(A) Introduction (Read the references.)

Before we examine the proceedings of the council a brief reminder of the issues that gave rise to it:

Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem in Antioch and there disrupted the fellowship within the church by insisting that Gentile believers should be circumcised. This caused a division because the Jewish brothers, including Peter and Barnabas, began taking communion separately from the Gentile Christians. Paul opposed the legalism of the deputation from Jerusalem. He told the Jewish believers: "If you believe in justification by keeping the law - you set aside the Grace of God. The great apostle's position is summed up by his assertion: "I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me."

Paul won over Peter, Barnabas and the local Jewish Christians but he failed to convince the Judaisers that they were in error. So the church at Antioch decided to send representatives to Jerusalem, the mother church, to sort out the matter with the elders and apostles there.

(B) Proceedings at the Council of Jerusalem.

(1)The problem is introduced.

Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem and able to report on how God had blessed the Gentiles in Antioch, Cyprus and Galatia through their ministry. Some idea of the strength of feeling against Paul is apparent in the intervention of Christians who were formerly Pharisees. They could hardly wait to express opposition to Paul's refusal to impose Judaism on Gentile converts to Christianity. It was their obsession. The Traditionalists had not been able to throw off their commitment to the law of Moses. It was vitally important to them that all Christians, including Gentiles, remained true to the law. So Paul's opponents stated: "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses."

There are still Christians like those strident critics of Paul and Barnabas. They support the preaching of the gospel so long as: the evangelist is Reformed and not an Arminian, all quotations are from the Authorised Version and there is absolutely no co-operation with the Roman Catholics. This militant tendency, who are so right about everything, are a lot fussier than the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that the Holy Spirit often used the preaching of Billy Graham to bring new life to sinners. I know Christians who found salvation as they listened to the gospel preached by Graham. So how is it that he has his bitter opponents amongst those who would call themselves - Conservative Evangelicals? Those who carp and snipe at evangelists the Holy Spirit is pleased to use are no better than those 'holier than thou' opponents of Paul.

(2) A general discussion.

Luke's account of the Council informs us: After much discussion, Peter got up ..... v7. It is pretty clear that more were at this Council than just the apostles and elders. In verse 12 we read: The whole assembly became silent... Verse 22 states: Then the apostles and elders with the whole church, decided ...... Everyone had their say. The leadership of the church in Jerusalem was wise in giving lots of people the opportunity to let off steam. When contentious matters are raised at any Council or Assembly or Business Meeting of Christians it is important that as many folk as possible are heard - however uncomfortable it might be. It is a dreadful thing when everything is cut and dried and discussion is suppressed. I fear this happens amongst Grace Baptist and I single them out for frequent criticism not because I think they are worse than any other Christian group but because I know most about them. Christian leaders of all denominations dislike listening to people who disagree with them. Pride has proved the biggest enemy of church unity.

(3) Peter's contribution.

    (a) He argued from experience.
    Peter realised that God had accepted the Gentiles. God accepted them because he knew their hearts. He knew where their allegiance lay. God knew that the Gentiles had put their faith in Jesus. It was through faith that he purified their hearts. The Gentiles were saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.

    Peter was convinced that God had accepted the Gentiles because he gave the Holy Spirit to them just as he did to the Jews. That was the clinching, incontrovertible evidence that God made no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. It was obvious that the Holy Spirit was given to Gentiles like Cornelius and his family. They experienced the same joy, assurance, confidence and liberty, as did the Christians on the day of Pentecost. There was no doubt that something had happened to them - they were ecstatic and spoke in tongues. I believe that is one of the reasons the Holy Spirit was given the way it was to the early church - to demonstrate that there was no difference between Jew and Greek - that they were all one in Christ Jesus.

    I have never had that same experience and, to their regret, neither have many other Christians. I don't know when I became a genuine Christian. Now, if I don't know, there was no great difference in my life before and after becoming a Christian. I have not been baptised by the Holy Spirit in the way that so many of the early believers were. I feel the lack of such an experience. I wish I could write about a dramatic conversion. However, we are not saved by an experience - but by believing on Jesus Christ. I believe and I am accepted by faith and given the Holy Spirit to be my Counsellor.

    Although I have never received the Holy Spirit like the disciples at Pentecost I do not deny the experience of others. It is wrong to dismiss the testimony of men and women we know to be trustworthy. I can recall my colleague David Clear telling me of an occasion when he went to pick up a pupil. He was invited into the house and as he limped in the pupil's mother asked him what was the matter. "I've strained the ligaments in my knee," he replied. "Oh," the mother said, "I can deal with that." She asked him to sit on the stairs and then laid her hands upon his knee. David told me that he just felt a warm sensation but when he got up his knee was better. He didn't understand what happened, nor do I, but I don't doubt that it did because I know David Clear is an honest witness.

