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The Jerusalem Council: the Second Serious Error of the Apostles

The Activity of the Holy Spirit in the First Sixteen Chapters of Acts

One of the points which appears to be missed completely by commentators is this very important phrase which occurred at the conclusion of the Council in Jerusalem:

Act 15.28
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:
[emphasis mine]

The original phrase is:

ἔδοξεν γὰρ τῷ πνεύματι τῷ ἁγίῳ καὶ ἡμῖν μηδὲν

The main verb is δοκέω [G1380: to be of opinion, think, suppose; to seem]. In the phrase above, the aorist active form [ἔδοξεν] is used, consistent with Luke’s historical presentation of the event.

More literally (that is, than the NASB translation above) we have,

For it seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us …

or

In the opinion of the Holy Spirit and us …

The adjective “good” is not in the text. It is sometimes inferred from the typical way in which, in English, this type of thought is expressed. For example, the following is very common:

In my opinion, it’s ok…
It’s ok, I’m good with …

All that is really being expressed is that the speaker merely indicates general agreement with some thought or action. But, in the original, there is no expression that the action taking place would be judged “good”: again, I emphasize here, the adjective is not in the text.

There is something else very troubling in James’ expression: how is it that he speaks of the opinion(!) of the Holy Spirit”?

Remember this vital text:

Joh 14.25-26
These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.

So the question which we must pose to James is:

Did the Holy Spirit lead the conference, or did He not lead the conference?

To speak of the “opinion” of the Holy Spirit is contrary to the position which He has, as taught to believers by the Lord Christ Himself; it would be the definitive oxymoron. The expression tacitly undermines the Holy Spirit’s authority as the unambiguous, authoritative Teacher of all Truth.

Consider: if it is merely the “opinion” of the Holy Spirit rather than authoritative Scripture (again, an oxymoronic thought, to be sure!), than it is reasonable to assume that it may be disregarded if the context justifies such a response.

Do you see how utterly destructive this line of reasoning becomes if we assume that James had the authority to express the Council proceedings as “it seemed to the Holy Spirit …”?

But, there is another, very important consideration than the phrase “… it seemed to the Holy Spirit …”, one more powerful and persuasive even than the use of the verb δοκέω.

I have been stunned by what commentators read into this verse, thoughts which clearly are not present in any form [emphasis mine]:

John Calvin
Calvin’s Commentaries 

“Whereas the apostles and elders match and join themselves with the Holy Ghost, they attribute nothing to themselves apart therein; but this speech importeth as much as if they should say, that the Holy Ghost was the captain, guide, and governor, and that they did set down, and decreed that which they write as he did indite it to them.” Vol 19 
 

Howard Vos

Beginnings in Church History
 “Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the council decided that the Law, which had been an impossible burden for the Jew, should not be required of Gentiles.” pg. 10
 

Matthew Poole

Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible
 “To the Holy Ghost, and to us; that is, unto us, assisted by the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is deservedly first mentioned, that the apostles might testify that they desired to say, write, or do nothing in which they had not the Spirit of God directing of them: and they mention the Spirit, that the Antiochians, unto whom they wrote, might be assured they were not human inventions which they recommended, but that they had the authority of God for them.”
 

R.J. Knowling

The Expositor’s Greek Testament
 

Dr. Knowling presents the possibility that the phrase ἔδοξεν γὰρ τῷ πνεύματι τῷ ἁγίῳ (lit., (it seemed to the Holy Spirit”) was the prefix for an “official” proclamation:

“On this classical construction of ἔδοξε with the infinitive see Nestle’s note, Expository Times, December 1898. Moreover it would seem that this ἔδοξε is quite in accordance with the manner in which Jewish Rabbis would formulate decisions.”
Matthew Henry  “They express themselves with something of authority, that what they wrote might be received with respect, and deference paid to it: It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, that is, to us under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, and by direction from him: not only the apostles, but others, were endued with spiritual gifts extraordinary, and knew more of the mind of God than any since those gifts ceased can pretend to; their infallibility gave an incontestable authority to their decrees, and they would not order any thing because it seemed good to them, but that they knew it first seemed good to the Holy Ghost. Or it refers to what the Holy Ghost had determined in this matter formerly.”
Reformation Study Bible  “They were filled with the Spirit (2:1–41; 4:8; 6:5; 9:17; 13:4) and recognized the Spirit’s role in their debate and decision.”
 

Theology of Work Bible Commentary

(Acts 15)
 “Moreover, they claim no personal authority, but only that they have tried to be obedient to the Holy Spirit. “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28a). The word seem indicates a humility about their decision, underscoring that they have renounced the Roman patronage system with its claims of power, prestige, and status.”

