The church in Jerusalem, AD 50.
The apostles and the elders were gathering in Jerusalem to discuss a recent controversy. Some men from Judea (were they from the Jerusalem church?) were teaching the church in Antioch (which was made up by believing Jews and non-Jews) that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15.1) Unless the non-Jews believers were circumcised, they couldn’t be in the equal standing with the believing Jews in the people of God. To be in the Messiah must start by being in Moses. Was not Moses before the Messiah? And, of course, Paul and Barnabas, who were in Antioch at the time, disagreed vehemently against the teaching. So they were appointed with some others from the church in Antioch to go to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.
And the gathering began. Certainly Luke didn’t record everything that happened during the meeting. If he did, the meeting would only take place around 30 minutes or so. Of course, on the other hand, we didn’t know how long the meeting took in overall, but certainly much more than how much Luke recorded. Because, he wrote, “there had been much debate.” (15.7)
Afterwards, Peter spoke, arguing that God “made no distinction between us [believing Jews] and them [believing non-Jews], having cleansed their hearts by faith.” (15.9) The mark of the people of God is not the mark of circumcision, but the mark of faith which is sealed by the Holy Spirit (15.8).
Then Barnabas and Paul spoke, and they argued from their experience working among the Gentiles. This is important, since the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem might only work with the Jews most of the time, while Barnabas and Paul had had a lot of experience working among the Gentiles, and they had seen how God worked “signs and wonders” among the Gentiles. This is a lesson of non-imperialistic mission: we must have willingness to listen to other parties which differ from us and not just imposing our beliefs and opinions over them.
Finally, James, the brother of Jesus, spoke, and he concluded with recommendations on what the church in Jerusalem should inform the church in Antioch regarding this matter, on what will be a general policy on the non-Jews when they believed in the Messiah of the Jew.
Well, Peter and James were regarded as the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Both of them (with John the son of Zebedee) were called by Paul to be the “pillars” of the church (Gal 2.9). So their voices naturally also had more authority within the church in Jerusalem.
The voice of Barnabas and Paul was also important, because they offered an experiential perspective about this issue. Again, the church in Jerusalem could theorize a lot of things about how things should be done in the Gentile churches, but, unless they had seen by themselves how God worked among the Gentiles as equally as he worked among the Jews, their voice became mute and must be listened with a pinch of salt. Not that Barnabas and Paul must be right, either, but that certainly they deserved to be heard. To be immersed in the tradition for so long doesn’t mean you are always right. Actually it means that you must be ready to criticize all your presuppositions if it were needed.
And the gathering came up with a resolution (which, interestingly, was slightly different in order and wordings if it were compared to the recommendation of James), that the believing non-Jews were not to be burdened further beyond these requirements:
“that you abstain from
what has been sacrificed to idols,
and from blood,
and from what has been strangled,
and from sexual immorality.” (15.29)
And not only that. They also sent Judas and Silas (why two persons? because two persons are the minimal requirement for trustworthy witness) along with Barnabas and Paul back to the church of Antioch to “tell you the same things by word of mouth.” Since, you know, oral testimony of the eyewitnesses (assuming Judas and Silas attended the meeting) was more trusted than written documents (echoing Bauckham in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). They were the living voices.
And so they went to Antioch. They delivered the letter and read it. And the church in Antioch “rejoiced because of its encouragement.” (15.31) But Judas and Silas, who were sent by the Jerusalem church, didn’t stop there. They also “encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.” (15.32) Did they explain further what happen in Jerusalem so that the church in Antioch could understand better the whole context of the document? Perhaps. So, only “after they had spent some time” there, they were sent back to Jerusalem “in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them.” (15.33)
Finally, what about Paul and Barnabas, then? Well, they remained over there, continued teaching and preaching the word of the Lord in Antioch (15.34), which might involve as well explicating further the implication of the gathering in Jerusalem.
Problem solved. And they lived happily ever after.
Question: What can we learn from this gathering in Jerusalem if we relate it to the upcoming (notoriously long and tedious) NTU-ISCF Annual General Meeting on Saturday? I will let you to answer that by yourselves. Discuss.
Credits: The Brick Testament for the images.