By Brian Culliton
“We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said.” (James, Bishop of the Jerusalem Church; 48 A.D.)
Damascus Syria, 34 A.D.
Set along a major trading rout and having abundant natural resources, Damascus was a bustling city with a diverse population. It was secured by a continuous wall, wall towers, and seven gates. Although part of the Roman empire, Damascus was ruled by Aretas, king of Arabia, and an Ethnarch (Jewish officer) who was given authority over the 10,000 plus Jewish residents. So when Saul, a zealot Jew bent on destroying the new Christian cult, stood up in a local synagogue and boldly declared Jesus as the Son of God, the shout of blasphemy and the sound of ripping garments might have been heard 136 miles away in Jerusalem.
It had only been a few days since Saul, a man of small stature 1and a terrorizing reputation, was hunting Christians east of Jerusalem across the Jordan River and north along the King’s Highway to Damascus. In Damascus, Saul’s reputation preceded his arrival and the Jewish leaders were stunned. How could a man so zealous for the Jews suddenly turn and join his adversary? It’s natural to assume that they were aware of something remarkable happening to Saul prior to his arrival in Damascus, but what remarkable thing that might be, they did not know.
As he stood in the synagogue speaking to the Jews, he conveyed his story.
Not many days past, near the city of Damascus, Saul was suddenly confronted by a bright light and a voice asking him, “Why are you persecuting Me.” Saul’s inquiry as to whom it was that was speaking produced what must have been an incredible shock as he heard in response, “I am Jesus whom you persecute.” Blinded by the light and left stunned by the encounter, Saul was instructed by Jesus and lead to Damascus by his companions. After three days wherein he refused food or water, Jesus sent a local disciple named, Ananias, to restore Saul’s sight. After regaining some strength, Saul committed himself to baptism and spent several days with Ananias and the other disciples in Damascus.
The reaction in the synagogue filled the spectrum as some were delightfully amazed while others were angered by the perceived blasphemy. Saul’s conversion to the Christian faith was sudden and unique, and it happened at the height of his battle to shut it down. After the brutal death of Stephen, many disciples found Jerusalem too hostile to remain and fled north along the King’s Highway. With a commission from the high priest, Saul set out to round up the Jesus-followers and bring them to Jerusalem for prosecution.
There were some among the rulers in Jerusalem, however, who believed Jesus was the Messiah, but would not confess Him publically for fear of the Jews. They saw Jesus and believed because they saw His works. But like the disciples who walked away from Jesus because they thought He had enjoined them to eat His flesh, the notion of being “all in” could not be overcome by their need to be respected. Giving up their positions of leadership and statuses as Pharisees proved too much to sacrifice, so they secretly confessed Christ to believers, but pretended to be opposed to Him when in the company of the Jews. The apostle John said of these rulers, “They loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”2
It’s apparent that a level of deception was already in play among certain believers, even as Jesus still walked among them. For those who made no secret of their faith in Jesus, Stephen’s death meant impending persecution, but for those who preferred to believe in secret, their safety and good standing were not in jeopardy. In their minds the thing that needed to be made clear to the unbelieving Jews was that Jesus brought clarity and understanding to the purpose of God’s people. Nothing practical, according to them, was going to change under the premise that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Judaism, and the Law by which it is governed, would continue to be embraced in the dispensation of Christ’s church. This is the message they must carefully and patiently convey to their fellow leaders with the goal of convincing them that Jesus is truly the Messiah they’ve been expecting.
It would be difficult to find a man more passionate for the Jewish people than Saul. It’s the very reason he sought to destroy the uprising of the Christians. He wore his passion on his sleeve and his boldness, confidence, and conviction for truth defined his character and tenacity, and it was second to none. His zeal for the truth and willingness to stand for what is right cannot be underestimated. Having fully believed in his former cause, he was forced to confront his error. Added to his change of heart was an even greater zeal than what he had previously possessed. As a result, Saul rapidly became the scourge of Damascus as his conversion story and zeal for Christ was converting more of her Jewish residents to the faith.
