The Council of Jerusalem.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 March
Acts 15.1-12 KWL
1 Certain people, coming down from Judea to Antioch,
were teaching the fellow Christians this:
“Unless you’ve been circumcised in the manner of Moses,
you are not able to be saved.”
2 It became no small standing controversy and debate
between Paul and Barnabas and them.
Paul and Barnabas arranged to go up to Judea
with some others of them,
to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem,
to talk about their debate.
3 (By the way, while being sent off by the church,
they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria,
telling the Christians there about converting gentiles in detail,
causing great joy among all their fellow Christians.)
4 Appearing in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were received
by the churches, the apostles, and the elders.
5 They brought up certain things
about the heresy the Pharisee believers were speaking of—
that “It is necessary to circumcise yourselves
to keep the command of the Mosaic law.”
6 The apostles and elders gathered together to look at this word.
7 Many debates were coming out of it.
Rising up, Simon Peter told them, “Men, fellow Christians,
you know that in the olden days,
God chose from among you, through my mouth,
for gentiles to hear the word of the good news, and believe.
8 God, the heart-knower, witnessed to them,
giving the Holy Spirit just as he did to us as well.
9 The Spirit never discriminated between us and them,
cleansing their hearts by faith.
10 So why do you now challenge God
to put a yoke on the students’ necks
which neither our parents nor we have to carry?
11 Instead, because of our Master Jesus’s grace,
we trust him to save them in the same way as us.”
12 All the crowd was silent.
They’d heard Barnabas and Paul explain all the miracles God did,
and wonders among the gentiles because of them.
Next:
  • “James’s ruling at the Council of Jerusalem.” Ac 15.12-21
  • Whenever I talk about Christian orthodoxy, and whether a Christian doctrine is debatable or not, I define the debatable ones by the ancient Christian councils. If the ancient Christians hashed this out during the first 700 years of Christianity—back before the one church split into the separate Orthodox and Catholic camps—then it’s decided. That’s the orthodox position.

    No we don’t get to second-guess the ancient councils and decide they were wrong. We recognize they were still listening to the Holy Spirit at that time, and he led ’em to their theological conclusions. The only reason—the only reason—today’s Christians argue the ancients were wrong (or push the popular conspiracy theory that Emperor Constantine, or “the popes”—which didn’t even exist yet!—hijacked ancient Christianity and turned it heretic), is because those naysaying Christians wanna claim they get to decide these things, and they’re right. And they don’t, and they’re not. (Their bad attitudes and bad fruit kinda give ’em away, too.)

    The precedent for these ancient councils is found in the bible, in the very first church council, which we call the Council of Jerusalem. It was presided by Jesus’s brother James, who was the head apostle in Jerusalem at the time. (Roman Catholics like to claim Simon Peter was still in charge, ’cause he’s their favorite. But Peter had stepped down some years before, during one of the persecutions—although you notice in today’s passage he was definitely active among them.) As president, James got the last word, in which he expressed the consensus of the apostles—which appears to be their unanimous conclusion. Later councils also tried for a unanimous conclusion—after all, if they’re all listening to the same Holy Spirit, shouldn’t the conclusion be unanimous?

    Because today’s Christians are fragmented into denominations, and some of our denominations refuse to talk to one another, much less come to agreements with one another, we can’t do church councils anymore. We can do denominational councils, and do: Certain church networks can get together and hash out all the divisive debates within their churches. And while they might claim they speak for all Christians everywhere (like the Roman Catholics try to do), they really only speak for themselves. Their regular inability to see outside their own boxes, makes it kinda impossible for the Holy Spirit to speak to every Christian. Hence he frequently doesn’t even try; he just speaks to that denomination. But every so often these denominational councils come up with declarations which every Christian oughta listen to—because they are actually heeding the Spirit. So it’s not a bad idea for the rest of us to pay some attention to what the Spirit’s doing among our fellow Christians. It might profit us.

    Anyway, back to this council.

    The issue.

    Like Luke wrote in Acts, the issue started when certain Christians from Judea started to teach at Barnabas and Paul’s church in Antioch, Syria. And what they claimed was if you weren’t circumcised, you weren’t Christian.

