The Jerusalem Council
 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.  So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.  When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.  But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.  And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, 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.  And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,  and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.  Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.  After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me.  Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.  And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
 “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
 that the remnant 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.’
 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,  but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.  For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers
 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers,  with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.  Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions,  it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,  men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.  For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than 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. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
 So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.  And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.  And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.  And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them.  But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.
Paul and Barnabas Separate
 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”  Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark.  But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.  And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus,  but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.  And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (ESV)
- Debating doctrine
Some people assume that doctrinal debates are useless or even harmful. Yet in this text, we see the importance of coming together to consider what the Bible says and working to pursue doctrinal accuracy and clarity. This is not at odds with peace. Rather, it is through doctrinal clarity that peace is cultivated, extended, and protected.
- Moses and the mission of the Church
The issue of circumcision comes up over and over again throughout Acts. In many ways, it is the doctrinal debate of the 1st century Church. Must Gentiles who come to faith in Jesus also become Jews by adopting Jewish practices such as circumcision? Or, is faith in Jesus sufficient to save? The Jerusalem council is a key moment in Acts and the life of the early Church. As a result of the council, three decisions were made. First, faith in Jesus is sufficient to save and circumcision is not necessary. That is a Gospel issue. Second, the Gentile believers should respect their Jewish friends by not eating meat sacrificed to idols. That is a love issue. Third, Gentile believers were to avoid sexual immorality. That is a moral issue. Through this decree, the council clarified what was necessary for salvation, how peace could be protected among the Jewish and Gentile believers, and reaffirmed the Old Testament sexual ethic as binding for all believers.
- Disagreement among key leaders
Disagreement among key church leaders is not common, but it does happen. And when it does, this text almost always comes up. This debate, unlike the Jerusalem council, was not doctrinal nor was it binding for others. This disagreement between Paul and Barnabas was personal and pragmatic. Barnabas wanted to take Mark on the next journey. Paul did not. In the end, they went their separate ways, each doing important mission work.
- How do you feel about doctrinal debates? Do you tend to have an unhealthy aversion or attraction to them? Why do they matter?
- In many ways, the Jerusalem council’s goal was to maintain doctrinal clarity and practical unity within the Church. How are doctrine and unity related to one another?
- To maintain unity, the Gentile converts were asked not to eat certain foods for the sake of their Jewish brothers. This was not a forever binding decision, but a temporary way to protect the unity of the early Church. What preferences have you had to give up to protect the unity of the Church? How can preferences destroy the unity of the Church?
Call to Worship
My Soul Waits for the Lord
A Song of Ascents.
 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
 O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
 But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.
 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
 my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
 And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities. (ESV)
Prayer of Confession
Holy and merciful God, in Your presence, we confess our sinfulness, our shortcomings, and our offenses against You. You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from Your ways, in wasting Your gifts, in forgetting Your love. Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we are ashamed and sorry for all we have done to displease You. Forgive our sins, and help us to live in Your light, and walk in Your ways, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
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