Read Acts 15
The Council at Jerusalem
1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16 “‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’—
18 things known from long ago.
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers
22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them.  35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas
36 Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38 but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39 They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 41 He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
What we see in Acts 15 is the culmination of what has been building over the previous few chapters. In the very beginning, the church was essentially made up of Jews. In Acts 8, we start to see it spread to the Samaritans, who were a mix of Jews and Gentiles. Then, in Acts 10, Peter takes the gospel to an exclusively Gentile crowd. While the church is growing and the gospel is spreading, there is discord within the church and they need to settle the debate on two key issues: Should these new Gentile believers become Jewish (and be circumcised) and are they bound by the Mosaic Law as the Jews had been? Enter the Council of Jerusalem.
While the discussion started with circumcision, the larger conversation at the Council of Jerusalem was one about grace and what is actually required for salvation. Is it a combination of grace and works (i.e. circumcision and upholding the laws of Moses) or is it by grace alone that we’re saved? Peter, standing before the Council in verse 11, explicitly gives us the answer when he says, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved.” This declaration they collectively made is important because it shows us that, if we’re followers of Jesus, we’re under the law of Christ now. We are to love the Lord with our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
It’s easy to drift away from the message of grace and back to feeling like we have to earn our salvation through upholding a checklist of dos and don’ts. In the Old Testament, the law was necessary to show Israel their sinful nature and their need for a savior. Now, we have that savior in Jesus. This message from the Council of Jerusalem is a great reminder for all of us: the gospel is available to everyone because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and now we get to fully live in that truth.
What was the response of the Gentiles to the Council of Jerusalem?
Have you ever found yourself living as if your faith is contingent upon what you do instead of what Jesus has done? What’s the problem with that line of thinking? How can you develop a fuller understanding of grace?
What does it mean for you to live under the law of Christ?
Did You Know?
At the end of this chapter, Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement and end up going their separate ways. Scripture doesn’t tell us the disagreement was sinful in nature. God goes on to bless both of their ministry efforts, and Paul speaks fondly of Barnabas later as he wrote 1 Corinthians (9:6).