THE ACTS 29
THE MEANING OF THE JERUSALEM COUNCIL
FOR THE CHURCH TODAY
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the events in chapter 15 of the book of Acts. The subject of the Jerusalem conference was circumcision, but the ramifications of it were far-reaching. Circumcision was ordered by God almost twenty centuries prior to the birth of Jesus Christ. It was a symbol given to the family of Abraham, the Jews, that separated them from all other nations. God obviously did this to guarantee that the bloodline of Jesus Christ could follow a pure Jewish line all the way back to Abraham. This would authenticate Jesus as one to fulfill the promise and be the Messiah foretold by all the prophets in between. Along with circumcision the Jews were given laws which governed what they were to eat, especially the kind of meat they could have, and rituals to be observed on various holy days. This law was strictly kept especially by the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. When Paul speaks of Gentile sinners, in connection with the events recorded here, he does not mean that the Gentiles were immoral but that they did not keep the rules of the law.
When some of the Jewish leaders heard the sermon of Peter on Pentecost and believed on Jesus as the Messiah, they still thought of the Messiah as only for the Jews and felt that it was still important to keep the law. Thus when they came to Antioch and saw all the Gentiles being converted by Paul, they insisted that these Gentiles had to become Jews by being circumcised and keeping the law. Paul argued that the law, with all its many complications, could not be kept by any man and therefore enslaved all who tried to keep it. He said that the former relationship with God, which depended on keeping the law, was taken away by the Cross and that man was now related to God by grace, which freed man from sin and made him free to approach the throne of God in spite of his sins. Therefore, he denied the Jewish demand that the Gentiles be circumcised and become Jews, keeping the law in order to be accepted by God.
This impasse was taken to the Apostles and church leaders in Jerusalem for settlement, and that is the subject of the Jerusalem conference. Had Paul not prevailed, the church would simply be an arm of Judaism, and the strictures of the old law would still be imposed. But the decision was made that the Gentiles would not be required to be circumcised and keep the law, and so the doors of the church were opened to all men, and the theme of acceptance by God ceased to be by law and became by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
It is significant for us to recognize the importance of this decision, not only because it caused the acceptance of the Gentiles, but because it denies the position that some still hold that we are only accepted by God when we keep the rules and obey all the right laws. This belief lies at the heart of all division in the church since the time of Christ, and still causes those who should be brethren, bound together by their faith in Christ and love of one another, to be separated and antagonistic to others in the Christian community, often even in their own group. The self-centeredness of the organized church and its members is the greatest enemy to love and unity that Christianity faces.
The problem with those who still believe in a legal relationship with God is that their religion is centered in what happens at church. Their faith is in their church, and in their confidence that it is right in all its organization and activities. As a result, it is often the case that their religion does not filter out into their home and their life outside the church and its activities. The person who really believes in grace, and whose faith is centered in Jesus Christ, is conscious of His presence in their life every day, wherever they are. True faith in Him means a personal relationship with Him, and what relationship they have to the church is only because of Him. Their life is not centered in the organization and its rules, but in the person of Jesus Christ Himself, and His presence with them through His Holy Spirit.