Friday, April 23, 2021

The Jerusalem Council

The Jerusalem Council

The Issues

Act 15:1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved."

Act 15:5-6 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses." (6) The apostles and elders met to consider this question.

There are two issues that some of the party of the Pharisees had when dealing with Gentiles. These two issues are what the council came together to discuss.

  1. Issue one is whether or not the Gentiles need to be circumcised to be saved.

  2. Issue two is whether or not the Gentiles need to keep the Law of Moses.

These issues were discussed by the council, that was made up of apostles and elders.

Peter's Dialog

Act 15:7-11 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: "Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. (8) God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. (9) He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. (10) Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? (11) No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."

After much deliberation, Peter made it clear that the "yoke" is not to be put on the necks of the Gentiles. It was common for the Jews of that day to refer to the law as a "yoke".

John Gill explains the "yoke":

"It is common with the Jews to call the law a yoke; frequent mention is made of ניר פקידיא and מצות עול, "the yoke of the commandments" (o), and עול התורה, "the yoke of the law" (p): and by it here is meant, not circumcision only and barely, for that the Jewish fathers had been able to bear, and had bore it; nor the whole ceremonial law only, which consisted of a multitude of commands and ordinances very heavy and hard; but even the whole moral law, which circumcision obliged those who submitted to it to keep it perfectly; see Gal 5:3, which neither the apostles, nor their fathers, were ever able to do, nor any mere man whatever; and therefore this yoke was intolerable and insupportable, and not to be put upon the necks of the Gentile believers; who here are called disciples, being taught the doctrine of the Gospel, and the way of salvation; which was not by circumcision, nor by any works of the law, but by the grace of Christ, as in the following verse."

And Matthew Henry:

"He sharply reproves those teachers (some of whom, it is likely, were present) who went about to bring the Gentiles under the obligation of the law of Moses, Act 15:10. The thing is so plain that he cannot forbear speaking of it with some warmth: “Now therefore, since God has owned them for his, why tempt you God to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, of the believing Gentiles and their children” (for circumcision was a yoke upon their infant seed, who are here reckoned among the disciples), “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” Here he shows that in this attempt, (1.) They offered a very great affront to God: “You tempt him, by calling that in question which he has already settled and determined by no less an indication than that of the gift of the Holy Ghost; you do, in effect, ask, 'Did he know what he did? Or was he in earnest in it? Or will he abide by his own act?' Will you try whether God, who designed the ceremonial law for the people of the Jews only, will now, in its last ages, bring the Gentiles too under the obligation of it, to gratify you?” Those tempt God who prescribe to him, and say that people cannot be saved but upon such and such terms, which God never appointed; as if the God of salvation must come into their measures. (2.) They offered a very great wrong to the disciples: Christ came to proclaim liberty to the captives, and they go about to enslave those whom he has made free. See Nehe 5:8. The ceremonial law was a heavy yoke; they and their fathers found it difficult to be borne, so numerous, so various, so pompous, were the institutions of it. The distinction of meats was a heavy yoke, not only as it rendered conversation less pleasant, but as it embarrassed conscience with endless scruples. The ado that was made about even unavoidable touch of a grave or a dead body, the pollution contracted by it, and the many rules about purifying from that pollution, were a heavy burden. This yoke Christ came to ease us of, and called those that were weary and heavy laden under it to come and take his yoke upon them, his easy yoke. Now for these teachers to go about to lay that yoke upon the neck of the Gentiles from which he came to free even the Jews was the greatest injury imaginable to them."

The net of Peter's dialog is that it was not God's intent to make Jews out of the Gentile believers nor put them under either circumcision for salvation nor to put them under the yoke of the Law of Moses. This was the ultimate decision of the council. A requirement for Gentiles to observe circumcision and the Law of Moses was flatly rejected.

James's Dialog

Act 15:13-21 When they finished, James spoke up. "Brothers," he said, "listen to me. (14) Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. (15) The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: (16) "'After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, (17) that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things'-- (18) things known from long ago. (19) "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. (20) Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. (21) For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath."

James mentions how Simon (Peter) had described the conversion of Cornelius. James reminds the people listening that Peter had told how God had determined to take for Himself a people for His name from the Gentiles.

