Galatians: A Lesson from Acts, Part 4 (Acts 15)

Chapter 15 — the Council in Jerusalem

I’ve skipped Paul’s First Missionary Journey. He and Barnabas were sent by the congregation in Antioch to preach the gospel in Asia Minor. And as a result, they had many converts from among both the Jews and the Gentiles.

They returned to Antioch to report their results, only to find themselves confronted with a new, less easily convinced circumcision party.

(Act 15:1 ESV) But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

This was, of course, after Cornelius and after Paul’s successful missionary efforts. God was giving the Spirit to these converts, and yet the circumcision party refused to believe the evidence of their own eyes.

Most likely, they were contending that circumcision wasn’t required to become saved but to remain saved — it was a “test of fellowship” or a “salvation issue.” They would have certainly accepted a confession of faith in Jesus to baptize a convert, but they would have immediately insisted that the convert be circumcised to remain in good relationship with God. They were adding to faith.

(Act 15:2 ESV) 2 And 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 the apostles and the elders about this question.

It would not have been enough for the elders at Antioch to rule on this question. To avoid dividing the entire church, the question had to be answered in Jerusalem — not just because the apostles were there but because the heart of the circumcision party was there.

(Act 15:3-5 ESV) 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.  4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.  5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

Luke contrasts the reception Paul received among Jews outside Judea — Jews living among the Gentiles — and the Jews in Judea. You see, it’s easy to hate people you don’t know. It’s easy to make up rules for Gentiles that burden them when you have no Gentile friends.

Luke points out that the controversy arose from those converted from among the Pharisees. The Pharisees insisted that all Jews should keep the Mosaic laws regarding the cleanliness of priests, in an effort to win God’s approval and blessings, indeed, to hasten the Kingdom.

It’s ironic that, since the Kingdom has already arrived, they were still pursuing their purity agenda. Perhaps they imagined that their scrupulous law-keeping had persuaded God to send his Messiah.

Luke is explicit that they were still trying to keep the Law of Moses, not merely to be good Jews but to earn their salvation. Read 15:5 with 15:1, and you find that their theology was that the Law of Moses must be kept in order to be saved.

(Act 15:6-11 ESV) 6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.  7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.  8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,  9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.  10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Peter again testifies to the conversion of Cornelius. He interprets the events as follows:

* It’s about the heart, not the Law of Moses.

* God gave the Gentiles the same Spirit as he gave the Jews.

* This Spirit cleanses their hearts by faith. That is, God has shown his acceptance of the believing Gentiles by giving them his Spirit, who is transforming their hearts.

* The Law of Moses is an unbearable burden.

* Even the Jews are saved by faith, not obedience to the Law.

In short, salvation isn’t about rule keeping but receipt of the Spirit, who produces a changed heart. Therefore, it’s not about circumcision.

Moreover, notice how Peter doesn’t accept the argument that it’s just about circumcision. He knows that the rule-keeping mentality never stops with the first rule. As soon as circumcision would be bound as a salvation issue, other commands would be sure to follow. No one can bind just one.

Therefore, Peter sees no room for compromise. After all, why not —

* Impose circumcision just to keep the peace? Doesn’t the church need the circumcision party to remain united?

* Divide into a circumcision church and a non-circumcision church? Wouldn’t that keep the peace? They could meet across the street from each other.

But Peter correctly perceives that a little legalism would produce more and more legalism. Therefore, the church could and certainly should tolerate and accept the Pharisees. They were members in good standing and welcome to continue to practice their beliefs. But they couldn’t be allowed to impose their views on the Gentiles.

Rather, the solution was for both sides to accept the other, based on a common faith in Jesus, in a single congregation, as one community of faith.

(Act 15:12 ESV) 12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Amazingly, Paul, the great theologian, didn’t argue theology. He told stories. He related what he’d seen God do.

(Act 15:13-18 ESV) 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me.  14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.  15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,  16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it,  17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things  18 known from of old.’

James, the brother of Jesus, was evidently the chairman of the meeting. He interprets the stories of Cornelius and Paul’s missionary journey in light of Amos 9:11-12. The quote is from the Septuagint, showing sensitivity to the Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles.

