The events of Acts 15 have been of great interest to many over the years. This meeting of the apostles and elders of Jerusalem has been called many things, but most common is the “Jerusalem Conference.” Unfortunately, there have also been many false ideas that have stemmed from the events in this chapter. Some have used it as a rationale for holding conferences today to determine what we should believe about matters. Others have said that it shows a lack of unity among brethren, even the apostles, in the first century and therefore shows that true unity is impossible. So, what really happened at this meeting in Jerusalem? Can we know what God intended for us to take from this event, and if so, what is it?
Before delving knee-deep into the discussions, there are a few background points that need to be understood by the reader.
- The argument in question is over whether the Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be saved (Vs. 1). There were some Jewish Christians, with whom the church in Antioch was having to deal, who were teaching that this was absolutely necessary. It is to answer the questions surrounding this issue that is the purpose of the meeting. It will also be as a result of this doctrine that the books of Romans and Galatians will be written.
- The meeting takes place in the period of time after Paul and Barnabas return from their first missionary journey (Acts 14:26-28). This is of importance because many of those who are present at the meeting have not heard the results of the journey. Remember, there was no e-mail, postal service, or instant messenger in those days. All news had to travel by word of mouth and personal messenger if it was to be relayed at all. Therefore, the brethren in Judea and Samaria had little or no knowledge of all that had occurred during the 3-5 years of the first mission trip as recorded in chapters 13 and 14 (cf. 15:2-3).
- It should be understood that, in all likelihood, Paul and Barnabas were not the only ones who had to travel a distance to make it to this meeting. The apostles were given the commandment by the Lord to go into all the world and preach the Gospel (Mat. 28:18), this was not accomplished by sending Paul to Asia Minor and the rest of the apostles sitting at home in Jerusalem. We know that the rest of the apostles were also out proclaiming the Gospel and few, if any, of them would have been present at Jerusalem throughout that entire period of the first missionary journey. Therefore, it is quite likely that the apostles have come long distances, from the various directions of their work, to be at this meeting.
- We need to recognize who are the disputants in this case. It has often been surmised that this is a problem between the apostles or between the apostles and the elders of Jerusalem. However, consider what is actually said in the text. The problem originates when brethren from Judea (the region in which Jerusalem resides, but not necessarily Jerusalem itself) come to Antioch and begin teaching this doctrine (Vs. 1). It is also seen in the church at Jerusalem when some believers, who were Pharisees by Jewish party affiliation, are spouting the same doctrine (Vs. 5). Therefore, the problem did not originate with the apostles or elders, but with other members of the church in the region.
With these facts in mind, consider the events of the meeting.
- The apostles and elders came together to “consider” this matter (Vs. 6). The word translated “consider” comes from the Greek word idein meaning “to see, to know, to discern.” It does not mean that they came together to discuss their varying beliefs on the situation, but rather that they had come together “to see for themselves” what was the situation as it pertained to this teaching. It is rather obvious that, because of the fact-finding nature of this meeting, it was held in Jerusalem, central to the area from which this teaching has been disseminated, so that first-hand knowledge of what was being taught and by whom could be understood.
- While in the English translations there is the appearance of discord among the apostles, based upon the word “disputing” or “debate” in verse 7, the reality in the Greek is somewhat clearer. The word translated thus is the Greek word suzeteseos. While it does carry with it the possibility of debate in the meaning, the meaning also bears within it the idea of questioning and discussing to get to an answer. Within this context, the term would better be translated as “questioning;” understanding that the process likely included the apostles and elders inviting and allowing various individuals who were teaching such (Vs. 5) to speak in the presence of the apostles and elders to get the full scope of the teachings and beliefs.
- After the fact-finding has been completed, Peter begins to speak about the events of Acts 10-11 and what they showed as it pertained to God’s work among the Gentiles. He then asks why “ye” (not the other apostles, but those who had spoken in favor of requiring circumcision – for we know others besides the apostles and elders were present because of the use of the term “multitude” in verse 12) tempt God (Vs. 10). Paul and Barnabas follow that up by relating their works among the Gentiles on their journey (Vs. 12). Finally, James (half-brother of Jesus, author of the book of James, and elder in Jerusalem) speaks in agreement with Peter, Paul, and Barnabas (Vs. 13-21). He recommends that letters be prepared, to be sent to the Gentile Christians, that show the unity of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem; that those letters should report that the Judaizing proclaimers are not teaching the truth in regard to circumcision; and that such commands are not necessary for salvation: and this they do (Vs. 19-29).
Therefore, having noticed what actually occurred, what do we need to take from this text?
- It needs to be understood that there is no indication from Scripture of “dissention in the ranks” of the apostles. From the statements of the text it is evident that, in reality, the apostles were following the procedures the Lord had taught them in dealing with matters of brotherhood strife. There was a problem in the teaching of some of these Jewish Christians. Instead of looking from afar, without clear insight into what is being said and done, the apostles come together, in the center of the area from which this doctrine is being dispensed, to hear for themselves what is being promoted. Once they have a firm grasp on what is being proclaimed they issue a united, joint-letter with the elders in Jerusalem proclaiming a rejection of the claims of the Judaizing teachers.
- If anything, this event should be titled “the Jerusalem Hearing,” not “the Jerusalem Conference.” Men have often surmised that there were disagreements among the Christian leaders and they came together to decide what they were going to believe and practice (as many denominational groups do today); nothing could be further from the truth. They came together to deal with an issue in a united way, showing that they were all in agreement and making sure they all had the same information in dealing with the issue. It is interesting to note that nowhere in the chapter is there any statement of an apostle or elder speaking in favor of the philosophy of the Judaizing teachers. In fact, the wording of the letter to the Gentile Christians from the apostles and elders specifically states: “to whom we gave no such commandment” (Vs. 24).
- We need to carefully consider the things that Scripture says about events before concluding that we know all of the ins and outs of what occurred. Sometimes, though initial impressions may point us one direction, further investigation paints a different picture.
The events of Acts 15 are interesting and educational on a number of different levels. They teach us the lengths we should be willing to go to ensure we have all of the facts in a case; the importance of always keeping the Scriptures in the forefront of the decisions we make (as they did – Vs. 8-9, 15-18); and the unity that was present among the apostles, even in times of difficulty or adversity. Therefore, let us make sure we handle this beautiful passage of Scripture correctly, not twist it into something it is not, or make it say something it does not, for the purposes of promoting something for which it was never intended.