Act 10:1-5 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. (2) He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (3) One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, "Cornelius!" (4) Cornelius stared at him in fear. "What is it, Lord?" he asked. The angel answered, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. (5) Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.

With respect to taking a people for His name from the Gentiles, James recalls the prophecy of Amos 9:11-12. He points out that Amos was in agreement with the inclusion of the Gentiles in the house of God in order that the nations would bear the Lord's name.

Amos 9:11-12 "In that day "I will restore David's fallen shelter-- I will repair its broken walls and restore its ruins-- and will rebuild it as it used to be, (12) so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name," declares the LORD, who will do these things.

James's reference to this passage is significant, while the religeous leaders were expecting the Gentiles to come under Judaism and "become Jewish" in order to be saved, James refuted this in saying that "we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles". Instead of requiring the Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses, James was agreeing with Peter that no such yoke should be placed upon the Gentiles.

Act 15:19 "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.

Finally, James instructs that instead of placing circumcision and the Law of Moses on the Gentiles, the only regulations that should be placed upon them were to abstain from "food offered to idols, sexual immorality, meat of strangled animals, and from blood.". These four prohibitions gave offense to the Jews.

Matthew Henry in part states:

"That yet it would be well that in some things, which gave most offence to the Jews, the Gentiles should comply with them. Because they must not humour them so far as to be circumcised, and keep the whole law, it does not therefore follow that they must act in a continual contradiction to them, and study how to provoke them. It will please the Jews (and, if a little thing will oblige them, better do so than cross them)..."

"He gives a reason for his advice - that great respect ought to be shown to the Jews for they have been so long accustomed to the solemn injunctions of the ceremonial law that they must be borne with, if they cannot presently come off from them (Act 15:21): For Moses hath of old those that preach him in every city, his writings (a considerable part of which is the ceremonial law) being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. “You cannot blame them if they have a great veneration for the law of Moses; for besides that they are very sure God spoke to Moses,”

From Constables Expository Notes:

"Concerning the nature of the prohibitions the most likely explanation is that all four were associated to some degree with pagan religious practices. Since this association was highly offensive to Jews, Gentile believers were asked to avoid even the appearance of evil by avoiding such practices altogether. Thus the purposes of the decree and its prohibitions [cf. Act 15:29; Act 21:25] were to promote unity among believing Jews and believing Gentiles." [Note: Charles H. Savelle, "A Reexamination of the Prohibitions in Acts 15," Bibliotheca Sacra 161:644 (October-December 2004):468.]

"The reason for these restrictions was this. In the weekly synagogue Scripture readings, teachers of the Mosaic Law had stressed Jewish scruples regarding these matters for generations. Consequently the Jews regarded them as extremely important. If Gentile Christians disregarded the convictions of these Jews, they would only alienate those they hoped to bring to faith in Jesus Christ or to growth in Christ (cf. 1 Cor 8:13)."

The Four Prohibitions

Food Offered To Idols

In the case of "food offered to idols", Paul expounds on this in the letter to the Corinthians.

From the discussion of the council:

Act 15:20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

From the letter sent to the Gentiles:

Act 15:29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.

As Paul states, the fact that food has been offered to idols is not the problem here. He states "An idol is nothing at all in the world." What is at issue is the perception of the religious leaders towards meat offered to idols. It was an offense to the Jews when someone would eat meat that had been offered to an idol.

It was not due to any intrinsic nature of the meat that this prohibition was put in place, but it was to ensure that the Gentiles were not a stumbling block to the Jewish people they were trying to win to Christ.

1Co 8:4-9 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that "An idol is nothing at all in the world" and that "There is no God but one." (5) For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), (6) yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (7) But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. (8) But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. (9) Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.

Sexual Immorality

This prohibition is not generally one that is debated today. All Christians understand the moral law that prohibits sexual immorality. However, during the time in which this issue was being discussed by the council, Gentiles did not consider fornication to be criminal, and they engaged in it frequently. This of course would have been quite offensive to the Jews, and as in the case of the food sacrificed to idols, Gentiles were told to abstain in order not to cause offense to them.

