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Some controversies are more important than others. Down through early church history there were a number of significant church councils that addressed some very important points of controversy. The most famous councils began after the Roman persecutions had ended and debated various heresies that threatened to have a divisive impact on the overall church. The importance of these councils is that the resulting judgments helped to clarify and reinforce some very important fundamental doctrines. They usually are in response to some specific false teacher who is advocating a harmful position.

325 A.D. Council of Nicea — overseen by the Roman emperor Constantine, proclaimed the true manhood and true divinity of Jesus Christ and decreed the doctrine of the Trinity. It was from this Council that the Nicean Creed was formulated. The Council was held to counter the heresy of Arius who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

431 A.D. Council of Ephesus — held to counter the heresy of Nestorius. This Council reaffirmed the Church’s doctrine of incarnation and its position that the Word of God was made man. Where Nestorius taught that in Jesus there were two separate persons, the Council decreed that in Jesus there was one person with two natures.

Today you might want to include some less formal types of evangelical councils that advocate for certain doctrines that have come under attack – such as groups that deal with the inerrancy of Scripture or Biblical Creationism, etc.

We are studying this morning the first Christian Council – commonly called the Jerusalem Council – which included representatives from the two major church centers of Jerusalem (very Jewish in orientation) and Antioch (which was becoming increasingly more Gentile in focus).


“And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

What precipitated this conference? Some false teachers from Judea – were they truly Christians themselves?? Maybe not if they did not understand the nature of the gospel message – yet they are described as believing Pharisees further down in the account – maybe some were instruments of Satan and some were just confused believers who needed correction

Kent: These may have been the “certain from James” whose insistence on kosher foods at Antioch led Peter, who was visiting there at the time, to act inconsistently and incur the rebuke of Paul (Gal. 2:11-14). Peter, of course, did not really share the views of these men, and is shown in Acts 15 to have the same basic viewpoint as Paul… [Two different visits involved] . . .

Galatians was written from Antioch after the first missionary journey and after the problem of Judaizing had been introduced in Galatia and in Antioch, but shortly before the Jerusalem Council was held.

Teaching the brethren who were new Gentile believers in Jesus Christ – look at the opportunity in the church for people to teach – you don’t overreact to this by setting up all types of hurdles and obstacles so that only the Senior Pastor can teach and control all of the doctrine in the church – that is not how you respond to this problem – you deal with the false teaching when it crops up

Not surprising that things should come to such a head, given what we have been learning about the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. God had “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27) and they were pouring into the church at rates that were now becoming disproportionate to the new Jewish converts.

What had begun as a trickle with the Ethiopian eunuch and then the house of Cornelius in Acts 10 was now becoming a flood – should have been an occasion for great joy – it was something that God was accomplishing — not anything that Paul and Barnabas could bring about

Imagine the impact on these new converts – What do you mean that I am not really saved yet? Their joy was now replaced by doubt and confusion. That is always the effect of Legalism – it is the ultimate Joy Killer.

The issue at hand was the very gospel message itself – Paul and Barnabas had not been advocating circumcision for these Gentiles. They were not trying to make Jewish proselytes as if Christianity was just the final appendage to the overall Jewish system. They recognized the major new initiative that had begun at Pentacost: the Messiah had arrived and was now building His church:

“For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)


Wiersbe: It is not surprising that there were people in the Jerusalem church who were strong advocates of the law of Moses but ignorant of the relationship between law and grace.

Stott: The trickle of Gentile conversions was fast becoming a torrent. . . Its unanimous decision liberated the gospel from its Jewish swaddling clothes into being God’s message for all humankind, and gave the Jewish-Gentile church a self-conscious identity as the reconciled people of God, the one body of Christ. And although the whole Council affirmed it, Paul claimed that it was a new understanding granted specially to him, the “mystery” previously hidden but now revealed, namely that through faith in Christ alone Gentiles stand on equal terms with Jews as “heirs together, members together, sharers together” in his one new community.

Stott: They were telling Gentile converts that faith in Jesus was not enough, not sufficient for salvation: they must add to faith circumcision, and to circumcision observance of the law. In other words, they must let Moses complete what Jesus had begun, and let the law supplement the gospel. The issue was immense. The way of salvation was at stake. The gospel was in dispute. The very foundations of the Christian faith were being undermined.

Our modern culture might argue: can’t you just be tolerant – not everyone will see things the same way; why can’t we all just get along; don’t try to enforce your views on others; our culture smacks of moral relativism where there are no absolutes – yes, we can agree to disagree on the non-essentials … but when it comes to the heart of the gospel itself there can be no compromise:

Gal. 1:9 “if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” Can’t get much more dogmatic than that!


“And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.”

