The first church council and its decisions


Acts 15

Paul and Barnabas had returned from their missionary journey to Galatia – part of what we now call Turkey. They were full of excitement at what God had done for them on their journey. Above all, when they called the believers together, they spoke about how God had opened the door of faith, not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles. (Acts 14:26-28)

This journey into the unknown opened their eyes to what God was doing. Had it been you or me who had been on that trip, we might have been eager to get on the next ship and to experience again the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of others. But that might well have been a mistake. The experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives comes only when we do the will of God. If God has not authorised and approved what we are doing, we are doing it in our own strength! These men knew the heart of God and, as a result, they waited in Antioch where they were amongst people they knew; people who had sent them out in the first place in response to the Holy Spirit’s prompting. (Acts 13:1-3)

Acts 15:1-5

If the Holy Spirit has a job for us to do, He will let us know. His job is to lead us into all truth. It was no accident that Paul and Barnabas were in the right place at the right time when "certain people" arrived. (Acts 15:1-3) The book of Acts was written by a doctor (Luke) who was undoubtedly accustomed to being very precise with the words he used. Who then were these "certain people"? They were probably not believers, else Luke would have said so. Luke's language is deliberately vague to indicate that these "people" had no authorisation from any church in Judea. (Indeed, this is confirmed later in this chapter - at verse twenty-four - Acts 15:24.) No, they were just people who had decided that their theological beliefs were right and Paul & Barnabas had got it all wrong. Such people still exist today. They may well see themselves as being Christians and become members of churches, even holding office or positions of responsibility within those churches. They might have "credentials" and plausible stories to back them up, but all they really manage to achieve is to sow doubts and questions in the hearts of genuine believers. In this case, they came from Judea and stated that you couldn’t be a Christian unless you adhered to the ancient Jewish ritual of circumcision. Now, Paul, Barnabas and the other church leaders believed that the Old Testament law was very important, but they also saw that Jesus' death and resurrection had established a "new covenant" under which rituals and "doing good works" do not (and cannot) give us entry to God's kingdom. God's law is an excellent guide as to how we can get the best from our time on Earth, but it cannot "save" us or give us the right to live eternally with God. It is only by His grace, through our faith in Jesus Christ, that we can enter His kingdom. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

New Testament Books

The believers in Antioch were sufficiently concerned about the implications of this alternative teaching that they decided to send Paul and Barnabas (together with others) to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles there about it. They wanted to discover what the apostles (those who had been with Jesus throughout the time of His public teaching as a rabbi and were regarded as the leaders in the expanding church) made of this question.

Remember that the "New Testament" as we know it had not been written at that stage. Paul's letter to the Galatians was written during the time following his first missionary journey - while he was back at his home church in Antioch - and it addressed this specific teaching and the questions it was creating for new believers. Almost certainly, it was written after Paul had been to Jerusalem and taken part in the discussions there. It is worth reading now to cast some further light on this incident: Galatians 3:1-9.

Paul is typically forthright in the way that he addresses them: "You foolish Galatians!" They started well, accepting the good news about Jesus and putting their faith in Him and His righteousness - even receiving the Holy Spirit. Now they were allowing themselves to be dragged away from their roots by trying to add on other religious rituals such as circumcisions as pre-requisites for entering God's kingdom. The same is still true today. We must not allow ourselves to be swayed and led astray by every "wind of doctrine" (Ephesians 4:14-15). We have a yardstick that can never be changed - the measure by which all things can be judged: God's word to us as contained in the sixty-six books of the Bible. It is our reference point which, if we use it wisely, will keep us on the right path.

Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to check out this question of "Old Testament" law getting mixed up with "New Testament" freedom that comes from being "born again" by the Spirit of God. As they went, they encouraged the believers along their way from Phoenicia in the North to Samaria in the South. (See the map of Israel in study fourteen.) As we go about our daily business, we should not fail to encourage the believers along our route of faith. (Isaiah 42:3-4) These believers may be in any location, in any state of heart or mind - perhaps even suffering - but, if God has sent us on a journey, He may very well have specific people for us to meet along the way. Do not be surprised by what happens to you. Just rejoice that God has given you a job to do and that He has given it to you because He knows that you can complete it.

When they arrived in Jerusalem, the church, the apostles and the elders welcomed them and they shared what God had done through them. Now, the thing about people becoming believers, is that God calls them from all sorts of different situations and backgrounds. Unless we study the word of God for ourselves when we become Christians, we can easily be persuaded that various traditions are important and necessary when really they matter very little. In my own journey, for example, I was persuaded that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had passed away with the death of the apostles and I lived like that for the first twelve years of my Christian life. I could even explain to you why people who insisted on "speaking in tongues" were either easily led, misguided or just plain deceived. I was the one who had been deceived. I had listened to and believed people from a different tradition. I was unable to live in the full power of my faith during those twelve years and, it wasn’t until someone dared to share with me that he thought I was wrong, that God was able to break through into my life. The situation here in Acts was very similar. Some believers who had been (and still were) Pharisees and subject to that particular system of beliefs and traditions, started to try to enforce those beliefs on all believers. They saw faith in Christ as an addition to the Old Testament law, rather than realising that Jesus had fulfilled that law insofar as it served to make people righteous before God. They were bogged down in the traditions of men. (Matthew 15:6)

We cannot carry any of our traditions through into the kingdom of God. "Christianity" is about a relationship, not a religion. It involves being in a real and close relationship with the very person who created the universe. Because God designed this whole creation - including us - He knows what is best for us. More than that, He loves us and came, in the person of Jesus, to die for us. He has made us righteous and brought us into His kingdom but, to continue living in it, we must live "in" Him - in a one-to-one relationship with Jesus.

