The Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15)
“Certain people came down” (15:1)
While Paul and Barnabas are teaching at Antioch, some people come from Judea and demand that the Gentiles should become practicing Jews before being regarded as real believers. Luke summarizes their claim in a sentence: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1).
These hard-line Jewish Christians are confronted by Paul and Barnabas, who get “into sharp dispute and debate with them” (15:2). This is a key moment in the conflict about Gentile conversion. As Luke tells the story, he will also address some doctrinal arguments, but before we get to that, let us see how Paul deals with the question in his letter to the Galatians.
Apparently, the extremists took their legalistic message to other churches, including those in Galatia, which Paul had recently evangelized. The controversy broadened so that Jewish Christians were not even allowed to eat with Gentile believers. At some point Barnabas, and even Peter, seemed to side with the extreme position (Galatians 2:11-13).
At this point, the crisis is threatening the unity of the church. It is also striking a blow at the heart of the gospel of salvation by grace. Paul writes: “This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Galatians 2:4-5).
Peter probably thinks that it is a centrist position: Gentiles can be part of the church, and Jews can continue to be scrupulous about table fellowship if they wish. Doesn’t everyone get what they want? No, says Paul. He cannot accept a church in which Jews and Gentiles have to eat at separate tables, as if the Gentiles are unclean, unacceptable, not even part of the same family.
If the Jewish rigorists have their way — insisting on strict observance of Mosaic rituals — the church will eventually split. At best, two separate churches will form, one Gentile and the other Jewish. Or Gentile Christians will be forced to place their faith in Jewish regulations rather than the work of Christ.
The people from Jerusalem consider themselves to be representatives of James, not renegade teachers. (But James did not authorize them — see 15:24.) Paul refers to them as “certain men [who] came from James” (Galatians 2:12). But they claimed more authority than James had given them (Acts 15:24).
As we shall see, James, Paul and Peter will eventually agree. The rigorous view implies that a Gentile must become a Jew in order to be saved, and the apostles do not want this false message preached in the church.
“Unless you are circumcised” (15:1)
Luke presents the hard-line argument as one that stresses the need for Gentile converts to be circumcised. But he soon shows that the circumcisers want Gentile converts to practice the entire “law of Moses.” Basically, they are teaching that a person cannot be saved unless they become proselytes, converts to Judaism.
The conflict exists because there are people in the church from sharply varying cultural backgrounds. At one end are devout Jerusalem Jews who continue to worship at the Temple. They scrupulously observe all the cultic practices that define the Jewish way of life — all the laws found in the covenant God made with the Jews at Mt. Sinai. Circumcision is a crucial point. From the time of Abraham, circumcision helped define a person’s faith in God and being part of the people of God. [Genesis 17:10-14, 23-27; 21:4; 34:15-24; Exodus 12:44, 48; Leviticus 12:3; Joshua 5:2-8].
But now an increasing number of formerly pagan Gentiles are entering the church. Their religious life had been centered around pagan temples and their culture had been that of the wider Greek and Roman world. They had been idolaters with little interest in the Jewish way of life. And they do not want to undergo the painful circumcision process since it has no cultural meaning for them.
However, Jewish Christians fear that the Gentiles entering the church will change the nature of the church. In Judea, the religious leaders tolerate the Jewish Christians because they keep the law – they are faithful to the covenant of Moses, even if they do happen to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Their messianic beliefs are merely a harmless superstition, as long as they continue keeping Jewish customs. But now, if Gentiles come into the church without keeping Jewish laws, that will encourage Jewish believers to be less zealous about the laws as well, thereby bringing persecution from the Jewish leaders.
The Jewish Christians are afraid that many Gentiles have grown up in a culture of loose morals. Their easy entrance into the church might weaken the moral standards. Thus, the circumcisers want Gentiles to become like Jews in lifestyle — as evidence of their conversion, if nothing else.
Many Jewish Christians consider themselves to be part of the righteous remnant of Judaism. God has given them salvation, but as their part of the bargain, as evidence that they are part of the covenant, they must keep its laws.
The mental background of the Jew was founded on the fact that he belonged to the chosen people. In effect they believed that not only were the Jews the peculiar possession of God but also that God was the peculiar possession of the Jews. (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series, page 112)
And circumcision is one of the proofs of this exclusive relationship with God (Philo, The Migration of Abraham 92). No doubt many Jews of the time, like Philo, believe that circumcision is more than a ritual (Special Laws 1.8-11; 1.304-306). It is a symbol of religious commitment. The rigorists, like other Jews, see the physical act of circumcision as proof of one’s allegiance to God (Josephus, Antiquities 20:38-48).
Zealous Jews believe that a man must be circumcised in order to enter the nation of Israel and to be part of its righteous remnant. A failure to circumcise is regarded as a sign of apostasy (1 Maccabees 1:11-15). Gentiles who are not circumcised and who do not practice the Jewish religious life are considered unclean.
