Over the last few days, I’ve been writing about the so-called “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15:1-35. (See my posts “The Jerusalem Council – Introduction” and “The Jerusalem Council – Literary Position.”) In this post, I will consider the decision that was reached during the council.
In my first post, I quoted Stein’s article on â€œJerusalemâ€ in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, as follows:
[T]he results of the Jerusalem Council were a clear victory for Paul. The church with one voice recognized that salvation was by grace alone. The Gentiles needed only believe. Those who were troubling them and demanding their circumcision were refuted. (Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993, pg 469)
Stein refers to the council’s “decision” that it was necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised in order to be saved.
But, is this truly a decision reached by the council? No. This had already been determined because of the events of Acts 10 in Cornelius’ house, which Peter later recounted in Acts 11.
Luke described Cornelius as a centurion who was also “a devout who feared God” (Acts 10:2 ESV). More than likely, this phrase indicates that Cornelius had not converted to Judaism (and had not been circumcised). Also, Cornelius was not the only Gentile involved. He “had called together his relative and close friends” to hear Peter. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard Peter’s message.
What did Peter and the Jewish Christians who were with him think about this? Luke writes:
And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. (Acts 10:45 ESV)
Luke even calls the Jewish Christians those “among the circumcised” to point out the difference between them and the Gentiles.
When Peter later told this story about Cornelius to others in the church in Jerusalem who were concerned about uncircumcised people being saved, Luke writes:
When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18 ESV)
The church in Jerusalem had already accepted the fact that God was saving Gentiles. This was not a decision made by the church in Jerusalem; it was a decision made by God and simply recognized by the church. They saw and experienced that God was saving Gentiles, and that he was then filling them with the Holy Spirit, just as he had done to the disciples (in Acts 2) and to Samaritans (in Acts 8).
Therefore, the Jerusalem Council was not about whether or not God would accept Gentiles without circumcision. That had already been witnessed and recognized and decided.