The Church at Antioch - A church with a Problem
A. Naismith, Falkirk
When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch after preaching the Word in Cyprus and Asia Minor, they rehearsed in the assembly there how God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. Their report doubtless outlined the seven-fold activity recorded in Acts 14. 21-25. This consisted in the proclamation of the gospel and importation of the truth, the confirmation and exhortation of the believers, the appointment of elders in each church, supplication for the saints and commendation of all believers to the Lord on whom they have believed.
The rapid spread of the gospel among Gentiles, and the large number of heathen converts, created a problem for Jewish believers. In Jerusalem and among the Jews of the dispersion who have believed and confessed Jesus as their Messiah, there were some who rejected the simple conditions of salvation preached by Paul and insisted on circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic law for Gentile believers. Those who thus advocated the literal application of the law of Moses were opposed to the Gentiles receiving the blessings of the Messiah without submitting to the ceremonial rites prescribed in the law. This controversy had been introduced into the church at Antioch by Judaizing teachers from Jerusalem, and the churches in Galatia would also be embroiled in a similar dispute. On this account Gentile believers, unsettled in their minds, had received assurance of their salvation from the simple gospel that Paul and Barnabas had preached and also from the experience of others in their assemblies who were stronger in faith.
Paul and Barnabas, during their furlough, accompanied by others from church at Antioch, went to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles, elders and saints in the church there. This is the first recorded Christian conference, for believers had met to confer about a problem relevant to their times. It has also frequently been named "the Jerusalem Council". The account of the discussion of the pressing problem and the decision reached occupy most of Acts 15.
The conference dealt with the controversy in three consecutive stages. First, they had the problem stated. The missionaries and delegates from Antioch were accorded a cordial welcome by the church at Jerusalem and its leaders. The problem was this: were Peter, Paul and Barnabas right in presenting the gospel of salvation and the forgiveness of sins by simple faith in the Lord Jesus Christ apart from any conformity to the Mosaic law? Or were the Pharisees right in insisting on circumcision and the observance of the law by Gentile believers as essential to salvation? "The Pharisees who believed" were given the first opportunity to state their case. Acts 15. 5.
The local churches of the saints of the present day may learn from the Spirit's account in Acts 15 that, in the case of an important, vital and far-reaching problem, it is prudent and honouring to the Lord to have it clearly stated and considered in the light of Scripture by wise, experienced brethren. The question that came before the church at Jerusalem was serious and fundamental and of the highest importance. Circumcision and the observance of the law of Moses would have made first of all Jewish proselytes of Gentile believers, and then Christian disciples. The principles at stake were God's way of salvation for all, together with fellowship in the church in both social and domestic spheres. The Pharisaic error has its counterpart today in the insistence on submission to "the ministry" of a humanly-appointed leader and not to the written Word of God. "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them", Isa. 8. 20.
The apostles and elders met together to consider the question: the problem studied. Their object was to face the matter frankly, discuss it fully, come to an amicable decision, and heartily and unanimously accept it. Three addresses, to which all the members of the church at Jerusalem and believers present from other parts listened, were given from three different standpoints. Peter, representing apostolic authority, Paul and Barnabas with their missionary experience, and James the Just, a notably wise leader in the church at Jerusalem, spoke in that order.
Peter reminded his hearers that the Holy Spirit had been given to the Gentiles who believed, as previously to Jewish believers, demonstrating their acceptance with God and their salvation. Why then, he asked, should other conditions be imposed on them? Paul and Barnabas told of the work of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles attested by signs and wonders wrought by God. James, summing up fairly and wisely, quoted from Amos 9. 11-12 to show that the prophets had foretold the conversion of the Gentiles. His judicious verdict was that no unnecessary restrictions should be placed upon the Gentiles who had turned to God, but recommended that they should abstain from idolatrous defilement, from sexual immorality, from partaking of the flesh of animals that had been strangled and from the eating of blood.
Those men of discernment saw in the Judaizers' insistence on circumcision and the law several fundamental errors and positive dangers to the Christian position. It would mean the denial of faith in Christ and His atoning work alone as the way of salvation, the infringement of the liberty taught in the gospel, the imposition of a yoke of bondage that had been proved intolerable, and the interruption of the fellowship of believers as being all one in Christ Jesus. It would have produced a cleavage in the Christian Church into two irreconcilable sections. These things could not be tolerated in the Gospel.
A unanimous decision was reached: the problem solved, Acts 15, 22. Not only were they of one mind, but they unhesitatingly claimed the guidance of the Holy Spirit in coming to their decision. "It seemed good unto us", v. 25, and "it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us", v. 28. The decision plainly implied that the way of salvation and the terms of Christian recognition and fellowship were the same for Jew and Gentile alike.
A letter was written, not to legislate, but to convey their decision and advise the saints. In it the autonomy of the local church is recognized. No such conditions as those advocated by the Judaizing teachers were to be imposed on Gentile Christians as necessary either for salvation or for fellowship with Jewish brethren. However, abstinence from certain practices repulsive to Jewish believers and forbidden in the law were enjoined on Gentile converts. These were operative in three spheres; (i) in their duty to God - they should abstain from meats offered to idols and thus give no offence to their Jewish brethren; (ii) in the moral sphere - they were to refrain from fornication and all unchastely such as they might have practised in their heathen worship; (iii) in the ceremonial sphere - they should exclude from their diet blood and the flesh of strangled animals. In these respects Gentile believers would be wise and considerate in respecting the scruples of their Jewish brethren but there was to be no compromise on matters of principle.
Professor F. F. Bruce pronounces this decision as "a gracious and magnanimous attempt to uphold the principles of the gospel and at the same time to promote the continuance of unity and fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers". He adds, "In less than 700 words Luke has described a great turning-point in the history of Christianity, established the terms of the Gospel of salvation as preached by the apostles, and recorded a decision that prevented the division of the Church into Jewish and Gentile sects".