    Similarly when my old friend Jim Jones, with whom I used to serve at Pioneer Camp, described how he was baptised by the Holy Spirit I believed him. He was praying by his bedside when it happened. Jim wasn't praying for the Holy Spirit nor was he expecting anything dramatic to transpire. He wasn't praying under the pressure of a big problem - he was just praying. Suddenly he was overwhelmed with the assurance of God's love. He felt a glow of warmth. Jim kept praying and praying by his bed never wanting the experience to stop. He prayed ecstatically - in tongues. Jim doesn't know why he was baptised by the Spirit that night but he was - and I believe him. He had no agenda. He wasn't trying to prove anything - just describing what happened.

    (b) He repeated the argument of Paul.
    Paul's argument came better from Peter. Paul was viewed with suspicion by the church at Jerusalem. Not all of them had forgotten the way he harrassed the church before his conversion. They associated Paul with trouble. Controversy seemed to dog his footsteps. Some thought of him as a bit of a maverick. It takes a long, long, time to live down a bad reputation. Peter, on the other hand, was well known to the church at Jerusalem. They were well aware that he was a natural conservative who did not wish to abandon Jewish ways.

    Peter told the Council that: "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." v11. Faith in Jesus purified Jew and Gentile alike and so there was no need to put the yoke of the law on the neck of the Gentile believers. This is essentially the way Paul reasoned to persuade Peter and Barnabas that they were wrong to side with the Judaisers.

    Peter quietened the Council down. Perhaps some were surprised at what Peter said. However, there can be no doubt that Peter spoke to the Jewish Christians with authority. He was an elder statesman of the church and respected as the leading apostle. It is also probably true that many of the early Christians held Peter in great affection. Many of Jesus' followers to this day identify with Peter's weaknesses and love him for his mixture of vulnerability and enthusiasm.

    Peter teaches us that to arrive at the truth we need to consult others. I need to read widely to prepare these expositions. I will probably consult seven or eight different authors. They, too, will have referred to many scholars to prepare their commentaries. A preacher or teacher must take into account the opinion of other Christians - weighing up what they have to say. It is foolish to jump impulsively to conclusions. Peter was growing in grace. He listened to Paul, pondered his words, took them to heart and came eventually to so thoroughly understand the truth that he was able to convince others of it.

    Roman Catholics tend to emphasise the authority of the church whereas many Protestants emphasise the authority of the Bible. I would remind my fellow Protestants that we depend a lot on other Christians (the church) to understand the Scriptures. That is why Bible studies are so important.

(3) The contribution of Paul and Barnabas.

It is interesting to note that Paul did not repeat what Peter said. Peter had dealt with the crux of the matter and Paul was quite content to leave it alone. He was very wise. It is counterproductive to humiliate the opposition.

Paul and Barnabas talked about the signs and wonders that accompanied their missionary outreach to the Gentiles. God used signs and wonders to accredit their ministry. He was setting his seal upon their work - authorising, authenticating and approving it.

God demonstrated that Jesus was his anointed - the Messiah - through the amazing miracles he performed. Who would believe a village carpenter, notwithstanding the quality of his character and the appeal of his teaching, who announced himself as the Light of the World, the Living Water, the Bread of Heaven, the Good Shepherd, and the Resurrection and the Life? No-one would have taken Jesus seriously but for the signs and wonders by which God authenticated his claims.

Nobody gets worked up about my website because I have no authority, reputation or status. I am a nobody. If it was the work of the Archbishop of Canterbury or even an English Cardinal it would get noticed. Jesus got noticed, although he too was a nobody, because John the Baptist announced him and, subsequently, through the miracles that he performed. It is not possible to ignore someone, however humble their origin, if they are able to heal the congenitally blind, the deaf, lepers, paralytics and epileptics. Even an unprepossessing village carpenter of no education attracts some attention if he can raise the dead!

Today there is no better accreditation for a Christian work than conversions. Changed lives are the best publicity for the church. Miracles of grace are the surest sign of God's favour. There was a time when the Christian camp I worked at was under attack. The surest defence of Pioneer Camp was that year on year it was used to win young people for Christ. That fact could not be denied.

(5) James' summing up.

(a) He acknowledges Simon's contribution.
It is interesting that James uses Peter's Hebrew name, Simon. This reflects his strong Jewish identity. James agrees that: "Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself." v14. But it is impossible to overlook that James does not acknowledge Paul.

There was tension between James and Paul. There is a very different emphasis in their teaching. We have only to compare Romans4v2to4 with James 2v25. See references.

Both Paul and James agree that God credited Abraham with righteousness. Paul argues that God credits Abraham for his belief or faith. It is nothing to do with his works because that would be putting God under an obligation. James, on the other hand, says that Abraham's faith and actions worked together and his faith was made complete by what he did. It was the combination of the two that God credited to him as righteousness.

Some well-known Christian leaders have made no attempt to reconcile these teachings of Paul and James. Martin Luther called the epistle of James an epistle of straw. Such was Luther's distaste for works that he was guilty of mistranslating Gal2v16: So we, too, have put our faith in Jesus Christ (ALONE) that we may be justified and not by observing the law. The word 'alone' is not in the original.

