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Acts 15 records the deliberation and decision of a council of Apostles and elders who convened to address a controversy that arose in a single city but would affect the church around the world and across the ages. Here the Holy Spirit gives us insight into how the living and ascended Christ governs His church through His human undershepherds.

The issue confronting the Jerusalem Council arose repeatedly in the days of the Apostles: Must gentile believers in Jesus submit to circumcision (and, implicitly, to kosher dietary laws and other ceremonial regulations of the law of Moses)? Some in the Jerusalem church had criticized the Apostle Peter for eating with “uncircumcised men,” the Roman centurion Cornelius and his associates. But Peter’s report of God’s indisputable initiative to bestow His Spirit on Cornelius silenced the critics’ objections—momentarily (Acts 10–11). Later, writing to churches in Galatia and Philippi, Paul opposed those who would force gentiles to “Judaize,” submitting to circumcision and adhering to the law’s ceremonial and judicial regulations. The heart of the controversy concerned the gospel itself: Are sinful people—whether Jews or gentiles—justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Or should gentiles (and Jews) be told that, in addition to trusting Jesus, their own law-keeping is indispensable?

The debate erupted in the congregations of Antioch in Syria, the third-largest city of the Roman Empire. Believers scattered after Stephen’s martyrdom had brought the gospel to Antioch, sharing it not only with Jews but also with Greek-speaking gentiles. Many came to faith by “the hand of the Lord” (Acts 11:19–21). From Antioch the Holy Spirit had sent Barnabas and Paul to carry the gospel to Cyprus and into Roman provinces in what is now Turkey (13:1–3). They returned to Antioch and reported “all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:26–27). But then Judean teachers arrived and confronted gentile believers: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1). Paul and Barnabas vigorously opposed those teachers, but the church leadership in Antioch could not resolve the conflict. They wisely decided to refer the matter to the leaders of the mother church in Jerusalem.

The council’s procedure and its decision remain instructive for our churches today.

A precedent for bringing difficult cases to a wider circle of elders is found in the Lord’s provision for Israel’s peace and justice after the exodus from Egypt. When the Israelites’ interpersonal disputes overwhelmed Moses’ stamina to arbitrate, seventy elders were endowed with God’s Spirit to function as an intermediate court of appeal between tribal elders and Moses (Num. 11:16–30). When Israel entered the Promised Land, city elders, priests, and judges were to oversee the peace and purity of the covenant community (Deut. 19:15–21; 21:1–9, 18–21; 31:9–13).

Presbyterians sometimes say, partially tongue-in-cheek, that Acts 15 records the church’s first “general assembly.” In some ways, however, this council was unlike later church councils and later denominations’ annual (or regular) synods and assemblies. First, this council did not have representative elders from the churches that had been established by that point—in Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Syria, Cyprus, Pisidia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. Instead, the council was composed exclusively of elders of the Jerusalem church. This reflected the Jerusalem church’s maturity and its role in planting the congregations of Antioch (and, through Antioch, elsewhere), as well as the presence of the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1, 14; 11:1).

Second, unlike our regular/annual denominational assemblies but like ecumenical councils in the following centuries (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc.), the Jerusalem Council was convened to address a specific, major theological issue.

Third, unlike those patristic councils and their successors in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communions, the Jerusalem Council included Apostles, Jesus’ hand-chosen, Spirit-inspired witnesses, whose testimony laid the foundation of the church’s faith (Acts 1:1–8; Eph. 2:20–22; 3:4–5). The Westminster Confession of Faith implies this feature of the Jerusalem Council when it states: “All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice; but to be used as a help in both” (31.3). Decisions of later councils, whether international or regional, are useful but not infallible guides.

Regarding the crucial issue of salvation, the Apostles and elders plainly repudiated the demand that gentile believers be circumcised.