The Jewish leadership in Damascus were well acquainted with Saul’s persuasive personality and realized that his conversion posed a threat to their influence and authority. Saul was well versed in the Law and referred to himself as a Pharisee of Pharisees. If any man possessed the ability to decipher and preach the Law fulfilled in Christ Jesus, it was this Pharisee of Pharisees who would eventually be referred to by his Roman name, Paul of Tarsus. 3
In Damascus, Paul was introduced to the brethren and quickly earned their trust. He wasted no time taking his newfound understanding to his fellow countrymen whom he loved and earnestly prayed would hear his Gospel message. In response, the Jewish leaders in Damascus assembled a council and plotted to kill him. 4 Having no actual civil authority to arrest him, they petitioned the governor of King Aretas to use a garrison of solders to guard the city gates in order to capture and imprison him. 5 When the disciples in Damascus caught wind of the plan, it became clear that not only was Paul’s life in danger if he remained, but leaving the city through the city gates would mean certain peril. Knowing that his capture was imminent, the brethren planned and executed his escape by waiting for nightfall, placing him in a basket and lowering him down the city wall through a window.
Once safely outside the city walls, Paul departed for Arabia where many speculate he received his Gospel revelation. After three years he returned briefly to Damascus and then on to Jerusalem to find Peter. But when he arrived in Jerusalem, his former reputation still haunted the disciples who were fearful that he was only pretending to have converted to the faith. 6 But Barnabas, a disciple who was greatly respected in Jerusalem, believed Paul and took him to meet Peter. He spent fifteen days with Peter and saw no other apostle except James, the Bishop of the church in Jerusalem who was also Jesus’ half-brother. 7
Paul’s meeting with Peter was first and foremost to inform Peter that Jesus had commissioned him as the apostle to the Gentiles. It is evident, based on events that would follow, that Peter’s impression of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was not completely accurate. Paul understood the Law of Moses to be completely fulfilled in Christ. Peter, on the other hand, continued to see the Jews as God’s only chosen people, and the fold in which all must enter to be saved. 8 They either failed to communicate this point during the 15-day visit or they were not in total agreement. The time might have been spent instead with Peter conveying to Paul the life, miracles, and events of Jesus’ time with His disciples. It wouldn’t be until a later visit to Jerusalem that Peter would finally extend his hand in fellowship to Paul.
Many years later Paul wrote an epistle to the church in Galicia where he emphasized the shortness of his visit with Peter in order to establish his independence and authority as an apostle of Christ. He stated that He who wrought effectively in Peter towards the circumcision (Jews) also worked mightily in him towards the Gentiles. In saying this he was asserting his equal status with Peter, and denying any dependence upon him. To further emphasize his point, he tells the Galatians of the time Peter withdrew from the Gentiles in Antioch in order to not offend his fellow Jews that had come up from Jerusalem. In that incident Paul reprimanded Peter for his actions in front of his Jewish brethren.
Despite his limited time in Jerusalem, Paul lacked nothing in his confidence in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While there, his boldness once again got him into trouble, this time with the Grecians. His life being in danger yet again, Paul was brought to Caesarea and then sent (probably by revelation) to his home town of Tarsus in southwestern Syria (present day Turkey) where he tarried for several years.
Joppa Judea, 37 A.D.
Peter journeyed throughout Palestine preaching Christ and performing signs and wonders. He eventually settled for several days in Joppa, a town located on the Mediterranean coast near modern day Tel Aviv Israel.
While in Joppa Peter fell into a trance and received a vision from God. In the vision Peter saw heaven open up and a sheet-like object, held at its four corners, descending to the earth. In the sheet were a variety of domestic animals, wild beast, birds, and other living creatures. The Lord spoke to Peter saying, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” Perhaps thinking it was a test, Peter resisted saying, “Not so, Lord; I have never eaten anything common or unclean.9
The vision was the Lord’s introduction to Peter of a truth he had yet to grasp. He was about to learn what Paul already knew, that Gentiles were welcome in God’s kingdom, not as Jewish converts beholding to the Law of Moses, but as simple believers. Peter, as a strict Jew, would have no problem proclaiming Christ to Gentiles, but would have certainly required that they become Jews. This was the sentiment of the earliest Christians, who were all Jews. Paul, on the other hand, understood that he was a vessel to the Lord to bear His name before the Gentiles, converting them to Christ through faith apart from the works of the law. Peter was about to learn that very thing, that not only were Gentiles to receive the Good News, but that by receiving it they would become equal to their Jewish brethren without converting to Judaism. The Law, Paul would later write, is fulfilled in Christ!”
