Lecture 15: Acts - Jerusalem Council | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 15: Acts - Jerusalem Council

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Paul: Jerusalem Council

The issue that is at hand is an important one. The circumcision party is saying, according to Acts 15:1 that unless the uncircumcised submit to circumcision, they cannot be saved: “There were some men who came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” Circumcision is essential for salvation. In other words, if you as a Gentile want to become a Christian, you must also become a Jew in that process (you must submit to circumcision). This seems like rather a weak argument – today there are very few people concerned about that issue. But we’re talking quite a bit later than that. Think for a minute about the argument of the circumcision party.

According to the Covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 17, it was required, and a sign of God’s covenant with his people that everyone be circumcised. Anyone in the house who was a servant had to become circumcised; any Gentile that wanted to become part of it, this was part of the conversion experience. It’s commanded in scripture. God makes this a covenant with Abraham, and in typical Old Testament fashion, he uses the term “an everlasting covenant”.

Now Paul is coming along and saying, in essence, “We don’t want to keep that covenant.,” -- other things yes, but not circumcision. So if I were a part of the circumcision party, I’d say, “Look Paul, we’re not one of these liberal types that makes religion according to what we want. We believe in the scriptures. The Bible is infallible, inerrant, the only word of God for us. And this is what it says.” Are there not other scriptures that teach that it’s not necessary? No. They all say that if you want to be saved you have to be circumcised. If you want to be part of the covenant people, it’s required. And Paul, we can’t change that. We don’t look at God’s word and decide that it was fit for the time it was instated, but is no longer valid because we don’t want to deal with it.

What about Galatians? There is no Book of Galatians at this time. In fact, there is no New Testament at all yet. Nothing’s been written. The church had the traditions of Jesus to go by, but can you name a tradition of Jesus in which he said, “Circumcision was alright for a while but we have a new model coming in this year, and we’re doing it without circumcision”? Do you have any saying of Jesus that deals with this? No.

So everything in the Bible that we know of talks about the need of circumcision to be a part of the covenant. If you want to be in the covenant that God made with Abraham (and remember, you and I are children of Abraham according to the faith – heirs according to the promise that God made with Abraham [Galatians ch.3]). Furthermore, let me ask you, Paul, tell me of someone who is a great hero of the faith, past or present, who was not circumcised. Was Abraham circumcised? Isaac? Jacob? David? the prophets? Who is there that was not circumcised who was part of the children of God?

Alright, don’t think now that I’m losing my mind, but we’re going to sing. We’re going to sing “That Old-Time Religion”, and I’m going to give you some verses as go along. We’ll practice the chorus once:

Gimme that old time religion, gimme that old time religion,

Gimme that old time religion; it’s good enough for me.

It was good enough for Abraham, it was good enough for Abraham,

It was good enough for Abraham, and it’s good enough for me.

Gimme that old time religion, gimme that old time religion,

Gimme that old time religion; it’s good enough for me.

It was good for Isaac and Jacob, it was good for Isaac and Jacob,

It was good for Isaac and Jacob, and it’s good enough for me.

Gimme that old time religion, gimme that old time religion,

Gimme that old time religion; it’s good enough for me.

It was good for all the prophets, it was good for all the prophets,

It was good for all the prophets, and it’s good enough for me.

Gimme that old time religion, gimme that old time religion,

Gimme that old time religion; it’s good enough for me.

It was good for John the Baptist, it was good for John the Baptist,

It was good for John the Baptist, and it’s good enough for me.

[now listen carefully], It was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for Jesus,

It was good enough for Jesus, and it’s good enough for me.


Now I think that’s a powerful argument. I think the burden of proof is not upon the Judaizers; it’s upon those who say circumcision is not necessary any longer. How does Paul (and the church) deal with that?

Now for the argument of Peter, Paul and James: Peter in Acts 15:7-11 says the following, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.” Alright, what are we talking about? Your paper. He could have said “Brethren you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the Gospel and believe, just as I said in all those papers that were handed in.” Continuing, “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.”

Now, let’s go back to chapter 10 and look at the story of Cornelius’s conversion. We’re not going to read the whole message but in 10:42, Peter says, “And Jesus commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Now notice where this is taking place -- right after we talk about forgiveness of sins, which is a conversion experience. “And while Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles [apart from them being circumcised]. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, ‘Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we [who were circumcised] have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Now in chapter 11, when Jerusalem hears about this, they ask Peter why he fellowshipped with (ate with) uncircumcised people. When you ate with somebody, it meant that you accepted them as a brother. And here, these are un-kosher, uncircumcised gentiles he’s eating with – how dare you do that, Peter? And Peter begins to explain that in v. 4, where he explains his vision, and then, in v.12, after telling about how Cornelius had sent messengers. We’ll start with v.11, “At that moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’” There’s nothing here about some sort of secondary experience subsequent to conversion. This is a conversion experience that we’re talking about. Continuing in v.15, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I should withstand God?’ When they [the church in Jerusalem] heard this they were silenced, and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.’” He has not granted unto “Gentiles who will become Jews” repentance unto life, but unto Gentiles (who are not circumcised and remain Gentiles) repentance unto life. And this is what happens in Acts chapter 15, where he repeats that same account.

