The Jerusalem Counsel Pt 1
THE JERUSALEM COUNSEL (Acts 15:1-21)
This text records one of the most important meetings in church history. The ruling of the counsel confirmed the churches understanding of
The nature of salvation: Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone and cannot be earned or merited by any human works
The nature of the church: The church is the new covenant people of God consisting of Jews and Gentiles together in one body.
Open Bibles and read Acts 15:1-21 as we continue our study of Acts. I’ve called this message simply “the Jerusalem counsel.” Lest you think this is just another stuffy church meeting with irrelevant resolutions, let me ask you…
· Who here regularly goes shopping on a Saturday?
· Who here regularly consumes bacon and biltong?
· Who here wants or has a tattoo? (don’t answer that one)
If it were not for the Jerusalem counsel, you would have already been confronted for you rebellion and removed from church membership for such heinous crimes. The church may not have existed and it would definitely not have looked as it does, if it were not for the resolution of the Jerusalem counsel.
So let’s read Acts 15:1-21 and find out what this counsel was all about.
Chapter 15 marks the centre of the book of Acts and highlights its central point.
· One writer calls is “the turning point, ‘centrepiece’ and ‘watershed’ of the book” He goes on to explain that this chapter “rounds off and justifies past developments, and makes those to come possible.” (Stott, 241)
· Another writer says, “It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of what was accomplished at the Jerusalem counsel.” (Harrison, 239). He goes on to explain that
o The gospel of divine grace was reaffirmed
o The unity of the church was safeguarded
o And the future of the church as a whole was guaranteed.
· There has not been a more important meeting or counsel in church history, than the one which we read about here.
· The truth of the gospel, the unity of the church and the evangelization of the world literally rested on this decision.
There are two major questions which must be answered here, which are interconnected
1. The nature of salvation: How is someone saved, or brought into a right relationship with God?
2. The nature of the church: Who makes up the people of God and how does one come to be a member of that special people?
So this morning I want to consider this text under those 2 headings, the nature of salvation and the nature of the church.
1: THE NATURE OF SALVATION (15:1-11)
· The key verse in Acts 1:8 = geographical + cultural expansion
· Acts 10 God gives Peter a vision and saves first Gentiles
· Acts 11:1-4 They are not happy at first, but accept Peter’s testimony – Acts 11:16-18
· The gospel continues to spread and a church is established at Antioch which sends out Paul and Barnabas as the first missionaries to the regions beyond. Acts 13-14 records the first missionary journey. Both Jews and Gentiles come to faith and are gathered into local churches in every place and Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch to report back to the church.
· Acts 15:1 “But” stands in contrast to what has preceded. 14:27 “God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” But some men were teaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation. Faith in Jesus was not enough.
· Salvation was not by grace alone through faith alone – it had to be accompanied by works.
· This is a crisis because the very heart of the gospel, the nature of salvation is being contradicted and these men came down from Judea, not only seeming to be part of the church, but seeming to be representatives of James the leader of the church at Jerusalem.
Paul describes this event in his letter to the Galatians in Gal 2:11-16
Their influence in Galatia (Gal 2:11-16)
· VS 11 Peter had come up to visit the believers at Antioch and presumably spent some time there teaching and discipling them. He had personally received a vision from God indicating that the Gentiles were no longer to be regarded as unclean, but God had accepted people from every nation. So in Acts 10 he had gone with Cornelius and entered their house and ate with them and preached the gospel and witnessed their conversion.
· So when he goes up to Antioch, he sees a similar situation, but just on a much larger scale. Not just one household but a whole church of gentiles who had come to faith and become part of the believing community through baptism.
· But then along come these Judizers, as they are sometimes called. Professing Christians with a Jewish background who believed that the Gentiles were saved from God’s wrath and brought into a right relationship with him by faith in Christ and obedience to the law.
· They are so forceful and influential that even Peter and Barnabas are lead astray and begin to side with them and withdraw from the Gentile portion of the church.
· There are two issues here – the nature and unity of the church, which we will pick up on in a moment, and the nature of salvation.