The Lord replied to Peter’s objection saying, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” Peter was unsure of the vision’s meaning, but at least he knew that his objection to eating anything unclean was no longer a valid objection. It might have brought to mind the words of Jesus when He said, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I came not to call righteous men, but sinners.”10 Although sacrifice was crucial to the Law and required of all Jews, it was not what God desired from them. Likewise, the dietary laws, also required by God, seem now also to go against His desire. What it all specifically means Peter does not know. He interprets the vision to mean that Gentiles are not to be considered unclean, but he doesn’t know to what extent to take that so he ponders on it for a time.
About fifty-six kilometers north of Joppa, a devout God-fearing Roman centurion named, Cornelius, also had a vision while praying. In Cornelius’ vision an angel appeared to him to tell him his prayers and alms are before God. The angel told him to send men to Joppa to find Peter and bring him back to Caesarea. The angel assured Cornelius that Peter would show him what to do. >11
The angel’s departing words begs the question: had Cornelius become bemused as a Gentile who loves and serves the God of the Jews? What was he to do to rectify the separation that existed between Jews and Gentiles? Was he to become a Jew? It is by no means certain, but Cornelius must have been troubled by these questions.
Certainly the angel could have delivered the Good News of the Gospel to Cornelius, or even Jesus Himself as with Paul. Had that happened, Cornelius’ testimony would have never been believed by the Jewish Christians. His conversion, along with that of his household, needed to be witnessed in order to be believed. Not only was it necessary that it be witnessed, it was necessary for Peter specifically to see it; because even after Peter witnessed the vision of the unclean animals, he hadn’t yet realized its full meaning.
When Cornelius’ men arrived to inquire of Peter, the Lord told Peter that three men seek him and to go with them because He had sent them. Here it is interesting to note that the Lord said nothing to Peter about why these men sought him. The Lord could have explained the vision and the event that was about to take place, but as the angel did not explain the future event to Cornelius, neither did the Lord explain it to Peter. Both men were in need of the experience without the expectation of what was going to take place. Only then could the experience really drive home the true intent of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that both Jew and Gentile are called to God through faith and grace apart from the works of the Law. What had already been apparent to Paul was about to be forcefully apparent to Peter.
Peter took the three men in for the night and they departed the next morning taking with him brethren from Joppa. The only message Peter received from the men was that Cornelius was a just man who feared God and that he received a vision from God to seek him. But what the men must have received from Peter during the two-day journey was undoubtedly nothing short of remarkable. Whether accompanied by Jew or Gentile, it would be hard to imagine Peter not conveying the Good News to his fellow sojourners.
Since Peter was summand by the direction of an angel, Cornelius had the false impression that Peter was deity. When Peter arrived in Caesarea, he was met by Cornelius who at once fell to his knees to worship him. Peter immediately informed Cornelius that he too was only a man and told him to stand up. This encounter brings to mind the Apostle John doing the same thing to an angel of the Lord who showed him a vision. Perhaps it was an overwhelming feeling to see that there truly was a man named Peter in Joppa who indeed came to see him just as the angel foretold.
After meeting Cornelius, Peter noticed that there were many Gentiles gathered there. Being a devout Jew he would have felt uncomfortable as they extended their hospitality and invitation to dine with them. He explained to the crowd that it is unlawful for him to come into them, but that he would nevertheless because the Lord showed him that he should not call any man unclean or common.
This remark of Peter’s illustrates his level of understanding the vision the Lord showed him. On the one hand he understood that Gentiles were not to be considered unclean, but on the other hand he still saw himself as a Jewish man, finding righteousness in the Law and circumcision rather than in faith. Another circumstance at play was one that tended to haunt Peter in particular, and that is his sensitivity to offending his Jewish brethren who were looking on. The full meaning of the vision had not yet set in nor would it until Peter witnessed for himself the power of God descending on the Gentiles in front of him, a spectacle that was about to overwhelm him.
