The Jerusalem Council: the Second Serious Error of the Apostles
This article is Part 2 of a planned 2-part series.
In Part 1 of this series, I documented from the Scriptures the first serious error of the early church, namely that the eleven assumed for themselves an authority which was not theirs by their unwarranted and unwise selection of Matthias as an "Apostle of Jesus Christ". The very best that may be said of their action is that the eleven actually did choose an apostle—an “Apostle of the Remaining Apostles”—but not one who was an "Apostle of Jesus Christ".
The Lord Christ alone has the authority to appoint His own apostles, and this is exactly what He did when He called Saul of Tarsus!
I want to be very clear here: that foolish, irresponsible and impetuous action did not come from any underlying evil or a desire to distort truth. Instead, it has the clear marks of immaturity; it was reckless, not malevolent.
However, the error detailed in this Part 2 of the series is in a class by itself; it took 15+ years for the full problem to develop and manifest itself (i.e., on the order of the 3 years + 14 years, Gal 1.18; 2.1). This second error makes the first error (the appointment of Matthias) look almost trivial by comparison, initiated during what is typically known as the Council of Jerusalem (Act 15.6-11).
- failed to preach “grace alone” to the Gentiles,
- allowed the gospel of grace to become infected with legalism, and
- began the astonishingly destructive notion that Scripture can be divided into "essential" (and, by implication, "non-essential") components.
These are serious errors which lasted throughout the written history of the NT and continue to the present.
As the history of the book of Acts details, the early church in Jerusalem was apparently very susceptible to the introduction of Jewish legalism into the gospel of grace. For this error to become established, the early church leaders (the “Apostles and Elders”) “aided and abetted” the Adversary and are therefore very culpable.
I’m certain that some of my readers will instinctively rebel against this characterization. If this is your response, then you must keep reading: I’ll demonstrate from the Scripture that not only is this not an overstatement of the error, it is the only possible biblically-consistent one.
This issue is so important, so fundamental, that when the Holy Spirit inspired its inclusion in the Scripture He placed the historical content in Acts chapter 15, and both the historical and theological treatment of the event in Galatians chapter 2.
[As the Scripture established long ago, “Let all things be confirmed by the mouth of two or three witnesses.” (Mat 18.16)]
The legalism spawned in that Council would plague the Apostle Paul throughout his ministry; indeed, its influence is mentioned throughout much of the NT. That legalism, and its hellish distinction of "essential" and "non-essential" doctrine, is still "alive and well" in our current age.
[I invite my readers to test this last assertion: access the website of nearly any church which also publishes their Statement of Faith. (Many don't...) A subset of those churches will also publish a few paragraphs titled with something that is very close to this:
In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity
It is troubling that this sentiment is attributed to St. Augustine. I would have assumed that, given his place in theological history, that he would have known better!]
I maintain in this series that in that Council’s “religious fiat” can be found the beginnings of all so-called "Christian” religions that have as their foundation the necessity of human works to gain Divine approval for salvation and/or to aid in their salvation in some manner.
Right now, you’re probably saying something like, “But the Council soundly rejected the Jewish rite of circumcision for Gentile believers!”
Yes, that much is true! But that fact is only a tiny part of the whole story…
It isn’t merely the case that they (correctly!) rejected circumcision as a requirement for salvation; they did so with the destructive and attendant cost of additions to the gospel of grace (the “essentials”, in James’ words) which for all intents and purposes are inroads to Jewish legalism. Namely:
- the abstinence from things sacrificed to idols,
- the abstinence from blood,
- the abstinence from things strangled.
In short, they added elements to the gospel of grace to the Gentiles which the Lord neither authored or sanctioned, nor had required previously.
In fact, the Lord marvelously blessed the Apostle Paul’s ministry for more than 15 years prior to the Council! Thousands of both Jews and Gentiles were saved by means of the truth of the simple gospel of grace without anything even remotely resembling the admixture of the James’ “essentials”.
James’ use of the term “essential” is very problematic.
The Council soundly rejected circumcision as a requirement for salvation; that much was good. So, when James maintained the “essentials” needed for the Gentile Christians, he must have had in mind how they were to live their lives as Christians—but with a decidedly Jewish frame of reference. The problem, of course, is that the Lord Christ never commanded these “essentials” to the Apostle Paul, whom He blessed abundantly in spite of the fact that Paul never mentioned these essentials (or even considered them, for that matter!) when he established the various churches around the region to support and mature the young believers.
It is difficult to understand how the Apostle Paul initially accepted all that was represented (and/or implied!) in that decision.
But, on that topic, it is nonetheless true that he later corrected some of the issues it raised (specifically regarding meat, sacrifices and idols) in chapters 8 and 10 of 1 Corinthians—in inspired Scripture!