It was the age-old horror of the strict Jew, based on the Law of Moses, of contamination with those who were technically not within the covenant relationship — outwardly signalized by circumcision — and who ate food not permitted by the Law from utensils which had not been ceremonially cleansed. Thus the issue was more than that of admission to membership of the church. It involved also the question whether Jewish Christians ought to mix socially with uncircumcised Gentile Christians, to eat…at the same table, and to share in the same eucharistic celebration. (Neil, 168).
“You cannot be saved” (15:1)
It’s important to look at circumcision and the Law of Moses from the point of view of conservative Christian Jews. As far as they know, the entire Torah is still in force. There had been no clear teaching from Jesus to the contrary. In fact, he even seemed to teach the continuance of circumcision and various other rituals (Matthew 5:18; 23:1-2, 23; Luke 2:21-24; 5:14). He certainly lived as a Jew.
They [the Judaizers] found it hard to believe that Gentiles could be saved and become members of the people of God without accepting the obligations of the Jewish law. One can sympathize with their position; after all, what evidence was there that the law, which represented the will of God for his covenant people, had been repealed? This was the point which was pressed by some Jewish visitors to Antioch. (Marshall, 242)
Peter’s experience with Cornelius (Acts 10) shows that any effort to distinguish between “clean” and “unclean” people has no relevance as far as salvation is concerned. Peter explained this to the Jerusalem church. At the time, the Jewish Christians swallowed their concerns and accepted the fact that God is giving salvation to Gentiles (11:18).
The Jewish extremists accept the idea that the gospel is going to Gentiles; they know that the covenant of blessing extends to all nations (Genesis 12:3; 22:18; 26:4). The Scriptures say that the Gentiles will be saved in the last days (Isaiah 2:2; 11:10; 25:8-9; 49:6; 55:5-7; 56:7; 60:3-22; Zephaniah 3:9-10; Zechariah 8:23).
So what’s the problem? They do not want to exclude the Gentiles, but they insist on certain requirements for how inclusion is possible: The Gentiles should be proselytized in the context of Jewish faith, and not apart from it. Hence, they call for Gentile circumcision, for Gentiles to become Jews. That is why these people are commonly called Judaizers.
For these overscrupulous Christians in Jerusalem, the outreach to Gentiles was to come from within their group and to follow a proselyte model, not to come from outside their group and be apart from the law. In the last days, [they said] all nations are to flow to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem…not depart from it. (Longenecker, 444)
The Judaizers see Israel — or at least the righteous people within it — as God’s agent in bringing the blessings of salvation to the Gentiles. They can be saved only through Jewish customs, the methods God approved to keep the remnant righteous, or within the covenant of salvation.
Thus, the conclusion about Jewish observances is obvious to the Judaizers. Yes, God is giving salvation to the Gentiles. But if they want salvation, they must begin observing the Jewish ritual laws. Before they can be accepted as first-class Christians they must begin living like the Jewish Christians do. In short, the Judaizers say that Gentiles have to become Jews before they can be Christians.
The rapid influx of Gentiles into the church in both Antioch and the cities of southern Galatia had raised again the whole question of Gentile admission or, more precisely, the terms on which they should be admitted. It was one thing to accept the occasional God-fearer into the church, someone already in sympathy with Jewish ways; it was quite another to welcome large numbers of Gentiles who had no regard for the law and no intention of keeping it. (Williams, 256)
Thus, the stage is set for a fundamental showdown between the Judaizers and people like Paul, who say that Gentiles are grafted into the church through faith alone.
Go up to Jerusalem (15:2-4)
With the controversy over circumcision for Gentile converts raging in the church at Antioch, and no doubt spreading to other cities, something needs to be done. So the church at Antioch appoints Paul, Barnabas and some other leaders to go to “Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question” (15:2).
We know Paul’s beliefs about this from his own writings (Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 5:2-3; 6:15). A strict and vocal Jewish Christian minority in Jerusalem and Judea does not agree with Paul. They insist that Gentile converts accept such aspects of Jewish life as circumcision. This forces Antioch to ask for a major church synod, in approximately A.D. 49, with the apostles and elders of Jerusalem. The unity of the church is threatened, and an official ruling by the leaders seems necessary.
The Antioch delegation travels through Phoenicia and Samaria on its way to Jerusalem. The delegates preach in the churches along the way, explaining how the Gentiles are being converted (8:4-15; 11:19).
Paul and his group are enthusiastically received by the churches in these areas. Finally, the delegates arrive in Jerusalem where they are “welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders” (15:4). Luke is preparing his readers for the good news that Paul’s Gentile program will be positively received by the leaders and the church.