Notwithstanding the time Peter spent with Jesus, including the forty days’ post-resurrection, he still failed to see that salvation was purely a matter of faith and grace without obedience to the Law. But when he opened his mouth to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a remarkable perception overtook him. He perceived that God is no respecter of persons and all of every nation that fears Him and works righteousness is accepted with Him. As he continued to speak, the Holy Ghost fell upon those Gentiles listening to Peter’s Gospel. The Holy Spirit was manifest in them through speaking in tongues and magnifying God. This manifestation was a witness to the Jewish brethren who were there to witness the event and hear Peter remark, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?”
The gentile believer’s equal status with the Jewish brethren was now undeniable, at least to Peter. This was an astonishing revelation given the fact that the Jewish brethren were quite certain up to this point that salvation was for the Jews only, and if a Gentile were to be saved he would of necessity become a Jew first. Peter, having the advantage of the vision in Joppa, the revelation, and the witness of the Gentile’s conversion, fully understood what had just taken place and that it was an act of God. Some others, however, who could not get past the reprobate action of Peter coming in and eating with Gentiles, rushed to Jerusalem to report what they saw.
The idiom was as true in the first century as it is today; bad news travels fast. Peter was asked by the new converts to tarry with them a few days in Caesarea, giving news of the event time to reach Jerusalem long before his arrival there. When word of Peter eating with Gentiles and his preaching of the Gospel to them fell on the ears of the Jerusalem church, the shockwave might have been felt by Peter himself eighty miles away in Caesarea. It’s unknown whether Peter decided to journey to Jerusalem to share the news of the Gentile conversions, or if he was summed by the immensely eager crowd demanding an explanation. Either way Peter was ready to convey all that happened beginning with the vision in Joppa.
When Peter finally arrived in Jerusalem, he was met by his brethren who upon encountering him contended with him over what they heard. Although we are not told who these men were, it was most likely fellow apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem. In particular, and most notable would have been James the bishop of that church. They, like Peter prior to his experience, would have found Peter’s actions blasphemous and very troubling. Peter was fully aware of this and likely rehearsed all the events in his mind over the four-day journey from Caesarea.
It’s important to note that the men who confronted Peter did not hesitate to do so even in light of the fact that Peter was an apostle who personally walked with the Lord. He was not viewed by them as infallible, or in any way extraordinary. They were ready to confront him for doing wrong despite his position as an apostle of Christ. But in the midst of all their confusion resided a great deal of respect for Peter and they trusted that he would be able to give a satisfactory response.
Peter began by relaying all that happened from the time he received the vision in Joppa to the reception of the Holy Spirit by the Gentiles. He concluded by crediting God with all that took place and he himself as a mere instrument. Astounded, the men glorified God and admitted that God had granted repentance unto life to the Gentiles equally to themselves. 12 Their receiving and understanding Peter’s report is perhaps the most important element in understanding how the dispute, that would later evolve in Jerusalem, would be settled.
It was fully understood by Peter and those to whom he conveyed his story, that Gentiles were called of God to be fellow saints with the Jews, having no requirement to be circumcised and keep the Law. The majority likely accepted the news, which was embraced by the apostles and elders, and it would be twelve years and many more converts to the Jerusalem church before any challenge would be brought forth.
News of Gentiles being joined to the church would have been an unexpected and severe blow to the believing Pharisees. It is reasonable to assume upon hearing this news that Peter and the elders were confronted by these Jewish leaders who would have demanded that the Gentiles be circumcised and become Jews. The idea of unclean Gentiles being counted among God’s people would have been a blasphemous thought to them. However, as details unfold it will become clear that neither the elders nor Pharisees compromised their stance. The apostles and elders would go on to welcome Gentiles and Hellenists13 into the fold, while the Pharisees postured to resist.
Antioch Syria, 40 A.D.
Antioch, though ancient, was distinctly Roman because of its strategic location. It was a crossroad of the Spice Trade, Silk Road, and the Persian Royal Road. It was located about 300 miles north of Jerusalem and took approximately 15 days to travel by foot. Antioch was also the center of Hellenistic Judaism, Jews who lived as Greeks and spoke the Greek language.
Disciples from Jerusalem were spreading the Gospel throughout Palestine, but to Jews only. However, some Greek-speaking disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene came to Antioch and preached the Gospel to Hellenistic Jews, referred to by Luke as, Grecians. Hellenists presented themselves as Jewish people with Greek values. Jewish dietary laws and circumcision were offensive to many Greeks which caused the Hellenists to downplay those practices. Traditional Jews considered Hellenists to be near-Gentile, so in 42 A.D., when news of their conversion to Christ came to Jerusalem, the church sent Barnabas, who himself hailed from the Greek-speaking city of Cyrene, to confirm the stories.
