EXCERPT: The Church Council in Acts 15 agreed that Gentiles are not subject to the Law of Moses, but Jewish Christians continued to live according to the Law and customs.
Antioch was the second most important city in the history of the early church, behind only Jerusalem. There were more Jews living in Antioch at this time than in any other city outside Judea. It became the cradle of Gentile Christianity.
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and taught that Gentiles must be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5). In other words, in their view, these Gentiles must still be converted to Judaism. Their demands were met with firm resistance from Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:2), and it was decided to refer the matter to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem for a decision (15:2).
A church council meeting was called in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Peter maintained that Gentiles must not be circumcised or be required to observe the Law of Moses (Acts 15:10). James, the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:19), acting as the head of the church in Jerusalem, then proposed “that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20). This proposal was accepted.
The decision in Acts 15 was only relevant to Gentiles (Acts 15:19). It said nothing about the Jewish Christians who still were the majority in the church. Jewish Christians continued to circumcise and abide by the Law of Moses. This is confirmed in Acts 21, where it is recorded that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were “zealous for the Law“ (Acts 21:20). But they were concerned that Paul was “teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts 21:21). They requested Paul to show that this is not true, but “that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law” (Acts 21:24).
This resulting in a separation in the early church between Jewish Christians, who observed the Law of Moses, and Gentile Christians, who did not.
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
After their first missionary journey (described in Acts 13-14) Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2; 14:20) returned to Antioch (14:26), from where they also started that journey (Acts 14:26). In Antioch they spent a long time with the disciples (Acts 14:28). When some men came down from Judea and taught, “Unless you are circumcised … you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1), Paul and Barnabas had a great argument with them (Acts 15:2). The brethren in Antioch then decided that Paul and Barnabas and some others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue (Acts 15:2).
After they have arrived at Jerusalem, the apostles and the elders came together to discuss this question (Acts 15:5-6):
Some members of the sect of the Pharisees, who had accepted Christ, said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).
Peter stood up and recounted his visit to Cornelius, where God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles, ”just as He also did to us“ (Acts 15:8). “He (God) made no distinction between us and them” (Acts 15:9). Peter maintained that Gentiles must not be circumcised or be required to observe the Law of Moses (Acts 15:10). In contrast to some Jewish Christians’ view that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1), Peter’s position was “that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:11).
“All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12).
James, the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:19), who seemed to have acted as the head of the church in Jerusalem, then argued that the prophets agree with Peter’s position (Acts 15:14-18), and proposed “that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20).
This proposal was accepted, and the apostles and the elders of Jerusalem sent two leading men with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, together with the letter as proposed by James (Acts 15:22-29). When the believers in Antioch read this letter, they rejoiced (Acts 15:30-31). Afterward, Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord (Acts 15:35).
Antioch is not mentioned much in the New Testament, probably because none of the New Testament letters are addressed to the church in Antioch. But Antioch really was a very important city in the early history of Christianity. In Paul’s day, it was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire (after Rome and Alexandria), capital of the Roman province of Syria, and located about 300 miles north of Jerusalem. It was the second most important city in the history of the early church, behind only Jerusalem. It had a large and flourishing Jewish colony, among the predominantly ‘Greek’ (meaning non-Jewish or Gentile) population. The Jewish historian Josephus records that there were more Jews living in Antioch at this time than in any other city of the world outside Judea. These Jews offered an immediate field for Christian teaching. It was perhaps the first place in which large numbers of Gentiles joined the church. One of the first seven deacons was Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch (Acts 6:5). Antioch was Paul’s starting point in his three missionary journeys (Acts 13:1; 15:36; 18:23), and thither he returned from the first two as to his headquarters (Acts 14:26; Acts 18). It is possible to call Antioch the cradle or the mother-church of Gentile Christianity. It was at the instance of the church at Antioch that the council at Jerusalem decided to relieve Gentile Christians of the burden of the Jewish law (Acts 15).
It was agreed by the church leaders in Acts 10 and 11 that Gentiles are not to be regarded as unclean, that Jews may associate and eat with Gentiles and that Gentiles may be baptized into the church.
However, some of the Jewish Christians—particularly the strict Pharisees (Acts 15:5)—believed that Gentiles, after they have come to faith in Jesus, and after they have been baptized, must still be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses (Acts 15:5). In other words, in their view, these Gentiles must still be converted to Judaism. Otherwise, they argued, these Gentiles cannot be saved (Acts 15:1). They could point to the fact that all other church members, being Jews and proselytes (Acts 2:10), were circumcised and do observe the Law of Moses.