· Paul confronts them on both accounts.
o 14: Their behaviour is hypocritical, not in keeping with the gospel and a threat to the unity of the church.
o 15-16: And their doctrine is all wrong – salvation, or justification, or being rescued from God’s wrath and restored to a right relationship with Him – is accomplished by trusting in the perfect righteousness of Christ, and His sufficient sacrifice for sin - and not by trusting in ourselves and our good works or religious rituals.
· He goes on to remind them in Gal 3:2-3 that they received God’s Spirit as the sign and seal of God’s acceptance of them – in response to their faith in Christ and not in response to any works of righteousness.
· Gal 5:2-4 He goes on to say it in even stronger terms. Not only is circumcision worthless, but if the Gentiles submit to it as a necessary means of salvation – then they are obligated to keep the whole law. In so doing they are effectively taking their faith out of Christ as the only and all sufficient means of justification before God and instead placing their faith in their own works or religious rituals. This is to fall away from Christ, from justification by grace and to be eternally condemned under the tyranny of the law.
· As you can see, there is no neutral ground in this issue for Paul. The whole letter of Galatians is a refutation of this doctrine which undermined the very heart of the gospel. We are saved or justified by grace, through faith in Christ and not through any goodness or works of our own.
· As He says in Eph 2:8-9 it is by grace and not by works so that no-one can boast.
The DELEGATION TO JERUSALEM (2-6)
So this is what the New Testament teaches. Acts 15 is recording the historical event, the counsel which wrestled with this issue – how is someone saved and came to the definitive conclusion – by grace through faith.
· 2: After the church at Antioch had contended with these men, they sent a delegation up to Jerusalem to get a definitive ruling. Jerusalem was the mother church, it was the home base for all the Apostles and it was the Jerusalem church that these men claimed to be representing. They claimed to come from James the head elder of the Jerusalem church.
· 3-4: They encourage the believers in the various local churches along the way and are warmly received in Jerusalem.
· 5: So all the churches throughout the region are rejoicing over what God has been doing among the Gentiles and the Jerusalem church – leaders, Apostles and members are all very positive as well. But there is this group within the church that have this agenda. What is the Agenda – the Gentiles may convert, but they must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses or the customs of Moses as 15:1 put it.
· 6: The elders and apostles gather to carefully consider this matter. They don’t’ just put it to congregational vote. The doctrine of the church is guarded by the apostles and elders – the leaders lead.
· 7 They don’t exclude the church either. It seems once they had reached a resolution, “after much debate,” the various representatives summarized the conviction and consensus that had been reached and from vs 12 it seems that they called the entire body of believers together to hear what had been determined and why.
· So you have Peter in vs 7 summarizing things on behalf of the Apostles, Paul and Barnabas summarizing on behalf of the Gentiles and James standing up in vs 13 summarizing and concluding on behalf of the church leadership of Jerusalem.
· This is the first ecumenical counsel and the first doctrinal confession issued by the church.
Law keeping a fruit not a root of salvation
This verdict would be so controversial that it would continue to be criticised and would need to be defended on more than one occasion.
· Down through church history, blood has literally been shed over this issue.
· This is one of the central issues of the reformation – it’s the core difference between Catholics and Protestants. Are we saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone – the issues is ALONE apart from any human merit or contribution on our part.
· The Catholics says we are saved by faith in Christ, but we also need baptism, and mass, and we also need to have the last rights read to us and to have our sins absolved by confession to a Catholic Priest. So they hold to a Christ “and” view of salvation. Christ is necessary, but we also need specific works.
· The whole of Galatians is a defence against it.
· One of the criticisms levelled against salvation by grace, through faith alone – is that it then leaves people to sin with impunity. If the law doesn’t justify than what’s to stop people from living a life of flagrant sin and using God’s grace as an excuse for sin.
· Paul answers this objection in Gal 2 and in Romans 6… “Rom 6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means.” Again in Rom 6:15 “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”
· Paul’s answer is not that we ought not to continue in sin, but we cannot. Salvation is a gift which not only frees us from the penalty of sin, but the controlling power of sin. By grace God not only justifies us from our sin, but he transforms our hearts and gives us His Spirit who leads us to walk in righteousness. As he explains in Gal 5:17-18, those who are lead by the Spirit are not under law, but that same Spirit keeps us from the controlling power of sin so that our lives bear the fruit of the Spirit rather than the fruit of the flesh.