(Act 15:19-21 ESV) 19 “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,  20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

V. 21 gives an explanation (“for” = gar) for what precedes. The reason James proposes these rules is out of sensitivity to the consciences of Jews, as Jews live in “every city” and will not be able to accept the Gentiles if they don’t honor their scruples.

Now, what immediately bothers us about that interpretation is that sexual immorality is sinful and frequently condemned in the New Testament. It’s certainly not merely a matter of conscience!

My own view is that this command is in direct response to the elimination of circumcision. If circumcision was seen as a guard against fornication, especially temple prostitution, then porneias (translated “fornication”) has prostitution as its primary definition, but also includes other forms of sexual sin. Hence, James is protecting himself from the accusation that he’s gone “soft on fornication,” a very easy accusation for a church faction to make when he no longer requires circumcision.

“Things polluted by idols” is surely a reference to meat sacrificed to idols, an issue that plagued the early church. “Things strangled” is a reference to how animals are slaughtered. The objection to blood goes back to Noah —

(Gen 9:4 ESV) 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

— but is frequently repeated in the Law of Moses.

Now, rather than looking at these commands as being about a new “Law of James” handed down from on high, think in terms of table fellowship. Remember, the circumcision party was outraged by Peter eating with the Gentiles! And the early church assemblies were centered on a common meal.

Suddenly, for congregations built on the love feast, the commands make perfect sense. The Gentiles should not serve food that gives offense to the Jews (in parallel with Rom 14). Unity has a price, but the apostles give a close and clear distinction between drawing salvation and fellowship lines over scruples and accommodating those with scruples who are wise enough not to judge over them.

Thus, in Galatians, circumcision and feast days were damnable heresy, whereas in Rom 14, special days and a refusal to eat non-kosher were “disputable matters.” Therefore, Paul has no condemnation for those in Rome who allowed their scruples to be treated as scruples and not as lines of fellowship, whereas in Galatians, the same scruples damned because they divided the church.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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13 Responses to Galatians: A Lesson from Acts, Part 4 (Acts 15)

  1. Price says:

    Interesting that the Spirit, who if I understand you correctly, had also been given to the “circumcision party”, didn’t eliminate disagreement over theology. Perhaps that is on purpose? Perhaps the “take away” is that we will always disagree on what we believe as we mature and grow in the faith but we should always be One in the Faith… The habit of splitting and dividing into separate churches and groups would have been rejected by Paul it seems.

  2. Doug says:

    Is this an example of non-autonomy of the churches being preferable over autonomy? Instead of trying to deal with this issue church by church it was taken to a higher lever for a descion. Instead of splitting 20 ways to Sunday, would it be better if we placed decision making within such a church council as we read about here? Is this an Example or a Necessary Inference?

    The danger of such a council in this day and time is when the council becomes a majority of persons who have been educated at “liberal” colleges and have developed as much respect for their own opinions as for the word of God. When that happens, some truly bad decisions can be handed down.

  3. Yep, all we need is a judicial council made up of people who think just like me. Yeah, that’s the ticket. As long as the council members believe exactly as I do, we don’t have to worry about getting “bad decisions”.

  4. aBasnar says:

    Table fellowship goes even further: Forsaking any meat at all, or letting go of alcohol. When eating with Jews or even Jewish Christians who still keep the Mosaic dietary Laws, you are called to comply with their habits.

    Remember: This is what is required as a bare minimum from Pagan Christians.

    That blood is forbidden to eat (wheteher as a “delicacy” on its own or in strangled meat) predated the Mosaic covenant by sevarl centuries and was addressed to ALL decendants of Noah.

    It’s not about making “perfect sense” in this or that context. It is a universal command of God we MUST obey and teach.

    Alexander

    P.S.: And the ECF unianimously agree with me ;-)

  5. Actually, the picture we see in the early church is one of a network of people learning to hear God together, and to receive the Holy Spirit’s revelation of Christ from one another. Sometimes, it appears in the form of a single apostle speaking to the believers in a single city. Sometimes, it’s an apostle sent to a city by another apostle. Sometimes, one group of believers asks for counsel -even mediation- from a more established group of elders and apostles. Sometimes the church as a whole is wrestling with an issue that brings all these forms into play. It’s a highly organic picture of a living church. Anyone trying to make a specific human structure (including ‘congregational autonomy’) out of this has to marginalize one facet in favor of another.