Look at how Paul and Barnabas responded – they did not back down at all from this controversy; they maintained their Christian character in terms of being gentle and humble and speaking the truth in love, etc. – but the bottom line is they fired away with both guns blazing to highlight the distinction between the truth and this fundamental heresy – Satan always likes to confuse the issues – we really are saying almost the same thing …

No resolution was forthcoming; yet the church at Antioch was unwilling to just drop the matter; they felt that some position must be articulated that would maintain the unity of both the church at Jerusalem and their more Gentile-based work at Antioch which was the beach-head for the missionary journeys of Paul and Barnabas

Only 2 churches involved – Antioch and Jerusalem – not representatives from all the churches

Look at the respect accorded to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem; no formal denominational hierarchy; each church was autonomous and self-governed and yet there was full cooperation so that you had a sense of the universal body of Christ in action

But even Paul was not able to just lay down the law by himself and demand that all the churches get in line; there was respect for how the Holy Spirit would work in a cooperative type of discussion at the highest levels; these were men who were filled with the Spirit and who demonstrated the grace of Christian character; there was the expectation that God’s wisdom would prevail


A. The Church is Fundamentally a Sending Agency

“Therefore, being sent on their way by the church,”

Responsible to discern the will of God and encourage gifted leaders to take initiative in going out to accomplish God’s work; the vision of individuals (sensing what God has called them to do) should mesh with the wisdom of the church in recognizing and encouraging and supporting that call

A church that never sends anyone out and is only concerned with its own internal growth is not accomplishing all of its mission for Christ

Being “sent on their way” involves commitment, fellowship, and financial support as well as prayers and continued concern for the results of the mission

B. The Work of God in Salvation Should Bring Great Joy to the Church as a whole

“they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.”

Building support for their position; no legal gag order

The facts were undeniable – look at what God had accomplished in converting these Gentiles; what role did circumcision and the Mosaic law play in these mighty works of transformation??

Look at the joy that comes from celebrating the truth of the grace of God vs the doubt and confusion and tension that comes from a legalistic approach

C. Fellowship between Churches Glorifies God for all that He is Accomplishing

“And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.”

Public welcome to Paul and Barnabas and delegation from Antioch

Some private discussion; some public with the entire church involved


But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”.

Possible to be a Pharisee and be a believer – a literalist when it comes to interpreting the Word of God; trained in the OT;

Just a repetition of the central issue in the controversy – talking about the salvation of the Gentiles – “it is necessary” (not optional) — now we have added another open-ended requirement to that of circumcision = “observe the law of Moses” – could involve a whole bunch of requirements – some biblical and some additional burdens added down through the ages by Jewish interpreters

Not enough for these folks to rejoice in what God has been doing – they want to make sure they can put the brand of Judaism on these converts so that the door to the gospel must open up to a process of embracing Judaism as a prerequisite to then ultimately being accepted into the church.


A. (:6-7a) Process of Debate

“And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. And after there had been much debate,”

Kent: 15:6 refers to the private session in which the leaders discussed the issue and settled upon the procedure to be pursued in presenting the case to the whole congregation. Verses 7-29 then describe the general session which followed.

Very important to spend the time and be objective in looking into important matters – perform the due diligence – look at the opportunity for much debate; not being intolerant – that is when you shut off all dialogue and don’t allow people to have a voice – it is really the modern culture that is intolerant towards Christians – you are not allowed to express your truth claims and especially to advocate for the exclusive nature of the gospel

B. (:7b-11) Judgment of Peter –

4 Divine Initiatives that place Jews and Gentiles on equal footing and prove that salvation is by grace through faith apart from the keeping of the law

1. (:7b) Choosing Peter to bring the gospel message to Gentiles (as to the Jews)

“Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.’”

Story of Cornelius from Chap. 10

Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God

2. (:8) Giving Gentiles the Holy Spirit (as to the Jews)

“And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;”

Gentiles had their own Pentecost

3. (:9) Cleansing the hearts of the Gentiles by faith (as with the Jews)

“and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.”

If infant baptism were a valid doctrine and truly the replacement for circumcision, there would be some reference to it in this context; the argument from silence deals a death blow to the infant baptism position here

4. (:10-11) Removing the yoke of the law (from both Gentiles and Jews)

“Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

Look at the Jewish history of failing to keep the law

C. (:12) Testimony of Barnabas and Paul

“And all the multitude kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.”

When the testimony of experience meshes with the testimony of God’s Word there can be no reasonable objection

Wiersbe: These miracles were proof that God was working with them (Mark 16:20; Acts 15:4) and that they were God’s chosen messengers (Rom. 15:18-19; Heb. 2:24)

D. (:13-21) Judgment of James

1. (:13) The Credibility of James

“And after they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, ‘Brethren, listen to me’”

Half brother of Jesus; leader in church at Jerusalem; especially respected by the Jewish believers; author of book of James

2. (:14a) The Support of Simeon (Jewish name for Peter)

“Simeon has related”

3. (:14b) The Divine Initiative

“how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.”

Wiersbe: It must have startled the Judaizers when James called these saved Gentiles “a people for his [God’s] name,” because for centuries the Jews had carried that honorable title (see Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 28:10).