This whole issue is not about whether law keeping, or good works, or practical righteousness is an essential part of the Christian life – the issue is the significance and source of such good works.
· Does the Law produce good works, resulting in salvation?
· Or does salvation produce good works that flow from our transformation by grace?
· Both agree that good works ought to accompany salvation. But the disagreement is about whether works precede salvation and produce it or whether works follow salvation and are produced by it.
Heart transformation (15:7-11)
Note what Peter calls attention to in his speech
· 7: God made a choice, this was God’s doing, that the Gentiles might hear the gospel and believe. He highlights God’s sovereignty, God’s election unto salvation and the means by which that is accomplished – through believing the gospel.
· 8: God knows the heart, God is the only one who knows the true condition of a person’s heart and in their case He confirmed that their hearts had been cleansed and transformed by giving them the Holy Spirit.
· 9: Again this cleansing of their hearts was a gift from God in response to their faith in Christ.
· So Peter is not only emphasizing the external justification and forgiveness that was accomplished by God, but the inner cleansing and transformation of their hearts which was accomplished.
· 10: He warns and appeals in vs 10 – let us not put God to the test. Let us not be found acting against God, undoing what God has done.
· 10-11 Both Jew and Gentile are saved by grace – the Law never saved anyone. The law was merely a yolk, an unbearable burden, a hard task master which showed people their sin, but gave them no power to attain righteousness.
· KEY POINT VS 10: WE ARE SAVED FROM THE PENATLY AND POWER OF SIN – NOT BY THE LAW, BUT BY THE GRACE THAT COMES TO US THROUGH JESUS CHRIST.
· THE LAW LEADS US TO CHRIST – CHRIST LEADS US TO GOD
Illustrations – law keeping
· If your kids are playing soccer in the driveway and you come in with the car – you immediately slow down and make sure they are safe. You don’t need a road sign saying beware of children, maximum speed 40. Your heart’s desire is to preserve the safety of your children, which accomplishes more than any road sign or traffic law that could be imposed on you. Love is the fulfilment of the Law.
· If you love your spouse and children, you don’t need a judge to issue you with a court order to provide certain minimum benefits to your family. You try to find out what needs or desires they have and you find great joy in sacrificing in order to meet them. Love is the fulfilment of the Law. As Paul says in Gal 5”14 “The whole law is fulfilled in one word “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
· Gal 5:22 The fruit of the Spirit….”against these things there is no law and those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
A transformed heart more than fulfils the requirements of the law. But a transformed heart doesn’t come from the law but is a gift from God received by faith.
This is why the basis of Christian sanctification, growth in holiness or growth in Christian character is not based on law but on grace. We don’t become more like Christ by imposing on each other a bunch of man-made regulations, but by yielding to the Spirit who leads us to practice genuine love.
The New Testament calls us to live out our faith by faith in the gospel rather than by slavish adherence to legalistic rituals and laws.
We should judge the quality and genuiness of our faith, not by what clothes we wear, how much we read our Bible’s or how many times a week we attend church. We judge it by how much we love others and find joy in serving them sacrificially.
2: The Nature of the Church (15:12-21)
The second issue which is running parallel to this issue concerns the nature of the church.
Again, we need a little background here to understand what the issue really was.
Circumcision (Gen 17:9-14)
Circumcision is obviously one of the key rituals or practices which is under consideration here. Why were the Jews making such a big issue of circumcision?
Read Gen 17:9-14
· So circumcision was a sign of God’s special covenant relationship with Abraham and his offspring.
· This is what identified God’s people from the other nations. Who had been brought into a right relationship with God and who was excluded from the commonwealth of Israel.
· You can see in vs12 that is was a law that applied to both Jew and foreigner living among the Jews.
· Vs 13 calls it an everlasting covenant.
So if a Gentile turned from his idolatry and wanted to worship the God of Israel, he had to commit to obey the Law of Moses and be circumcised as a sign of joining himself to the covenant community.
In the first century they would baptize converts as a symbol of their need of cleansing and then they had to be circumcised before they were fully accepted into the covenant community.