    There were at the time multiple denominations of the ancient Hebrew religion—Pharisees obviously, but also Sadducees, Essenes, Samaritans, and Qumranis (though a number of scholars are pretty sure the Qumranis were Essenes). They may have had their differences, but all of them believed YHWH/the LORD is the God of Israel, and he intended to save Israel. If you were Israeli—or at least a descendant of Abraham ben Terah—you’d be saved.

    This is why John the baptist had to correct ’em about this presumption:

    Luke 2.7-8 KJV
    7 Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

    And not just stones; God could raise up gentiles. People who aren’t descended from Abraham at all. Africans, Europeans, Asians, Americans—everyone. God’s kingdom is gonna consist of people of every nation.

    And Pharisees were actually okay with this idea! But they believed the only way God would save gentiles, is the gentiles had to first become Jews. Gotta join the tribe. Gotta follow all the commands of the Law of Moses. Gotta follow the customs of their elders.

    And all of this started with the very first command baby boys had to follow eight days after their birth: Ritual circumcision. Your foreskin’s gotta go!

    Genesis 14.9-14 KJV
    9 And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. 11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. 12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. 13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

    It’s physical, permanent, and hurt like crazy. Not that opium wasn’t around back then, but the only anesthetic Pharisees ever mentioned was wine! Which doesn’t dull pain so much as keep you from seriously resisting that guy who’s coming at your penis with a knife. It definitely meant commitment, ’cause that’s your penis—a part of a man’s body with a whole lot of nerve endings, which means it’s only to be treated nicely—and you’re cutting it.

    For Pharisees, circumcision was simply what you did if you’re gonna follow God. Wasn’t debated, wasn’t optional. They had kinda turned this into a test of people’s commitment to the LORD. Yeah, you say you fear God; you claim you want a formal relationship with him. That’s nice. But talk is cheap: Let’s cut your penis! This way we’ll know you really mean it—’cause there’s no getting that foreskin back!

    Pharisees frequently referred to an uncircumcised gentile as an ἀκροβυστία/akrovystía, “foreskin.” No I’m not kidding. It’s in the bible too. Ac 11.3, Ro 2.25-27, 4.9-12, 1Co 7.18-19, Ga 2.7, Ep 2.11, Cl 3.11 Most bibles tone this down to “uncircumcised,” but akrovystía is a compound of ἄκρον/ákron (“tip”) and πόσθη/pósthi (“penis”), so… yeah, that word’s in the scriptures. Sorry. Hey, I didn’t write it.

    Thing is, as Simon Peter correctly pointed out, the Holy Spirit doesn’t care whether gentiles still have foreskins. When, following the Spirit’s orders, he shared the gospel with Cornelius and the Romans, they got baptized by the Holy Spirit right in front of him and his team.

    Acts 10.44-48 KJV
    44 While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. 45 And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, 47 Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.

    When his fellow Judean Christians who weren’t there objected, Peter pointed out it wasn’t his idea; it was the Holy Spirit’s, and who was he to object to God’s will?

    Acts 11.15-17 KJV
    15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. 16 Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. 17 Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?

    At the time, the Judean Christians seemed to agree with him—

    Acts 11.18 KJV
    When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.

    —but now here they were, in council debating this very issue, and some of them were arguing God required gentiles to have the snip-snip first. Even though the Spirit’s actions among gentile believers—and they were many!—proved this wasn’t a priority for him. At all.

    Y’see, occasionally there’s a disconnect between what we Christians think God’s will must be, and what the Holy Spirit is up to. (Happens all the time among Christians who think the Holy Spirit isn’t doing anything anymore.) That’s what was going on with the Pharisee Christians: They were still reading Pharisee theology into Christianity. They assumed God was only gonna save Israel, so gentiles had to first become Israelis. But Peter knew firsthand that God is no such respecter of persons. I’ll quote him, shall I?

    Acts 10.34-35 KJV
    34 Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: 35 but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.

    “In every nation” can also be translated “with every gentile.” God doesn’t care about which “nation” (Greek ἔθνει/éthnei, “ethnic group”) you are; he cares that we trust and obey him, and this is the faith which justifies us in his eyes. We needn’t become Jews first. We needn’t be ritually circumcised first. I mean, if you wanna get the snip-snip, go right ahead—but if you think it’s a condition for salvation, you’re absolutely wrong. That doctrine, as Luke put it in Acts 15.5, is αἱρέσεως/eréseos, “heresy.”

