Paul at the Jerusalem Council
What was Paul's role at the Jersualem Council?
Paul participated at the Jersualem Council in 49 AD, as recorded in Acts 15:1-41.
The context of the Jerusalem Council
The early date of Galatians, addressed to these churches of Pisidia and Lycaonia before the Conference in Jerusalem does not allow time for a second visit there (Ga 4:13), and requires that the Judaizers from Jerusalem followed close upon the heels of Paul and Barnabas (Ga 1:6; 3:1) in South Galatia. Besides, there is the less likelihood that the matter would have been taken a second time to Jerusalem (Ac 15:2 f) if already the question had been settled in Paul's favor (Ac 11:30).
It is strange also that no reference to this previous conference on the same subject is made in Ac 15:1-41, since Peter does refer to his experience at Caesarea (Ac 15:9) and since James in Ac 21:25 specifically ("we wrote") mentions the letter of Ac 15:1-41 in which full liberty was granted to the Gentiles. Once more, the attack on the position of Paul and Barnabas in Ac 15:1 is given as a new experience, and hence the sharp dissension and tense feeling.
The occasion for the sudden outbreak at Antioch on the part of the self-appointed (Ac 15:24) regulators of Paul and Barnabas lay in the reports that came to Jerusalem about the results of this campaign on a large scale among the Gentiles. There was peril to the supremacy of the Jewish element. They had assumed at first, as even Peter did who was not a Judaizer (Ac 10:1-48), that the Gentiles who became disciples would also become Jews. The party of the circumcision had made protest against the conduct of Peter at Caesarea (Ac 11:1 f) and had reluctantly acquiesced in the plain work of God (Ac 11:18).
They had likewise yielded in the matter of the Greeks at Antioch (Ac 11:19 ff) by the help of the contribution (Ac 11:29 f). But they had not agreed to a campaign to Hellenize Christianity. The matter had to stop. So the Judaizers came up to Antioch and laid down the law to Paul and Barnabas. They did not wait for them to come to Jerusalem. They might not come till it was too late (compare Barnabas in Ac 11:1-30). Paul and Barnabas had not sought the controversy. They had both received specific instructions from the Holy Spirit to make this great campaign among the Gentiles.
They would not stultify themselves and destroy the liberty of the Gentiles in Christ by going back and having the Mosaic Law imposed on them by the ceremony of circumcision. They saw at once the gravity of the issue. The very essence of the gospel of grace was involved. Paul had turned away from this yoke of bondage. He would not go back to it nor would he impose it on his converts. The church at Antioch stood by Paul and Barnabas. Paul (Ga 2:2) says that he had a revelation to go to Jerusalem with the problem. Luke (Ac 15:3) says that the church sent them. Surely there is no inconsistency here.
It is not difficult to combine the personal narrative in Ga 2:1-21 with the public meetings recorded in Ac 15:1-41. We have first the general report by Paul and Barnabas to the church in Jerusalem (Ac 15:4 f) to which instant exception was made by the Judaizing element. There seems to have come an adjournment to prepare for the conflict, since in Ac 15:6 Luke says again that "the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider of this matter." Between these two public meetings we may place the private conference of Paul and Barnabas with Peter, John and James and other teachers (Ga 2:1-10).
In this private conference some of the timid brethren wished to persuade Paul to have Titus, a Greek Christian whom Paul had brought down from Antioch (a live specimen!), offered as a sacrifice to the Judaizers ("false brethren") and circumcised. But Paul stood his ground for the truth of the gospel and was supported by Peter, John and James. They agreed all around for Paul and Barnabas to go on with their work to the Gentiles, and Peter, John and James would push the work among the Jews (a division in sphere of work, like home and foreign missions, not a denominational cleavage).
Here, then, for the first time, Paul has had an opportunity to talk the matter over with the apostolic teachers, and they agree. The Judaizers will have no support from the apostles. The battle was really won in their private conference. In the second public meeting (Ac 15:6-29) all goes smoothly enough. Ample opportunity for free discussion is offered. Then Peter shows how God had used him to preach to the Romans, and how the Jews themselves had to believe on Christ in order to be saved.
He opposed putting a yoke on the Gentiles that the Jews could not bear. There was a pause, and then Barnabas and Paul (note the order here: courtesy to Barnabas) spoke again. After another pause, James, the president of the conference, the brother of the Lord Jesus, and a stedfast Jew, spoke. He cited Am 9:11 f to show that God had long ago promised a blessing to the Gentiles. He suggests liberty to the Gentiles with the prohibition of pollution of idols, of fornication, things strangled, and blood.
His ideas are embodied in a unanimous decree which strongly commends "our beloved Barnabas and Paul" and disclaims responsibility for the visit of the Judaizers to Antioch. The Western text omits "things strangled" from the decree. If this is correct, the decree prohibits idolatry, fornication and murder (Wilson, Origin and Aim of the Acts of the Apostles, 1912, 55). At any rate, the decision is a tremendous victory for Paul and Barnabas. If the other reading is correct, Jewish feelings about things strangled and blood are to be respected.
The decision was received with great joy in Antioch (Ac 15:30-35). Some time later Peter appears at Antioch in the fullest fellowship with Paul and Barnabas in their work, and joins them in free social intercourse with the Gentiles, as he had timidly done in the home of Cornelius, till "certain came from James" (Ga 2:11 f), and probably threatened to have Peter up before the church again (Ac 11:2) on this matter, claiming that James agreed with them on the subject. This I do not believe was true in the light of Ac 15:24, where a similar false claim is discredited, since James had agreed with Paul in Jerusalem (Ac 15:19 ff; Ga 2:9 f).
The new ground for complaint was that they had not settled the question of social relations with the Gentiles in the Jerusalem conference and that Peter had exceeded the agreement there reached. Peter quailed before the accusation, "fearing them that were of the circumcision" Ga 2:12) To make it worse, "even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation" (Ga 2:13).
Under this specious plea Paul was about to lose the fruit of the victory already won, and charged Peter to his face with Judaizing hypocrisy (Ga 2:11-14). It was a serious crisis. Peter had not changed his convictions, but had once more cowered in an hour of peril. Paul won both Barnabas and Peter to his side and took occasion to show how useless the death of Christ was if men could be saved by mere legalism (Ga 2:21). But the Judaizers had renewed the war, and they would keep it up and harry the work of Paul all over the world. Paul had the fight of his life upon his hands.
- Return to Bible Stories index page
- Go to Judaism index page
- Go to Christianity index page
- Go to Christian denominations index page
- Go to Christian comparison charts index page
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).