The Jerusalem Meeting
The early church experienced many problems from the very beginning of her existence (cp. Acts 2: 45). Early on, the persecution which would plague the church was set in motion (Acts 4: 13-5: 33). The murder of Stephen really intensified the Jew's determination to destroy Christianity (Acts 7). About nineteen years after the inception of the Lord's church, another serious problem threatened the church, I am referring to the circumstances that occasioned what is called the Jerusalem meeting (Acts 15). It was between the time of Paul's first and second journey (during the time Paul had reported back to Antioch in Syria, Acts 14: 26-15: 1), that certain ones taught false doctrine (Acts 15: 1). The doctrine was not only false but it was racially volatile.
"1: And certain men (Jews, dm) which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye (Gentiles, dm) be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2: When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. 5: But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15).
The matter was rendered even more serious in view of the errorists coming from Jerusalem, it appears they may have given the impression that they had been sent by the Jerusalem church (cp. Acts 15: 24, Gal. 2: 12). To aggravate the potential for serious trouble, the church in Antioch of Syria was comprised mainly of Gentiles (Acts 11: 19-21).
The Jerusalem meeting. The Jerusalem meeting is vastly important for several reasons. One value in considering the meeting is to determine how the early Christians addressed and handled serious problems. The meeting at Jerusalem is also very significant in that it is cited as the authority for all types of creedal councils, beginning with the Nicene Council that occurred in 325 A. D. Based on the example of the Jerusalem meeting (Acts 15: 1-35, Gal. 2: 1-10), some believe men can come together today and make creeds that are binding on others. The consequential nature of the meeting is also appreciated in the fact that if these errorists had gotten their way, the Lord's church would have blended in and merged with the Law of Moses (Ebionism) and would have lost its separate identity.
The progressive events relative to the Jerusalem meeting. There appears to have first been a private meeting held among Paul and Barnabas and the leaders at Jerusalem (Gal. 2: 2, this meeting was apparently anterior to Acts 15: 4). Paul and his company were welcomed by the church and they "declared all things that God had done with them" (Gal. 2: 1; Acts 15: 4). Paul and his company were then publicly challenged by the Judaizers (those who sought to bind the Law of Moses for the purpose of salvation, Acts 15: 5). At some point the errorists insisted that Titus be circumcised, during the private meeting or when confronted by the Judaizers (Gal. 2: 3). A debate followed the confrontation (Acts 15: 6, 7, "disputing" is from the Greek zeteseous and means debate, involving the asking of probative questions to establish exact positions and then the refutation of the fallacious stances, see also vs. 2). Paul, though relatively new, was not intimidated in the least (Gal. 2: 6). Paul appears to have deliberately taken Titus to Jerusalem for the confrontation (Acts 15: 2; Gal. 2: 3, see also verse 5). Peter, Barnabas and Paul, and James then addressed the church concerning the error that had been taught (vs. 7-21). The apostles and elders "with the whole church" came to a unified decision regarding the issues at hand and then sent out "letters" to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia regarding their decisions (vs. 22-35).
Let us initially consider in a very simple fashion what did not characterize the Jerusalem meeting. In the first place, there was no majority or minority rule. They did not vote or count hands. One essential way in which the Jerusalem meeting differs from creedal conclaves today and is incapable of current duplication is the fact that inspiration was involved in the decisions of the meeting. Paul said regarding this event that he "went up by revelation" (Gal. 2: 2). The meeting was at first divided (notice "much disputing," vs. 7). Men apart from revelation will always be divided. However, a series of inspired men arose to the occasion, the first of whom was the apostle Peter (vs. 7-21). Peter, Barnabas and Paul, and James spoke as one (vs. 7-11; 12; 13-21). Their conclusions were:
"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?" (Peter, vs. 10). Barnabas and Paul proved the acceptance of Gentiles without conformity to the Law of Moses by "declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them" (vs. 12). James forcefully argued, "Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God" (vs. 19).
Notice how clear, factual, and unemotional their arguments were. These men were Spirit led in their teaching. We know this to be the case in view of the language of verse 28: "For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things" (vs. 28).
In regards to the Jerusalem meeting, it should also be appreciated that the leaders did not simply seek to placate the dissenters or keep peace by unity in diversity maneuvers (Acts 15: 2, 6, 7, 7-21). Moreover, the decisions reached by the inspired speakers and accepted by the church in Jerusalem were such as were consistent with teaching found elsewhere in the scriptures (Acts 15: 24, Rom. 11: 6, Gal. 4: 21-31).
The principle speakers during the Jerusalem meeting. As already noticed, Peter, Barnabas and Paul, and James were the main speakers. Peter was perhaps the most highly recognized speaker of the four. Peter had great influence not because he was a Pope, but because of his apostleship and the fact that he was the apostle to the Jews (Gal. 2: 7). Even though Peter was chosen to take the gospel to the Jews, he was privileged to introduce the gospel to the Gentiles about ten years earlier (Acts 10; 15: 7). Peter skillfully proved the acceptance of the Gentiles without them complying with the Law of Moses (vs. 7-11). "But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they," Peter confidently affirmed (vs. 11).
Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles (Gal. 2: 7, 8). Hence, his presence was also of great importance. Barnabas was well known and respected at Jerusalem (Acts 11: 22-25). The meeting was characterized by order. "Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul " the historian informs us (vs. 12). Paul and Barnabas provided a report on the miracles that God had performed among the Gentiles. This report confirmed two matters: God was interested in the Gentiles and the Gentiles were heirs of the grace of life (vs. 12).
The "James" mentioned was also highly influential in the church at Jerusalem (he was evidently the Lord's half-brother and was called a "pillar" in the church, Gal. 2: 9). James focused and expanded on Peter's statement (vs. 7, 14). James alluded to prophesy and showed its relevancy to the circumstances at hand (vs. 15-17). After providing his conclusion, James introduced a prohibition for the Gentile Christians involving four matters (vs. 20). Abstinence from idols, fornication, things strangled, and from blood were especially needed regarding the Gentiles. Not only did the injection and acceptance of this prohibition address a potential weakness among the Gentiles based on their past, but it would help to conciliate the Jews present. The whole church accepted the prohibitions and wrote letters to this effect.
In this great Jerusalem meeting, we see how problems should be handled. While we do not possess inspiration today, we do have the inspired word. Based on the meeting, nothing should be bound on others unless it is a "command of God" (vs. 24). We see express command, approved example, and the necessary inference employed in this meeting in arriving at God's will regarding the false teaching that was being propagated (vs. 14-18; vs. 7; vs. 8). We can also observe how that it is not necessarily a violation of local church autonomy to challenge doctrinal error. While the Jerusalem meeting does provide many lessons, it does not offer authority for human creed making and councils, as already noticed. God has but one final creed today, the Bible (Jude 3, 2 Tim. 3: 16, 17).