We saw that Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey was the first time that Gentiles in large numbers had come to faith in Jesus Christ. Not only had the Gentile proselytes which met in the synagogues heard the Word of the Lord, but for the first time, the Gospel was being preached outside of the synagogues outside of Israel, to Gentiles who were not already proselytes to Judaism.
When Paul and Barnabas returned home to Antioch, certain brethren came to Antioch from Judea, teaching “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved,” (Act 15:1). These brethren are the circumcision party we learned about in Acts 11, the ones who taught that circumcision, i.e., conversion to Judaism, was a prerequisite for salvation.
This raised a dispute which had to be settled by the very first Church Council in Jerusalem. The account of the Jerusalem Council and the apostles’ decision is recorded in Acts 15. This chapter is used to prove that Gentiles are exempt from obeying Torah. So let’s examine it and see if that is what it is saying, because we have been seeing Scripture that seems to say the opposite (Jer 31:33, Eze 36:27, Mat 5:17-19, Joh 14:15).
The first clue is in the first verse: “Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” The question is, what constitutes right- standing — righteousness, or justification — before God (which is salvation)? Do people gain salvation through works of the Law, such as circumcision, or do they gain it through faith in Jesus Christ by grace? Paul and Barnabas had a great dissension with those brethren (vs. 2). Paul vehemently taught that NO ONE could ever be justified — made righteous or attain salvation — by their own work through obedience to the Law (Gal 3:20). I believe that the whole issue the Jerusalem Council was deciding was what was necessary for salvation, as is stated in verse one. Peter reiterates that the issue is about salvation when he says in verse 11 that “we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
James then affirms Peter’s words (Act 15:13-17), and adds:
“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.” Act 15:19-20
What does he mean that they do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, except that they cease from doing four things? The four stipulations are:
- cease idolatry and things connected with idolatry — remember, all Gentiles in the ancient world, who were not proselytes meeting in synagogues, were pagan idolaters! There was no such thing as atheism in those days;
- cease immorality — ever wonder why prostitutes in the Scripture are often called TEMPLE prostitutes? It is because immorality was an ingrained part of pagan temple rites. It is hard for us to imagine, but for them it was a regular act of worship of pagan deities;
- cease partaking of that which is strangled — strangulation was a common method of killing animals offered on the altars of idols by pagan priests. The priests of YHVH did not kill their sacrifices in such a manner;
- cease partaking of blood, as this was often done with the blood of a sacrificial animal offered on an altar to idols.
So we can see that the four stipulations were meant to help Gentiles who were truly repentant and turning to God, to break away from the idolatry into which they had been raised or which was customary in their families or communities. Now, these same four things were required of Gentiles who were seeking the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, before the advent of Jesus. The Gentile proselytes, before they were allowed to sit in the back of the synagogues on Sabbath and listen to Moses and the Prophets, had to agree to these four stipulations. James and the Council were not pulling ideas out of thin air. Gentiles had to turn from idolatry in order for Jews to associate with them, because it was unlawful for God’s people to have dealings with pagans (Peter said the same in Acts 10 — which was why God had to give him the vision before he would go with Cornelius’ men).
So the Jerusalem Council was reiterating to the Gentiles, that if they were truly repentant and desiring to be saved, then forsake idolatry: abstain from these four things as a sign of the sincerity of your faith. But the Jerusalem Council also reiterated to the Gentiles the same message that Paul had preached, that circumcision was not a requirement for salvation, and observance of the Law was not a requirement for salvation.
But then James says something very interesting in verse 21:
“For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
What is James saying by this? I believe he is saying, Let us not make learning the entire Law of Moses a prerequisite for salvation, as the circumcision party advocated, for that would hinder, burden, trouble the Gentiles who were not raised in the Hebrew faith. But Gentiles who wish to turn to God are saved by faith in Jesus Christ just as Jews are, showing that they have forsaken idolatry by doing the four things. Once they have come to faith in Jesus, they will have plenty of opportunity to learn Moses, which is the Torah — the ways, the teaching, the instruction in righteousness — of God, because Torah is taught every Sabbath in the synagogues in every city.
So the entire account of the Jerusalem Council only reaffirms for us what we already know, that salvation is by grace through faith (Eph 2:8), not by works of obedience to the Law, but once we are in covenant relationship with YHVH — once we have been grafted in to the olive tree of Israel (Rom 11:17) — let us put off the old man (Eph 4:20-23), let us learn to forsake sin and walk in holiness (2 Cor 7:1) and obedience to God (1 Pet 1:2) by the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling us (Rom 8:13). How do we know what God considers holy and what God considers sin and what God considers a manner of walking which is worthy of His name? The Torah teaches us all that (1 Joh 3:4).