Nevertheless, despite these distinctives of the Jerusalem Council, the council’s procedure and its decision remain instructive for our churches today. First, the question was decided not by a single Apostle or by the Apostles exclusively but rather by a gathering of elders with Apostles. These elders, the new covenant successors of Israel’s elders, first appear in Acts 11:30. Their shared responsibility for overseeing God’s church is described by Paul in Acts 20:17–35.

Second, the connectional unity of visible churches in different regions is expressed in the decision in Antioch to refer the controversy to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem. We see this connectionalism also at the outcome of the process, when the council’s ruling is communicated not only to the churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 15:23, 30–35) but also to congregations in Asia Minor (16:1–5). The question arose in Antioch and was answered in Jerusalem, but the council’s verdict applied to all churches everywhere. These Apostolic churches were not independent but were connected and interdependent.

Third, the issue was resolved by weighing eyewitness testimony in the light of Scripture, through pastoral wisdom. During the council no new word of revelation was spoken through an Apostle or a prophet. This is striking. Previously, Christians responded to new revelations conveyed through prophets (Acts 11:27–30; 13:1–3). An angel, a vision, and a word from the Spirit had brought Peter to Cornelius’ home (10:1–6, 10–20) to observe God’s gracious welcome to uncircumcised gentiles (15:7–11). But in the council, Peter simply gave his testimony to those events. Then Barnabas and Paul recounted the signs and wonders that God had done among the gentiles through them (see chs. 13–14). So Peter, Barnabas, and Paul simply bore witness to the Spirit’s previous initiatives to embrace gentiles by grace through faith. Then James, who apparently presided (since the council’s letter reflects his speech), put all this eyewitness evidence into biblical perspective, citing Amos 9:11–12 as fulfilled in the expanding kingdom of Jesus, David’s royal son. In this council, then, the Apostles stood alongside the elders as “fellow elders” (1 Peter 5:1), rather than over the elders as God’s inspired spokesmen. The issue was resolved not by a new word from the Lord but by the Spirit’s gentle guidance to elders who wisely assessed evidence in the light of the Bible.

We can trust the great Shepherd of the sheep to direct and protect His flock, even through His finite, fallible, but dependent under-shepherds.

Fourth, the council reached a decision that was faithful to the gospel. Regarding the crucial issue of salvation, the Apostles and elders plainly repudiated the demand that gentile believers be circumcised. James argued, “My judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (Acts 15:19), and the council’s letter conveyed that decision (vv. 23–28). Not surprisingly, the letter brought great joy to gentile Christians (v. 31).

Alongside this unequivocal affirmation of the gospel, the council also urged gentiles to distance themselves from “what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” (v. 29). Some scholars understand this fourfold prohibition as pastoral advice to observe a few Mosaic ceremonial regulations (Lev. 17:8–13; 18:6–20) for the sake of the church’s reputation among Jews, who heard Moses read every Sabbath (Acts 15:21). However, “sexual immorality” violates not merely the ceremonial law but also the moral law, and all four practices were combined in pagan idolatry. So, it is better to see the fourfold ban as calling gentiles to make a sharp, public break from the worship practices of their pagan past. We find the same summons in 1 Corinthians 8:4–13; 10:14–22; and Revelation 2:14–15, 20–21.

Finally, having weighed reliable evidence in the light of Scripture, with God-given wisdom, the Apostles and elders were confident that the Spirit of their risen Lord had brought them to consensus. So, they boldly introduced their decision: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). Living after the “age of the Apostles,” we must humbly acknowledge that, though we strive to base our decisions on evidence and Scripture, our councils, assemblies and synods, presbyteries and classes nevertheless “may err” (as the Westminster Confession says). So, we will not lightly claim that what seems good to us also seems good to the Holy Spirit. Yet we can still claim Jesus’ promise that where His undershepherds gather in His name, prayerfully mindful of their weighty responsibility to “bind and loose” on earth what has been bound and loosed in heaven, Christ our risen Lord is “there among them” through His Holy Spirit (Matt. 18:17–20). We can trust the great Shepherd of the sheep to direct and protect His flock, even through His finite, fallible, but dependent undershepherds.

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