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:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:
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 …
In the opinion of the Holy Spirit and us …
First, 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 "good" is not in the text.
Second, 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:
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; such an expression would be the definitive oxymoron. The expression tacitly undermines the Holy Spirit’s authority as the unambiguous, authoritative Teacher of all Truth.
Consider this: 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 in the clips below]:
Howard VosBeginnings in Church History
Matthew PooleMatthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible
R.J. KnowlingThe 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.”
Theology of Work Bible Commentary(Acts 15)
Each of the commentators above present and maintain the farce that the Holy Spirit "led" the conference—and therefore led the Council to specify the "essentials" of obedience for the Gentile believers. 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, certain, authoritative and unmistakable interaction of the Holy Spirit with His church as documented in the first 16 chapters of the book of Acts:
Is it even possible to not see the pattern here? The activity of the Holy Spirit is personal, powerful, authoritative, purposeful, 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:
[lit.] For it seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us …
For comparison, here are a few representative examples of the verb δοκέω:
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.
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.
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.
For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
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, or 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 both represented and caused!
[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. (It is only reasonable that he thought that 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). In my making these comments and assessments, I'm not necessarily assuming malevolence on James' part. That his actions have brought untold misery to the true church of the Lord Christ is indisputable. But, it is equally true that James simply can't plead ignorance for his very unwise and immature actions.
You’ll find that verb δοκέω used in two other places in Acts chapter 15:
[lit.] Then it seemed to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church …
[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, at the very least, of astonishing immaturity 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 and their desception (Jos 9.14-15 ), those leaders in Jerusalem acted on their own wisdom and thereby allowed legalism to take root and thrive.