With this much support for the notion that the Holy Spirit led the attendees at the Council, a support spread throughout so many centuries by commentators, how could one possibly take a contrary position!?!? [Please forgive my sarcasm!]

It’s quite easy—and required!—when one faithfully examines the Scriptures to “see whether these things were so” as did some faithful young believers long ages ago. (Act 17.11)

Here is the record of the direct and unmistakable interaction of the Holy Spirit with His church as documented in the first 16 chapters of the book of Acts:

Act 1.8  but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. 
Act 1.16  Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.
Act 2.4  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
Act 2.33  Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear
Act 2.38  Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Act 4.8  Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people,
Act 4.31  And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.
Act 5.3,9  But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? … Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well.”
Act 5.32  And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.
Act 6.3,5  Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. … The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.
Act 6.10  But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.
Act 7.51,55  You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. … But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God;
Act 8.15,17  who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. … Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.
Act 8.29,39  Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” … When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing.
Act 9.17,31  So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” … So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.
Act 10.19  While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.
Act 10.38,44-45,47  You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. … While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. … “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?”
Act 11.12,15-16  The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings. These six brethren also went with me and we entered the man’s house. … And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
Act 11.24  for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.
Act 11.28  One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius.
Act 13.2,4,9  While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” … So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus. … But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him,
Act 13.52  And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
Act 15.8  And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;
Act 16.6-7  They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them;

Is it even possible to not see the pattern here? The activity of the Holy Spirit is personal, powerful, authoritative, direct and unambiguous! And, within these texts there are seven references to direct, verbal direction by the Holy Spirit to the early disciples! There could be no possibility of misunderstanding or misinterpretation!

Now, attempt to reconcile the following with that same Holy Spirit in James’ statement in the historical record of the summary of the conference:

Act 15.28
[lit.] For it seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us …

For comparison, here are a few representative examples of the verb δοκέω:

Mat 6.7
And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.

Luk 8.18
So take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.

Luk 12.51
Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division;

1 Cor 3.18
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise.

1 Cor 10.12
Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.

Gal 6.3
For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

Jam 1.26
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.

There are many other occurrences, but these should suffice. The verb δοκέω expresses opinion, supposition, assumption (either valid or invalid) rather than undisputed fact!

Read carefully the text of Acts chapter 15 and Galatians chapter 2; you’ll find no instructions (verbal or otherwise) from the Holy Spirit, no indication of His unambiguous leading of the activities and decision of the Council—nothing! This fact alone is extraordinary given the vital nature of the controversy and the potential of damage to the early church it represented!

[As I mention in other places in this series, the fact that the Holy Spirit places the account in two different books (Acts 15 and Galatians 2) is significant. That there is no record of the Holy Spirit’s activity within the conference to guide its proceedings in either account is stunning!]

James didn’t say “It was the Holy Spirit who brought us to this conclusion …” for one indisputable reason: he couldn’t, because it wasn’t true! In the very best case, it was overstated and misguided; in the worst case it was deliberate deception! The LORD alone knows which of these two cases is the valid one.

[REMEMBER: The book of Acts is inspired history, the accurate account of what happened whether, good, bad or indifferent! In those cases in which the history of the disciples shows their carelessness and/or immaturity, then the book of Acts is for our instruction of what not to do!]

James, in a token manner, “includes” the Holy Spirit in his expression because he knows that the Council’s authority is still merely human. He must have at least a semblance of a divine imprimatur.

James overstated the case—dramatically!

[I suspect that some of my readers will probably take issue with me here, but the biblical evidence is overwhelming. James boxed himself into a corner; he had to find some way to express that the proceedings were sanctioned by the LORD, despite the facts to the contrary.

If the Holy Spirit really did direct the Council, then

1. Why did James feel compelled to say "... and us ..."? What possible additional authority could the Apostles add to a decision of the Holy Spirit—if that really was the case?

2. 
James is guilty of gross understatement: why would he even consider soft-pedaling the LORD’s instructions by using a such a tepid verb to describe it?

If the Holy Spirit was the true source of the instructions to the Gentiles, then what more authority did he need? James would have been “in the clear” since he would have been acting on divine authority. Instead, James sought to shore up his decision in the only way possible without a direct lie: “It seemed …”. He now had “theological cover” (or so he must have thought).]

You’ll find that verb δοκέω used in two other places in Acts chapter 15:

Act 15.22
[lit.] Then it seemed to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church …

Act 15.25
[lit.] it seemed to us, having become of one mind …

Lacking the direct and unambiguous activity and leading of the Holy Spirit, this is a glaring example of “grasping at straws” by those early leaders to justify their actions—particularly James the brother of the Lord! Like Joshua of old who did not seek the Lord when he was approached by the Gibeonites, those leaders in Jerusalem acted on their own wisdom and thereby allowed legalism to take root and thrive.