Acts of the Apostles 15:1 – 35
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. 3So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”
6The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” 12The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. 14Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. 15This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18known from long ago.’ 19Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. 21For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”
22Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” 30So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. 32Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33After they had been there for some time, they were sent off in peace by the believers to those who had sent them. 35But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord.
This is a long passage, but it is one story. Paul and Barnabas had traveled among the Gentiles, and had spent years preaching and teaching the good news in Antioch. But there were some who came to Antioch, and as we see in Paul’s letters, to other churches he had founded, saying that the converts could not be “real Christians” unless they followed the Jewish laws, including circumcision, food restrictions, and laws of separation – in other words, once they converted they should not associate with their Gentile families and neighbors. All of these Paul will lump into his letters as the “circumcisers”. This greatly disturbed the new believers in Antioch, of whom Paul and Barnabas had not required circumcision. Were they not actually saved? And so, they sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to inquire of the leaders of the church, the apostles. This becomes the first “Church Conference”, or “Council”, a time when church leaders come together to hash out an issue. There would be others, important to our understanding of the faith, over the years.
Paul and Barnabas begin by telling about all the wonderful work of the Lord! And the Apostles are glad to hear of their missions and of all the people, including Gentiles, who have come to Christ! But the opponents stood and objected, saying these people must be circumcised and must obey the law of Moses. But Peter takes Paul’s side, repeating his own experience with God’s sending him to Cornelius and the work of the Holy Spirit in that place. He says that they should not burden the Gentile believers with a law they themselves could not carry. Peter and Paul may not always have agreed, but in this instance at least, Peter saves the day for Paul by recalling the work of the Holy Spirit.
And so the Council chose to give only a few limitations, such as not eating meat dedicated to idols, or that had been strangled, and not eating blood, and restraining from fornication. Note: fornication is not a particular sexual sin, as conservative Christians have come to define it; the word “fornication” refers to all sexual sin and immorality.
Paul and Barnabas take a letter, and representatives, back to Antioch from the Jerusalem Council, and there is much rejoicing. The issue, however, is not ended, for there will be “Circumcisers” following Paul from church to church throughout his ministry, doing much harm, as we read in his letter to the Galatians!
Paul understands that being Christian is about what is in your heart, not about an external obedience to the Law. This is much the same as Jesus said when he accused the Pharisees of cleaning the outside of the dish. Let us pay attention to our hearts, our own hearts, rather than judging the extent to which our neighbor follows the “law”!