The Second Jerusalem Council
Church split. For Christians these words send shivers down one’s spine. Those who have been through a church split know it is never spoken of as something positive, for it indicates a situation where Christians, who are one in Christ, could not be one on an issue.
In Acts 15, Luke related a crucial debate within the early church over issues that had the potential of splitting the nascent body into two: a Jewish church and a Gentile one. By God’s grace, the split was averted; and the church remained unified.
The church began in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost around A.D. 30 or 33 (Acts 2), with Christ pouring out the Holy Spirit on believers, signifying their entrance into the New Covenant (Jer. 31; Joel 2). For the first few years, as the church grew in Jerusalem and Judea, it was almost exclusively Jewish. But when Peter, a Jew, preached the gospel to Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile from Caesarea, and Cornelius also received the Holy Spirit, a furor arose in the Jewish church. How could an uncircumcised Gentile be included in the New Covenant, which was for Israel?
This dilemma led to the First Jerusalem Council (Acts 11). Following Peter’s testimony that God had led him to Cornelius (going was not his own idea) and that God had worked in this way, the council concluded, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).
This was a major revelation. God was accepting uncircumcised people into this new congregation of believers on the basis of a spiritual circumcision of the heart rather than a circumcision of the flesh (cf. Ezek. 36:25–27). The first evidence of this new body comprised of Jews and Gentiles together appears in Antioch in Syria. It is from this assembly that the apostle Paul and Barnabas are sent on their first missionary journey, which takes them from Cyprus to the Province of Galatia in Asia Minor (Turkey). Here many churches are planted consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, with a probable predominance of Gentiles.
However, there is an inherent problem in these new gatherings. How do Jews and Gentiles have a “church picnic”? Gentile believers bring their ham sandwiches, and Jewish believers refuse to eat them. The result is two separate groups eating lunch at a gathering that is supposed to signify unity in Christ.
Stark evidence for this problem is seen in Paul’s rebuke of Peter as related in Galatians 2. The same Peter who championed the move to include Gentiles in the New Covenant is then pictured as afraid to eat with them in Antioch because word might get back to Jerusalem that he is not keeping the Jewish dietary laws (Lev. 11).
Paul (also Jewish) rebuked Peter for his hypocrisy and identified an issue that had the potential to split the church irreparably. In fact, two issues had that potential: circumcision and food. These already were problems because some Jewish people, whom Paul anathematized, were teaching the Gentile converts in Galatia that they had to be circumcised and keep the Law to maintain their relationship with Christ. This doctrine prompted Paul to write the Epistle to the Galatians on his way to Jerusalem for the crucial second council.
As the church gathered for the Second Jerusalem Council (around A.D. 49 or 50), it was represented by two main groups: the Jewish party led by James, the Jewish half-brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, and what could be termed the Gentile group, led by Paul. James’s group apparently felt that maintaining the Law, including circumcision, was important even for Gentile Christians, whereas Paul argued that Gentile believers had received the Spirit and thus entrance into the New Covenant by faith, without circumcision; so circumcision was then not necessary for salvation. Peter moderated the council.
First the church heard Paul and Barnabas who testified that God had converted many Gentiles by their faith, as demonstrated during the pair’s missionary work in Galatia. Then some of the Jewish group, apparently of the Pharisaic sect, argued that even if the Gentiles were saved by faith, they should be circumcised and keep the Law. The reasoning was that (1) physical circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic promise (Gen. 12; 15; 17), which culminates in the New Covenant, and (2) all those circumcised were then considered in relationship with God and thus should evidence that relationship by keeping the Mosaic Law as prescribed in the Torah. In other words, they felt Gentile believers needed to become Jewish.
After much discussion, Peter stood up to speak. In one of the most important statements of early church theology, Peter sided with Paul and the Gentile party. He reasoned that in giving the Holy Spirit and including the Gentiles in the New Covenant, God made no distinction between the circumcised and uncircumcised in granting salvation by faith. Thus the church should not add to salvation since God apparently did not.
In addition, Peter noted that keeping the Law for salvation is not a freeing experience, but a burden that only leads to the impossible task of salvation by legalism. So Peter concluded, “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:11). What a momentous statement!
The question then became, What would the Jewish party do? Would it stay in the church or split off?