Pharisees demand circumcision (15:5)
Upon coming to Jerusalem, Paul and his delegation officially meet with the church leaders and report “everything God had done through them” (15:4). But certain Jewish Christians who belong “to the party of the Pharisees” then rise up to challenge Paul (15:5).
This is the first mention (except for Paul) of converts from the sect of the Pharisees. This group within the church — Christian Pharisees — are calling for circumcision. These Pharisees are believers who accept Jesus as the Messiah. As influential members of the Jewish and Christian community — and being experienced teachers — they are leaders among the Judaizing group. Clearly, the pro-circumcision lobby within the church is a powerful one.
The fact that there were enough converted Pharisees to have an influential voice in the affairs of the church indicates that the Jewish-Christian party had a powerful case for dictating terms to the pro-Gentile faction. (Neil, 171)
Must obey Moses’ law (15:5-6)
At the Jerusalem conference, the Pharisaic believers immediately begin to insist: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (15:5). There is a long debate on the issue, but Luke dismisses it with a short phrase: “After much discussion…” (15:6).
Luke doesn’t give us any of the Judaizers’ supporting arguments. But they probably base their teaching on Genesis 17:1-14, which says that God’s covenant with Abraham was ratified by circumcision. This applies to members of his household and to foreigners. If anyone refuses circumcision, that person is to “be cut off from his people” (verse 14). First-century Jews believe that the promises of salvation go back to this covenant with Abraham, and circumcision is part of it.
The Judaizers may also be referring to Exodus 12:48. This verse says that a foreigner living in Israel who wants to observe Passover has to be circumcised. So the circumcision party is using strong evidence from Scripture and from tradition in defense of circumcision as being necessary. On the other hand, Paul and the Antioch delegation do not have proof-texts that say circumcision is not needed. For the moment, it seems like the Judaizing party has the upper hand.
The apostles are faced with this question: Should the church follow the Torah literally in all its details? That is, do Scripture and tradition have a greater authority than the principle of faith in determining the basis who is in the people of God?
Peter’s speech (15:7-11)
At some point in the meeting Peter gets up. He makes a strong case for admitting Gentiles into the church on the basis of faith alone. He argues that God established a precedent, perhaps a decade earlier, of bringing Gentiles into the body of believers through faith. (He is referring to the example of Cornelius and his family discussed in Acts 9:32 through 11:18.)
“God, who knows the heart,” said Peter, “showed that he accepted them [the Gentiles] by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (15:8-9). God showed that he accepted a Gentile even while he was uncircumcised.
This summarizes Peter’s argument. He insists that faith is more important than ritual observance in defining a Christian. The proof is that God is giving his Spirit to the Gentiles without them first becoming Jews. Peter emphasizes that conversion is God’s doing, not the work of either the preacher or the believer. People do not decide on their own to take a place among the people of God. God is the one who converts them, and he does it by giving his Spirit, not by requiring the person to practice certain rituals.
Luke enables Peter to finally draw the full conclusions from his initial vision and command, “things God has cleansed, you stop making common” (10:15). Peter has come to understand not only that the vision was about the Gentiles, but recognizes that faith is the principle used by God for this “cleansing of the heart.” (Johnson, 262)
Although the council doesn’t make an issue of it, the truth is that only faith can cleanse Jews as well (a point made in the book of Hebrews). Everyone is saved by the grace of God, not through the practice of any system of cultic religious works. Faith is the basis of salvation for Jews and Gentiles alike. This faith is a righteousness that comes from God through the Holy Spirit, and is mediated by Christ. It is this faith that saves (Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:28).
Unbearable yoke to bear (15:10)
Peter brands the zealots’ desire to force the Gentiles to live as Jews a test of God — challenging something he has already done — and “a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear” (15:10). He says the legalistic faction is calling into question God’s will — which he had already made quite evident.
God is circumcising the Gentiles through the Spirit, not with the knife. Insisting on the ritual law is challenging God himself on his actions, Peter is saying. It is questioning the rightness of God in his cleansing the Gentiles through the Spirit. The call for circumcision has the effect of putting God on trial. The Judaizers are saying that God is not doing enough, nor doing it right, in allowing Gentiles as Gentiles to be full participants in his body, the church.
Rather, what should be on trial is the cultic cleansing system of the Jews. It had been tried for hundreds of years and found deficient. The law of Moses is irrelevant as far as salvation is concerned and is simply a burdensome lifestyle of “do’s-and-don’ts.” In one word, it was a “yoke.”
The word “yoke” (Greek, zygos) refers to a restraint. It can be a physical restraint placed on oxen (Deuteronomy 21:3). Or it can be a metaphor for political or social oppression (2 Chronicles 10:10; 1 Timothy 6:1). In this case, the law of Moses is both a physical burden and a form of religious oppression, even though well-meaning Jews are using it to keep themselves separate from the world. But when people use it to separate themselves from other believers, they are failing to keep in step with what God is now doing, bringing Gentiles and Jews into one people.