  6. Ray Downen says:

    As for “a specific human structure” for the people of God who are in Christ Jesus, congregational autonomy is what is taught in Acts 15. No delegates representing each congregation. Just two concerned brothers seeking clarity. The false teachers claimed to represent the Jerusalem church, so to the Jerusalem church the brothers went to find out whether or not the false teaching originated with the Jerusalem leaders. That it did NOT originate with the Jerusalem leaders needed to be proved to the congregations who had been disturbed by the false teachers. How does this apply to our divided state today? Is there some way leaders of factions could be brought together as happened in Jerusalem? This seems to me to be very unlikely. But should we be “one body in Christ”? Obviously so. Shall we pray?

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    aBasnar wrote,

    That blood is forbidden to eat (wheteher as a “delicacy” on its own or in strangled meat) predated the Mosaic covenant by sevarl centuries and was addressed to ALL decendants of Noah. … It is a universal command of God we MUST obey and teach.

    God said to Noah,

    (Gen 9:4 ESV) 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

    But I can find nothing prior to Acts 15 forbidding eating the meat of strangled animals, nor is it obvious to me how killing by strangling necessarily leaves the blood in the animal. After all, it was surely customary then, as it is now, to clean the carcass before cooking — and that would have drained the blood.

    The best I can tell, the very idea of 7 Noahide (or Noachide) Laws is based on the Talmud, not the Bible. The Talmud wasn’t even written down until hundreds of years after Acts 15. In other words, to interpret James as imposing the Talmudic laws is to take him to be imposing the Oral Law.

    Although rabbinic texts preserve various traditions about the details of this covenant, the Talmud reports the following:

    “The children of Noah were commanded with seven commandments: [to establish] laws, and [to prohibit] cursing God, idolatry, illicit sexuality, bloodshed, robbery, and eating flesh from a living animal (Sanhedrin 56a; cf. Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8:4 and Genesis Rabbah 34:8).”

    http://www.myjewishlearning.com/beliefs/Issues/Jews_and_Non-Jews/Legal_Issues/Noahide_Laws.shtml

    In fact, the Jews interpret the laws, not forbid the eating of blood or strangled animals, but they find a —

    Ever Min HaChay: Prohibition on removing and eating a limb from a live animal.

    http://www.ahavat-israel.com/am/goyim.php

    However, Moses seems to interpret the command quite differently —

    (Deu 12:23-24 ESV) 23 Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh. 24 You shall not eat it; you shall pour it out on the earth like water.

    Moses says nothing prohibiting strangulation that I can find.

    If James was imposing the seven Noahide laws, why not impose them all – and why state them in a way contrary to rabbinic tradition, given that these pre-Moses laws existed only in rabbinic tradition (except for eating blood).

    These Seven Universal Laws pertain to:

    Avodah Zarah: Prohibition on idolatry.
    Birchat HaShem: Prohibition on blasphemy and cursing the Name of G-d.
    Shefichat Damim: Prohibition on murder.
    Gezel: Prohibition on robbery and theft.
    Gilui Arayot: Prohibition on immorality and forbidden sexual relations.
    Ever Min HaChay: Prohibition on removing and eating a limb from a live animal.
    Dinim: Requirement to establish a justice system and courts of law to enforce the other 6 laws.

    http://www.ahavat-israel.com/am/goyim.php

    Therefore, the notion that James is citing the seven Noahide laws doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

    And it gets worse. The teaching of the oral law is that these seven commands are the only commands binding on goyim (Gentiles). Therefore, if the Noahide laws are binding on Gentiles by virtue of Acts 15, then we Gentiles aren’t subject to the remaining Ten Commandments or countless other commands — such as “Love your neighbor.” And we need to get busy establishing Noahide courts to enforce these seven commands.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Price wrote,

    Interesting that the Spirit, who if I understand you correctly, had also been given to the “circumcision party”, didn’t eliminate disagreement over theology.

