A re-enactment of the Jerusalem Council from the 1957 production, The Living Bible: Acts

A re-enactment of the Jerusalem Council from the 1957 production, The Living Bible: Acts

Acts 10 records the story of Peter’s visit to Cornelius’ house in Caesarea. Peter visiting somebody wasn’t a big deal, but this visit was instigated by God Himself, so that made it a big deal. He gave both Cornelius and Peter visions. Peter was a Jew, a leader of the young Christian church. Cornelius was a military man and a Gentile. The two had nothing in common and should never have met but God had other plans. Peter visited with Cornelius, preached a sermon in his home and the Holy Spirit fell upon all in the house. This was the first time a group of Gentiles had been evangelized and the first time Gentiles had been filled with the Holy Spirit. It was a watershed moment in the history of church. From this point forward, the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be preached to all men, everywhere. All men, everywhere, would now be accepted into the church on the same basis as the Jews were.

What could possibly go wrong?

Acts 11:1 – 3

Soon the news reached the apostles and other brothers in Judea that Gentiles also were being converted! But when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, the Jewish believers argued with him. “You fellowshiped with Gentiles and even ate with them,” they accused.

Like the old saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Oscar Wilde was right, and Peter found this out when he wandered back to the church in Jerusalem. It was startling news that, first of all, a large number Gentiles had supposedly been converted and, secondly, that Peter of all people would be fellowshiping with them.

All of a sudden, the Jews lost their monopoly on Jesus and the Gospel! Gentiles, perish the thought, were now joining the church, bypassing any form of Judaism altogether. Feeling threatened, the Jewish Christians jumped all over Peter, demanding some kind of explanation.

They should have been overjoyed, yet they weren’t. They should have been thrilled that the Gospel had broken the barriers of race and religion, yet they weren’t. The power of God and the grace of salvation threatened the status quo. The Jewish believers weren’t ready for this. To the strict Jew, and many Jewish Christians were still observant Jews, the Gentile was unclean and to be avoided. The uncleanliness of the Gentile would make the Jew unclean. The most serious thing Peter was accused of was that he actually fellowshiped – he ate – with a house full of Gentiles. This was something no self-respecting son of Abraham would do!

Acts 11:4 – 18

The truth is, days before Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and his family he would have completely agreed with the Jewish Christian’s assessment. But something had happened to Peter that radically changed his whole worldview.

Then Peter told them the whole story. (Acts 11:4 TLB)

Peter was in the right and he knew it. In his defense the apostle gave a straightforward account of what happened to change his mind. His apology emphasized two main points. The whole thing was God’s idea in the first place and, second, nobody, least of all him, can withstand God.

And since it was God who gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to argue? (Acts 11:17 TLB)

Indeed. That’s a good question! Who can argue with the work of God? This verse tells us something of the state of Cornelius and how God works on the hearts of those who have never heard about Jesus Christ, yet believe. Of this Gentile, we are told:

He was a godly man, deeply reverent, as was his entire household. He gave generously to charity and was a man of prayer. (Acts 10:2 TLB)

Here was a man who was never exposed to the Gospel. He had never made a confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Yet he is described as a godly man – meaning he believed in God – and he exhibited all the moral attributes of a Christian. But he wasn’t. Cornelius is a good example of a man who was living “according to the light he had.”

For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (Romans 2:12 – 16 NIV)

When Cornelius and his family heard the Gospel for the first time, their hearts were ready and were fully open to God’s will. They had already been walking devoutly in the light they had, and had accepted the reality and necessity of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior when they learned about Him from Peter’s sermon. In that moment, even before Peter finished his sermon, they were all gloriously saved and filled with the Holy Spirit.

When the others heard this, all their objections were answered and they began praising God! “Yes,” they said, “God has given to the Gentiles, too, the privilege of turning to him and receiving eternal life!” (Acts 11:18 TLB)

For now, at least until Acts 15, Peter’s critics are satisfied. We know that they reassert their concerns over the Gentile influx later on, but the Jewish Christians were silenced. As Peter asked, “Who can argue with the work of God?” The answer is: Nobody!

But that didn’t stop the church leaders in Jerusalem from meddling in God’s work a decade or so later. The Jerusalem Church council (Acts 15) would meet to lay down some “basic regulations and requirements” which Gentile converts would have to follow if they wanted to be part of the Church of Jesus Christ.