Jesus said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). People burdened and weary with sin, guilt and religious duty can come to Christ and find rest in him. That is what Peter is saying. The Christian way of life should not be religiously burdensome. That is a lesson all churches and religions need to learn.
Peter ends his speech by echoing the thought of Paul: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (15:11). Peter is on Paul’s side and his thoughts are quite Pauline. Peter puts his stamp of approval on Paul’s work, phrasing salvation in terms of grace — as the apostle to the Gentiles will frequently do as well. Luke, quoting Peter’s words to this effect, now makes no further mention of Peter anywhere in Acts.
Barnabas and Paul speak (15:12)
Barnabas and Paul now rise to defend their view about circumcision, and “the whole assembly became silent” (15:12). Barnabas spoke first. He was a respected member of the Jerusalem church, and its trusted representative to Antioch. Both he and Paul tell the story of Gentile conversion as it happened. The two missionaries recount the miraculous signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through them. Once again, this underscores the fact that God is blessing their work, hence it is in line with his purpose with the Gentiles.
Luke devotes only a single sentence to what Paul and Barnabas say at the conference. We don’t know exactly how they argue their case. However, we know from Acts and especially Paul’s writings exactly where he stands on the matter of circumcision. In this case, they probably again report on their experiences. Hundreds of Gentiles are now converted and God is working miracles through Paul. He and Barnabas appeal to such things, just as Peter had argued from his experience with Gentile conversions.
James speaks (15:13-21)
At the end of the conference, James speaks. He is the leader of the church in Jerusalem (12:17; 21:18), and supposedly the one who had originally authorized the overly zealous people to visit Antioch. Everyone respects him, and when all three apostles agree, that settles the matter.
James is clearly representing the Jerusalem church. The Judaizers look to him for support partly because of his respected position among non-converted Jews, and partly because James himself zealously keeps all the Jewish laws. However, they misread him on the most basic issue, one he held in common with Peter and Paul: faith is the basis of salvation, not religious observance. Just because I keep these laws does not mean that Gentiles have to as well.
A people for himself (15:14)
James’ speech sums up the testimony already presented. James begins his comments before the assembly by summarizing Peter’s speech. But he makes no reference to the comments of Paul and Barnabas. That is rhetorically shrewd, for it is their teaching that is the subject of the controversy. James wants to win his audience, and using the evidence of controversial persons is not the best way to do it.
The point of James’ speech is that God is taking the Gentiles as “a people” for himself (15:14). There is no disagreement on this. If nothing else, the experience of Cornelius proves it. Acts intimates that there is no longer any debate on whether Gentiles are being converted. James is beginning on common ground.
In his speech, he emphasizes the presence of God’s hand in the work of the apostles (15:14). In this he is echoing the thoughts of both Peter and Paul. Paul had referred to “everything God had done” (15:4) including his “wonders” (15:12); Peter said that “God made a choice” (15:7) and that “God… showed” (15:8). The three leaders are making the same point: this outreach to the Gentiles is nothing that humans dreamed up. They are only fulfilling the purpose of God.
Prophets agree (15:15)
After James cited the experiences of the apostles as dynamic encounters with God’s purpose, he refers to a text of Scripture relevant to the discussion. James says, “The words of the prophets are in agreement with this” (15:15). “This” refers to the fact that God is calling Gentiles to his church, and that he does it through faith.
Luke gives only a single example of the verses James cites in defense of the ruling he is about to make. They are the words of Amos 9:11-12. It is probably representative of the other verses James cited.
We should pay attention to the subtle way in which James uses Scripture. He doesn’t say that the experiences of Peter and Paul agreed with Scripture. Rather, James says the words of the prophet are in agreement with what God has done, that is, the conversion of the Gentiles on the basis of faith! For James, the experience of what God had done interprets the scripture, not the other way around.
It is the experience of God revealed through narrative which is given priority in this hermeneutical process: the text of Scripture does not dictate how God should act. Rather, God’s action dictates how we should understand the text of Scripture. (Johnson, page 271)
James’ decision regarding the practice of circumcision and the Jewish law by Gentile converts is based on three vital factors. It depends, first, on the revelation of God. The decision is then confirmed in the experience of the apostles. Finally, the decision is supported by a new understanding of Scripture.
Rest of humanity (15:16-18)
When we analyze the scripture James refers to, we are in for some surprises. The quotation comes mostly from the Septuagint version of Amos 9:11-12, not the Hebrew text on which English translations are based. Amos 9:12 reads this way in the NIV: “So that they [Israel] may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name” (Amos 9:12). This is a promise that the nation of Israel will possess the remaining people of Edom as well as other nations in a restored kingdom.