4. (:15-18) The Support of the OT Prophets – quote from Amos 9:11-12

“And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After these things I will return, And I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, And I will rebuild its ruins, And I will restore it, In order that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, And all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’ Says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.”

Not discarding the OT promises to the Jewish people; strong support here for the dispensational, pre-mill position as opposed to amill

Since we know that in the future millennium kingdom God has plans to bring the Gentiles to a saving knowledge of Him it should not be surprising to see God call out Gentiles during this church age which is known as the time of the Gentiles

Kent: Amos has shown what will occur in the future for Israel. Peter had explained what God was doing in the meantime regarding salvation for gentiles.

Longenecker, quoted by Cole: There are several difficult interpretive issues in James’ use of

the quote from Amos 9:11-12. For one thing, he does not cite the Hebrew text, but rather the Greek Septuagint version, and even there he differs at several points. Perhaps he was citing it from memory and modifying it to give the sense of it as it related to his application. Also, it has been pointed out that James’ citation agrees exactly with one of the Jewish Essene sect texts of Amos 9. If some of the scrupulous Jewish Christians in his audience came from this sect, James may have been showing them that their own version supported the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s purpose

Longenecker: James’s major contribution to the decision of the council was to shift the discussion of the conversion of Gentiles from a proselyte model to an eschatological one. Isaiah had expected Gentile converts to come to Jerusalem to learn God’s ways so that they might walk in them. But Isaiah also spoke of the Gentiles’ persistence as nations whose salvation did not destroy their national identities (cf. Isa 2:4; 25:6-7). Likewise, Amos spoke of “the remnant of men” (LXX, DSS) in the last days when “David’s fallen tent” would be rebuilt as being “all the Gentiles who bear my name” and whose continuance as Gentiles was understood. In the end times, James is saying, God’s people will consist of two concentric groups. At their core will be restored Israel (i.e., David’s rebuilt tent); gathered around them will be a group of Gentiles (i.e., “the remnant of men”) who will share in the messianic blessings but will persist as Gentiles without necessarily becoming Jewish proselytes. It is this understanding of Amos’s message, James insisted, that Peter’s testimony has affirmed, the result being that the conversion of Gentiles in the last days should be seen not as proselytizing but in an eschatological context.

5. (:19-21) Final Resolution and Sensitivity

“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. ‘For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.’”

Don’t be a Legalistic Joy Killer!

Longenecker: Since Jewish communities are to be found in every city, their scruples are to be respected by Gentile believers.

Kent: fornication was so widely practiced among pagans, even under the guise of religion, that an admonition to gentile Christians to pay particular attention to avoiding this sin was certainly not unwarranted.

MacArthur: You know the whole of Gentile worship was involved with sex. Prostitute priestesses, the whole thing was just one big orgy. And he says to them, you know one thing that you Gentile Christians are goin, have to do, is absolutely stay away from every single thing that smacks of the sexual idolatry that you came from originally. You see in Leviticus 18 God gave such a strict set of laws about marriage, about sexual relationships, this is never to be violated. And you know one of the things that just really’ just was so hard for Jews to understand was Gentile fornication, sexual sin, everything from bestiality to homosexuality and everything in-between is included in the word porneia’ fornication. And a Jew couldn’t tolerate any of that, cause God had given such straight, stiff, stiff guidelines, and so he says to those Gentile Christians, you’re goin’ have to cut off anything that even smacks of it. They may have…they may have not done it, but they may have participated in things where it was being done.

Stott: All four requested abstentions related to ceremonial laws laid down in Leviticus 17 and 18, and three of them concerned dietary matters which could inhibit Jewish-Gentile common meals . . . refers to all the irregular marriages listed in Leviticus 18, in particular to marriage within degrees of blood-relationship or affinity forbidden by the legislation of Leviticus 18.

Stott: the Jerusalem Council secured a double victory – a victory of truth in confirming the gospel of grace, and a victory of love in preserving the fellowship by sensitive concessions to conscientious Jewish scruples.

Michael Crawford: Ways We Make It Difficult for People to Turn to God

– Gospel Silence

– Gospel Error

– Gospel Eclipse

– Our Unrepentant Hypocrisy

– Our Selective Love

– Our Unbiblical Christian Culture

– When We Don’t Compel Them or Invite Them to Come to God

– When the Church Doesn’t Look Like It’s God’s

– When There Are No Good Samaritans in the Church

– When Our Faith is More Defined by Political Party, Ethnicity or Agenda



Nothing can be added to the five famous creeds of the reformers:

1. Sola Gratia – Salvation is by Grace alone – all other religions advocate some form of works

2. Sola Christo – Salvation is by Christ alone – what would you think of me taking a paint brush to a work of a famous painter to try to improve it?

3. Sola Fide — Faith alone – not a matter of merit or works

4. Sola dei Gloria – to the glory of God alone – nothing for man to boast

5. Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – our authority for our gospel message comes from the Word of God