In Galatians chapter 3, when Paul is dealing with people who are in Galatia being shaken from their faith because people say that they must be circumcised to be saved, Paul then asks them the key question (Galatians 3:1): “’Oh foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you one question [and that’ll solve the issue]: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” And the answer, of course, is that when they believed in Jesus, they received the Spirit. Now the response [v.3]: “Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?”

So, the argument of Paul and Peter is that God has revealed something. This is not something we have done by a vote. We don’t have a church in Jerusalem saying that a question has come up over whether it’s required for Gentiles to be circumcised to be saved. This would hinder the mission work, though it fits the Old Testament better, and the scriptures. How many of you say “yes, we should continue to require circumcision?” “How many of you say no?” “The no’s have it; God has just spoken.” It’s not that way. The church does not tactically make a decision. God, through revelation, has revealed something.

Remember when we talked about conversion, and the five elements required? Peter does not say that Cornelius doesn’t have to be saved because he has believed in Jesus. He doesn’t say that Cornelius doesn’t have to be saved because he was baptized. He say that he [Cornelius] doesn’t have to be circumcised because he’s confessed Christ. He doesn’t say that he doesn’t have to be saved because he has repented. Because three of those (confession, repentance, and faith) are the act of the individual, it doesn’t solve anything. Baptism doesn’t solve anything – that’s a decision of the church. All of those are fallible. There’s one element in that process which is not fallible, and that’s God, who gives the Spirit. If God gives his Spirit, it means that God has accepted him. And no one in Jerusalem wants to argue that he [i.e., God] made a mistake. So the only aspect of the conversion process which is infallible because it’s God’s doing is the giving of the Spirit. And now, when they say that God’s given to Gentiles his Holy Spirit, it means that he [i.e., God], has accepted him. Therefore, we cannot require anything more.

So the issue is resolved, not by church vote, but by God’s revelation. God has shown Gentiles are acceptable to him on the basis of faith. Now, my assumption is, that involves being on this side of the Christ events (this side of the cross). Before that, in Old Testament times, could you have argued that? The answer is no. The gift of the Spirit comes after Pentecost; it’s something that is a knell event – something that God is doing uniquely in New Testament time, and therefore it couldn’t have happened. If Cornelius had been converted in 200 BC, he would have had to have been circumcised. There are some relationships that are a-typical (so you don’t build a theology on this), where some people make a particular request saying that their particular role with regard to the king is such-and-such, and may God be merciful for them, and that’s accepted somewhat. But that is rare. The typical conversion experience involves circumcision.

In charismatic theology (Pentecostal theology), the Christian life is seen as having two major developments. One is the experience of conversion, in which you are saved and justified. Subsequent to that, there should be a second experience of sanctification. That was the old Methodist doctrine, the second work of grace called ‘sanctification’. It was always questionable how one would know when they had received that experience of sanctification. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Pentecostal movement began, and that emphasized a particular sign that would indicate that experience, which was speaking in tongues. Before that, there were some other signs (being slain in the Spirit, swooning, treeing the devil, etc). But the charismatic Pentecostal movement emphasized that the clear sign of having received that second experience is the experience of speaking in tongues.

My understanding of Christianity is that there is no single second experience, but there is a continual growth, and that actually sanctification in its theological sense, as the term is used in systematic theology, is a process, not a two-step experience. In regard to the biblical text, the speaking in tongues that Cornelius experiences cannot be a second experience, because they’re talking about forgiveness of sins when that happens. And the conclusion is that God has accepted Gentiles to be saved. Not, “well Gentiles can also have this second experience along with their first experience.” It’s a first experience. And they’re baptized after that, which is also associated with conversion. So my understanding is that Cornelius’s outward speaking in tongues is not something that is meant for him, but it’s meant to tell Peter that God had given him the Spirit. So it’s a sign to Peter that he’d really received the Spirit. After that, we don’t read of speaking in tongues until one other instance (there are only three instances in Acts: Pentecost; the Cornelius experience; and in Acts 19).

As a conclusion to all of this, James, who is a leader of the church, the brother of our Lord, says in 15:13, after they [Barnabas and Paul] had spoken, James replies, “Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name [the Cornelius experience – this is the first]. And with this the words of the prophets agree. [This is not something new; the Old Testament foresaw this.] As it is written, ‘After this I will return and I will rebuild the dwelling of David that was fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who has made these things known as of old.’” So, don’t be surprised; this is what the Old Testament alluded to when it said that there was a time coming when the Gentiles would become part of the covenant of Abraham. “Therefore, my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God [we should not trouble them with this issue.] But, [now here’s where some have suggested that he compromised the pure solution of grace, and is putting them under something of a law of ‘kosher’ regulations] we should write to abstain from pollutions of idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