That is strikingly different from the Greek Septuagint version of Amos 9:12 which reads like this: “That the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name” (the NIV of Acts 15:17). Here, the remnant of Israel seeks the Lord together with the Gentiles. Thus, all people are invited to become part of the people of God in a restored kingdom.
The Septuagint version allows James to support his contention that the people of God should include Gentiles as well as Jews. God’s people consist of a restored remnant of Israel and the nations as part of David’s rebuilt nation.
Some commentators object that James would not use the Septuagint version in Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem. But the council might have been conducted in Greek, since the representatives from Antioch might not know Aramaic. In addition, James might be using a Hebrew text that agrees more closely with the Septuagint than the Masoretic. (The Masoretic is the basic Hebrew text from which the Old Testament is translated into English.) Parts of Amos 9:11-12 are quoted in the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls, and they agree with James’ version of this verse.
By quoting Amos 9:11-12, James is saying that the promised enlargement of “David’s fallen tent” (Israel) over Gentile nations is taking place in the church, the new Israel. The Gentile mission is the instrument by which Gentiles are becoming part of this new “tent,” the church.
The Hebrew and Greek versions are different, and yet both say that Gentile nations are included in the future kingdom of Israel. But the use of the Septuagint version gave better support for the evangelization of Gentiles and admitting them to fellowship. No longer did Gentiles have to come through Israel, the nation, in order to become a people of God.
Subtly but surely he [James] uses the apostles’ statements to shape a new definition of ‘the people of God’ as one based on messianic faith rather than on ethnic origin or ritual observance. He establishes as a fundamental principle that the church’s responsibility is not to dictate God’s action but discern it, not to close the Scriptures to further interpretation but to open them. He asserts unequivocally that the authentic people of God is one in which all nations can share as equals, and that since God has shown himself to be without discrimination, so must the church itself. (Johnson, 280)
“It is my judgment” (15:19-20)
At the end of the meeting, James makes his decision: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19). That is, no one should require Gentiles to be circumcised or to obey other laws of Moses. There are no such entrance requirements for the family of God.
However, James does have a public-relations problem. He is refusing to discriminate against the Gentiles by making them live as Jews. But he also feels the need not to offend pious Jewish believers who have been brought up to observe such things as Old Testament food restrictions.
With this in mind, James outlines four prohibitions that the Gentile Christians should observe. These practical considerations will help keep peace in a church that includes people from two widely different cultures, Jewish and pagan. By stressing the observance of these regulations, James believes it will be easier for Christian Jews to accept Gentiles “as they are” and live in harmony with them.
The four things James asks of the Gentile Christians touch on ethical, ceremonial, and even health aspects of the law — behaviors that are particularly offensive to pious Jews.
James’ four regulations direct Christian Gentiles to “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (15:20). There are several theories about why James selects these four rules. One theory traces them to Leviticus 17-18, which gives laws applying not only to Jews but also to resident aliens within Israel.[See later for further comments on this theory.]
Three of the restrictions concern food. First, any food associated with idolatrous worship is to be avoided — especially meat offered to pagan deities in ritual sacrifices. Such meats are eaten in temple banquets, and the excess is sold in the meat markets.
In Gentile cities most of the meat for sale in shops or markets consisted of the carcasses of animals which had been used for sacrificial purposes in one or other of the pagan temples…. In the process they had been dedicated or offered to some god, represented by his statue. From the Jewish point of view, the eating of such meat condoned polytheism and was an act of sacrilege. There was the added complication that social occasions among Gentiles involving banquets or even family gatherings were often held on temple premises where sacrificial meat that was abhorrent to Jews was consumed. (Neil, 173)
The second prohibition concerns the flesh of animals that are improperly killed (hence, “strangled”), and from which the blood has not been properly drained (Leviticus 17:10, 13). This prohibition is connected with the Noachian covenant (Genesis 9:4), and is considered by Jews as being applicable to all humanity. Jewish slaughter practices ensured that an animal killed for food had its blood drained. Any slaughtered animal that comes from a non-Jewish butcher — where the blood may not have been drained — is questionable, even repulsive to Jewish sensitivities.
The third prohibition cautions Gentile Christians to avoid eating blood (Leviticus 3:17; 7:26; 17:10; 19:26; Deuteronomy 12:16, 23; 15:23). In a sense, this is an extension of the restriction on eating improperly slaughtered animals.
The three food restrictions are rather straightforward. They are something of a compromise so strict Jewish Christians will not be offended. One of the prohibitions, the ban on eating meat (or any other food) offered to idols, is not a permanent restriction.
