The Book of Acts contains the prodigious account of Paul’s missionary journeys around Europe and Asia Minor. These journeys allowed Christianity to spread to places where it had never been before. After Paul’s first mission, he and Barnabas traveled to Jerusalem to speak on an issue that had been plaguing their converts. Would Gentiles, those who had not been converts to Judaism, have to be circumcised and uphold the Law of Moses be Christians?
How to: Receiving Salvation
Now, before this question arose, the apostles were preaching that the only requirements to receive salvation through Christ were Baptism and the belief that Jesus was Messiah. But because Christianity and Judaism shared the teachings of the Law and the Prophets, outsiders quickly assumed that Christianity was merely a sect of Judaism, and therefore, that those converting to Christianity would have to uphold Jewish ceremonial law. Consider how The Church from Age to Age describes the appearance of Christianity in an age of Judaism:
To one who looked at it from the outside, the Church in Jerusalem appeared like merely another sect within Judaism. … Many of the early Christians continued to worship in the synagogue and were faithful to some of the ceremonial laws of Judaism.
Understand that the idea of Christianity in today’s contemporary society is not the same as Christianity in AD 49. Judaism was one of the primary religions of the time, with many people born into the Jewish faith, and very few yet born into the Christian faith. Christianity, as the apostles knew, was new to the world, and they were working to spread a religion that only those who had encountered Jesus or His followers knew about. Therefore, many debates over the new religion arose, as stated in The Lutheran Study Bible’s notes:
Some men, “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20), came down from Judea to Antioch. They were teaching the believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1). At the Jerusalem Council, some believing Pharisees insisted, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses” (15:5). They insisted that Gentiles follow the Law, or they could not be saved.
The Council of Jerusalem
This is where the Council of Jerusalem came in—to settle a major debate over whether or not Gentiles who converted to Christianity needed to uphold Jewish customs and laws or not. The Lutheran Study Bible continues:
Following intense preliminary discussion, the Church at Antioch chose responsible leaders, including Paul and Barnabas. These leaders went to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about the question at issue. All these Church leaders gathered for extended debate, public testimony, and reasoned discussion based on experience and scriptural arguments.
The Church from Age to Age elaborates:
The leader of the Church in Jerusalem was James, the brother of our Lord. Attempting to mediate between Paul, the missionary among the Gentiles, and those zealots in the Church at Jerusalem, who insisted that all the Gentiles converted to Christianity be circumcised, James did not insist on the full acceptance of all the traditions of Judaism. But at the same time, he advocated that the Church avert any break between herself and the ancient people of God.
In modern society, especially in America, circumcision is fairly common. But, for the Gentiles and many major cultures in AD 49, the idea of circumcision was repulsive and extremely uncommon. Only Egyptians and some Semitic groups practiced it. In some places, circumcised men even faced persecution. Therefore, it was necessary for Christians to answer whether it was important for Gentile converts to uphold this and other Jewish laws.
A Decision Is Made
Historians in The Church from Age to Age give account of the answer:
They [the Council of Jerusalem] agreed that Christianity was more than a sect in Judaism but assumed that the followers of Jesus would remain loyal to the revealed Word of God—the Torah (Acts 15:6ff). Observing the Sabbath, circumcision, and the food laws was not demanded of all followers of Jesus Christ. Gentile Christians were merely required to refrain from strangled meat, food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 10:25ff.), blood, and unchastity (Acts 15:28-29).
For Paul, Barnabas, and the others that Paul encountered on his journeys, the answer given by the Council of Jerusalem was a blessing that strengthened their mission. As stated in Acts 15:30–31, “So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.”
Quoted passages adapted from The Lutheran Study Bible, copyright © 2009 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Quoted passages adapted from The Church from Age to Age, copyright © 2011 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Learn more about important events in church history with Church History: The Basics.