Five years had passed since Peter arrived in Jerusalem from Caesarea to announce the conversions of the first Gentile believers. Now, in Antioch, uncircumcised believers were once again turning to the Lord. When Barabbas arrived there, he rejoiced and was glad upon confirming the news. Although they were uncircumcised, Barnabas made no commandment for them to be circumcised and keep the Law. Instead, he was made glad by the grace of God he witnessed in them.
It is evident from Barnabas’ reaction to what he witnessed that the leadership in the Jerusalem church continued to maintain the revelation brought to them by Peter five years earlier, that God had granted repentance unto life to the Gentiles in like manner as themselves. But over the course of time, several of the sect of the Pharisees would be added to the church in Jerusalem, men who came to believe in Jesus but stanchly maintained, out of fear of the Jews, that salvation was for Jews only. News of Gentile converts being accepted into the church without circumcision spurred an underground effort to subvert the leadership and take matters into their own hands. Paul would later refer to these Judaizers as, “accursed preachers of another gospel.” 14
Knowing that Jesus had ordained Paul the apostle to the Gentiles, Barnabas traveled to Tarsus to bring Paul back to Antioch. No doubt by this time there were many new disciples of Christ in Tarsus, both Jew and Gentile alike. Preaching the Gospel is what Paul was born to do, and upon their return to Antioch, the Gospel spread far and wide.
Spreading too was the dissention in Jerusalem. A leaven that was permeating among the ranks and no doubt James and the elders were aware of the unrest. The culture in the Jerusalem church was stanchly Jewish. To those who were of the sect of the Pharisees, the thought of Gentiles being brought into the fold without converting to Judaism through circumcision and obedience to the Law, was intolerable. Likely James was sympathetic to the sentiments of the former Pharisees and allowed the culture to grow. Perhaps there was little chance that such a culture in Jerusalem would have any effect on the church in Antioch. But the problem for the Pharisee sect is that the church in Antioch was merely the beginning of an ever-growing Spiritual insurrection.
In Antioch the church was growing fast. On one occasion, prophets from Jerusalem came to Antioch and prophesized of a great famine that would directly affect Judea. Moved by compassion, everyone gave what he could and sent their gifts to Jerusalem by the hands of Paul and Barnabas. 15
Paul stated that this was his second visit to the church in Jerusalem. He and Barnabas went by revelation, probably the revelation of the prophets who were in Antioch at the time, and took Titus with them. 16 Titus was a Greek from Antioch and a significant asset to Paul in the church there. When they reached the church in Jerusalem, they encountered Jewish believers who confronted Titus and asserted that he be circumcised and keep the Law. With Paul and Barnabas by his side and his assurance that the Gospel they preached is true, he was not compelled.
Paul referred to those believers who confronted Titus as “false brethren.” Paul harbored no doubts as to the truth of the Gospel he preached, but seeing such bold opposition in the church to the Gospel of grace, he and Barnabas sought a private meeting with the elders and apostles in Jerusalem in order to communicate to them the Gospel they were preaching in Syria. Paul’s intent was to demonstrate to them that He was indeed the apostle to the Gentiles as Peter was to the Jews. He successfully established himself as their equal and received from them the assurance of fellowship.
It was necessary that Paul complete this mission as tensions in the Jerusalem church towards him and the Gentiles he was converting was growing. It was important that he had the support of the church leaders in Jerusalem so that the work he had done, and that of what he had yet to do, might not be corrupted by those bent on bringing Gentile converts into bondage. It was not about Paul getting them to approve his Gospel as some have contended, but rather it was about the elders and apostles in Jerusalem understanding that Christ had called Paul to be His apostle to the Gentiles. That mission was successfully accomplished.
During the time Paul and Barnabas were in Jerusalem, Herod came after the church leadership, killing James the apostle. When he saw that the Jews favored his actions he sought Peter and imprisoned him. Herod postponed publically condemning Peter until Passover had ended. The likely reason for the delay was to avoid any demands for his release according to the custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover – as was the case with Barabbas at the time Jesus was crucified.
