Commentary on Acts 15:7-21
Today we have the second and final part of the “Council of Jerusalem”. The issue has been discussed in depth and we now are given the conclusions of the assembly. We will see the implementation of these conclusions in tomorrow’s reading.
It can be said to be divided into three parts: 1, the speech of Peter, head of the apostles; 2, the statement of James, the leader of the Jerusalem church; 3, an ‘encyclical’ letter [the first of many!] sent to the churches, which we will see tomorrow.
First, Peter speaks up. This is significant. One would have expected Paul to do so. But Paul has had his say and presented his case. Peter now speaks, first, as leader of the apostolic college but, secondly, because of his personal experience in this sensitive issue.
It is now for him to make the final decision. He has special credentials for doing so as leader of the apostolic group, the inner core of the Church’s leadership. But he was also the one to whom God had explicitly revealed that the Christian community should be opened to the Gentiles and that many of the ritual obligations of the Jews, such as those involving unclean foods, were no longer relevant. This happened when he had the vision of all the different kinds of animals in chapter 10:9ff. And it was Peter who had played a leading role in the baptism into the community of Cornelius, the first Gentile Christian.
Peter now tells the assembly how God had chosen him to be the instrument for bringing Christ’s message to the Gentiles and how they had received the gift of the Spirit just as the first Christians did. The receiving of the Holy Spirit was always taken as the irrefutable proof of being accepted by God. That was seen clearly in the case of Cornelius and his household. “He made no distinction between them and us,” says Peter.
It is only provoking God’s anger, then, by “placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear”. The ‘yoke’ here is the Mosaic law. “Freedom has set us free,” Paul writes to the Galatians, “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1) Paul has to say this because many Jewish converts were going back to full observance of the Mosaic law.
All that is needed is to “be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus”. Again from Galatians: “A person is justified not by the works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ… No one will be justified by the works of the Law” (Gal 2:15-16). This ‘faith’ is not just an intellectual acceptance but a total commitment of the self to the Way of Christ.
The Jewish way is not, says Peter, a specially privileged one and circumcision, by itself, means nothing. (Of course, for many Jews, if circumcision means total dedication in the service of God, that is quite a different thing.)
The assembly then fell silent after this presentation. Was that because they were overwhelmed by what Peter had said or was it that there had been some barracking from legalists while he spoke? In any case, Barnabas and Paul, on their part, confirmed all that Peter had said by describing their wonderful experience of evangelising the Gentiles and seeing God working so evidently among them. (We may note that here Barnabas’ name comes before that of Paul, perhaps because he had more status in the Jerusalem community.)
We now come to the second part. James, the leader of the Jerusalem community and a relative of Jesus himself, speaks. He clearly represents the Jewish members of the Christian community and so, like Peter, but in a different way, his words carry special weight. He will contradict the demands of some of his fellow-Jews in the community
He endorses the words of Peter, confirming them with a passage from the prophet Amos (9:11-12): “I will rebuild the fallen hut of David…so that all the rest of mankind and all the nations that bear my name may seek out the Lord…” The text is quoted according to the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, and the argument partly depends on variants peculiar to that version. It probably comes from Greek-speaking believers, although here it is ascribed to the leader of the Hebrew Christians.
In view of this statement that God wishes all to belong to him, James goes on to say that no unnecessary burdens should be put on Gentiles who wish to convert.
He does make a few exceptions however and says that a letter should be sent out to this effect. Although they are not bound by the Mosaic law in general – and especially circumcision – he lists four things Gentile Christians should avoid. These are:
1, Pollution from idols
2, Unlawful marriage
3, Meat of strangled animals
1, This forbids the eating of food which had been offered to idols because it might imply some ambivalence about fidelity to one’s Christian beliefs. However, Paul, in writing to the Romans, says this does not bother him personally as he does not believe in those idols anyway. However, he would not eat such food if he was in the presence of a more scrupulous person who might misunderstand his action.
2, Many Gentiles – like many people today – took sexual behaviour rather lightly. Temple worship, too, sometimes involved sexual activities with temple prostitutes, male and female. Apart from the immorality involved, this latter could be a source of scandal.
3 and 4, Jews will only eat the meat of animals from which the blood has been drained and, as we see in the gospel, contact with blood was seen as a form of religious contamination.
This seems to contradict what has been said earlier but it should really be seen as a plea, at this stage in the church’s life, to respect the sensitivities of the more traditional Jewish converts. It is a matter of compromise in non-essentials. (Like agreeing to eating fish on Fridays when with Catholics who cannot bring themselves to change the old ways or not insisting that people take communion in the hand…)
Again, we can learn from this discussion. On the one hand, we have to be careful not to impose on people practices which are not central to our faith and, at the same time, to be willing to bend in areas which are not essential. This is a principle of mutual tolerance which should be observed by both conservatives and progressives alike. St Paul has many wise things to say about this. See especially the Letter to the Romans, chap 14.