I reconcile the difference in emphasis of James and Paul that led to tensions in the early church and continuing tensions today by using this illustration. If I had a chronically arthritic hip I could not get well alone. There is nothing that I can do to get well. I need to have faith in a surgeon who will operate on my hip. I must submit to the surgeon and place myself entirely in his hands. That faith does not in itself earn me the operation but it may get me the operation. In the same way a sinner cannot save himself. There is nothing that I can do to merit forgiveness for all the sins I have committed. I must submit to Jesus and trust that his sacrifice on the cross will save me from my sin. Salvation is by grace and through faith.

However that is not quite the end of the story. After the operation the orthopaedic surgeon may give some instructions on what to do and what not to do. If I have faith in the surgeon I will follow those instructions. It may be vital for me to obey those instructions to fully recover from the operation. I don't think that I earn the restoration to full mobility by my works but I will actually acquire full mobility by my works. Those works are an expression of my faith in the surgeon.

Similarly belief in Jesus extends to his teaching and example. If I have complete confidence in Jesus then I will do my best to obey him. My faith in him will bear fruit. My good works are part and parcel of my faith in Jesus. Those good works do not earn me eternal life but I will actually only acquire eternal life by doing good works. They are the tangible expression of my faith in Christ.

(b) James' appeals to Scripture.
It is very important that Scripture supports our beliefs and practices. It is no bad thing to re-examine long held and cherished beliefs in the light of Scripture. See my article on: Heaven and Hell. God's word is wonderfully effective in bringing light to darkened minds.

The monk Martin Luther made his confessor's life a misery. He would confess his sins for two to four hours a day. On one occasion the confession lasted six and a half hours. Luther was eager to do penance. But he had no peace and neither did his confessor. Finally Staupitz, his confessor and superior, appointed Luther to the Chair of Bible at the local university. This meant he had to learn and expound the Scriptures. The first three books he studied between 1513 and 1515 were Psalms, Romans and Galatians. As he wrestled in the tower of his Augustinian monastery to understand the significance of those Scriptures Luther came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Confession and penance brought him no peace but verses like this did: He (Jesus) was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Rom5v1.

So James is very wise to turn to the Scriptures for guidance over the Gentile question. He quotes from Amos9v11and12. If we compare what James quotes with the passage in our Old Testaments we shall see that there are differences. Amos9v11to12. Our Old Testament is based on a translation of a Hebrew version of these Scriptures. James quotes from a Greek version called the Septuagint. It is possible that the Septuagint was based on a more reliable version of the Scriptures in Hebrew than the Hebrew version that our Old Testament translation depends upon. I don't know! Certainly the Greek version that James quotes supports the view that in the day God rebuilds the fallen tent of David the Gentiles will seek the LORD. In other words - the coming of the Messiah will result in Gentiles turning to God. Jesus advent restored David's fallen tent. He was great David's greater son. He came to establish a new Kingdom - the Kingdom of God - and Gentiles would be part of it.

(c) James' pragmatic solution.
James argues that insofar as God has accepted the Gentiles it would be wrong to make life difficult for them. "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make life difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." v19. I would hardly call this giving the Gentiles a rapturous welcome. I think that James' main concern was to maintain the peace between the Jerusalem church and the Jewish religious authorities in the city.

James proposes that the Gentile Christians should make things easier for Jewish Christians with whom they were in fellowship by avoiding what Jews found particularly distasteful. We often get a lot more worked up about what we find distasteful than what is wrong. The Jews did not like to eat meat that had been offered to idols and found its way into butcher's shops. They found it difficult to eat meat that had not been butchered properly or anything with blood in it. The prohibition of sexual immorality seems to be the odd one out. Paul would have taught all Christians that adultery, prostitution and promiscuity were wrong. Perhaps, James' remark has something to do with the passage in Leviticus 15 about bodily discharges. The Jews were very fastidious and may have found the Gentiles more casual approach to bodily discharges offensive.

None of the things that James wanted Gentile Christians to avoid were at all important. They had nothing to do with living a holy life. It may have been irritating and inconvenient to purchase meat killed in the Jewish way. However it was a small price to pay for Christian unity and Paul and Barnabas accepted James' judgment. Paul's view of these matters is summarised in 1Cor10v23to31: Do not cause anyone to stumble whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God - even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

We should welcome new converts to Christianity gladly whatever their background. We should also be prepared to make concessions to our fellow Christians - the old to the young and the young to the old, the clever to the dull and the dull to the clever, the rich to the poor and the poor to the rich, the lively to the dull and the dull to the lively and so on. I can remember a young teenager saying to me once, "I don't want to attend a church full of old fogies." She was not prepared to make concessions to old fogies. Sadly, when I told her off I made no concessions to her youth either. The apostle Paul set us a tremendous example in always working for the unity of all believers. Let no-one decry his efforts.