The Jerusalem Council

I have been working through Acts and Galatians this week, as I try to make sense of the seeming dichotomy between the Church’s, and particularly Paul’s, words and actions regarding faith and the Law (Torah) as they apply to Jew and Gentile followers of Christ the Messiah.

But I find that the more I try to read with a mindset centered around Church tradition and classical Dogma, the more confusing Paul becomes to me, and the less I can form a coherent view of his Theology and Praxis. So, casting caution to the wind for the moment, I have begun re-reading the text as one who has not been raised in the Evangelical church with all of its baggage in hopes of discovering a continuity in Paul. Here are just a few reflections from Acts, with more to follow from Galatians later…

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)

Acts 15 begins the account of the council at Jerusalem which convened specifically to deal with an issue of false teaching and doctrine being spread among believers. Specifically, these false teachers were convincing Gentile believers that they must become ethnic Jews (often referred to as “The Circumcision”) in order to gain salvation. Now initially Peter, and then later Paul, had been shown by God that the Gospel was to be for all nations. This revelation had removed the uncleanness of fellowshipping with Gentiles, and showed them to be fellow heirs with Christ. Once the Gospel was shared with Gentiles and they became believers, they began to worship alongside Jewish believers in the synagogues, and began to learn Moses (i.e. the law). So the conflict was not over whether or not Gentile believers should be worshipping with Jews or learning Torah, but was instead over whether or not they needed to be baptized and circumcised into the Jewish community as a means to justification. The problem in this line of thought was that it returned justification to the Law, and removed faith as the means to justification. This, of course, is not the road to salvation.

So the council met to discuss this issue and come to a resolution about what God requires of those who wish to follow Christ. Here is the response we get from Peter:

And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “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. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 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? (Acts 15:7-10)

The point of biggest contention comes from what Peter meant with verse 10. What exactly is he referring to as the “yoke that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear”? Most good Church scholars would tell you that this refers to the Torah, the Law. But before accepting this traditional answer, let us forst consider this. Peter was a Jew. In fact, even at the point when God sent a vision to instruct him about the inclusion of Gentiles into the body of Christ, he spoke of the fact that he had never consumed any unclean thing. So we can say with a fair amount of certainty that Peter was still practicing the Law. Even if we couldn’t be completely certain about Peter, we certainly know that Paul was continuing to do so, because he was performing the final cleansing rituals in preparation for making sacrifice at Pentecost when he was finally arrested.

At any rate, if Peter had been referring to the Law as the yoke that none can bear, why would he then still be attempting to bear it? Perhaps what he is referring to, then, is not the Law itself, but the practice of accepting the Law as justification for sin. For justification to happen this way, one would have to perfectly practice the Law, and only one man has ever done that, and he is Christ. And through his death and resurrection, we now receive justification, and thereby salvation, through faith alone, as Peter is quick to point out in verse 11.

“But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Following Peter’s words, James then confirmed his remarks by saying:

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant1 of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’ (Acts 15:13-18)

And then the council made its ruling regarding the circumcision (i.e. the conversion of gentiles to Judaism).

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:19-20)

Now at first glance, this ruling seems to go against what we have just discovered and say that only these things must be done for Gentiles to become believers. But thatis would also go against what Peter had just declared about being justified by faith alone. So it appears that the council, in agreement with Peter, believed that justification could not come from the Law. Why then give even these few commands (incidentally all part of Torah) to Gentiles, while denying the rest. Was it to say that the rest was unimportant, or not intended for them? Absolutely not.

What these particular commands acheived are three things. First, the served to instantly sever the ties to pagan religious practices of the day which many times involved the drinking of blood and fornication with temple prostitutes as part of regular worship. Second, they removed the burden that Gentiles who had never learned the Law would have had from being required to instantly adopt the entire Law. And Third, and probably most importantly, this emphasized that it is not through the right practice of the Law that we are justified, but rather through faith alone, and that obedience to torah serves a different purpose entirely – that of sanctification, or holy living.

So then, you might ask, what is the point of giving only three aspects of the Law to the Gentiles if the rest will need to at some point be followed as well? Tahnkfully, the council had the answer to that as well.

“For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:21)

You see it wasn’t that the rest of the Torah was expendable, or that it isn’t for Gentile believers. It was fully expected that those who had come to the faith would learn all of the other aspects of the Law in time as they attended regular worship with the community, and were taught more of God’s Word. This was the ruling of the council at Jerusalem, which has been so badly misunderstood by well-meaning Christians, and it is this message which was then sent with Paul and his companions to be shared with and spread to the greater believing community.

Yet as we will see, when we look at Galatians and a bit more of Acts, the confusion, even for the early Church, did not end with this council. And Paul was forced to defend his teaching against conversion to Judaism along with his practice of Torah time and time againm, and culminating with his final visit to Jerusalem.

Until next time…

Shalom b’Mashiach

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