The Council Chapter

Acts 15

For the next 2 weeks, we will look at some of the most well-known chapters from the New Testament together, seeking to allow these chapters to remind us and teach us how to live as followers of Jesus. 

Have you ever been confused about what you should do? Have you ever disagreed with someone else about what you or they should do?

It’s not a hard scenario to imagine. We likely experience this to greater and lesser degrees everyday. Even as a church right now, we are in the midst of making an important congregational decision and have different ideas, opinion, and beliefs about what should be done. 

Well, not surprisingly, the early church also had to decide how to handle this. They had disagreements about what should be done next, and they were, perhaps, confused about what to do next in some cases. One of the most famous examples of this from the New Testament comes in Acts 15. And the big question is whether you have to first become Jewish (i.e., circumcision for males) in order to be a follower of Jesus and be saved. Some believe yes, others no. And so, they gathered together in Jerusalem to have a conference about it.

Take a moment and read Acts 15 before continuing on.

This chapter actually presents two disagreements and two different outcomes to us.

On the one hand, we see an issue of great significance for the church and the future of the church concerning whether Gentiles must first become Jewish in order to be saved by Jesus. And this is the issue for which most of the chapter is dedicated. The followers of Jesus convene a council to determine what is right, and ultimately the answer is no–a Gentile does not need to first become Jewish (be circumcised) to be saved. Instead, they ask Gentile believers to follow a couple of guidelines to be able to worship together with Jewish men and women. They must: (1) abstain  from food that has been sacrificed to an idol, (2) from blood, (3) from the meat of strangled animals, and (4) from sexual immorality. 

This list may seem odd to us, but essentially, what these instructions boil down to is an issue of how to worship together. For a Jewish person, to eat the meat of an animal that has been sacrificed to an idol would be to participate in the worship of that idol. To participate in sexual immorality is not only sinful, but it may also come in the context of religious idolatry if performed in a temple of a god or goddess. These items in the list are counter to an atmosphere of worship of God. If the Gentiles continue these practices, it will be impossible for Jewish men and women to join them in worship. And so the Jerusalem council encourages these practices to be prohibited for the sake of the entirety of the community being able to worship God.

Now, on the other hand, the chapter ends with a disagreement about who can and should participate in a mission trip. And the disagreement, while not anywhere to the same level of importance as the first issue in the chapter, is still so sharp that Paul and Barnabas decide to go their separate ways. And as I read those final verses, I am baffled and a little bit heartbroken that they could not find a way to come to some kind of understanding. I mean, after all, they did solve the bigger problem! They were able to work through it together and come out with a solution that allowed them to continue ahead as the church! But here, they have to split up, and it all centers on whether someone can go on their missionary journey with them or not. 

At the end of the disagreement, they decide to go their own ways–Barnabas does take John Mark with him, and Paul chooses other companions. And it may seem like they both got their way, but that they ultimately lost.

Except that God is involved. 

Because we know that both of their stories continued. John Mark is credited with having written the Gospel of Mark, which is read thousands of years later as testimony and witness to the life of Jesus! And Paul continues on his missionary journeys, planting churches all over the ancient world, and becoming the first missionary to the Gentiles. He is still held up as the exemplar of mission activity in all of Christian history! 

So, while I am baffled and a little heartbroken that they could not resolve their differences, I am much more encouraged by what God is willing and able to do among us and through us. And as I read these verses and consider what they mean for us today, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if we were always ready and always looking for God to direct us and use us even when we can’t seem to agree on what we should do next. 

I hope that we can cultivate an attitude and heart that is centered on working for God together, even when we aren’t sure what to do or how to do it.