And so my judgment is that we should not insist that the Gentiles who turn to God must obey our Jewish laws, except that we should write to them to refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, from all fornication, and also from eating unbled meat of strangled animals. (Acts 15:19, 20 TLB)

Essentially, James, the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem Council, affirmed the idea of salvation by grace. Obeying Jewish laws had nothing to do with anybody’s salvation, Jew or Gentile. The Jewish law referred to was circumcision, something the Judaizers thought Gentile converts needed to observe.

However, James’ opinion was that ultimately Gentile converts needed to respect and observe some statutes of Jewish religious law. They needed to abstain from polluted food, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and eating unbled meat. If salvation was by grace alone, why would James insist Gentile believers observe these particular Jewish laws? We might understand the sexual immorality one, but was it really necessary to insist on something the Gentile converts were already aware of?

For James, and the Jerusalem Council, the issue was not one of salvation but one of fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers. The decision of the council was two-fold. First, the religious aspect: Salvation was through God’s grace alone. Second, the moral aspect: Christians need to respect each other’s weakness and foibles. A lot of Jewish believers still held fast to many points of the their Jewish faith for many different reasons. For some, the religious laws were not burdensome, they were precious. For others who enjoyed attending certain Jewish services, they would necessarily have to abide by some Jewish laws. To keep the peace between Jewish and Gentile believers, and to make fellowship between the two groups possible, James’ idea was that they abide by the simple requirements he set down.

The apostle Paul made it clear that as far the meat (polluted food) was concerned, there really was no such thing. Meat was meat. But for the sake of believers troubled by such things, it would be better to limit one’s freedom to eat anything when fellowshiping with them. Here is how he explained James’ decision:

I can do anything I want to if Christ has not said no, but some of these things aren’t good for me. Even if I am allowed to do them, I’ll refuse to if I think they might get such a grip on me that I can’t easily stop when I want to. For instance, take the matter of eating. God has given us an appetite for food and stomachs to digest it. But that doesn’t mean we should eat more than we need. Don’t think of eating as important because someday God will do away with both stomachs and food.

But sexual sin is never right: our bodies were not made for that but for the Lord, and the Lord wants to fill our bodies with himself. (1 Corinthians 6:12, 13 TLB)

You are certainly free to eat food offered to idols if you want to; it’s not against God’s laws to eat such meat, but that doesn’t mean that you should go ahead and do it. It may be perfectly legal, but it may not be best and helpful. Don’t think only of yourself. Try to think of the other fellow, too, and what is best for him.

Here’s what you should do. Take any meat you want that is sold at the market. Don’t ask whether or not it was offered to idols, lest the answer hurt your conscience. For the earth and every good thing in it belongs to the Lord and is yours to enjoy. (1 Corinthians 10:23 – 26 TLB)

So a potentially dangerous schism had been avoided by James, using both wisdom and a dash of political prowess. A vital point of doctrine had been settled: salvation by grace alone, and a clever suggestion had been given and accepted and now Jew and Gentile would be able to live in peace and harmony.

Acts 11:25, 26

Then Barnabas went on to Tarsus to hunt for Paul. When he found him, he brought him back to Antioch; and both of them stayed there for a full year teaching the many new converts. (It was there at Antioch that the believers were first called “Christians.”)

Nothing was stopping the Gospel from being preached; it was full-steam ahead with the evangelization of the Gentiles. Peter began the work in Caesarea, and Barnabas carried on with the help of a man formerly known as Saul: the apostle Paul. Barnabas was a great evangelist in his own right a staunch supporter of Paul’s.

The last sentence of verse 26 is interesting. Before this, Christians were known as “believers,” “brothers,” “saints,” “people of the way,” and “disciples.” But those terms were also used to describe Jews. It was necessary to come up with a distinctive moniker that would identify a follower of Jesus Christ.

The term “Christian” is seen only twice in the New Testament. Agrippa used it when talking to Paul (Acts 26:28) and Peter used it in 1 Peter 4:16. It is generally accepted that “Christian” was originally used by outsiders and not by believers themselves. One scholar has noted:

There is nothing to support the view that the name was a first a title of ridicule.

He’s probably right. Greeks and Romans routinely designated groups, like political parties for example, by the names of the founder. The Church was founded by Jesus Christ, therefore members of this group were called “Christians.” The very fact that the people in Antioch had to assign a name to this new movement in their city showed how big it become.

It’s hard to believe in our secular and cynical age that there was ever a time when Christianity was growing in leaps and bounds and was so attractive to so many diverse people. But it was. In fact, it still is, if we Christians took the time to share Jesus with those who don’t know him. Man has not changed much since the days of Acts. He is still a sinner in need of a Savior. Jesus hasn’t changed, either. He is still in the saving business. It’s time for Christians to get back into full partnership with Him.

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