The First Church Council
I shall read the first five verses of [Acts] chapter 15, but I want to consider with you verses 1 to 35. We shall not read it all at one time.
And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy onto all the brethren.
And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.
But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:1-5).
One of the hardest things for these poor minds of ours to grasp is the freeness of God’s salvation. In other words, it is so difficult for us to abide in a sense of grace, to realize that the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is justified by faith, justified on the ground of the finished work of Christ, plus nothing else! Absolutely nothing is to be added to the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ as the ground of our salvation. This is the Gospel as preached by God’s faithful servants down through the centuries, but always there have been found those who because of their legalistic minds thought it too good to be true that men could be saved by grace alone and attempted to add something else to the Gospel. One comes along and says, Yes, you are saved by faith—butyou must be baptized to get to heaven. We practice baptism but not as a means of salvation. Another says, Grace saves us but it is mediated through the sacraments, and you must partake of the Lord’s Supper to have divine life. We observe the Lord’s Supper but not as a means of salvation. Others will say, Yes, we are saved by grace—butGod saves men through the Church and you must join the church if you are to be saved at last. We believe in the Church but the Church does not save and does not have anything to do with the putting away of sin.
In the beginning, as the apostles labored among the Gentiles, they were preaching salvation by grace plus nothing and it troubled certain men which came down from Judaea to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas were laboring at that time, having returned from their first missionary journey. These men said, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” It was an attempt to add something to the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ and it made so much division that a show-down was necessary and “they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” They would go right to the city where the first church had been established and find out if the Gospel they were preaching was in accordance with the Gospel that was being preached at Jerusalem.
“And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders.” They did not launch immediately into a discussion on the subject of law and grace. They had a welcome meeting for Paul and his companions and they took the opportunity to give, what we call today, missionary addresses. “They declared all things that God had done with them.”
It must have been most interesting to sit in that group and listen to those veteran missionaries as they went over the years they had served the Lord and told about some of the marvelous miracles of grace wrought among the Gentiles. You would have thought this would have answered the questions whether people need anything else than grace in order to be saved. But there were brethren sitting there who before their conversion had been Pharisees and had brought their Phariseeism into the Church. These were, after all, honest men. It is hard for us to realize when religious conflicts come up that a man may see something altogether contrary to what I believe and yet, as I am honest before God, I want to recognize that he is honest and is seeking according to the light God has given him to stand for what he believes to be the truth. They had the Old Testament—remember they didn’t have the New Testament—and in the prophecies of the Old Testament Israel was recognized as God’s chosen people separated from the rest of the nations, and there it was made clear that as others came to a knowledge of the true and living God they came to Israel and through circumcision were admitted into the congregation of the Lord. The prophets declared men would be saved but it was always in subjection to Israel. “The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Isaiah 60:3) and “It shall yet come to pass, that there shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities…saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8). These are but samples of many Old Testament passages. As the Pharisees read these Scriptures they said, We can thank God for the conversion of the Gentiles but they must come to God through Israel; they must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. So we read in Acts 15:5, “There rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed (do not forget that they were sincere believers and yet they differed with others as to salvation by grace alone), saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” After a good deal of disputation it was decided the apostles and elders should come together and consider this matter. Instead of the whole church going into session about it, they decided the elders should come together; and so we read:
“And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. And when there had been much disputing Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as He did unto us;
And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we are able to bear?
But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.”
It seemed eminently fitting that Peter should be the chief spokesman on this occasion. He was recognized as the one to whom the Lord Jesus Christ had given a very special commission, “Feed my lambs…feed my sheep.” He was the one chosen of God to go down to Cornelius and preach the Gospel to him and his household. So after the brethren had been gathered together to consider this matter and talked back and forth and had a great deal of discussion for some time, Peter rose up. He said, as it were “Now, brethren, let me speak.” (And they were willing to listen to him.) “You know how by my mouth the Gentiles heard the gospel and believed”—and then he related again, as he had told them before, what had occurred when he went to the household of Cornelius. He went down and preached the Gospel; he did not add works, he did not say anything about clean or unclean foods or Jewish practices such as circumcision; but he told about the Lord Jesus Christ who lived and died and was raised again, and as he preached the Gospel, “God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us.”
When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost upon that great multitude of converted Israelites, He came in power and there were outward signs of His presence; and so when these heard the Word and believed, immediately the same blessed Holy Spirit fell on them and baptized them into the body of Christ and gave them the same outward signs He had given the Israelites in Jerusalem—thus demonstrating to a certainty that God accepted Gentiles on the ground of pure grace altogether apart from the works of the law. There was no difference! How we need to stress that no differencedoctrine today. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans, “There is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” It does not make any difference what religious standing you may have—no difference as to what part of the world you were born (whether among Christians or among the heathen)—or maybe you are a Jew—there is no difference! For all have sinned. The word for sin literally means “to miss the mark” and all men have missed the mark. Not one man has ever lived in this world without failure and sin—except of course the Lord Jesus Christ. Another Scripture says, “There is no difference…for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.” There is no difference—all are sinners; no difference—the same Saviour is for everybody and through putting their trust in Him, all men may be justified. So Peter says God “put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.” That is what happens when people believe the Gospel; it is not merely that they are justified before God,—but there is new life, their hearts are purified by faith. Whereas they once loved sin, they now love holiness; whereas they once loved impurity, they now love purity. There is a complete change and reversal of attitude when people are born of God. This had taken place in these Gentiles. Who could doubt that God did the work?