John Gill explains:

"the reason why this is put among, things indifferent is, not that it was so in itself, but because it was not thought to be criminal by the Gentiles, and was commonly used by them, and which must be offensive to the believing Jews, who were better acquainted with the will of God;"

Meat of Strangled Animals

This prohibition concerned Jewish law. The Jews were prohibited from eating animals that were not killed properly so as to drain the blood from them. Like the other prohibitions, this one was not binding on the Gentiles, however, the Jews found the practice among Gentiles to be offensive. So because of the offense, and to avoid causing a stumbling block, the Gentiles were to avoid the meat of strangled animals.

John Gill helps us to understand the prohibition:

"from eating them, and design such as die of themselves, or are torn with beasts, or are not killed in a proper way, by letting out their blood; but their blood is stagnated or congealed in the veins: the Jews might not kill with a reaper's sickle, nor with a saw, nor with the teeth, or nail; because these חונקין, "strangled" (a): and what was not slain as it should be, was reckoned all one as what dies of itself; and whoever ate of either of these was to be beaten (b); the law respecting these things was of the ceremonial kind, and peculiar to the Jews, and was not binding upon the Gentiles; for that which died of itself might be given to a stranger, and he might eat it, or it might be sold to an alien, Deu 14:21"


The Jewish people had several laws regarding the eating of blood. As in the previous abstentions, the intent of the abstention from blood was not due to intrinsic values of the blood, but that Jews had been commanded to abstain from eating animals that had not been properly prepared, in which the blood had not been drained before cooking the meat.

John Gill

"There were several laws about eating of blood, and which are different, and ought to be carefully distinguished. The first is in Gen 9:4 "but flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood there of, shall you not eat"; which forbids the eating of flesh with the blood; but not the eating of flesh separately, nor the eating of blood separately, provided they were properly prepared and dressed, but the eating of them together without any preparation."

Matthew Henry

From things strangled, and from blood, which, though not evil in themselves, as the other two, nor designed to be always abstained as those were, had been forbidden by the precepts of Noah (Gen 9:4.), before the giving of the law of Moses; and the Jews had a great dislike to them, and to all those that took a liberty to use them; and therefore, to avoid giving offence, let the Gentile converts abridge themselves of their liberty herein, 1 Cor 8:9, 1 Cor 8:13. Thus we must become all things to all men.

These explanations of the four prohibition reveal that the intent was to avoid offending the Jewish people who Gentile believers were trying to win to Christ.

A False Conclusion

There are some that teach that the finding of the council was that no, circumcision is not required for salvation, but yes, the Gentiles do need to keep the Law of Moses. This teaching is propagated by those in the Hebrew Roots Movement, and Torah Observant groups. This teaching states that the Gentiles are to start with these four prohibitions, but are over time to learn the rest of the Law of Moses by attending the synagogue where Moses is read. They use the following passage:

Act 15:21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath."

There are significant issues with this teaching. First of all, there is nothing in the text of this verse that connects it with Gentiles learning the Law of Moses. It doesn't say that Gentiles will be going to synagogue, and it doesn't say that Gentiles should go to synagogue. It is simply a statement that says that Moses is read in the synagogue every Sabbath. It is an eisegetical conclusion to connect the factual statement that Moses is read every Sabbath in the synagogue to Gentiles learning the Law of Moses. The text simply doesn't say that.

Given the above explanations of what the four prohibitions were, and why they were prohibitions, it is far more sensible to deduct that the reason the council brought this up is to explain the rational for the prohibitions. The rational for the four prohibitions was to avoid offending the Jews whom they were trying to win for Christ. It makes no sense to claim that the prohibitions were just a starting point for the Gentiles to learn the Law of Moses.

The view that James mentions the Law of Moses being read in the synagogue every Sabbath is connected to the sensibilities of the Jews and not the expectation of the Gentiles to adopt the law of Moses is widely held:

Alexander McLaren Explains:

"But what does the reason in Act 15:21 mean? Why should the reading of Moses every Sabbath be a reason for these concessions? Various answers are given: but the most natural is that the constant promulgation of the law made respect for the feelings {even if mistaken} of Jewish Christians advisable, and the course suggested the most likely to win Jews who were not yet Christians. Both classes would be flung farther apart if there were not some yielding. The general principle involved is that one cannot be too tender with old and deeply rooted convictions even if they be prejudices, and that Christian charity, which is truest wisdom, will consent to limitations of Christian liberty, if thereby any little one who believes in Him shall be saved from being offended, or any unbeliever from being repelled."