The restrictions (maybe that’s not the right word), but the exhortation that’s placed upon the Gentiles in v.20 to abstain from pollutions of idols, for chastity, and from blood – the purpose of this is not for their salvation, but it’s for the next verse, because there are lots of Jews in their city. And, not to offend the Jews, they should avoid those things that are most offensive, and therefore be careful about how you live among them. It’s not a matter of salvation; it’s a matter of their witness to those in their cities who are Jewish. “For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

They’re going to be witnessing in the churches; they’ll be part of the synagogue meetings (this probably continues on until about 70 AD), and in that sense, do not do those things that are unnecessarily offensive. So, at the synagogue potluck, don’t bring ham sandwiches. Don’t bring a shrimp casserole – be sensitive to that. And I think it’s just a common sense thing that every good missionary or preacher of the gospel must be aware of. For instance, if you’re a missionary in a Muslim country, I doubt very much that you want to in that land bring them to a pork spare-rib barbecue. It would just be rude, and what are you going to talk about? Food choices. That’s not the heart of our faith – the heart of our faith is the Gospel of Christ – that’s what we want to talk about. And, thus, we should avoid those issues that may come up that would distract from the basic key issue. All things are lawful, but all things are not profitable.

Paul says “I am free. Among the Gentiles, I am as a Gentile; when I am with the Jews I am as a Jew,” [paraphrased from 1 Corinthians 9:20-21]. “When I’m with the Jews, if my ministry can be helped by taking a Jewish vow, I’ll take one.” (like he does later at the end of the third missionary journey). When he is among the Gentiles, he lives freely as a Gentile.

So, the conclusion is a decree that is sent out to the various churches, and it reads this way [15:23 and following], “Brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. [Notice it’s addressed from the brothers in Christ here in Jerusalem, to the Gentile brothers in Christ elsewhere.] Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these things, you will do well. Farewell.” So, the situation has been resolved. Compromise? I don’t think so. If you look at other passages like this, it’s quite clear that that’s not so.

One thing that Paul mentions is that he had brought with him Titus as a test case. He brought with him an uncircumcised Greek, who probably gave his testimony. He puts him on the pulpit, and basically asks what they should do with this guy. He claims to love the Lord; the Spirit has come into his life; are you going to require him to be circumcised? In Galatians 2, he tells us about this, and he responds the following way [2:3], “But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.” So it looks pretty good – the situation has been changed.

But there is something that has not been resolved yet. There’s something still in the air. Gentiles do not have to become Jews or live like Jews. But do Jews who are Christians still have to live like Jews? That’s the question. And this is what comes up in Galatians 2. That issue now comes up. If Gentiles are not under the law in this way (the kosher law, etc.) what about Jews? So, now we have in Galatians 2:11, the following: “But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” If you ate with Gentiles, you were giving up your kosher-ness. No matter how sensitive they would have been to avoid issue, they could not know all that was involved in being kosher. So a Gentile would invite Peter to their home, and Peter might have led them to Christ. Peter gladly ate with them, and these guys are very sensitive. Mom and Dad would have a pot roast – no pork, but pot roast. For a beverage they’d have milk and they’d avoid anything that was un-kosher. Well, Peter would appreciate this, but he was breaking kosher rules, because you can’t drink milk when you eat meat. You can’t eat cheese when you eat meat (a cheeseburger’s not possible). So in Israel if you order a hamburger at McDonald’s you don’t get a cheeseburger – you might get a hamburger and a milkshake, but the milkshake is all synthetic, it has nothing to do with milk, so that’s alright. Furthermore, if you are kosher today (how much this extends back in the OT we’re not always sure), you have different plates. You have one set of plates for meat items, another for cheese items; and I think there’s a third one for fish or something like that; and you wash them separately. Gentiles aren’t doing that stuff.

So, Peter would go and eat with them, and now people come down from Jerusalem and notice this, and they criticize him. And the result in v.12, “When they came, Peter drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” So he is no longer eating with these people, some of whom he may have led to Christ. Now think of the impact of being a Gentile, and the man who led you to Christ, who used to eat with you, will no longer eat with you because you don’t live a kosher Jewish life. You have to start thinking, “Maybe I’m saved, but it’s as though by fire. We’ll always be second-rate Christians unless we become [Jews].” Continuing on, “And with him, the rest of the Jews [the Jewish Christians] acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity.” Even Barnabas said “No, I have to keep my kosher-ness; they don’t have to, but I won’t be able to eat with them any longer.” Continuing, “But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like the Jews?’” In other words, you, yourself know and sometimes don’t keep these kosher regulations. Why are you requiring them? “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.”

So now the issue comes up that even Jews don’t have to keep the ritual law; they don’t have to be kosher. Does it require that they have to not be kosher? No, they don’t have to be anti-kosher; they can still keep the traditions, they can keep circumcising their children – those are irrelevant. Those are irrelevant issues. And when the second missionary journey begins (which we’ll look at shortly), we’ll see how Paul treats the case of circumcision as an irrelevant issue. If you don’t make it a theological issue, like in the case of Titus, Paul doesn’t care what you do. But if you suggest that someone like Titus would have to be circumcised to be saved, Paul will fight to the death over that issue. So sometimes issues are important and you must fight for them. Other times, they’re irrelevant.

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