Acts 15:6-21

Because this was the first time that the problem had been debated, there was discussion amongst the apostles and elders to decide the issue. This meeting has become known as the "Council of Jerusalem". Finally, Peter got up and made a statement - under the guidance of the Holy Spirit - that has affected all believers down through the ages. Basically, he said that God has made us all of equal status in His eyes and those who draw near to Him do so by faith and not on the basis of the works they have done or the rules they have kept. Nobody has the right to put burdens on others that they were never intended to carry; instead, it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved – Jews and Gentiles - with no added requirements. The "good news" (gospel) is that it has all been done for us (GRACE = God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense). All we have to do is to receive the amazing gift of God: salvation.

The whole assembly then listened to a report from Paul and Barnabas about what God had been doing amongst the Gentiles during their mission to share the good news (the gospel) of the Lord Jesus Christ. Finally James stood up. (James was the brother of Jesus and the recognised leader of the church.) He compared what had been happening with the Old Testament laws in order to make his judgement. (See Acts 15:16-18.) His comments were as follows:

"It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath." (Acts 15:19-21)

In other words, "keep it simple and encourage believers everywhere." No church has the entire picture. No group, whether it be Anglican, Baptist, Free Church, non-denominational or whatever, has the right to exclude others. Why? Because it is not about a relationship between any given, local church or denomination and God; it is about a one-to-one relationship with Jesus for every single believer. As we all look to the Head of the Church – Jesus – we will grow in power, begin to use our gifts and take our places in the Body of Christ. Your place is not my place; neither is mine yours but, if we each encourage one other, we will together discover God’s purpose for all our lives!

Acts 15:22-35

The Council decided to send a letter to the church at Antioch by means of Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by two other believers (Judas and Silas, who were both church leaders). This enabled the church to have a clear record of the Council's decision that allowed them to resolve the dispute and move on. Leaders stand out from ordinary people in a church. Christian leaders know what being a follower is all about because they themselves follow Jesus. Christian leaders are there to point people to Jesus, encouraging them to look to Him for themselves and to follow Him in their lives. John the Baptist, next to Jesus Himself, is an outstanding example of a leader in the Bible. Everything he did pointed people to the One who was to come, the "the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie" as John described it himself. (John 1:27) He pushed, entreated and cajoled people to focus on Jesus in preparation for the salvation that would come through Him. Finally, John handed all his followers over to Jesus, before paying the ultimate sacrifice for his faith – an ignominious death at the hands of a weak-willed tyrant who happened to be the local king but, despite being a leader, had made a promise to his wife from which he could not escape, even though he knew it to be wrong.

When Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas reached Antioch and reported the decision of the Council to the church, it certainly encouraged them. They now had confirmation of what they had thought to be right all along and they rejoiced in it. Judas and Silas were prophets. A prophet is one part of the five-fold aspects of leadership given by God to churches. The gift of a prophet is the ability to speak out God’s Word, addressing perhaps the current situation of the church or, possibly, preparing them for something in the future. This allows God to speak to the hearts of the people in order to prepare them for things that are going to happen in the future and to prepare them, either as a body of people or as individuals, for future events. This knowledge is not necessarily given so that events can be avoided, but so that believers might be strengthened or better prepared to go through an event. A good example of this is Luke's account of a prophecy given by Agabus from Judea, which we shall consider in a later study. (Acts 21:10-15)

So, Judas and Silas encouraged and strengthened the believers at Antioch for the next stage in their journey of faith, before they themselves returned to Jerusalem. (Some manuscripts add that Silas decided to stay on in Antioch. Whether that happened or not, Silas certainly figures strongly in the next part of the book of Acts as he joins Paul on a new journey.) Meanwhile, Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch and joined many others in preaching and teaching there.

Read Acts 15:36-41

Some time later, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they should return to the towns and cities where they had preached the good news on their first "missionary journey". Barnabas (whose name meant "son of encouragement") wanted to take John-Mark with them on their journey. John-Mark had been with them on their first journey, but had deserted them halfway through (Acts 13:13) so Paul opposed this suggestion. Paul and Barnabas fell out over this and, although they were reconciled some time later, they were never to continue with their missionary journeys together. Barnabas took John-Mark with him to Cyprus, while Paul selected Silas and left on what is known as Paul’s second "missionary journey". The Bible implies that only Paul and Silas went with the blessing of the church in Antioch and that seems to be borne out by the results that were gained as they pushed back the frontiers of Satan’s kingdom in places as far away as Athens, Corinth, Thessalonica and Philippi.

If you and I are going to be successful in our work for the Lord, we must look for His blessing but, as Paul discovered, that is often found predominantly in trials and hardships. However, like Job (from the Old Testament), we can expect double blessings for our trouble. We must always be guided by our Lord. Family, friends and fellow church members can all help us, but only God’s guidance is paramount and guaranteed.

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