The Jerusalem Council

The end of their first mission in Pisidian Antioch became a pattern of sorts for Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:49, 50; 14:1, 2 NET):

So the word of the Lord was spreading through the entire region.  But the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high social standing and the prominent men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and threw them out of their region.

The same thing happened in Iconium when Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a large group of both Jews and Greeks (Ἑλλήνων, a form of Ἕλλην)[1] believed.  But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles (ἐθνῶν, a form of ἔθνος)[2] and poisoned their minds against the brothers.

Paul and Barnabas…fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding region[3] after they learned of an an attempt to mistreat them and stone them.[4]  In Lystra they faced the opposite situation.  They were greeted as gods after Paul healed a lame man (Acts 14:12, 13 NET).

They began to call Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.  The priest of the temple of Zeus, located just outside the city, brought bulls and garlands to the city gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

Paul and Barnabas had to do some pretty fast talking.  They had difficulty persuading the people that they were men not gods.  But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and after winning the crowds over, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, presuming him to be dead.  But after the disciples had surrounded him, he got up and went back into the city.  On the next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe.[5]

After they proclaimed the Gospel in Derbe, they returned to many of the cities they had already visited, encouraged the new believers and appointed elders.  Finally they made their way back to Antioch in Syria and made their missionary report to their home church.  Sometime later some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”[6]  Paul and Barnabas argued against this.  The church in Antioch sent them again to Jerusalem to resolve this disagreement (Acts 15:4, 5 NET).

When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all the things God had done with them.  But some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses.”

Paul was also from the religious party of the Pharisees.  He gave a bit more insight into his own state of mind in Galatians 2:1, 2 (NET): Then after fourteen years I went up to Jerusalem again with Barnabas, taking Titus along too.  I went there because of a revelation and presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles.  But I did so only in a private meeting with the influential people, to make sure that I was not running – or had not run – in vain.

Both the apostles and the elders met together to deliberate about this matter.[7]  I may be reading too much into this, but I get the impression that Paul and Barnabas were not included among the apostles and the elders who met together to deliberate.  I am thinking they were present as something like expert witnesses.  The whole group kept quiet and listened to Barnabas and Paul while they explained all the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.[8]

I quoted Peter’s and James’ addresses from this council elsewhere and won’t do it again here.  Peter’s reasoning was pre– or proto-theological in the sense that it was based on a vision he saw and actual experience more than Scripture.  James brought Old Testament prophecy into the debate, but again it was the apostles’ experience with Gentile believers that was held forth as the fulfillment of that prophecy.  That experience was very persuasive to those who shared it.  But consider Peter’s and James’ conclusions in a table next to Jesus’ teaching.

Peter

James

Jesus

So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?

Acts 15:10 (NET)

Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to God…

Acts 15:19 (NET)

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.  So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-19 (NET)

If this were all I had to go on my religious mind would agree with those from the religious party of the Pharisees who…said, “It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses.”[9]  Don’t get me wrong.  I believe wholeheartedly that what was unanimously decided[10] at the Jerusalem Council was on the right track, but the arguments in defense of that position were fairly weak.  I imagine the addition of James’ abbreviated version of the law secured a unanimous consensus in the council.  It was also contrary, however, to what Jesus had taught.  Jesus had not come to καταλῦσαι (a form of καταλύω)[11] the law or the prophets, loosen them down, but to πληρῶσαι (a form of πληρόω),[12] fill them up.