When Paul’s congregations in Corinth later ask him about food sacrificed to idols, he says “an idol is nothing at all” (1 Corinthians 8:4). That is, food is not actually polluted just because it was offered in pagan rituals. It is physically no different than other meat. Thus, it can be eaten by Christians – but not as part of pagan worship. Paul does not want believers to participate in banquets held in pagan temples. Nor should they eat meat when someone tells them it has been offered to an idol – that is giving the meat a religious significance, and the believer should refrain, to avoid offending someone’s conscience.
Meat sold in the public shops might not be properly killed and bled, and hence might violate the decree on not eating strangled meat or blood. The Bible does not directly tell us how first-century Christians are to deal with such questions.
Sexual immorality (15:20)
A fourth restriction James imposes had to do with unchastity or sexual immorality (Greek, porneia). The New Testament condemns all forms of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18; 7:2; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Hebrews 13:4). So did Jewish writings of the time (Tobit 4:12; 8:7; Sirach 23:23). Sexual immorality is so detested in Scripture that it symbolizes idolatry (Hosea 5:4; 6:11; Ezekiel 16:15-46; 23:7-35; Jeremiah 3:6-8; 1 Corinthians 10:8 and Revelation 2:14, 20).
Fornication and adultery — sexual immorality in general — are forbidden either directly or in principle. These moral principles are already being taught to Gentile converts as elementary aspects of Christian instruction. So it seems that James does not need to mention sexual promiscuity, since this is forbidden among all Christians — Gentile or Jewish — as much as it is among Jews. Many pagan Gentiles also recognize the evils of sexual immorality.
Why, then, does James mention sexual immorality? He may be referring to something quite specific when he forbids porneia. That may be breaches in the special incest regulations of Leviticus 18. (These come after the prohibition of eating blood in Leviticus 17.) Those regulations forbid sexual relations with close relatives. They also forbid adultery with neighbors (18:19); homosexual activities (18:22); and sex with animals (18:23). But the laws of Leviticus 18 are mainly a corrective to various forms of incest that may have been prevalent in the pagan world of the time.
Is incest a problem in the first-century church? It was in Corinth. The very kind of sexual immorality James writes about occurred in the Corinthian church. A man is having sexual relations with “his father’s wife,” presumably his step-mother (1 Corinthians 5:1).
The situation is so bad that Paul says not even the pagans go this far. Yet, what is more shocking, the Corinthian church prides themselves on allowing this behavior! In the light of this situation, James’ injunction against sexual immorality takes on a quite practical turn.
Despite this, as Paul states, even the Gentiles tend to avoid this kind of incestuous activity. It’s reasonable to suppose that the Christian Gentiles (especially those who have some prior teaching in synagogue and church) are not committing these outrageous sexual offenses to any great degree.
The reason James insists on mentioning this, and the other proscriptions, was primarily for the benefit of the Jewish Christians. He wants more to relieve their fears than to correct any widespread disregard of these laws within the church. He wants to assure them that such immorality will not be allowed. (Though, as we see in Corinth, violations can occur.)
The prohibitions are neither new to these Gentile converts nor a burden to them. This implies that they would have learned of the prohibitions through their association with the synagogue, and would have already been observing them. Looked at in this light, the prohibitions themselves clearly seem to fit within the sort of requirements for “proselytes and sojourners” already spelled out in Leviticus 17-18, and elaborated in the rabbinic discussions of the so called “Noachian precepts.” These were the commandments given to the sons of Noah for observance. (Johnson, 273)
In the first century, people eat with others only if they share the same values. In the church, eating together symbolizes spiritual oneness (1 Corinthians 10:14-17). Thus, James’ ruling provides the understanding for a safe and wholehearted table-fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. [For a more detailed analysis of James’ decree, with a different emphasis, see below.]
Moses is preached (15:21)
James has declared that the church should not make it difficult for the Gentiles by requiring them to observe a Jewish way of life. He then lays out four prohibitions for the Gentiles to follow, as described above. James then concludes by saying: “Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (15:21). This statement seems puzzling. Why does James refer to Moses?
One answer is that James is stressing the reason for the four prohibitions. James would be saying that there are Jewish communities everywhere who regularly hear the law of Moses read in the synagogues, and the four prohibitions are part of their most fundamental beliefs — and they determine their life-style. The Christian Gentiles should therefore respect Jewish beliefs, and practice them as well.
However, it seems James is doing more than making a concession to Jewish scruples. After all, circumcision is a much more venerable institution, and James lays it aside. Clearly, the prohibition on sexual immorality, for example, has intrinsic value. It is more than a public relations ploy, since it is important in governing family values and relationships.
Perhaps James’ reference to Moses being preached is his way of saying that the four principles he set out are rooted in the Torah. They are the norms the Torah sets down for proselytes and sojourners, and they have value for the Christian life, whether Jewish or Gentile. In that case, James would be saying the following: These principles have been preached from the Torah (Moses) since earliest times and are so today each Sabbath in the synagogues. That underscores their importance. Unlike circumcision or ritual washings, these principles (James might be arguing) have intrinsic worth. The problem here, however, is that one might question whether the ban on food offered to idols had permanent merit. Later, Paul himself seems to compromise it.
