy of respect for Jewish traditions, but none of these affected one’s salvation. One scholar summarizes this decision.
“Had their (the legalizers) view prevailed, not only would the Gospel of salvation as a free gift from God have been subverted but also the Christian movement may well have split into a Jewish church – small and struggling and eventually fading away, and a Gentile church – theologically rootless and tending toward syncretism. Or more probably, the Gentile mission would have almost entirely ceased and Christianity would have died the death of many a Jewish sect…”. (Robert Gundry A Survey of The New Testament, pg 260)
But the Gentile mission and Christianity did survive. The first church council clarified the Gospel and opened the door for further missionary enterprise. But before I share of Paul’s next adventure on the mission field, it is appropriate to discuss his first apostolic letter, which we now know as the Book of Galatians. I am suggesting that an apt title for this letter would be The Gospel of Grace: Paul’s Defense of the Doctrine of Salvation by Faith Plus Nothing as a Refutation of the Legalizers Doctrine of Salvation by Faith Plus Law. (How’s that for a long title!!) But before I outline the letter, let’s establish his audience.
I am suggesting that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was composed prior to the Jerusalem Council. It addressed the problem that became the agenda for the Jerusalem Council. Further, in the providence of God, it became the outline of his presentation to the Jerusalem Council. Some have suggested that Galatians was written much later in his life, to a group of churches in the northern region of Galatia, churches that Paul supposedly founded on his second Missionary Journey. But the following points make this option unlikely.
There is no mention of the decision of the Jerusalem Council nor of the letter that the Council drafted. If Paul had written this letter fter the Jerusalem Council, he would certainly have referred to it when he faced the legalizers who were attempting to sway the early church to require circumcision.
In Galatians chapter 2, Paul records a public rebuke of Peter, who was acting in sympathy of the legalizers. Given Peter’s strong support of Paul and reasoning against these legalizers at the Jerusalem Council, it seems unlikely that this could have happened after the Council.
Finally Paul mentions Barnabas three times in his letter. But Barnabas did not accompany Paul on his second missionary journey, only the first.
In my next post I will outline Paul’s masterful argument.