    Paul analyzed this fact in greater detail in Galatians 2–3, and emphasizes how it runs contrary to the very idea of salvation by God’s grace. But Peter’s statement makes a briefer, yet just as legitimate, point: Circumcision adds an illegitimate requirement to the gospel. The Holy Spirit doesn’t require it; neither should we. That’s that.

    A yoke we were unable to bear.

    A number of people pull Peter’s statement in verse 10 out of context, which the KJV renders thisaway:

    Acts 15.10 KJV
    Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

    They claim what Peter meant by this, is ritual circumcision—and for that matter, the entire Law of Moses—was impossible to follow. It was something “neither our fathers nor we were able to bear,” and therefore Jesus had to do away with it, and inaugurate a new dispensation in which we’re saved by grace, not Law.

    Okay. First of all, no human, not ever, was saved by the Law. God has always saved by grace. He saved the Hebrews from Egypt, not because they were devoted to his Law—he hadn’t given them his Law yet!—but by grace. They didn’t merit saving; they proved this time and again in the desert, then took over Palestine and proved it time and again under godless king after godless king. God loved them regardless. Sent ’em prophets and his Messiah regardless. Maintained a relationship with them regardless. Saved them regardless.

    The Law is not a yoke… unless you imagine your obedience to Law is why God saves you. Plenty of legalistic Christians have thereby saddled themselves under a yoke of constant worry: “Have I done enough? Am I still in God’s favor? Am I worthy of heaven?” It’s miserable.

    Contrary to popular belief, Pharisees were not legalists; they were hypocrites. They didn’t worry lest breaking little bitty commands might send them to hell: They worried about looking righteous. They had all sorts of loopholes so they could give off an appearance of righteousness, yet they didn’t really follow the Law all that closely, if at all. They took God’s grace for granted. That was Jesus’s real beef with them. Nowadays they have a reputation for legalism—because the unintended consequence of requiring circumcision is legalism. But legalism wasn’t their lifestyle: Looking good was. Hypocrisy was.

    So nobody back then saw the Law as this impossible yoke to bear. Maybe the pressure from fellow hypocrites to keep up appearances; but not the Law, because Pharisees had all these ways to weasel out of doing the Law. In historical context, the way Christians interpret verse 10 does not work. So it’s not valid.

    So what did Peter mean by it? Well it’d help if we stopped getting the verb tense wrong. Peter’s word ἰσχύσαμεν/ishýsamen, “we exercise the ability,” is not past-tense, like so many bibles render it: It’s aorist. It’s neither present, past, nor future; it has no time attached to it. English verbs always have time attached to them, so whenever we translate aorist verbs into English, we gotta choose what time the writer means. And most sloppy translators just translate ’em past-tense… because the bible happened in the past.

    But how we oughta do it is by the context in which the verb was originally said: Is the speaker talking about their past, present, or future? Did they use any other time-based verbs, or cues, which tell us the time they’re thinking about? In this case, Peter did ust that: The very first word in verse 10 is νῦν/nyn, “now.” Peter was speaking about the present. So the best English translation is present tense. A yoke neither we nor our fathers presently bear.

    In other words, a yoke they currently don’t have. Because their culture didn’t see the Law as a yoke. The Law was simply the good works which a saved people are expected to do. Ep 2.10 You wanna know how God wants us to live? Look at the Law. Better yet, look at the Sermon on the Mount. Live like that.

    Yet if the Law becomes a requirement before salvation… it immediately turns into a yoke. A yoke they didn’t have, yet a yoke they were now talking about strapping to the backs of gentile Christians. Exactly why are they doing that? The Holy Spirit never required any such thing when he chose to indwell gentiles before. Where did they get off going where the Spirit didn’t lead? (A question we oughta regularly ask ourselves, y’know.)

    But no, in no way was Peter disparaging the Law, nor claiming it was impossible to follow. If you wanna dismiss the Law, you gotta really warp the scriptures before you can get ’em to do that for you. Jesus is the LORD who handed down this Law from Sinai; it’s his Law. It defines goodness. Christians only wanna ditch it when we wanna behave like Pharisees, pursue loopholes instead of goodness, and be hypocrites too. Let’s not repeat the Pharisees’ error.