A third way to understand James’ statement in 15:21 is to see him giving what he feels are the basic essentials of Christian observance in such matters as food and sex. This would be due to Jewish sensitivities. The decree might be given to calm Jewish Christian fears that the Torah is going to be disregarded. In this theory, James is saying that if Christian Gentiles want to find out more details about the Jewish law, then it is up to them to do so. The church will make no more prohibitions, or concessions to Jewish feelings. Interested Christian Gentiles can attend the local synagogue for further instruction — if they so desire.
Yet another possibility is that James is mentioning a different reason for publishing the decree: There are synagogues all around teaching decrees that do not apply to Gentile Christians. James is advocating a far more lenient approach – that they should not make it so difficult for Gentile converts, and he says that the lenient decree needs to be published because so many synagogues are teaching the legalistic way.
The whole church (15:22)
James’ proposal is accepted by the apostles, the elders and “the whole church” (15:22). That is an important point. Now, almost everyone is on the same page regarding the matter of Jewish beliefs and practices.
The extremist Jews lose the argument, and the church embarks on a more liberal policy. It makes a fundamental statement about the Hebrew Scriptures as well: The church is released from following a strictly literal interpretation of Scripture. Its own experience with God is a more vital element in determining its policy. In the right circumstance, experience can interpret Scripture instead of the Scripture always determining church policy.
The meeting allows Luke to legitimate in formal fashion the Gentile mission: the human church now catches up with the divine initiative, and formally declares itself on the side of God’s plan to save all humanity. Second, the debate enables Luke to define more precisely the basis for this legitimacy, by establishing faith as the basis of salvation (and of inclusion within God’s people) for all, both Gentiles and Jews. (Johnson, 268)
Also, Paul’s mission and person are now publicly legitimated in the church. Though Paul insists that he received the gospel by revelation and does not need human vindication (Galatians 1:11-12), church members in general have no way of being convinced of this. A formal agreement by the leading apostles gives comfort to both Jews and Gentiles that the path the church is choosing is within God’s will.
James’ ruling marginalizes a hard-core group of Jewish Christians who are permanently opposed to Paul. They will continue to be a source of friction in the church for decades to come. This, too, is an important part of the story of the apostolic church.
Judas and Silas (15:22)
A letter regarding James’ decision is drafted and sent to the churches in Antioch, as well as the provinces of Syria and Cilicia (15:22-23). Two leading members of the Jerusalem congregation, Judas Barsabbas and Silas, are appointed to take the letter and read it to the various congregations. They do more than carry the letter: They give personal witness that the letter is authentic, and as authorized representatives of the apostles, they can answer whatever questions arise.
We are introduced to Judas and Silas as “some of their own men” (15:22) who are prophets (15:32). These leaders represent the viewpoint of the apostles and the Jerusalem church, lest anyone think that Paul was twisting the decision of the church. (The Jerusalem church wisely had Judas and Silas, not Paul, read James’ letter.)
We know nothing of Judas Barsabbas, though some have speculated he may have been the brother of Joseph Barsabbas (1:23). Joseph was one of two men selected to possibly replace Judas Iscariot. Neither Judas nor Joseph appears again in Luke’s story.
On the other hand, Silas plays a key role as Paul’s future partner in missionary work (15:40-41; 16:19, 25, 29; 17:4, 10; 14-15; 18:5). Like Paul, he is a Roman citizen (16:37). Silas is generally identified with Silvanus (a Latin name), a co-worker Paul mentions several times in his letters (2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1). Peter also mentions a Silas, who may be the same individual (1 Peter 5:12).
A letter to believers (15:23-29)
Luke reproduces, at least in summary, the letter crafted by the council regarding circumcision. It is addressed to the Gentile Christians in Antioch, the church that serves as a kind of headquarters for the Gentile mission. It is also addressed to the churches in the provinces of Syria and Cilicia, who presumably were the most affected by the controversy. (Syria-Cilicia was the double province of which Antioch was the capital.)
James’ letter apparently is not sent to the entire church. However, as Paul later travels from town to town in Galatia, he delivers “the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey” (16:4).
The letter begins by acknowledging that the extremist Christian Jews who stirred up the controversy over circumcision came from Jerusalem. But they did so “without our authorization” (15:24). Thus, the letter rebukes the Judaizers for overstepping their authority in laying down requirements Jerusalem had not agreed to.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in 1995 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
Barnabas and Paul (the letter mentions Paul in second place) are called “our dear friends” (15:25) and “men who have risked their lives” for the gospel (15:26). Paul, the letter is saying, is held in the warmest regards by Jerusalem. Thus, James, Peter and the Jerusalem church make it clear that they stand together with Paul and Barnabas in what they have been teaching. The church presents itself as unified against the Judaizers.
