In the earliest days of the Christian church, the church was comprised predominately of Jews. In Acts chapter 8 the gospel spread to the Samaritans (who were ethnically mixed Jews-Gentiles), and many Samaritans received Jesus Christ as Savior. In Acts chapter 10, the apostle Peter was the first to take the gospel specifically to the Gentiles, and many received Christ as Savior. In Acts chapters 13-14, Paul and Barnabas had a very fruitful ministry among the Gentiles. All of these Gentiles turning to faith in Christ caused concern among the Jewish believers, first expressed in Acts 11:1–18, and the issues that caused concern were ultimately decided upon at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). (gotquestions.org)
The Crucial Problem
The problem was this. Before a Gentile became a member of the Christian Church was it necessary that he should be circumcised and take upon himself the Law of Moses? In other words, must the Gentile, before he became a Christian, first become a Jew? Or, could a Gentile be received into the Church as such?
Even were that question settled there arose another problem. The strict Jew could have no intercourse with a Gentile. He could not have him as guest nor be his guest. He would not, as far as possible, even do business with him. So then, even if Gentiles were allowed into the Church, how far could Jews and Gentiles associate in the ordinary social life of the Church?
These were the problems which had to be solved. The solution was not easy. But in the end the Church took the decision that there should be no difference between Jew and Gentile at all. Acts 15:1-41 tells of the Council of Jerusalem whose decisions were the charter of freedom for the Gentiles.
A Problem Becomes Acute
It was almost by accident that the most epoch-making things were happening in Antioch so that the gospel was being preached to Jew and Gentile alike and they were living together as brethren. There were certain Jews to whom all this was quite unthinkable. They could never forget the position of the Jews as the chosen people. They were quite willing that the Gentiles should come into the Church but on the condition that first they became Jews. If this attitude had prevailed, Christianity would have become nothing other than a sect of Judaism. Some of these narrower Jews came down to Antioch and tried to persuade the converts that they would lose everything unless they first accepted Judaism. Paul and Barnabas argued strongly against this and matters were at a deadlock.
There was only one way out. An appeal must be made to Jerusalem, the headquarters of the Church, for a ruling. The case which Paul and Barnabas put forward was simply the story of what had happened. They were prepared to let the facts speak for themselves. But certain of the Pharisees who had become Christians insisted that all converts must be circumcised and keep the Law.
The principle at stake was quite simple and completely fundamental. Was the gift of God for the select few or for all the world? If we possess it ourselves are we to look on it as a privilege or as a responsibility? The problem may not meet us nowadays in precisely the same way; but there still exist divisions between class and class, between nation and nation, between color and color. We fully realize the true meaning of Christianity only when all middle walls of partition are broken down.
Peter States The Case
In answer to the stricter Jews Peter reminded them how he himself had been responsible for the reception of Cornelius into the Church ten years before this. The proof that he had acted rightly was that God had granted his Holy Spirit to these very Gentiles who had been received. As far as the Law’s claims went they might have been ceremonially unclean; but God had by his Spirit cleansed their hearts. The attempt to obey the Law’s multifarious commands and so to earn salvation was a losing battle which left every man in default. There was only one way–the acceptance of the free gift of the grace of God in an act of self-surrendering faith.
Peter went right to the heart of the question. In this whole dispute the deepest of principles was involved. Can a man earn the favor of God? Or must he admit his own helplessness and be ready in humble faith to accept what the grace of God gives? In effect, the Jewish party said, “Religion means earning God’s favor by keeping the Law.” Peter said, “Religion consists in casting ourselves on the grace of God.” Here is implicit the difference between a religion of works and a religion of grace. Peace will never come to a man until he realizes that he can never put God in his debt; and that all he can do is take what God in his grace gives. The paradox of Christianity is that the way to victory is through surrender; and the way to power is through admitting one’s own helplessness.
The Leadership Of James
We may well believe that the matter of the reception of the Gentiles hung in the balance; then James spoke. He was the leader of the Jerusalem church. His leadership was not a formal office; it was a moral leadership conceded to him because he was an outstanding man. He was the brother of Jesus. He had had a special resurrection appearance all to himself ( 1 Corinthians 15:7 ). He was a pillar of the Church ( Galatians 1:19 ). His knees were said to be as hard as a camel’s because he knelt in prayer so often and so long. He was so good a man that he was called James the Just. Further–and this was all-important–he himself was a rigorous observer of the Law. If such a man should come down on the side of the Gentiles then all was well; and he did, declaring that the disciples should be allowed into the Church without let or hindrance.
Even then the matter of ordinary social intercourse came in. How could a strict Jew consort with a Gentile? To make things easier James suggested certain regulations that Gentiles ought to keep.
They must abstain from the contamination of idols. One of the great problems of the early Church was that of meat offered to idols. Paul deals with it at length in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 ; 1 Corinthians 9:1-27 . When a heathen sacrificed in a temple, often only a small part of the meat was sacrificed. Most of the rest was given back to him to make a feast for his friends, often in the temple precincts, sometimes in his own house. The priests received the remainder which was then sold for ordinary purposes. No Christian must risk pollution by eating such meat for it had been offered to an idol.
They must abstain from fornication. It has been said that chastity was the only completely new virtue that Christianity brought into the world. In an impure world the Christian had to be pure.
They must abstain from things strangled and from blood. To the Jew the blood was the life and the life belonged to God alone. They so argued because when the blood flowed away life ebbed away too. Therefore all Jewish meat was killed and treated in such a way that the blood was drained off. The heathen practice of not draining the blood from a slaughtered animal was obnoxious to the strict Jew. So was the method of killing by strangulation. So the Gentile is ordered to eat only meat prepared in the Jewish way.
Had these simple regulations not been observed there could have been no intercourse between Jew and Gentile; but their observance destroyed the last barrier. Within the Church the principle was established that Jew and Gentile were one.
The Decree Goes Out
Once the Church had come to its decision, it acted with both efficiency and courtesy. The terms of the decision were embodied in a letter. But the letter was sent by no common messenger; it was entrusted to Judas and to Silas who went to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Had Paul and Barnabas come back alone their enemies might have doubted that they brought back a correct message; Judas and Silas were official emissaries and guarantors of the reality of the decision. The Church was wise in sending a person as well as a letter. One of the earliest Christian writers declared that he had learned more from the living and abiding voice than from any amount of reading. A letter could have sounded coldly official; but the words of Judas and Silas added a friendly warmth that the bare reception of a letter could never have achieved. Any amount of trouble might be avoided many a time if only a personal visit is paid instead of someone being content with sending a letter.