[Moreover, the Scripture tells us the careful, conscious decision of the Apostle Paul regarding personal interactions with matters that are truly, morally indifferent. He was remarkably accommodating to conditions, issues and elements that do not negatively impact in any way the gospel and truth:
1 Cor 9.19-23
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
The purpose of the Council was to deal with the controversy of circumcision, and regarding that issue the legalists in Jerusalem were soundly defeated—at least concerning its imposition on the Gentiles. We must assume from the account that this was suitable to Paul who viewed the decision in its best possible light. However, as I’ll deal with in another chapter, the issue of circumcision specifically and Jewish legalism generally was far from dead! It would continue to attack the gospel of grace and remain a source of trouble for the Gentile churches throughout the recorded history of the NT.
The legalists were not about to give up their fight, as the account with Peter in Gal 2.11-14 shows.]
Much has been written on the Council of Jerusalem. Of the many “somewhat-biblical” commentaries and articles I reviewed for this article, there are a few common elements:
- The assumption that the “James”, the de facto leader of the conference, is “James, the brother of the Lord” (one of the several sons of Mary by her husband Joseph).
[I agree with this assumption. Paul’s comment in Gal 1.19 and the continuing context into Galatians chapter 2 corroborate this.]
- The clear statement of the fact that the Apostle Paul received his commission to preach the gospel directly from the Lord Christ; he therefore did not seek or need—ever!—any approval or validation of any kind from the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem.
- The recognition that the Jewish legalism attempted inroads into early Christianity. The “test case” for this legalism was the rite of circumcision required by the Lord of the Jews as far back as Abram (Gen 17); namely, the legalists asserted that circumcision should be imposed on Gentile converts as a necessary prerequisite of salvation.
- The record of the conference in Acts chapter 15 is the same event detailed by Paul the Apostle in Galatians chapter 2.
[With this position I strongly agree. I discuss the details of this assertion as a separate chapter here.]
- The “interpretive assumption” (lacking a better term) that the declaration by James of the four rules of behavior were primarily to enable the Gentiles to socialize with their Jewish brethren.
[With this assumption I strongly disagree—the text of both Acts chapter 15 and Galatians chapter 2 do not support this ridiculous and irresponsible interpretation. This seems to be the position of those who have not "thought through" the various issues; that is, this is the lazy interpretation.]
[Those who hold to this “social accommodation view” tacitly refuse to grapple with the fact that the Council and its leadership were irresponsible and stuck in a mindset of cultural Jewish legalism. It is nothing less than a limp defense of an indefensible action because that action was initiated by at least some of the original Apostles.
There are several problems with this “social accommodation” interpretation:
1. It is very one-sided: if the Gentiles were expected to conform (for the sake of so-called “fellowship” with Jewish believers) to Jewish culture concerning meat and idols, where is the corresponding willingness and recommendations to the Jews to conform to the culture of their Gentile brethren?
2. It ignores the scope of the Scriptures that deal with the problem: if this is merely a “social accommodation” issue, then why does the Lord devote two full chapters to it (Acts chapter 15 and Galatians chapter 2)? Moreover, don’t forget an additional two chapters (1 Corinthians chapters 8 and 10) which deal with meat, sacrifices and idols.
3. Finally, the entire epistle to the Galatians dealt with the intertwined issues of circumcision, Law and grace within the context of Paul’s recounting of the Jerusalem conference.
In summary: those who hold the “social accommodation” view presume to tell us that the LORD inspired four chapters of His NT and an entire Epistle to the topic of how the Gentile Christians should accommodate their Jewish brethren?!?!
This position is beyond laughable! It is impossible for any biblically-consistent "theologian" to maintain such an indefensible position! Any "theologian" holding to such a position should be shamed into permanently retiring until he repeats Bible 101—sucessfully.
Truly the "social accommodation" theory is a case of “straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel”. (Mat 23.24)]
As I mentioned above (and will be shown in another chapter of the series), the Apostle Paul would attempt to "undo" at least a part of the legalism error regarding meat and idols in two lengthy sections in 1 Corinthians (chapters 8 and 10). In the account of the conflict and rebuke of Peter at Syrian Antioch in Galatians chapter 2 Paul deals at length with the matter of circumcision and the significant danger it represented to the gospel of grace should any type of Law as a condition of salvation be reinstated in any form.
Just as "a little leaven leavens the whole lump" (1 Cor 5.6), so the admixture of legalism into the gospel of grace began its inexorable pollution of the young Christian church with that fateful council in Acts chapter 15. It is very clear that the Apostle Paul saw this danger as soon as the Jewish legalists came to Syrian Antioch the first time with their “gospel of circumcision”.
The gravity of this error is clearly shown by the fact that the Lord sent Paul to Jerusalem (by means of a “revelation”, Gal 2.2) to deal with this matter with the Jewish “Apostles and Elders”.
[It is vital to understand that in the context of the attack of Jewish legalism upon the churches in Galatia after, and in spite of, the Council in Jerusalem, the Apostle Paul wrote the strongest condemnations found in any of his NT epistles. In fact, it is in his Epistle to the Galatians that Paul first used the phrase “another gospel”, a term of condemnation and denigration for the activity of the legalists and for any so-called gospel that is different in any way from the gospel of “grace alone”.
