Conference at Jerusalem
A story of the Apostle Paul
Fourteen years after his conversion Paul found himself in the middle of a major doctrinal squabble. Ten of those years had been spent in a fruitful and satisfying ministry in the Church at Antioch, the most important and influential Christian community after the original church at Jerusalem. In company with his brother minister, Barnabas, he had undertaken one journey ‑ a charitable one, bearing a gift of money ‑ to the Jerusalem church and one missionary journey into Asia. The rest of the time he had spent at Antioch, building up the faith of the believers in co-operation with his fellow elders. During all this time his principal theme was salvation through justification by faith in Christ. Acts 13.39 records his stirring declaration in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, "by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses". That was the keynote of Paul's early preaching. Later, he was to deal with every aspect of Christian theology, with dispensational expectations and with prophecy, with the Second Coming and the Messianic Kingdom, and what he had to say has immeasurably enriched our Christian heritage, but at this time he dwelt upon one main theme, justification by faith. It was not without reason that he stressed this foundation truth. Paul realised, what so many even in our own day fail to realise, that the Divine insistence upon faith in Christ as an essential to salvation is based upon a profound law which decrees that life can flow to man only from God and only through Christ. That all life originates in God and can only be lastingly sustained by God is a self-evident truth to every believer in God. Because the Son is the essential channel through which the Father is manifested to man He is also the only channel by which the life which is of God can come to man. So it is literally true that "he that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath not the Son shall not see life". The Apostle must have contrasted this understanding with his former belief that life could be gained by adherence to the law of Moses, "the man that doeth these things shall live by them". The law promised life to the man who could keep its provisions inviolate, but no man ever succeeded in doing so, for all men without exception are born imperfect, subject to human frailty, and unable from the start to stand upright and righteous in the sight of God. Of all the Apostles, Paul was probably the first to grasp the meaning of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is to realize that in the Divine arrangement it only needs the man to come before God in frank denial of his former sin, failures and unbelief and open his heart and mind without reserve to God. He outreaches toward man in Christ, for the channel to be opened and life to flow into him and make him a justified and reconciled child of God.
It must have been with a sense of shock therefore when one day Paul found visitors from Jerusalem assembled with the brethren at Antioch promulgating the old doctrine of salvation through the Mosaic Law. These Jewish Christians would, if they had their way, shackle the new virile faith of Christ with the old bonds of Judaism and virtually compel all Gentile converts to become Jews. They were quite definite about it too. "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses ye cannot be saved" (Acts 15.1). Circumcision was the outward sign of the covenant made at Sinai between God and Israel and it bound the one who bore it, to a life of ritual observance and scrupulous adherence to a set of rigid rules that left little room for that free expansion of the spirit. Nor was the wide exercise of individual judgment possible, which is the privilege and the hallmark of true Christianity. This was a direct challenge to Paul's message of salvation through faith in Christ alone; it was immediately obvious that one or the other must give way, and so in a moment the first great doctrinal controversy was thrust upon the Church.
The brethren of the Church at Antioch, many of them Gentile converts, very evidently held their fellows at Jerusalem in high esteem and respect. That is not surprising. The Jerusalem Church was the senior, established at Pentecost some eighteen years previously, numerous and influential. It included many priests and Pharisees, was headquarters of the Apostles and those who had known Christ in the flesh, and almost exclusively Jewish in composition and outlook. Antioch was not more than ten years old, much more cosmopolitan in character, but conscious that it owed its inception and early growth to Jerusalem. This open conflict of teaching between the centre they had such cause to honour and respect and their own much loved teachers Barnabas and Paul, and doubtless their elders, Simeon, Lucius and Manaen, must therefore have been a puzzling and distressing thing. The brevity of Acts 15.2 probably veils a succession of tense church sessions at which the protagonists of the opposing views advanced their arguments and theses. They would each claim Scriptural authority and the reported sayings of Jesus for the stand taken, each seeking to carry the assembled Church with their own point of view.
This Church at Antioch, for all its relative youth as a Christian community, seems to have been a singularly well balanced and farsighted congregation of believers. Every reference to its activities in the Book of Acts gives the impression of a sober, zealous and harmonious company, possessing a clear outlook on the verities of the faith. Perhaps the mixture of Jews and Gentiles and the fact they were citizens of one of the world's principal cities tended to discourage extremes of thought and practice in their midst. At any rate, the decision to which they eventually came was one worthy of a Church over which men like Barnabas and Paul presided.