Then James stood, representing the Jewish group. As good believers do, he and his party sought scriptural confirmation of this apparently new situation of Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, together in one body. James found Amos 9:11–12, where the Lord calls people to His name as Gentiles (i.e., as uncircumcised):
In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches of it; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old, That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the nations, which are called by my name, saith the LORD who doeth this [emphasis added].
So James agreed with Peter’s judgment, since it was confirmed by Scripture.
But the Jewish group still had a few issues. It felt that, if the two groups were to have true fellowship with each other, the Gentile believers needed to be sensitive to Jewish sensibilities and follow a modicum of nonpagan decorum. Thus the Jewish believers asked the Gentile believers to follow certain basic behaviors based primarily on Leviticus 17—20, which separates holy living from paganism. James made four specific requests: that the Gentile believers keep themselves from (1) things associated with idols (cf. 1 Cor. 8— 10), (2) fornication (possibly based on the incest laws of Leviticus 18), (3) things strangled, and (4) blood (again a reference to Leviticus 17). James’s rationale stemmed from the fact that such teaching was not new to Gentiles. From the time of the Babylonian exile, six hundred years earlier, Jewish people had settled throughout the Mediterranean world, establishing synagogues and teaching the Mosaic Law.
Thus the ball was back in the Gentile court. Would Gentiles accept this compromise?
The apostles, elders, and entire church agreed on this solution. So a motion was made to compose a letter to the Gentile churches, with the authority of the council, stating its resolution that non-Jews need not be circumcised or keep the Law but that they did have to avoid certain pagan practices. This action was taken to forestall any who might teach Christian legalism, pretending to have the authority of the church. The letter is so important for the church, in fact, that Luke recorded its entire text (Acts 15:23–29). Furthermore, the episode exemplifies how the church can resolve certain inflammatory issues while remaining united.
The council’s letter initially was sent to the most prominent Gentile church, the one in Syrian Antioch. When the believers heard the contents, they rejoiced, not only because the burden of the Law was not imposed on them but also because the church was one. Unity was maintained.
But though the major issue of salvation by faith alone had been resolved, putting the implications into actual church practice was more difficult. Many of Paul’s letters, even after this conference, concerned Jewish/Gentile issues: 1 Corinthians 8—10; Romans 14; Philippians 3; Ephesians 2—3. Although, theologically, believers are one in Christ, making them act as such is more difficult.
A summary of Paul’s teaching in these passages provides a picture of how individual liberty within overall unity functioned. Paul used himself as an example of a Jewish believer who honored the Law without seeing obedience to it as enhancing his position in Christ. For instance, Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3) so that Timothy would be accepted by unbelieving Jews in order to minister.
Paul also funded a Nazarite service at the Temple for some Jewish believers (Acts 21:20–26) to show the Jewish church he was not teaching Jewish believers to abandon the Law as a tradition, only that it held no soteriological value. At the same time, Paul said that neither food nor anything else was an issue for him; he became a Gentile to minister to Gentiles and a Jew to minister to Jews (1 Cor. 9:19–23).
So, at the early “church picnic,” could Gentiles bring their ham and cheese sandwiches? Absolutely. Did the Jews have to eat them? No. May a Jewish believer eat a ham and cheese sandwich today? Certainly, if his conscience allows. Should a Gentile believer not eat the ham and cheese sandwich? He may abstain if he chooses, but there is no special blessing involved in either eating or abstaining. The only sin would be to judge those who eat or to pressure individuals to eat against their consciences. Believers are to accept one another and one another’s cultural differences in unity in Christ as a testimony to God’s act of accepting all of us just as we are (Rom. 15:7).
How does this ancient decision affect us? First, it establishes that salvation is completely by grace through faith; and neither Jews nor Gentiles can add anything to their positions in Christ.
Second, it establishes that the church is one. Though some congregations may find it more beneficial to meet separately, mainly because of language issues, there is no cultural reason to do so. In fact, the opposite is true: It is better that believers from different cultures meet together because it demonstrates the unity of the church and the work of the Spirit. It shows that believers can accept each other in a spirit of grace, as does the Lord.
Third, all believers need not have the same practices on issues of liberty, yet they can all honor the Lord. Jewish believers may want to follow certain Mosaic Laws simply because they want to; but there is no added spiritual blessing in doing so. A church may or may not celebrate the Passover. The decision is entirely up to the church. The challenge is to continue to accept one another as one in the Lord, just as God Himself has accepted us.