    In the original dispute, that’s exactly right. But once Peter explained what God had done, the Spirit-indwelled Jews celebrated God’s work.

    However, by Acts 15, a new circumcision party had formed and continued to teach their error after the apostles and elders had concluded that circumcision is not required for salvation. This later circumcision party acted in rebellion against both the apostles, the elders, and God. And Paul did not recognize them as brothers — or possessors of the Spirit.

    (Gal 2:4-5 ESV) 4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in–who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery– 5 to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

  9. Price says:

    Jay… wouldn’t it be great if we could back up our belief/actions with stories of trances, angels, and the Holy Spirit causing a whole family to speak in tongues… Probably would convince even the most bull headed among us.

  10. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Price,

    I heard a pretty good, modern-day angel story just the other day. I’ve heard far too many to treat them as existing only in the past.

  11. aBasnar says:

    But I can find nothing prior to Acts 15 forbidding eating the meat of strangled animals, nor is it obvious to me how killing by strangling necessarily leaves the blood in the animal.

    But Jay, there was nothing about eating meat prior to Noah in general! Only fruit and vergetables and grain was given as food, which changed after the flood where this restriction on blood was given!

    Alexander

  12. aBasnar says:

    Oops I misread something (I read: “I found nothing prior to Noah, forbidding …”).

    Strangled Meat

    Strangled meat is meat that has not been butchered, but killed in a different way (in a trap for instance). It’s as simple as that. Venison, the way it is hunted today is an example. It’s being shot at a long distance, then put in the car, then – often hours later – its is hung up and cut open – when the blood inside has already dried. I once cooked a shoulder part of a deer, and when I handled the meat I noticed what was meant.This was the last time I touched venison.

    Strangled meat however is NOT meat of an animal that died naturally. Such meat was also forbidden to Jews, but it could be sold to foreigners. Although the blood is still within (like in strangled meat), it was not killed. Therefore no man did take the life of this animal. So if fact, what we express by abstaining from blood: We return the life of the animal to the earth whence it came. That’s one way – the other way (which is not applicable today) the blood is reserved for the altar (we have no altar).

    James did not cite the 7 Noahide laws, because there are no “seven laws” mentioned in Genesis 9. But Genesis 9, the covenant with Noah applies to ALL descentants of Noah as long as there are rainbows ion the sky. God is very clear on that before the Mosaic covenant, during the Mosaic Covenant and even to the end of acts in the new Covenant. We eat no blood. Period. If we do, we transgress a positive command of God.

    If we teach it as something that is irrelevant, we loosen it like loosening one of the least of His commands. We ought – no we MUST not do that, Jay.

    Alexander

  13. aBasnar says:

    As you also objected:

    Therefore, if the Noahide laws are binding on Gentiles by virtue of Acts 15, then we Gentiles aren’t subject to the remaining Ten Commandments or countless other commands — such as “Love your neighbor.

    When and why did God reveal additional commands? The 10 commandments, I affirm, were given to the Jews under the Mosaic Covenant. Whether such were somehow “common sense principles” that all humans roughly know, is debatable, but they had not been revealed by God.

    The only things God ordered in the Noah covenant are in some aspects even a departure from His former dealings weith men: While the murderer Cain was under God’s special protection, murderers after the flood should be persecuted by some sort of human executive. While men had been given only a vegetarian diet by God before the flood, He now gave them ALL animals to eat except their blood. We can speculate as to WHY God changed this, but a change took place anyhow. Humans still are called to punish murderers (and other criminals) – see Rom 13. And the command to abstain from blood has been repeated twice in the NT (Acts 15 and Acts 21), plus the letter of the Apostles has been read in all the churches of Paul’s mission field.

    Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Mark Minucius Felix, Origen, Lactantius, The Apostolic Constiturions all agree on this. In fact there are more statements on this issue among the ECF than on a-capella singing. So – pleading for consistency here – all who base their convictions on non-instrumental worship on “silence” and the testimony of church history, should emphatically teach abstaining from blood, based on positive scriptural commands (plrual) of almost ALL dispensations (pre Mosaic, Mosaic, post Mosaic) and the unanimous tstimony ofthe ECF.

    Alexander

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