They determined that a commission of their leading ministers should go to Jerusalem and consult with the Apostles and elders of the Jerusalem Church about this question.
One does not realise at first how deep a spirit of wisdom and love dictated this move. It meant that Antioch, whilst not for one moment yielding her own right as an independent Christian Church to decide her own matters of faith and practice, acknowledged her obligation to maintain harmony with her Jerusalem counterpart by entering into discussion on the matter. There was no slight cast upon those of the twelve Apostles of Christ who were still at Jerusalem. They were to be consulted and their views taken into full account. When it came to choosing the personnel of the commission, Barnabas and Paul at least were a foregone conclusion. From Galatians 2 which refers to this same visit, it seems that Titus, a pure-blooded Greek, was one of the party and there were one or two more whose names are not given. They travelled by land through Phenice, the ancient Phoenicia, and Samaria, calling upon local churches on the way. This was all Gentile territory and many of those whom they met must have been non-Jews ‑ declaring their own convictions as they went to the joy and satisfaction of their hearers. So at last, they came to Jerusalem.
This was Paul's third visit since his conversion. He must have approached the city with mixed feelings, yet with a secret joy. On the first occasion he arrived a fugitive from Damascus and no one wanted anything to do with him. In the end he had to be smuggled out again and hurried out of the country before his enemies could get at him. The second time he came bringing a gift of money from the Antioch Church for the benefit of the poverty-stricken believers in the approaching famine. Now he was coming to contend for the principles of the faith with the leaders of the Church. He must have known what an important occasion this would prove to be. The forces working to make Christianity merely one more sect, even though a progressive sect of the Jewish religion were by no means to be despised. Here in Jerusalem and in all the country round about the Christians had been brought up from birth under the ritual and the obligations of the Mosaic Law. It was hardly to be expected that they could abandon, in a moment, their ingrained belief that the blessing and favour of God was indissolubly tied up with the observance of that Law. After all, they might have reasoned, these are the royal laws of God; they must be as good for Gentiles as for us. The faith of Christ must involve obligations of some kind. Believers must be different in some way from the pagans and the unbelievers around. What better distinction could there be than this system of laws and observances which had kept Israel apart from the nations as a people dedicated to God for fifteen hundred years past? This kind of reasoning could have had a strong appeal and it required the mind of a man like Paul to discern its fallacy. The whole future of his work as an ambassador of Christ to the Gentiles, if it was to he continued with the approval and endorsement of the Church, was bound up with the result of this conference.
The first session was apparently in the assembly of the entire church. Before them, and in the presence of the Apostles and elders, both Paul and Barnabas recounted all that they had done among the peoples of Asia, the converts which had been gained, and the churches that had been established. Without doubt Paul expounded his own understanding of the doctrine of salvation by faith in Christ and the complete irrelevance of the Mosaic Law to the Christian dispensation into which they had now passed. More clearly than the others, perhaps, Paul perceived that at Pentecost a new Age in respect to the outworking of the Divine Plan had dawned and that the old Age of the Law had passed away. Not all the believers were prepared to accept that position. There must have been many who adhered still to the older view of only two eras. One, in which Moses was predominant until the coming of the Messianic Kingdom in power, the other when Messiah appeared to reign as King upon the throne of David and fulfil all the golden visions of the prophets. Jesus would fulfil His promise and come again to receive them to Himself and set up His kingdom of righteousness but Moses must remain. The newly emerging realisation that there was to be an intermediate Christian age between these two had not yet found acceptance. No wonder that, in the words of verse 7, there was "much disputing", even although the Greek word denotes debating or discussion without necessarily involving the acrimony which usually goes with modern English usage of the word "dispute".