Any such gospel distortion was pronounced “accursed”.]
I am firmly convinced that Apollyon's greatest triumph in the history of Acts was that famous Jerusalem Council and its decision voiced by James, the brother of the Lord.
As a result, an “impostor Christianity” was initiated, an ideology which presents a “grace-less” (or at least “grace-minimized" gospel) which, in turn, initiated the progression to holding to any form of “salvation-by-works”.
It is alive and well in our current age.
It may look like Christianity from the outside, but within it is dead, dark and soul-less. It is man-made religion that condemns to eternal doom all those who are deceived by it.
[Actually, the error began long before the Council within the ranks of the “Jerusalem Apostles and Elders”. The Council merely “officially” denied only the necessity of circumcision for the Gentile converts, but their error persisted long after the Council, as witnessed by the content of the Galatians chapter 2 and an episode later in Acts chapters 21 and 22.
Consider the facts of Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem (Acts chapter 21) many years after the Council. Once Paul arrived James told him,
“You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law …”.
It was that “[zeal] for the law” that would erupt into the mob that unjustly and mindlessly attacked Paul—and would have killed him had not the Roman authorities intervened. James, their leader, should never have let that mindset to continue, much less to become established, among those he regarded as “believers”. There is no record of his even attempting to deal with the error; in fact, the record of Acts chapters 21 and 22 imply strongly that James didn’t even realize that he had a problem.]
Long before the Council, during his first missionary journey, Paul taught the Jews in Pisidian Antioch:
Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.
In fact, at that time that message was very favorably received by many Jews living there (v. 42), since the LORD was working in their hearts. It was not until the following Sabbath that the hard-core, spiritually-blind, cultural Jews of the area, “filled with jealousy” (v. 45), opposed the Apostle and brought his work in that city to an abrupt end. But, even then, those truly converted were “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit”. (v. 52)
Without any doubt, viewed generally as a people and culture, the unsaved, nationalistic Jews opposed the gospel of grace at every turn, many times violently. The problem in Acts chapter 21 is that James operated under the (self-) delusion that the crowd was a group of genuine “believers” (v. 20). As the account shows in Acts 21 and 22, the crowd could hardly be viewed as true believers; by James’ own words the problem was that they were still “zealous for the law” (Act 21.20 ). This is not a “good thing” for so-called “Christians” who would turn in an instant and attempt to murder one of the most faithful and blessed-of-God evangelists the world has ever seen.
Why!?!? They should have been filled with joy at the arrival of a faithful evangelist who preached the gospel of grace like no one else of his day and through whose ministry multiple thousands were saved! How many Jews had been eternally delivered from the curse of the Law by the preaching of the Apostle Paul!
Where was James when all this was happening?
Why had James not, as Paul had in that first missionary journey among Jews in Pisidian Antioch, begun to teach that grace changes everything and was the only element needed to have a truly righteous standing before the LORD? The mere outward adherence to the Law was not—was never!—the point of the gospel and was certainly not what the Lord required.
Truly, the Jews have been both the most privileged and the most obstinate people against the Lord God of any people in history:
When He killed them, then they sought Him, and returned and searched diligently for God;
And they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer.
But they deceived Him with their mouth and lied to Him with their tongue.
For their heart was not steadfast toward Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant.
There are hundreds of examples of the same thought scattered throughout OT history, prophecy and poetry. To say that the Tanakh is very critical of the Jews and their national and natural obstinance would be a mammoth understatement.
Acts chapters 21-22 demonstrates clearly that within those Jewish (so-called!) believers there persisted a spirit of legalism to such an extent that it is both reasonable and necessary to question whether they were true believers at all (the reason I used the descriptor “so-called”).
There are, of course, only two possibilities:
- If those believers were true, then James failed miserably in his leadership to instruct them that to be under grace is not to be under law. (Rom 6.14); it is to be delivered from the curse of the Law.
- If those believers were not true, then James failed to recognize that the ranks of the “believers” were swelled with those who were unsaved and still believed in the efficacy of Law and actively opposed the gospel of grace alone!
In either case, there was a colossal failure on the part of James’ leadership, a failure that erupted into a violent, murderous mob and the ultimate arrest of the Apostle Paul and the end of his public and unhindered ability to travel about to preach the gospel.
Though this is an historical event, I found that a strictly chronological treatment has several presentational issues. Therefore, there are several vital elements that must be presented first to “set the stage” for the discussion to follow (as shown below in the chapter topics).
This series is presented in eight chapters:
- The Activity of the Holy Spirit in the First Sixteen Chapters of Acts
- Who was the ‘James’ of the Council in Jerusalem?
- Divine Authority Imparted: Paul and the Gospel of Grace
- Galatians 2.1-10 Is the Council of Jerusalem of Acts Chapter 15
- Incipient Legalism
- The Problems of Incipient Legalism Throughout the NT
- The Biblical Treatment of Meat and Idols by the Apostle Paul in the first Corinthian Epistle
- Matthew 21 and Romans 11: the Gospel is Ripped Away from the Jews