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Early Church History--Part 10--The Jerusalem Church Council

Aug 07, 2007

When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch to give their missionary report, they were told how God "had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles" [ethnos, "nations"]. This does not mean that non-Jews had been excluded from a covenant relationship with God in times past, but rather that missionary activity had been limited among them up to that time.

Isaiah himself had prophesied that foreigners and eunuchs could join themselves to the covenant even in his day (Isaiah 56:6, 7), and the prophet even cites Solomon's words that the temple was to be a house of prayer for ALL people.

Non-Israel people were never excluded from the covenants of God. Yet the temple was still a local structure in one part of the world, which the majority of mankind never heard of, nor could they afford to make the trip to Jerusalem, where the presence of God rested. Thus, access to God was restricted by the terms of the Old Covenant--not because it was exclusive, but because it was localized.

The advent of the New Covenant changed this. God's presence left the old temple in the days of Ezekiel (see ch. 10, 11), and finally left the Mount of Olives at the ascension of Jesus Himself. When His Spirit returned on Pentecost, He came to inhabit human flesh, the temple of our bodies, which, being mobile, could bring the presence of God to the nations.

The Gospel started out being preached in Judea, then to Samaria, and only then to the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8), which in those days was considered to be Britain and India. At Pentecost the Gospel was preached in Jerusalem and Judea. Philip then took it to Samaria. Joseph of Arimathea first took it to Britain. James took it to Spain before Herod beheaded him in Jerusalem in 44 A.D.

Finally, in 47 A.D. Paul and Barnabas went on their missionary journey, preaching to Jews and proselytes in the synagogues of Cyprus and Asia (Turkey). Because the Gospel was largely rejected by the leadership, even to the point of causing Paul to be stoned to death (and raised again by God), the revelation came to them that it was time to take the Gospel to "the nations," as Isaiah had prophesied so many times.

Back in Antioch, they conveyed the progress and the revelation of God about how God had opened the door to the Nations. Acts 14:28 says, "And there [Antioch] they abode long time with the disciples."

Then certain disciples came up from Jerusalem to Antioch, teaching that "except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). Really? This doctrinal point had already been refuted by the conversion of the Samaritans and the Roman centurion. Their conversion had been proven, furthermore, by the fact that the Holy Spirit had come upon them even as it had come upon the circumcised disciples on the day of Pentecost. Paul and Barnabas had seen this happen in Cyprus and Asia through their own ministry.

It appears that this point of law was not at all clear to the believers in the Jerusalem Church, all of whom accommodated the Temple rituals in order to avoid reproach. They had simply added Jesus to their Judaism and had not really understood that a New Covenant had been established. It appears they did not even understand that the old sacrificial system had been rendered irrelevant in the sight of God.

But the issue at the forefront in Acts 15 was the core issue of salvation. Did one have to be circumcised to be saved? When these brethren arrived from Jerusalem, Peter came with them, apparently having been in Jerusalem for a time. When in Antioch, he had been eating with non-Jews regularly, in accordance with his own revelation. But in the presence of these brethren from Jerusalem, he withdrew and ate only with the Jewish believers

Paul confronted Peter to his face for this hypocrisy, and Peter repented. For this reason, Luke does not record the confrontation with Peter. However, Paul writes about it later in Gal. 2:3-5,

" (3) But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised;(4) And that because of false brethren, unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out the liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage; (5) To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you."

A few verses later, Paul writes,

(11) But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. (12) For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles; but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. (13) And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation."

This was a critical juncture in Church history. Would the Church retain its Jewish separatist attitude, with the belief that non-Jewish believers were to remain as second-class citizens of the Kingdom? Would they always remain unclean in the eyes of God, so that Jewish believers had to eat at separate tables from them? Would the dividing wall in the Temple in Jerusalem be brought into the Church as well?

Paul recognized the huge importance of this issue and confronted it directly. Peter repented, as (no doubt) did Barnabas. But the brethren from Jerusalem were not so easily convinced. So it was decided that they needed to hold a Church Council in Jerusalem.

It is significant that at this Council Peter took the lead and gave the opening statement in favor of Paul's viewpoint. He reminded them of God's revelation in the matter of Cornelius and how God had showed him not to call any man common or unclean. He reminded them that the Holy Spirit had been given to non-Jews as well, and that God had "put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9).

Then Barnabas and Paul testified by their own experiences in their missionary journey. The opposition apparently kept silent (15:12). After all, what could they say? Their doctrinal position was undermined by the clear evidence of how the Holy Spirit had already been working in the non-Jewish believers.

James then ruled in favor of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. Circumcision was NOT a requirement for salvation. However, James did remind them that the law itself had not been put away, and that our daily lives ought to be lived in holiness and not in fornication, idolatry, and eating blood. Thus, James and Paul are seen to be in agreement, not in conflict, and those who would make them adversaries are simply wrong. Paul never put away the law, and James never said that circumcision was necessary for salvation.

The law commanded circumcision, but it also spoke of two kinds of circumcision: that of the flesh, and that of the heart (Deut. 30:6). The outward circumcision is a sign of being under the Old Covenant; the inner circumcision is a sign of being under the New Covenant. Both types fulfill the law, but have different meanings.

When one is physically circumcised with the intent of coming under covenant with God, it obligates a person to fulfill the whole law in order to be saved ("blessed"). This was something, Peter said, "which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear" (Acts 15:10). In other words, circumcision made no man righteous from Moses to Peter, nor was any man able to be righteous enough by his own efforts for salvation.

Heart circumcision, on the other hand, obligates God to fulfill the law in us and to make us righteous. Righteousness is impossible under the Old Covenant, but irresistible under the New.

This is the tenth part of a series titled "Early Church History." To view all parts, click the link below.

Early Church History

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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones