To keep the peace, the Church organized the council of Jerusalem around 50 AD because some Gentil Christians did not obey Moses Law. This Jerusalem conference was led by Saint Peter the Apostle and St James, Jesus’ brother.
The Issue Between the Gentiles and the Jewish Christians
The Gentiles, and especially the Greeks, were extremely licentious, and there was the danger that some, unconverted in heart, would make a profession of faith without renouncing their evil practices. The Jewish Christians could not tolerate the immorality that was not even regarded as criminal by the heathen.
The Jews, therefore, held it as highly proper that circumcision and the observance of the ceremonial law should be enjoined on the Gentile converts as a test of their sincerity and devotion. This, they believed, would prevent the addition to the church of those who, adopting the faith without true conversion of heart, might afterward bring reproach upon the cause by immorality and excess.
The various points involved in the settlement of the main question at issue seemed to present before the council of Jerusalem insurmountable difficulties. But the Holy Spirit had, in reality, already settled this question, upon the decision of which seemed to depend on the prosperity, if not the very existence, of the Christian church.
“When there had been much disputing, Peter rose, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God chose among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.”
Vision of Peter
He reasoned that the Holy Spirit had decided the matter under dispute by descending with equal power upon the uncircumcised Gentiles and the circumcised Jews. He recounted his vision, in which God had presented before him a sheet filled with all manner of four-footed beasts and had bidden him kill and eat. When he refused, affirming that he had never eaten that which was common or unclean, the answer had been,
“What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”
Peter related the plain interpretation of these words, which was given to him almost immediately in his summons to go to the centurion and instruct him in the faith of Christ. This message showed that God was no respecter of persons, but accepted and acknowledged all who feared Him.
Peter told of his astonishment when, in speaking the words of truth to those assembled at the home of Cornelius, he witnessed the Holy Spirit taking possession of his hearers, Gentiles as well as Jews. The same light and glory that was reflected upon the circumcised Jews shone also upon the faces of the uncircumcised Gentiles. This was God’s warning that Peter was not to regard one as inferior to the other, for the blood of Christ could cleanse from all uncleanness.
Once before, Peter had reasoned with his brethren concerning the conversion of Cornelius and his friends, and his fellowship with them. As he on that occasion related how the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles he declared,
“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?”
The Law of Ceremonies
Now, with equal fervor and force, he said:
“God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them, witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as He did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
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?”
his yoke was not the law of Ten Commandments, as some who oppose the binding claims of the law assert; Peter here referred to the law of ceremonies, which was made null and void by the crucifixion of Christ.
Paul and Barnabas Explain
Peter’s address brought the assembly to a point where they could listen with patience to Paul and Barnabas, who related their experience in working for the Gentiles.
“All the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.”
James also bore his testimony with the decision, declaring that it was God’s purpose to bestow upon the Gentiles the same privileges and blessings that had been granted to the Jews.
The Holy Spirit saw good not to impose the ceremonial law on the Gentile converts, and the mind of the apostles regarding this matter was as the mind of the Spirit of God. James presided at the council of Jerusalem, and his final decision was,
“Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God.”
End of Discussion or is it?
This ended the discussion. In this instance, we have a refutation of the doctrine held by the Roman Catholic Church that Peter was the head of the church. Those who, as popes, have claimed to be his successors, have no Scriptural foundation for their pretensions.
Nothing in the life of Peter gives sanction to the claim that he was elevated above his brethren as the vicegerent of the Highest.
If those who are declared to be the successors of Peter had followed his example, they would always have been content to remain on an equality with their brethren.
In this instance, James seems to have been chosen as the one to announce the decision arrived at by the council.
It was his sentence that the ceremonial law, and especially the ordinance of circumcision, should not be urged upon the Gentiles, or even recommended to them.
James sought to impress the minds of his brethren with the fact that, in turning to God, the Gentiles had made a great change in their lives and that much caution should be used not to trouble them with perplexing and doubtful questions of minor importance, lest they be discouraged in following Christ.
Give up Unchristian Principles
The Gentile converts, however, were to give up the customs that were inconsistent with the principles of Christianity. The apostles and elders, therefore, agreed to instruct the Gentiles by letter to abstain from meats offered to idols, from fornication, from things strangled, and from the blood.
They were to be urged to keep the commandments and to lead holy lives. They were also to be assured that the men who had declared circumcision to be binding were not authorized to do so by the apostles.
Paul and Barnabas were recommended to them as men who had hazarded their lives for the Lord. Judas and Silas were sent with these apostles to declare to the Gentiles by word of mouth the decision of the council:
“It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well.”
The four servants of God were sent to Antioch with the epistle and message that was to put an end to all controversy; for it was the voice of the highest authority upon the earth.
Who Were the Council of Jerusalem?
The council which decided this case was composed of apostles and teachers who had been prominent in raising the Jewish and Gentile Christian churches, with chosen delegates from various places. Elders from Jerusalem and deputies from Antioch were present, and the most influential churches were represented.
The council of Jerusalem moved under the dictates of enlightened judgment, and with the dignity of a church established by the divine will. As a result of their deliberations, they all saw that God Himself had answered the question at issue by bestowing upon the Gentiles the Holy Ghost; and they realized that it was their part to follow the guidance of the Spirit.
Agree to Disagree
The entire body of Christians was not called to vote upon the question. The “apostles and elders,” men of influence and judgment, framed and issued the decree, which was thereupon generally accepted by the Christian churches.
Not all, however, we’re pleased with the decision; there was a faction of ambitious and self-confident brethren who disagreed with it. These men assumed to engage in the work on their own responsibility.
They indulged in much murmuring and fault-finding, proposing new plans and seeking to pull down the work of the men whom God had ordained to teach the gospel message. From the first, the church has had such obstacles to meet and ever will have till the close of time.
Jerusalem was the metropolis of the Jews, and it was there that the greatest exclusiveness and bigotry were found. The Jewish Christians living within sight of the temple naturally allowed their minds to revert to the peculiar privileges of the Jews as a nation.
No More Ceremonies and Traditions
When they saw the Christian church departing from the ceremonies and traditions of Judaism, and perceived that the peculiar sacredness with which the Jewish customs had been invested would soon be lost sight of in the light of the new faith, many grew indignant with Paul as the one who had, in a large measure, caused this change.
Even the disciples were not all prepared to accept willingly the decision of the council of Jerusalem. Some were zealous for the ceremonial law, and they regarded Paul with disfavor because they thought that his principles regarding the obligations of the Jewish law were lax.
The broad and far-reaching decisions of the general council brought confidence into the ranks of the Gentile believers, and the cause of God prospered. In Antioch, the church was favored with the presence of Judas and Silas, the special messengers who had returned with the apostles from the meeting in Jerusalem.
“Being prophets also themselves,” Judas and Silas, “exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.” These godly men tarried in Antioch for a time. “Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.”
Peter Changed Thoughts
When Peter, at a later date, visited Antioch, he won the confidence of many by his prudent conduct toward the Gentile converts. For a time he acted by the light given from heaven. He so far overcame his natural prejudice as to sit at the table with the Gentile converts.
But when certain Jews who were zealous for the ceremonial law, came from Jerusalem, Peter injudiciously changed his deportment toward the converts from paganism.
A number of the Jews “dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation.” This revelation of weakness on the part of those who had been respected and loved as leaders left a most painful impression on the minds of the Gentile believers. The church was threatened with division.
But Paul, who saw the subverting influence of the wrong done to the church through the double part acted by Peter, openly rebuked him for thus disguising his true sentiments. In the presence of the church, Paul inquired of Peter,
“If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?”
Galatians 2:13, Galatians 2:14.
Peter saw the error into which he had fallen and immediately set about repairing the evil that had been wrought, so far as was in his power. God, who knows the end from the beginning, permitted Peter to reveal this weakness of character so that the tried apostle might see that there was nothing in himself whereof he might boast. Even the best of men, if left to themselves, will err in judgment.
God also saw that in time to come some would be so deluded as to claim for Peter and his pretended successors the exalted prerogatives that belong to God alone. And this record of the apostle’s weakness was to remain as a proof of his fallibility and of the fact that he stood in no way above the level of the other apostles.
Principles do not Loose Integrity
The history of this departure from right principles stands as a solemn warning to men in positions of trust in the cause of God, that they may not fail in integrity, but firmly adhere to principle.
The greater the responsibilities placed upon the human agent, and the larger his opportunities to dictate and control, the more harm he is sure to do if he does not carefully follow the way of the Lord and labor in harmony with the decisions arrived at by the general body of believers in united council.
After all Peter’s failures; after his fall and restoration, his long course of service, his intimate acquaintance with Christ, his knowledge of the Saviour’s straightforward practice of right principles.
After all the instruction he had received, all the gifts and knowledge and influence he had gained by preaching and teaching the word—is it not strange that he should disassemble and evade the principles of the gospel through fear of man, or to gain esteem?
Is it not strange that he should waver in his adherence to the right? May God give every man a realization of his helplessness, his inability to steer his own vessel straight and safe into the harbor.
Paul – No Concessions
In his ministry, Paul was often compelled to stand alone. He was specially taught of God and dared to make no concessions that would involve principle. At times the burden was heavy, but Paul stood firm for the right. He realized that the church must never be brought under the control of human power.
The traditions and maxims of men must not take the place of revealed truth. The advance of the gospel message must not be hindered by the prejudices and preferences of men, whatever might be their position in the church.
Paul had dedicated himself and all his powers to the service of God. He had received the truths of the gospel direct from heaven, and throughout his ministry, he maintained a vital connection with heavenly agencies.
He had been taught by God regarding the binding of unnecessary burdens upon the Gentile Christians; thus when the Judaizing believers introduced into the Antioch church the question of circumcision, Paul knew the mind of the Spirit of God concerning such teaching and took a firm and unyielding position which brought to the churches freedom from Jewish rites and ceremonies.
Notwithstanding the fact that Paul was personally taught by God, he had no strained ideas of individual responsibility. While looking to God for direct guidance, he was ever ready to recognize the authority vested in the body of believers united in church fellowship.
He felt the need for counsel, and when matters of importance arose, he was glad to lay these before the church and to unite with his brethren in seeking God for wisdom to make the right decisions.
Even “the spirits of the prophets,” he declared, “are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”
1 Corinthians 14:32, 1 Corinthians 14:33.
With Peter, he taught that all united in church capacity should be “subject one to another.”
1 Peter 5:5.