It seems to have been Peter who turned the tide of the discussion. Peter, some fifteen years previously, had most reluctantly gone to Caesarea to accept probably the first Gentile convert to Christianity, Cornelius, the Roman centurion. He reminded his hearers of that story ‑ they seem to have been familiar with it ‑ and virtually demanded of the Pharisee believers present why they required a yoke to be put on the necks of the disciples, "which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear". Then he came out boldly on the side of Paul and his thesis of justification by faith. "We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they". This was the strong turning of the tables. Not only did Peter deny the necessity of the Mosaic Law for Gentile believers, he denied its necessity for Jewish believers also. It says a lot for the sincerity and sense of responsibility of these Jews that the meeting did not break up into a riot. Instead "all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul". Perfect order and decorum reigned as the visitors from Antioch put their case and recounted the evidence of Divine approval upon all their work among the Gentiles and the evident purpose of God to bestow His Spirit upon all who truly believe, whether Jew or Greek, bond or free, civilized or barbarian. There must have been a long and impressive silence after that, a period of quiet cogitation on the part of all present. All men realised that the decision to be attained must be a generally accepted one if the future of the Christian enterprise was not to be threatened. A breach between the two main churches, Jerusalem and Antioch was unthinkable. Calm, mature judgment was vital at this juncture. All eyes were fixed upon the tall, ascetic figure of the principal elder, the 'bishop' as he would be known today, of the Jerusalem Church, as he climbed the rostrum to deliver judgment.
James the Just, natural half-brother of Jesus, converted only after the Lord's death, was renowned and respected in all Jerusalem, even by the Pharisees and the priests, for his rigid uprightness and his devotion to the principles of the Law. The New Testament Epistle which bears his name shows very clearly how he set this devotion in proper relation to his Christianity. James could find no place for faith without works, and no place for works without faith. He was able to take a calm, unimpassioned view of the merits and demerits of Judaism and infuse that which was good into the new faith which now he professed. Completely convinced as now he was of the truth of Christianity ‑ and he eventually died a martyr to his faith ‑ he also understood the purpose of Judaism in God's Plan and the manner in which it made the advance into Christianity possible. Of all the early believers he had apparently, by common consent, been chosen the first elder of the Church at Jerusalem. Of all men he was probably the best fitted to voice the general feeling in this matter which had come before them for decision. The judgment of James, delivered on this occasion, is a most remarkable pronouncement. In a few well-chosen words, conspicuous for their brevity, he summed up the three-fold aspect of the Divine purpose. It is a pity that for the past three or four generations the tendency of Christian theology to diverge away from the older and well-established doctrine of the pre-Millennial Second Advent of Christ has beclouded current understanding of the implications of this passage. Christians of earlier centuries understood it perfectly and it is certain that James' hearers followed him in his application of Old Testament prophecy and endorsed it.
James' first word was to call attention to what Peter had just told them. God was sending the word of the Gospel into all the world to all hearers, making no difference between Jew and Gentile. He was reconciling to Himself all who came to Him through faith in Christ. Now this, said James, was God's first and primary work, to take out of the nations a people for His Name. This is a work of selection, a kind of first fruits of God's final harvest. To some extent the full force of this passage is minimized by the A.V. translators' use of 'Gentiles' in Acts 15.14 for that suggests the idea that James was talking only of the gospel going to non-Jews, in contrast to the prejudices of the Pharisaic party in the Church. In fact the Greek word "ethnos" really means 'nations' as such and should only be translated Gentiles when the peculiar relationship of Jews with non-Jews is implicit in the context. In this verse, that is not so. James is quoting Peter's insistence upon the very reverse, that God is making no distinction whatever between Jew and non-Jew in this matter of proclaiming the Gospel message to gather "a people for his Name". Hence 'nations' is the correct rendering here as in some other 64 places where the word is so translated.