Several disciples assembled at the house of Mary, the mother of John (called Mark), who was also the sister of Barnabas, to pray unceasingly for Peter. It is highly probable that Paul and Barnabas were assembled with them, and possibly even lodging there as Mary was kin to Barnabas. They prayed unceasingly and their prayers were answered when an angel of God rescued Peter from prison the night before Herod was to take him and accuse him before the Jews. Once freed, Peter arrived at Mary’s house where the disciples were gathered, knocked on the door and announced himself through the door. Unseen by the girl on the other side, who, upon hearing his voice, was in stunned disbelief. They welcomed him in and rejoiced in God.
Paul, Barnabas, and Titus returned to Antioch and brought Mark, Barnabas’ nephew with them. Hopeful that their meeting in Jerusalem would tamp down the hostility they encountered from those who were demanding circumcision of Titus, they continued in the work for which God ordained them. But the effect of the environment in Jerusalem seemed to aggravate rather than subdue the opposition to their Gospel. Evidence of this is found a while later when Peter came to visit Antioch. While there he ate with the Gentile believers, just as he had with Cornelius’ family, but when brethren came down from Jerusalem he withdrew himself out of fear of offending them. Paul wasted no time publically reprimanding Peter. 17
The wall that separates Jew from Gentile, Paul so eloquently taught, was tore down when Jesus died and rose again. The incident with Peter in Antioch quite clearly exhibits that there remained a wall of separation in the minds of many Jewish believers. It was a signal that an unavoidable firestorm was brewing, one that would surely affect every believer of Christ’s Gospel. But for now the fuel to start that fire was contained in Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas received revelation to take the Gospel north to Asia Minor and Cyprus.
From the time Paul received his Gospel, he never wavered in his assurance that the Law was completely fulfilled in Christ. Now, having gained the support of the disciples in the Jerusalem church, Paul and Barnabas felt assured that the church in Antioch was in capable hands and her uncircumcised members safe from doctrinal harm.
While in Antioch, the Holy Spirit sent Paul and Barnabas on a mission to the Gentile regions of Asia Minor, including Galatia, and to Cyprus. The missionary journey lasted about two-and-one-half-years during which time many Gentiles were converted to the faith. As news of more Gentile converts reached Jerusalem, secret efforts to Judaize them intensified. The Judaizers organized missions of their own that would send men to places where Paul preached his Gospel and successfully brought Gentiles into the fold.
The Judaizers reached the churches of Galatia and were enjoying some success. When news of the disruption reached Paul in Antioch, he dispatched the letter previously mentioned, and what is now part of our New Testament Scripture. But when the Judaizers eventually arrived in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were there, and they were understandably furious. 18
When writing to the Galatians, Paul referred to the Judaizers as accursed and called them spies seeking to rob believers of their liberty in Christ. No less would he contend as he stood face to face with them. Infuriated by their demands that the Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Law, a complete contradiction to the Gospel he received from Christ Himself, Paul held nothing back. The confrontation escalated as the Gospel of grace and the gospel of bondage met head on.
The Antioch church decided to send Paul and Barnabas, along with others, back to Jerusalem to deal with the matter and get it resolved. The situation of which they found themselves, both in Antioch and elsewhere, where Gentile Christians were being disrupted by Judaizers from the Jerusalem church, meant that the disputes Paul had with them three-years prior was never properly dealt with. It illustrates that the traditions practiced in Jerusalem were very Jewish and very ceremonial. It means that even though only a certain number of them were attempting to Judaize the Gentiles, the rest considered that salvation by grace apart from the Law was something exclusively for Gentiles, not themselves.
The details of these events is recorded in the book of Acts and told by Luke, a Greek believer and companion of Paul. Luke quite deliberately interrupts the events of the controversy in order to point out the excitement many believers, whom Paul and Barnabas encountered along the way to Jerusalem, felt upon hearing about Gentile converts coming to Christ during their mission. These encounters would have been especially delightful to Paul and Barnabas given the fact that they were accompanied by the men they contended with in Antioch.
The excitement continued when they reached Jerusalem as they were welcomed by the church. They declared all that transpired during their mission to Asia Minor. Apostles, elders, and the church were all united in glorifying God for the work of bringing Gentiles into the faith through Paul and Barnabas. But those of the sect of the Pharisees who were responsible for sending out their own missionaries to undo the work of Paul and Barnabas, rose up and demanded that the Gentile converts be circumcised according to the Law.