Those same Pharisees traveled to Galatia to promote their views. This resulted in Paul’s angry letter to the Galatians in which he accused them of distorting the gospel (Acts 1:7). (As argued elsewhere on this website, Galatians was written before the Acts 15 Church Council decision.)
Now, somewhere in AD 48 to AD 50, about 10 years after the Gentiles first received the Holy Spirit and about 20 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, these Pharisees decided to also take their beliefs to Antioch (Acts 14:26; 15:1); the mother church of Gentile Christianity. In Antioch, their demands were met with firm resistance from Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:2), and it was decided to refer the matter to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem for a decision (15:2).
A church council meeting was called in Jerusalem (Acts 15). After the Christian Pharisees explained their position, Peter stood up to talk. Peter was the one chosen by God to receive the vision in Acts 10 and to see how the Holy Spirit falls on Gentiles for the first time (Acts 10:24, 44). However, in Antioch, he failed to live up to that revelation (Gal 2:11-13) and Paul had to rebuke the Jewish Christians strongly (Gal 2:14-21). But now at the church council in Jerusalem Peter is willing to stand up and correct his previous mistake. In the first years of the church, when it was still limited to Jerusalem (Acts 1-6), Peter was the main spokesman. Now, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, he has the humility to accept correction.
Next “Barnabas and Paul .. were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). These “signs and wonders” provide further support for the view that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised or observe the Law of Moses.
Lastly, James made his proposal, which was accepted.
It must have been difficult for the proud Jewish mind to accept that they are no longer God’s chosen people. The decision of the council required humility; showing that God controlled His people by His Spirit.
ZEALOUS FOR THE LAW
After the Council’s decision, Jewish Christians continued to circumcise and abide by the Law of Moses. The decision in Acts 15 was only relevant to “those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:19). It said nothing about the Jewish Christians who still were the majority in the church.
This is confirmed by Acts 21. Here is recorded a visit by Paul to Jerusalem about 10 years after the decision in Acts 15. After his arrival (Acts 21:17) the leaders of the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:18) said to him:
“You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law“ (Acts 21:20).
They continued and said that these Jewish Christians “have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts 21:21). Note the distinction they made between Jewish and Gentile Christians. They were not concerned if the Gentile Christians would “forsake Moses” and the “customs”. They were concerned only about the Jews “who are among the Gentiles”. In Judea there was no concern, indicating that they were all zealous for the Law of Moses and for the traditions (customs).
They then requested Paul to show to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem that this is not true, but to show “that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law” (Acts 21:24). They, therefore, expected Paul himself to keep the Law and the traditions. They asked him to prove this by performing a purification rite (Acts 21:23-24).
The church leaders in Jerusalem concluded their request by confirming the decision that “the Gentiles who have believed” are not subject to the Law of Moses (Acts 21:25), again indicating the sharp distinction they made between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
Paul complied with their request (Acts 21:26). He later explained:
“To the Jews, I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; … though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law (Gentiles), as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law (Gentiles).” (1 Cor 9 20-21)
These verses are important for a correct understanding of what Paul did. He himself was not “under the Law” (of Moses), but “under the law of Christ” which refers to Christ’s teachings. But to win as many as possible people for Christ he lived like a Jew when he was with Jews and lived like a Gentile when he was with Gentiles.
UNITY OF THE CHURCH
Had Paul attempted to settle the matter himself, acting on his own apostolic authority at Antioch, this might easily have created a breach between the Jewish church in Jerusalem and the Gentile church in Antioch. But by referring the matter to the mother church in Jerusalem for a decision, the unity of the church was maintained.
ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES
1. Jerusalem Phase – the church consisted of Jews only.
2. Judea and Samaria Phase – all Christians still observed the Law of Moses.
3. Gentile Dispute Phase starts when a dispute arose whether Gentile Christians must observe the Law of Moses.
4. The Separation Phase started when the Jerusalem Council decided that Gentile Christians do not have to observe the Law of Moses.
5. This history has theological implications for the New Testament letters.
6. Estimated dates for significant events in the history of the early church.
See Early Church Table of Contents for a more complete description of these articles.