The Jerusalem Council

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity

Date and Purpose of Council

  • Around 48-49 CE, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem for a conference.
  • The main issue was whether the Gentiles were part of the church or not.
    • However, the discussion centered on circumcision, Jewish dietary laws, and whether or not Jews could share a meal with Gentiles (which was forbidden under Mosaic Law).
  • The event is described in Acts 15:1-29, and possibly in Galatians 2:1-21 (see here for a discussion of the two

Jewish Covenant and Application to new, Gentile Christians

  • The Jews had an unbreakable covenant with God that was instituted between God and Abraham, and described in Genesis 17:14.
    • It was instituted to help them remember their status as God’s chosen people and to remind them of their obligations to keep the law.
  • Their tradition prohibited them from associating with the uncircumcised.
  • Early Christians still considered themselves Jews but were now interacting with Gentiles who have become Christian and think they have equal status before God.
  • It’s possible that some of the Gentile converts didn’t know about Abraham or the law. So it’s not hard to see why the Jews were really upset.
  • Before the Jerusalem Council there were only two requirements for becoming a believer/Christian.
    • Accept Jesus as the Messiah
    • Be baptized.

How the Council Started

  • The young church in Antioch didn’t know how to handle this.
    • They didn’t want to do anything in direct violation of the church in Jerusalem since it was so powerful, but the idea of circumcision might not have been exactly appealing to them.
    • The church realized that it was too big of a decision for them to make. It had to come from the top, from the apostles in Jerusalem.
  • They sent Paul and Barnabas, along with some other believers, to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

What Happened at the Meeting

  • Although the actual mechanics of who met where are unclear, we do know that the apostles and the elders met to consider this question.
  • According to Acts, the church and its leaders, the apostles and elders, welcomed them. (Paul is going to have a totally different take on this.)

Paul and Barnabas Share Testimonies

  • Paul and Barnabas shared everything “God had done through them.”
    • This probably included testimony of conversions, as well as a discussion of the issues at hand.
  • Some of the traditional Jewish believers stood up and said that they didn’t care how much success they’d had, the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses.
    • The word “must” here means divinely authorized – the traditional believers argued that circumcision was a requirement from God himself and is not optional.

Peter Speaks

  • Eventually, Peter stood up and addressed the assembly, sharing the Cornelius story one more time.
  • He reminded them of how the Gentiles were suddenly all filled with the Holy Spirit. Just like the disciples had been.
  • He added that God made no distinction “between us and them.”
  • Those who had always been considered unclean, those who had always been outside the covenantal relationship were, by faith, suddenly made clean and included.
    • If God brought all this to pass of his own volition, why would they want to test God? If God bestowed the Holy Spirit, he approved of these people, accepted them.
  • Finally, Peter says, that it is “through the grace of our Lord Jesus that one is saved.”

Paul and Barnabas Share Testimonies Again

  • Then Barnabas and Paul shared more experiences.
  • The whole assembly listened attentively as they told about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.

James Speaks, then Decides the Matter

  • Afterwards, it was James’ turn.
  • James would make the final decision. He would cast the deciding vote.
  • After summarizing what had already been said, he declared that this happened because “God wanted to show his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself.”
    • That phrase had never been used of anyone other than the Jewish people before.
    • But James has argued that scripture provides the warrant for them to know that from heretofore, God’s people will include those taken from among the Gentiles.
    • The importance of this step cannot be overemphasized.
      • This is to be seen as an expansion of the Jewish nation.
    • After mentioning some of those scriptural passages, James says that the church will be the means by which the Gentiles come to God.
  • His final word was “Let’s not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
  • That’s the decision. The matter has been decided. Case closed.

Apostolic Decree

  • Since Jews were not exempt from the law, it was important that the Gentiles be respectful of their traditions.
  • So they came up with a four-point plan
    • Gentiles should abstain from food polluted by idols.
    • They were to abstain from sexual immorality.
    • They should abstain from the meat from strangled animals
    • They should abstain from consuming blood (of the animals).
  • These four requirements were common sense, and not meant to be burdensome.
  • If the Gentiles could do this, then the Jews would be able to be in fellowship with them. They could all get along.

Do Not Forget the Poor

  • One final aspect of the Jerusalem conference was James’ admonition that they not forget the poor.
    • This is similar to Paul’s taking of a collection of money from the Gentile churches to be used for the “poor” at Jerusalem.

The Conclusion

  • The decisions reached by this conference were very important.
    • The Decree is common sense.
    • The conclusion is focused on fellowship.
    • The Decree allows Jews and Gentiles to interact, both being respectful of the other.
    • Nothing is said at the Council about connecting salvation to Jewish law.
  • They all seemed pleased with their decision.

Bible Characters