Thomas Constable:

"James was not putting Gentile converts under the Mosaic Law by imposing these restrictions. He was urging them to limit their exercise of Christian liberty to make their witness to unsaved Jews more effective and their fellowship with saved Jews more harmonious (cf. 1 Cor 9:19-23)."

Matthew Poole

"The reason why St. James would not have the ceremonies buried as soon as they were dead, was because the Jews had been so long confirmed in them, and bare such a love unto them; and he would purchase concord between them and the Gentile converts; though the Gentiles should bear with some inconvenience into the bargain, as not presently using all the liberty which through Christ they had a right unto."

Myers NT Commentary

See Düsterdieck in the Götting. Monatschr. 1849, p. 282 ff. Γάρ] gives the reason why it was indispensable to enjoin this fourfold ἀπέχεσθαι—namely, because the preaching of the Mosaic law, taking place from ancient generations in every city every Sabbath day by its being read in the synagogues, would only tend to keep alive the offence which the Jewish-Christians (who still adhered to the synagogue) took to their uncircumcised brethren, in view of the complete freedom of the latter from the law, including even these four points.

Another view explaining this verse is that it is simply stating that these four prohibitions needed to be explained to the Gentiles, however, since Moses was read every Sabbath, the Jewish Christians did not need to be taught these four. The Jewish Christians would already be aware of and following these prohibitions.

Ellicott explains:

For Moses of old time.—Literally, of ancient generations. The conjunction gives the reason for writing to the Gentiles, and giving them these injunctions. The Jews, who heard the Law in their synagogues every Sabbath, did not need instruction. It might be taken for granted that they would adhere to the rules now specified. So, in Acts 15:23, the encyclical letter is addressed exclusively to “the brethren of the Gentiles.”

Clark's Commentary

Moses of old time hath in every city - The sense of this verse seems to be this: As it was necessary to write to the Gentiles what was strictly necessary to be observed by them, relative to these points, it was not so to the converted Jews; for they had Moses, that is, the law, preached to them, κατα πολιν, in the city, that is, Antioch; and, by the reading of the law in the synagogues every Sabbath day, they were kept in remembrance of those institutions which the Gentiles, who had not the law, could not know. Therefore, James thought that a letter to the converted Gentiles would be sufficient, as the converted Jews had already ample instruction on these points.

Outside of the Torah Observant or Hebrew Roots Movement, there is scant support that the Gentiles are still required to learn the Law of Moses, and these four prohibitions are just a "soft start" for them. The reality is that the ultimate decision of the council was that the Gentiles were only required to abstain from the four, and were not required to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses. Saying that the Gentiles would learn the Law of Moses in due time is contrary to the decision of the council.

The Letter

There is still additional support to indicate that the Gentiles were not required to learn the Law of Moses in an ongoing part as the Torah Observant and Hebrew Roots Movement claims. Although they claim that Acts 15:21 is contextually linked to the Gentiles learning the Law of Moses, the fact is, this passage was never communicated to the Gentiles in the context of this council. One would think that something of such importance would certainly have been included in such a letter, but it was not.

The following is the complete letter that was sent to the Gentiles. The reader will note that the fact that the Law of Moses was read in the synagogue each Sabbath is not communicated to the Gentiles.

Act 15:23-29 With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. (24) We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. (25) So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul-- (26) men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (27) Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. (28) It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: (29) You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.

The discussion regarding the Law of Moses being read in the synagogue each Sabbath was nothing more than a discussion point among the members of the council, and was never intended to be communicated to the Gentiles. The council was simply stating that since the Jewish Christians and those they were trying to win for Christ were familiar with the law, the Gentiles should not offend their sensibilities. It could have alternatively or in addition indicated that the council understood that the four prohibitions did not need to be communicated to the Jews since they heard Moses every Sabbath and would have been familiar with the prohibitions already. Either of these would explain why the letter was not included in the letter to the Gentiles, it wasn't meant for them.


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