A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 15:1-16:5 introduction – The Council of Jerusalem
For several years now Gentiles had been brought to faith in Christ and welcomed into the church by baptism. It began with that God-fearing centurion in Caesarea, Cornelius. Not only – in quite extraordinary circumstances – did he come to hear the good news, believe, receive the Spirit and be baptized, but the Jerusalem leaders, once the full facts were presented to them, instead of raising objections, ‘praised God’ (11:18). Next came the remarkable movement in Syrian Antioch when unnamed missionaries ‘began to speak to Greeks also’ (11:20), a great number of whom believed. The Jerusalem church heard about this too and sent Barnabas to investigate, who ‘saw the evidence of the grace of God’ and rejoiced (11:23). The third development, which Luke chronicles, was the first missionary journey, during which the first complete outsider believed (Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus) and later Paul and Barnabas responded to Jewish unbelief with the bold declaration ‘we now turn to the Gentiles’ (13:46). Thereafter, wherever they went, both Jews and Gentiles believed (e.g. 14:1), and on their return to Syrian Antioch, the missionaries were able to report that ‘God…had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles’ (14:27)
All that was fairly straightforward. After the conversion of both Cornelius and the Antiochene Greeks the Jerusalem leaders had been able to reassure themselves that God was in it. How would they now react to the even more audacious policy of Paul? The Gentile mission was gathering momentum. The trickle of Gentile conversions was fast becoming a torrent. The Jewish leaders had no difficulty with the general concept of believing Gentiles, for many Old Testament passages predicted their inclusion. But now a particular question was forming in their minds: what means of incorporation into the believing community did God intend for Gentiles? So far it had been assumed that they would be absorbed into Israel by circumcision, and that by observing the law they would be acknowledged as ‘bona fide’ members of the covenant people of God. Something quite different was now happening, however, something which disturbed and even alarmed many. Gentile converts were being welcomed into fellowship by baptism without circumcision. They were becoming Christians without also becoming Jews. They were retaining their own identity and integrity as members of other nations. It was one thing for the Jerusalem leaders to give their approval of the conversion of Gentiles: but could they approve of conversion-without-circumcision, of faith in Jesus without the works of the law, and of commitment to the Messiah without inclusion in Judaism? Was their vision big enough to see the gospel of Christ not as a reform movement within Judaism but as good news for the whole world, and the church of Christ not as a Jewish sect but as the international family of God? These were the revolutionary questions which some were daring to ask.
No wonder Haenchen can write: ‘Chapter 15 is the turning point, “Centrepiece” and “watershed” of the book, the episode which rounds off and justifies the past developments, and makes those come intrinsically possible.’ This is not an exaggeration. Luke draws attention to it by silent shifts of emphasis. In this chapter Jerusalem is still the focus of interest, and Peter makes his final appearance in the story. But from now on Peter disappears, to be replaced by Paul, and Jerusalem recedes into the background as Paul pushes on beyond Asia into Europe, and Rome appears on the horizon. Indeed we ourselves, from our later perspective of church history, can see the crucial importance of this first ecumenical Council held in Jerusalem. Its unanimous decision liberated the gospel from its Jewish swaddling clothes into being God’s message for all humankind, and gave the Jewish-Gentile church a self-conscious identity as the reconciled people of God, the one body of Christ. And although the whole Council affirmed it, Paul claimed that it was a new understanding granted specially to him, the ‘mystery’ previously hidden but now revealed, namely that through faith in Christ alone Gentiles stand on equal terms with Jews as ‘heirs together, members together, sharers together’ in his one new community.
Tomorrow: 1. The point at issue (15:1-4)
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.