In Acts 10 God begins to change Peter’s paradigm. The Gentiles were also to hear the gospel and receive the Spirit, just as the Jewish believers had on the day of Pentecost.
Acts 10:44-48 Peter sees they have believed and he has evidence that God has cleansed their hearts and given them His Spirit. The Spirit was the sign and seal of their acceptance before God. So Peter has certainty that these first Gentiles are truly saved.
So He baptizes them in water, as a sign of their salvation and acceptance into the covenant community….
In Acts 11 the Jews are initially shocked, but when Peter relates the events they accept it 11:17-18 – who were they to stand in God’s way.
But surely now, the process of conversion should be completed by requiring them to be circumcised so that they could be brought into the covenant community? Without circumcision no-one could be regarded as belonging to God.
Yet Peter doesn’t require circumcision along with baptism. As the gospel continues to spread through Paul’s first missionary journey and whole Gentile congregations are established – none of them are required to be circumcised.
So who are the true people of God and how are they to be recognized? Who are the members of God’s covenant community and how are they identified if not through circumcision?
The mystery of the church (Eph 2:11-22)
This is exactly what Paul is addressing in Eph 2 – the church is the new covenant people of God consisting of both Jew and Gentile in one body. Both equally citizens and saints through faith in Christ. Having the same promises and the same access to God by the one Spirit. Becoming the new Temple, the new dwelling place for God.
· He goes on to explain this mystery in Eph 3:1-6 – Jew and Gentile together in one body is a mystery. Something hidden in the O.T but now revelaed.
· You could never see that God was going to do something so radical as you read your O.T. Uniting all nations under the one messiah Jesus Christ. Creating one universal body, one covenant people not from one nation but from every nation.
· This is the nature of the church – it’s a universal, cross cultural, international, global community consisting of people from every tribe language, people and nation. Saved by grace and called out to belong to God and show forth His glory.
The issue of circumcision was threatening to divine the church into 2 major factions – Jew and Gentile, which is exactly not what God intended. Which is exactly why Peter says, let us not put God to the test.
For Paul, to divide the church into factions based on external criteria such as nationality or circumcision was to undermine what the gospel was given to produce – spirit-filled, united, new covenant community.
How is this new covenant people identified? Baptism in the Spirit and baptism in water – not by circumcision which was s distinctly Jewish sign associated with God’s covenant with the Jewish nation.
That’s why Peter could highlight in vs 8 God bore witness by giving them the Spirit just as he did to us. This was the undeniable sign that these converts were part of God’s covenant people – the possessed the true sign of the new covenant.
Ratified by scripture
What remains is for James to ratify this decision with Scripture. Is there biblical support for this conclusion, for this new doctrine?
He quotes from Amos 9:11-12
· God will rebuild the tent of David, the dynasty of David – an allusion to the resurrection of Christ, promised Davidic king
· What will flow from this restored Davidic king – is that the Gentiles might seek the Lord and be called by His name.
· Gentiles might take the name of the covenant God and belong to Him – this was God’s purpose in bringing Christ as the long awaited Davidic king. To take the name of God is to belong to Him
· Though the church is a mystery in the O.T, the blueprints can be seen in God’s prophetic plans.
Application: Church membership
So the other underlying issue being addressed here is one of church membership. How does a believer formally and fully become part of the covenant community? By grace alone through faith alone, or Christ and circumcision.
It shows us how important church membership was to the early church. The ideas of individuals being saved and been left to live out their faith in isolation – was completely foreign. God was creating a covenant people for himself, a distinct people, a people called out from the world to belong to Christ and to one another.
As believers were saved out of all nations, they were gathered into local churches – international, cross-cultural local churches through baptism in the Spirit and in water. Every time we baptise someone we celebrate that they have been cleansed from their sin and brought into the new covenant community of the church.
Every time we celebrate communion together we celebrate that our sins have been paid for by the sacrifice of Christ and the blood of Jesus brings us us into a new covenant relationship with God.
Both ordinances that Christ left us – focus on these 2 central issues which are resolved in this counsel – we are saved from our sin by faith in Christ alone and become members of God’s new covenant community by faith in Christ alone.
Church membership matters. This counsel was convened confirm how we are saved and how we become members of the church. – the church needs you and you need the church.