The book of Acts tells the story of the gospel’s progress under the reign of Christ through the ministry of His apostles. Acts is not, however, a story of progress without conflict. The story of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 recounts one of the conflicts faced by the early church and teaches us how God led the church’s authorized leaders through a process of debate and deliberation to a decision that, in the end, served the further progress of the gospel.
The Jerusalem Council was precipitated by a serious controversy concerning the nature of salvation. The controversy began when certain unauthorized teachers (Acts 15:24) came down from Judea to the newly formed Gentile church in Antioch, teaching them that circumcision and obedience to the law of Moses were necessary for salvation (vv. 1, 5). Paul and Barnabas perceived that this teaching contradicted the truth of the gospel, and so they opposed it directly. The result, Luke tells us, was “no small dissension and debate” (v. 2). Given the weight of the issue, and also the magnitude of the dispute, the church in Antioch found it necessary to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to petition the apostles and the elders for assistance.
In response to the Antiochene church’s request for help, “the apostles and the elders … gathered together to consider this matter” (v. 6). We may better understand Luke’s presentation of the Jerusalem Council by addressing three questions related to the way they deliberated over “this matter”: Who decides? How do they decide? What do they decide?
Note, first, who is responsible for deciding the issue at hand: “the apostles and the elders.” Luke repeatedly draws our attention (5 times) to the role played by the apostles and the elders at the Jerusalem Council (vv. 2, 4, 6, 22–23). It is not remarkable, of course, that the apostles would play an important role. After all, they had been responsible for leading the Jerusalem Church from its inception (2:42–43; 4:33, 35, 37; 5:29; 6:1–6; 8:1, 14; 9:27; 11:1). What is perhaps remarkable is the role of the elders, a group only mentioned for the first time in Acts 11:30.
What is the significance of the elders’ role at this stage of the story? It seems Luke wants to show us that a transition in leadership is taking place. As the apostles’ foundational role in establishing the church is coming to an end (consider how Peter disappears from Luke’s narrative after Acts 15), the leadership of the early church is in the process of transitioning into the hands of the elders (20:17–38). Along with the apostles, they now bear the responsibility for deciding the matter at hand.
How do they decide?
Note, second, how the apostles and elders decide the issue at hand: by reflecting upon God’s unfolding plan of salvation as revealed in God’s Word.
As Peter insists, the church’s decision on this matter must correspond to what God had done in bringing His plan of salvation to pass. Peter reminds the council that God had chosen to speak to the Gentiles by his mouth, that God had caused the Gentiles to hear and to believe the gospel (15:7), and that God had borne witness to the reality of the Gentiles’ conversion “by giving them the Holy Spirit” (v. 8), the sure sign of divine favor and blessing. According to Peter, then, adding further requirements for obtaining salvation (like circumcision and law-keeping) beyond what God had done when He saved the Gentiles amounted to “putting God to the test” (v. 10).
Moreover, as the preceding paragraph suggests, there was no mystery at the council about who had the authority to speak on God’s behalf when it came to His plan for the Gentiles. God Himself had revealed His plan through His authoritative spokesmen, the apostles and the prophets. God’s apostolic Word is given a voice through Peter at the council. It is Peter who “related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name” (v. 14). Moreover, God’s prophetic Word is given a voice through James, who quotes Amos 9:11–12 in his speech to the council and alludes to a host of other Old Testament passages as well (see Acts 15:13–21). As James asserts, God’s prophetic and apostolic words “agree” (v. 15) regarding His saving purpose for the Gentiles.
And thus, while it is the church’s leaders who render an authoritative decision at the Jerusalem Council, they render their decision on the basis of God’s Word, the supreme authority on which “all controversies of religion” and “all decrees of councils” are to be determined (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10).
What do they decide?
Note, third, what the apostles and elders decide at the Jerusalem Council. Having heard God’s Word on the matter, the council’s course of action was clear. As the old saying goes: sacra scriptura locuta, res decisa est (“sacred scripture has spoken, the matter is decided”). Because God saved the Gentiles by His grace, apart from their obedience to the law of Moses, the council had no authority to “trouble” them by imposing circumcision and law-keeping as requirements for salvation (Acts 15:19, 24). Instead, the council decreed that Gentile Christians should abstain “from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (v. 20). The reason being that “from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him” (v. 21).
A puzzling question arises at this point. How are we to reconcile this decision, which grants Gentile Christians freedom from observing the Mosaic law (v. 19), with the decision that seems to obligate them to observe at least some of the Mosaic law’s requirements (the four prohibitions of Acts 15:20, after all, are drawn from Leviticus 17–18)? Part of the answer may lie in an observation made by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham. According to Bauckham, the four prohibitions drawn from Leviticus 17–18 are specifically intended for Gentiles who “dwell in the midst” of Israel but who are not necessarily full-fledged proselytes (circumcised Gentiles who are obligated to keep the whole law of Moses). In other words, it appears that James finds in the law of Moses instructions for the way that Gentiles not otherwise obligated to the law of Moses are to behave when surrounded by Jews.
If this line of reasoning is correct, then it seems that the council’s decision reflects a deep theological insight regarding the nature of the gospel and regarding the freedom from the Law that the gospel brings. On the one hand, because the council recognizes that Gentiles are saved by grace alone and not on the basis of good works (Eph. 2:8–9), they forbid placing the burden of the Mosaic law on Gentiles as a requirement for salvation. On the other hand, because the council recognizes that Gentiles are saved for good works (Eph. 2:10), they require them to use their freedom as an opportunity to serve their Jewish neighbors who live alongside them “in every city” (Acts 15:21). By refraining from the things prohibited in Acts 15:20, Gentile Christians will avoid putting any unnecessary stumbling blocks in the path of their Jewish neighbors and in so doing may perhaps “win some” to Christ (see 1 Cor. 9:19–23).
The Jerusalem Council thus avoids two significant errors concerning the relationship between law and gospel. They avoid legalism, which makes obedience to God a necessary condition for salvation. And they avoid antinomianism, which denies that obedience to God is a necessary consequence of salvation.
The Apostolic Decree
The letter issued in Acts 15:22–29, the so-called “Apostolic Decree,” summarizes the decision reached by the Jerusalem Council. Because the decree was issued by the church’s authorized leaders, in accordance with God’s saving purpose, and under the supreme authority of God’s Word, it bore decisive—indeed, dogmatic—authority for the churches outside of Jerusalem (see 16:4, where the “decisions” are literally dogmata [Gk.]). When delivered to its recipients in Antioch, the decree brought rejoicing, encouragement, strength, and peace (15:31–33). Ultimately, the decree reached beyond Antioch to other Gentile churches. Acts 16:5 describes the result: “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.”
False teaching “troubles” and “unsettles” the church (15:24). Acts 15 exemplifies one path of recourse for the church when the trouble caused by false teaching reaches epidemic proportions. Throughout its history, the church has followed the example of Acts 15 on many occasions. One thinks not only of the ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and so forth, but also of the Westminster Assembly. When the church has followed the example of the Jerusalem Council, it has discovered that councils are a God-ordained means for promoting the peace and purity of the church and the furtherance of the gospel to the greater glory of God.