Of course, this is not all I have to go on.  Jesus was fairly clear all things considered that love fulfills the law and the prophets.  But I say to you, love (ἀγαπᾶτε, a form of ἀγαπάω)[13] your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.[14]  Paul was explicit: the one who loves (ἀγαπῶν, a form of ἀγαπάω) his neighbor has fulfilled (πεπλήρωκεν, another form of πληρόω) the law.  For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,(and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love (ἀγαπήσεις, another form of ἀγαπάω) your neighbor as yourself.”  Love (ἀγάπη)[15] does no wrong to a neighbor.  Therefore love (ἀγάπη) is the fulfillment (πλήρωμα)[16] of the law.[17]

Paul appreciated the whole law for what it was and did accomplish: I would not have known sin except through the law.  For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”[18]  And, through the law comes the knowledge (ἐπίγνωσις)[19] of sin.[20]  Paul was also quite explicit about what the law could not do: no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law[21]

He stopped teaching James’ abbreviated version of the law eventually[22] and taught instead that the law is lord over a person as long as he lives.[23]  So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God.  For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.  But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.[24]

But all of this was still in the future when Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch with the following letter (Acts 15:23b-29 NET):

From the apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, greetings!  Since we have heard that some have gone out from among us with no orders from us and have confused you, upsetting your minds by what they said, we have unanimously decided to choose men to send to you along with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas who will tell you these things themselves in person.  For it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us not to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rules: that you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality (πορνείας, a form of πορνεία).[25]  If you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well.  Farewell.

This letter was a very satisfactory solution for the Jewish converts, God fearers or Gentile people who had attached themselves to a Jewish synagogue in some fashion in Antioch.  When they read it aloud, the people rejoiced at its encouragement.[26]

Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and proclaiming (along with many others) the word of the Lord.  After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s return and visit the brothers in every town where we proclaimed the word of the Lord to see how they are doing.”  Barnabas wanted to bring John called Mark along with them too, but Paul insisted that they should not take along this one who had left them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work.  They had a sharp disagreement, so that they parted company.  Barnabas took along Mark and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and set out, commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers and sisters.  He passed through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches…. As they went through the towns, they passed on the decrees that had been decided on by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the Gentile believers to obey.  So the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number every day.[27]

I think it is worth mentioning that Barnabas, who sought out the rejected Saul to help in the ministry in Antioch, was true to form when he took the rejected John Mark under his wing as well.  The result of that second chance (and apparently a cousin’s[28] tutelage) was that Paul’s opinion of Mark was altered (2 Timothy 4:9-11 NET).

Make every effort to come to me soon.  For Demas deserted me, since he loved the present age, and he went to Thessalonica.  Crescens went to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia.  Only Luke is with me.  Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is a great help to me in ministry.

 

 


[3] Acts 14:6 (NET)

[4] Acts 14:5 (NET)

[5] Acts 14:19, 20 (NET)

[6] Acts 15:1 (NET)

[7] Acts 15:6 (NET)

[8] Acts 15:12 (NET)

[9] Acts 15:5 (NET)

[14] Matthew 5:44, 45 (NET)

[17] Romans 13:8b-10 (NET)

[18] Romans 7:7 (NET)

[20] Romans 3:20b (NET)

[21] Romans 3:20a (NET)

[22] Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is no more mention that Paul passed on the decrees that had been decided on by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem after Acts 16:4 (NET), but Acts 18:23 (NET) seems to me to be saying more than that by silence.  After he spent some time there [in Antioch after greeting the church in Jerusalem], Paul left and went through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.  Granted, this is some of the same ground that Paul covered in the beginning of his second missionary journey, perhaps he (or Luke) simply didn’t feel the need to repeat himself.  But Paul’s own writing and Luke’s choice of words as well as omission of words leads me in the other direction.  In Acts 16:4, 5 the churches were ἐστερεοῦντο (a form of στερεόω, strengthened, established) on the basis of the decrees that had been decided on by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.   In Acts 18:23 Paul went about στηρίζων (a form of ἐπιστηρίζω, strengthening)—the word might have been translated reestablishing—all the disciples without the aforementioned decrees.

[23] Romans 7:1 (NET)

[24] Romans 7:4-6 (NET)

[26] Acts 15:31 (NET)

[27] Acts 15:35-41; 16:4, 5 (NET)

[28] Colossians 4:10 (NET) Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him).