So, said James, Peter has declared how both doctrinal belief and the logic of events concur in showing that God has taken a first step in sending forth the Gospel to gather a people for His Name. Obviously the Christian Church was then in its infancy but it was destined to grow through coming generations until this part of the Divine purpose should be fulfilled. To this conception, proceeded James, agree the Old Testament prophecies. He quoted in support the words of Amos 9.11-12 "After this I will return, and will build again the dwelling-place of David, which is fallen down; and I will set it up; that the residue of men might seek after the Lord and all the nations upon whom my Name is called". To understand what James was talking about it is necessary to go back to the Old Testament. Here it is immediately noticeable that the Septuagint, from which James quoted as being the version then in common use, differs somewhat from Massoretic of the ninth century on which the A.V. is chiefly based. The A V. of Amos 9 says nothing about the residue of men calling upon the name of the Lord and substitutes instead a meaningless statement about Israel possessing the remnant of Edom. James, however, was talking to men who knew the Book of Amos thoroughly. The general theme of that prophet is the fact that Israel as a nation was unfaithful to God throughout her history and because of that unfaithfulness would he scattered among all nations. That apparently hopeless state was to become the means in God's providence for the spread of His truth among all peoples. At the Last Day, that work having been finished, God would gather up the 'grains of wheat', the true-hearted among the sons of Israel and re-gather them to their own land, revived and restored. That is what James meant by "After this I will return and build again the dwelling place of David". The Septuagint in Amos 9. 11-12 has it "In that day I will raise up the dwelling place of David that is fallen. . . that the remnant of men and all the nations upon whom my Name is called may earnestly seek me". After the selection of the people for God's Name, the Christian church, and when the end of the Age shall have come, God will restore to the faithful of Israel a national existence. That is for a great purpose, that the remnant of men, those who are neither of the Church nor of restored Israel, may then have an opportunity to seek the Lord. This latter is quite clearly the work of the Messianic Kingdom following the Second Advent of our Lord, and it is this clear understanding of the future which makes James' words so remarkable. The church really believed and held that they had entered upon a period in which their unbelieving countrymen were to be scattered among the nations. That came true enough twenty years later when Titus destroyed Jerusalem and ended their national existence. During that scattering the Gospel would be preached and the Christian church developed and gathered out from all nations. Then, at the end of the Age and at the time of the Second Coming, Israel would be gathered again in faith to the Holy Land. The Millennial Kingdom is for world wide evangelism and has its commencement that " the remnant of men and all the nations may earnestly seek me".
It was this wide conception of the purpose of God, of Jesus Christ coming into the world, not in the interests of the few, but of the many, that finally steered the growing Christian community away from the shackles of Judaism. He came not "to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved" and to "seek and to save that which was lost". The battle was not over; there were still disputes and objections: but henceforward James and Paul, Jerusalem and Antioch, saw eye to eye on this cardinal issue and the missionary work of the Church went on with new impetus. Much in Paul's later teaching must have stemmed at least in part from this historic conference. "God will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2. 4). "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive, but every man in his own order" (1 Cor.15.22-23). "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord'' (Phil. 2.10-11). Some have accused the great Apostle of ignoring, in these and similar passages, the fact of sin and the consequences of sin but that is unjust. Paul never swerved from the basic truth that the wages of sin is death and that sin and sinners must one day perish together. What he unhesitatingly rejected was the old Jewish idea that God has His favourite people. These He will bring into eternal felicity and will condemn out of hand any from among the remainder who do not measure up to His standards, whether or not they have had a full opportunity to know and accept Him. That was the normal Jewish view of all the Gentiles, fit objects of Divine wrath and in no sense potential inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Paul, although once he had espoused that view, now would have none of it.
So the delegates from Antioch began their homeward journey, enriched and encouraged by all they had seen and heard, and bearing with them the precious letter which enshrined the judgment of James and the endorsement of the Church at Jerusalem. One or two concessions were asked of the brethren at Antioch, matters that if conceded would eliminate any tendency to misunderstanding and possibly scandal in the church. The Greek believers were recommended to abstain from the ceremonial pollution of pagan idols. This probably referred to the prevalent custom of adorning house and gardens with statues or busts representing the gods of Greece and Rome. Also in eating meats partly used for ceremonial offerings on pagan altars. This latter meant refraining from many social feasts and visits and could mean measurable sacrifice or loss on occasion. They were recommended to abstain from the eating of flesh with the blood, something abhorrent to every Jew and likely to make a barrier between Jewish and Gentile believers in their social intercourse, their fellowship and their "agape feasts". They were warned against fornication, in this case the reference is evidently to practices common in the pagan temples, associated with pagan worship and hallowed or made respectable on that account. It would not always be easy for a new convert quickly to realise the gulf that existed between pagan and Christian ethics in matters of this nature. But that was all. These suggestions were made in a brotherly spirit and with that the Church at Jerusalem gave its blessing and endorsement to all that was going on at Antioch.