The Council of Jerusalem (15:1-35)

Bible Passage: Acts 15:1-35

The council of Jerusalem is one of the most important moments in the history of the church, but it is often overlooked. After the first missionary journey of Barnabas and Paul, they question of what it meant for a Gentile to become a Christian became the pressing issue for the church. Christianity had grown from Jewish roots, as a fulfilment of Old Testament promises, and the early believers had been culturally Jewish and so Jewish practices like food laws, circumcision (for men) and feast days were the assumed norm for the church. When somebody from outside this community accepted the Jewish Messiah, what should their relationship with Judaism be. Some argued that it would only make sense for them to adopt those Jewish forms, whereas others saw this is a contradiction to the gospel of grace. To settle the issue, the early church held a council in Jerusalem to hear the case for each side and make their decision.

Equality In the Spirit: It was Peter who made the case before the council for Gentiles not being obliged to keep the law, and his primary argument came from what he had seen at Cornelius’s house. God had poured out the Holy Spirit on this Gentile household, just as he had on the Jewish believers at Pentecost. This was not on the basis of obedience to the law or Jewish cultural forms but as they believed the gospel. As we see the global church, we can see God at work in lots of different cultures. It is the same Spirit working, and this creates unity and equality. No groups should be prioritised on earth when God is showing his acceptance of people from all backgrounds.

Gospel Translatability: When James summed up the ruling of the council, the decision was to leave the Gentile believers in peace and not insist on them keeping the Jewish law. This decision was not as obvious as it seems from our vantage point, and effectively decoupled Christianity from any particular culture. This is why there can be forms of Christianity that look very different in different cultures (whilst staying true to the gospel) and no culture can suggest that their way of doing church or living out the Christian faith is the ‘correct’ one that others should follow.

Cultural Consideration: Though the council did not impose any Jewish practices on the Gentile believers, they did make a request. In the same places where the Gentiles were being reached there were others trying to share the gospel with Jews, and there are some things that Gentiles believers may be free to do but would be a stumbling block for those reaching out into a Jewish context, and they asked the Gentiles to stay away from these things. As we think about the freedom we have in the gospel it is good to think about how those freedoms impacts others and sometimes to forego them for the sake of the advance of the gospel.

Potential Applications:

  • At the heart of the issue here is a sense of racial or cultural superiority. This should be strongly challenged wherever it is seen. You could challenge it directly and also reflect on how your church is engaging in issues of racial reconciliation.
  • This passage makes us think about our own assumptions about what is ‘normal Christianity’ or what church should look like. Are we imposing our own cultural values or are we open to other cultural forms being expressed.
  • Challenge people to think about how they are using their freedom and what things might be getting in the way of others receiving the gospel.