The letter next appeals to divine guidance in the circumcision matter by saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (15:28). The Holy Spirit is called the author of Jerusalem’s decision. The council is claiming that it reached its decision under the guidance of God through the Holy Spirit. The letter ends with a restatement of the four requirements. The decrees were the same ones given in verse 20, except for a slight change in order.
The final statement in James’ letter tells the Gentile Christians: “You will do well to avoid these things” (15:29). It does not even say that people must avoid these things in order to be saved; it just says that it is good to avoid these things.
Luke gives us evidence of the letter being read in three localities where a Gentile mission occurred: Antioch of Syria (15:30-35), Syria and Cilicia (15:46-41), and the southern part of Galatia (16:1-4).
Judas and Silas read the decision in Antioch, and their message is warmly received. After encouraging everyone in the church, they return to Jerusalem (15:33). Paul and Barnabas remain in Antioch, teaching the church and preaching the gospel.
Luke’s story now takes a decisive turn. Paul and his associates will dominate the account from now on. Peter and the rest of the Twelve disappear. James and the Jerusalem church appear only once more, in 21:17-26, and then only in the context of Paul’s trip to the city.
Further Preaching in Asia Minor (Acts 15:36-16:10)
Visit the believers (15:36)
After the Jerusalem Council, Luke begins to narrate Paul’s second major journey. Paul’s original objective on this trip seems to be more pastoral than missionary. Paul says to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing” (15:36).
Paul apparently wants to deliver the Jerusalem decrees to these churches personally. He is encouraged to have the support of the other apostles, especially Peter and James. He knows that the Judaizers have created problems among the believers in Galatia – problems that he addresses in his letter to the Galatians, which may have been written before the Council. Now he wants to see how the churches in the region have responded to his letter.
Controversy about Mark (15:37-39)
Barnabas agrees that another trip through Galatia is in order. However, he wants to take Mark as an assistant. Paul refuses, and their disagreement over Mark is so bitter “that they parted company” (15:39).
The story of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas does not make pleasant reading, but Luke’s realism in recording it helps us to remember that the two men, as they themselves said to the people of Lystra, were “human beings with feelings like” any other (The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988], page 301).
Paul believes that Mark’s refusal to go with the missionaries into Galatia during the first missionary trip amounted to desertion (15:38). Perhaps Mark has some defect in his character that makes him unreliable.
On the contrary, Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement,” sees some promising qualities in Mark and wants to give him experience and training. Mark is his cousin, and Barnabas knows the family traits (Colossians 4:10). Or perhaps family loyalty was more important to Barnabas than commitment to the work.
In the end, Mark proved Barnabas right, and perhaps Paul was being too hard-nosed (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 23). Years later, Paul would say to Timothy of the young man he had once rejected: “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Actually, both Paul and Barnabas may be right: Mark would do poorly under Paul’s leadership, but would grow while helping Barnabas.
Barnabas has occupied a central part in Luke’s story as a trusted representative of the Jerusalem church (11:22-24). He has been vital to Paul’s work and his relationship to the church — as his associate on the first missionary tour (13:1-14:28); for intervening on his behalf with Jerusalem (9:27); in recruiting him for missionary work at Antioch (11:25-26); and in supporting his Gentile mission at the Jerusalem conference (15:12).
But after separating from Paul, Barnabas is not again mentioned in Acts. Luke’s story is about Paul, not anyone else. Barnabas is referred to in passing in only three other places in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 2:1, 9, 13; Colossians 4:10). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of his and Barnabas’ need to get jobs in order to support themselves while doing missionary work. Since this epistle was written after the split between the two men, it indicates that they worked together again, or at least had buried their differences.
Paul chooses Silas (15:40-41)
Barnabas takes Mark and sails for Cyprus, presumably to visit the churches on that island (15:39). Luke doesn’t tell us anything about this mission, probably because it isn’t a trip that advances the gospel toward Rome.
Paul chooses Silas as his missionary partner and sets out on a tour of the churches in eastern Asia Minor. Silas (or Silvanus) is a good choice as an associate. He was a leader in the Jerusalem church, and can speak with authority on its behalf (15:12, 27). He is a prophet (15:32) and a Roman citizen (16:27). He is respected in the church as well as in the wider Roman society.
With Silas, Paul begins his trip by traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches in these provinces (15:41). But what begins as a pastoral visit turns into an extensive missionary journey through large parts of Asia Minor, as well as Macedonia and Greece. It is on this missionary tour that the gospel reaches the eastern frontier of Europe.