For the last few days, I’ve been publishing posts about the so-called “Jerusalem Council” from Acts 15:1-35. (See my posts “The Jerusalem Council – Introduction,” “The Jerusalem Council – Literary Position,” and “The Jerusalem Council – The Decision.”) In this post – the final in the series – I want to consider the reasons for the “Jerusalem Council” and the results.
First, note that when Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary journey, they did not plan to return to Jerusalem. They were sent out by the church in Antioch, and only planned to return to Antioch.
However, some Jewish Christians soon began to argue with Paul and Barnabas about the necessity for Gentiles to be circumcised in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas then went to Jerusalem to settle the matter.
Why did they go to Jerusalem? Did they go to Jerusalem because Jerusalem was the mother-church and, therefore, only the Jerusalem church could settle such problems? No. They went to Jerusalem because the trouble-makers had come from Judea (Jerusalem), and, from James’ reaction later, the trouble-makers had intimated that they had been sent by the Jerusalem church – that is, the trouble-makers were saying that they represented the views of the Jerusalem church.
So, Paul and Barnabas (and others – Acts 15:2) went to Jerusalem to find out if the church there had sent out these people.
When the church gathered together, several people spoke, although Luke only records the words of Peter and James. Everyone who spoke reaffirmed what had already been recognized and decided earlier, that is, that the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved.
They decided (per James’ recommendation) to send a letter to the Gentile churches. This letter actually says very little about the salvation of the Gentiles and doesn’t mention circumcision at all. Instead, the letter (Acts 15:23-29) specified two things: 1) That those who claim that Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to be saved have not been sent by the Jerusalem church, and 2) That Gentiles should follow certain Jewish requirements that otherwise would prohibit Gentile and Jewish fellowship.
Later in the Book of Acts, when this letter is mentioned again (Acts 21:25), the question about circumcision and salvation is not mentioned. Instead, only the prohibition requirements are listed. So, we must ask, did the participants in the “Jerusalem Council” think that the meeting was about salvation? Or did they think it was about something else?
If we observe what is said in the letter sent after the meeting and what is said about this letter later, it seems that the result of the “council” was not about salvation at all. Yes, during the meeting, Peter and James (as well as Paul and Barnabas, it seems) talked about God’s work among the Gentiles. But the result and decision of the meeting was more about who represents the church in Jerusalem (not those who require circumcision) and what Gentiles should do so as to not offend Jews (including Jewish Christians).
In the book of Acts, we see the church handling many problems. In Acts 6, there was the problem of widows receiving food. In Acts 11, there was the problem of Gentiles being saved. In Acts 15, the problem seems to be whether or not these teacher who required circumcision actually represented the views of the church in Jerusalem.
I do not think it is helpful or beneficial to place special significance on any of these particular church meetings. There was a problem, and the church got together to decide how to take care of the problem. We see Paul telling the church in Corinth to get together to decide how to take care of problems there. There is no reason to consider Acts 15 a special kind of council meeting.