Before officially responding to the objection, the apostles and elders gathered together so as to be one unified voice perceived by the whole church to be in accordance with the Holy Spirit. In the meantime, there was a great deal of disputing between the men who made the protest and those who accepted Gentile conversion by faith apart from the works of the Law. Finally, Peter, for whom much respect and honor was given, quelled the dispute and began to speak.
“Brothers, 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. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. 19
It had been about twenty years since the first Gentiles were converted to the faith by Peter, but he speaks as though the story of it lived on in the Jerusalem church. He immediately places culpability on the men judaizing the Gentiles by pointing out that they know, or should know, the work God had produced in Peter towards the Gentiles. After reminding them of what God had done, he commenced toward reprimanding them in their opposition to God’s work and His Gospel. The question is put directly to them, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” He might even have reminded them of the words of our Lord who said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 20
It’s quite evident from Peter’s words that he wanted to make clear the fact that there was no difference between Jewish and Gentile believers. He also emphasized that he, the other apostles, elders of the church, and the majority of Jewish believers were all on the same side of the issue. “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” This is exactly what the believers in Jerusalem said twenty years earlier when Peter returned from Caesarea and told them of the first Gentile converts.
However, keeping the Jewish customs and the ceremonial Law was never discouraged in the Jerusalem church, in fact, it was their way of life. Had the Jerusalem church adopted a rejection of keeping the Law and Jewish customs, their very existence in Jerusalem might have been in peril. The almost seamless transition to Christianity for Jews in Jerusalem made it difficult for some of them to understand how Gentiles could come into the faith without converting to Judaism. Nevertheless, Peter took them to task on what they should have understood had they not been so hardened towards the Law, the burden of which, as Peter pointed out, they themselves could not bear.
Peter seemingly succeeded in convincing the opposition they were wrong, and the crowd turned their attention to Paul and Barnabas to hear what marvelous things the Lord worked through them towards the Gentiles. It would be a mistake to assume that the opposition party experienced a sudden and drastic change of heart, but it does seem clear that they were starting to get the message.
Finally, James steps up to speak with a twofold purpose in mind. He sees an opportunity to summon Scripture as a way of appealing to their understanding as Pharisees, but he also sees and opportunity to satisfy their concerns regarding Gentile converts. He suggests that they write to the Gentiles and command that they abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, consumption of blood, and from sexual immorality. In the minds of the Pharisee believers, it would at least ensure that Gentiles coming into the church would not offend them. They agreed to the suggestion and James drafted the letter.
The first order of business for James when writing the letter was not to appease the Jewish brethren, but to inform the Gentile churches regarding the controversy. This was addressed directly in a single clause, “Since we have heard that some have gone out from among us and troubled you with words, subverting your souls, to whom we gave no commandment…”21 It addressed the central issue of whether or not the commandment to be circumcised came to the Gentiles by the authority of the apostles. James instructed them that not only was no authority given, but also that it was done without their knowledge. Only then did he proceed to lay upon them the requirements agreed upon by the Pharisees.
But the way in which James led up to the requirement in the letter can lead one to believe that the apostles decided to relax the circumcision requirement for Gentiles. “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements,” wrote James. But to understand it this way requires a complete disregard of the greater context. The apostles might have been surprised by the events that took place, but they certainly were not blindsided by the question. The answer had been well known for twenty years and the church had been growing in Gentile regions ever since.
What had been received, understood, and celebrated by the church in Jerusalem was, over the course of twenty years, challenged by some who failed to recognize Christ’s fulfillment of the Law and the Gospel of grace, people who were more concerned about their place in the synagogue than their place in Christ. For Peter, it took a personal experience to convince him that the ceremonial Law was no longer required. Paul, on the other hand, seemed to possess this knowledge from the time he first received the Gospel from Christ. He proclaimed the Gospel with absolute boldness and confidence. His assurance was displayed most emphatically when he journeyed to Jerusalem and presented his Gospel to those who were perceived as pillars of the church, but then stated, “Whoever they are, it makes no difference to me.”