Perhaps some of you have heard evangelist A.H. Stewart tell how when greatly concerned about his soul, he was told to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and trust Him as Saviour; but he thought that was far too easy a way. He went about it according to his own idea—he joined a church, they had him in the choir, he became quite a worker. He hoped in all these things to obtain peace with God, but there was no peace! One day, reading in his Bible, he read the parable of the sower and he came to the words “Then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved,” and Stewart threw down his Bible and said, “Will you look at that! Even the devil knows a man will be saved if he will believe!” And that day he settled it and turned to Christ and trusted Him as Saviour. Yes, God saves men when they believe; He saves all sinners, no matter what their state or condition, when they trust His Son.
So Peter says, “Why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” They were in bondage all the years they were in Judaism and they had to be delivered from this and be brought into the liberty of grace. Why bring the Gentiles into the bondage out of which they had been saved? The breadth of Peter’s vision comes out magnificently. “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” We should not have expected him to say that. We would rather have expected him to say, “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, theyshall be saved even as we.” He knew he was saved. Would you not have expected him to say “they shall be saved even as we?” But, no, grace had so wrought in Peter’s heart that he turned it right around. Do you not see, God is saving Gentiles by grace and, thank God, He saves Jews by grace too! He delivers the heathen from the corruption of idolatry, He delivers the Jews from the bondage of legalism.
The Christian Pharisees did not know what to say, but deep in their hearts they were thinking, “The Bible says these Gentiles are to come to God through Israel, and Israel is marked as separate through circumcision; therefore they must abide by the law.” However, we read, “Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.” Now they did not get up and try to argue the question. Very rightfully. They were visitors and did not want to be too prominent; but after Peter made this thing clear, Paul and Barnabas said, “We will give you some examples how He has been changing wicked men into holy men, through grace.” So they gave example after example, just as returned missionaries have done through the years, telling of corrupt men changed by grace to godly men. So Paul and Barnabas gave testimony; and this was to help clear the minds of the Pharisaic Christians.
After Paul and Barnabas had finished, the last man you might have expected came to their side. “And after they had held their peace, James answered.” Who was James? The brother of the Lord. “James, the Lord’s brother” he is called. He is often called the first bishop of Jerusalem. He was a legalist of the legalists before his conversion, and was not converted until after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the leader of the Jewish party in the church. He was careful not to depart from the old ways until a fuller revelation had come. But God gave to James the special light that was needed for the moment.
“Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” These Pharisaic brethren had the Old Testament and there they read of the day when the Gentiles were going to turn to God and be blessed through Israel in the kingdom reign of the Messiah. James explains that this is not what is going on now. God is now taking out from the Gentiles a people to His name and He used Peter first to go to the Gentiles. That is the work going on at the present time. In other words, God is not converting the world today. What is He doing? He is taking out an elect people from the world and bringing them to a saving knowledge of His blessed Son. “Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” Then he says,
“And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,
After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:
That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentils, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.
Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world” (v. 15-18).
Do you see what he was telling them? He was saying, “I understand, you brethren are perfectly right. The day is coming when God will bless the Gentile world through Israel and they are going to enjoy the kingdom reign of Messiah and will all be united together as one holy, happy people; but that is not what God is doing now! Now He is gathering out the Church of God and when He has finished this special work, that which is spoken of in the prophets will be fulfilled. When this dispensation of grace is completed, when the Lord Jesus comes back again, He will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and will build again the ruins thereof and will set it up. He will then bring Israel as a nation into blessing again. Then all the remnant of the Gentiles will return to God—that is, in the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, James says, God is working His own plan: Israel, His covenant people have been set aside nationally because of their rejection of the Messiah. God is now taking out a people, Jew and Gentile, to constitute the Church of God. When He completes this work, the Lord is coming back the second time. That will be the time of blessing for the whole world. Wars will cease. Then nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; the Lord Jesus Christ shall reign in righteousness over all the Earth and Jew and Gentile will be one happy, redeemed people, glorifying God together.
So James says, “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write unto them (knowing the intense feeling of the Jewish brethren toward certain things tolerated by the Gentiles), that they abstain from pollutions of idols (from which every Christian should abstain), and from fornication, and from things strangled (which in the Jewish mind was very unclean), and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.”
To this they agreed, and the first council of the Church ended in happy unison.
“Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren:
And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia:
Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:
It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (I like that. How these Jewish brethren set their seal of approval upon the faithful ministry of Paul and Barnabas).
We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.
For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost (the Spirit of God had made His mind clear to them), and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;
That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch (back went Paul and Barnabas with these other two brethren with them and delivered the letter and the results were glorious!): and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle:
Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.
And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.
And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles.
Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still.
Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.”
What a wonderful thing it was that the Spirit of God should have so over-ruled where men had such different views, as to bring them all at last to see that salvation is by grace alone, through faith. How we can rejoice today that that precious truth has been preserved through the centuries and that, believing in Him, we can be a part of that great company of the redeemed some day to be manifested as the glorified Church of our Lord!
Meantime, as we wait for His return from heaven, we are to seek to get the Gospel of His grace out to all men everywhere that all may have an opportunity to know of the Saviour and to find in Him life and peace, through faith, altogether apart from meritorious works of any kind.