The incident in Jerusalem is commonly referred to as the Jerusalem council, yet the facts surrounding it look nothing at all like a council. The meeting was public, all the church leaders were on the same side of the issue, and the issue itself was recognized and settled at least twelve years prior.
But presumably over the past millennia, some have turned the perception of this event into a private gathering of church leaders who decided, by the help of the Holy Spirit, that circumcision and the Jewish Law were not required of Gentile believers. Some have gone to great lengths to inject false ideas into the text in order to protect their particular brand of Christianity. Here is an example from a footnote in the Catholic NAB Bible:
“Note that in Acts 15:2 it is only the apostles and presbyters, a small group, with whom Paul and Barnabas are to meet. Here Luke gives the meeting a public character because he wishes to emphasize its doctrinal significance.” 22
It’s a deliberate attempt to persuade the reader that what he read in the Scripture is not what it appears to be. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, I am the great and powerful Oz!” It’s the illusion that the church has authority over the word of God and many buy into it. But when you pull back the curtain, all you find are desperate people clinging to a false theology.
Scripture needs no footnotes to tell us that what we plainly understand isn’t as it appears. A cursory look into history confirms that what is plainly understood today was plainly understood centuries ago. The second century bishop, Irenaeus, a highly respected figure in his time and today, wrote, “…when Paul and Barnabas had gone up to Jerusalem to the apostles on account of this question, and the whole Church had convened together, Peter thus addressed them:” 23
Luke gave the meeting a public character because the meeting was public. On one side of the issue was the church with its apostles and elders, and on the other side were the Judaizers. These were the two parties for which the disputing happened. The reprimanding of Peter was to them who attempted to bring Gentile believers into bondage. It was never a debate between apostles and elders in a private setting, and thus it cannot properly be called a council. It was simply a situation that occurred because of years of underlying contempt by some over the idea of Gentile inclusion in the church apart from Jewish conversion.
Nevertheless the reputation of this event has long been established as a meeting and debate among the Christian leaders upon whom it was incumbent to make a decision regarding circumcision. This incorrect notion has unscrupulously been used to justify God-given authority where no God-given authority exists. A little context goes a long way in understanding the facts of any historical event, and in this case the context speaks loud and clear.
1. [Paul was believed by some ancients to be a man of small stature. Matthew Hennery remarked that one of the ancients called him, Homo tricubitalis, meaning four and a half in height, and that he was referred to as “Paul Little.” Lark News.com reported a discovery in Turkey revealing the physical stature of Paul in a rock drawing dating to the time of his second missionary journey. The image shows a stick-man drawing of two figures one of which about the size of a child. A scroll found at the base of the rock indicates that Paul was the height of a child. The writer claimed to have depicted Paul’s height on the rock.] ↩
2. [John 12:43.] ↩
3. [Saul was born of a Jewish mother and a Roman father, as such he possessed two names; Saul was his Jewish name and Paul was his Roman or Latin name.] ↩
4. [Acts 9:23] ↩
5. [2Corinthians 11:32] ↩
6. [The term, “Christian” had not been used up to this point. The name first appears in Acts, chapter 11, which places its origin around 45 A.D., about five years before the infamous meeting in Jerusalem.] ↩
7. [Some have argued that Paul went to Jerusalem to receive instruction from Peter, but the text indicated that Peter was the only apostle there at the time of his visit. It also indicates that Peter had no prior knowledge or revelation of Paul becoming a Christian.] ↩
8. [John 10:16] ↩
9. [Acts 10:13-15] ↩
10. [Matthew 9:13] ↩
11. [Acts 10:1-6] ↩
12. [Acts 11:17-18] ↩
13. [Hellenists were uncircumcised Jews who lived as Greeks and spoke the Greek language. It was for this group that 72 scholars in the third century BC translated the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language compiling what is known as, the Septuagint, or the Greek Old Testament.] ↩
14. [Gal. 1:6-9] ↩
15. [Acts 11:29-30] ↩
16. [Gal. 2:1-3] ↩
17. [Gal. 2:11-12] ↩
18. [Acts 15:1] ↩
19. [Acts 15:7-11] ↩
20. [Matthew 11:28-30] ↩
21. [Acts 15:24] ↩
22. [NAB Bible Footnote 3 on Acts 15, Vatican.com] ↩
23. [Irenaeus; Against Heresies, 3:12:14] ↩