Previously, the young church had had to face attacks from the enemy, such as when the apostles were beaten for talking about Jesus, or when Stephen was murdered because he loved Jesus and wouldn’t stop sharing with others that Jesus was the Messiah. Then, even greater trials came as Herod had the apostle James murdered and sought to do the same thing to Peter, only for the Lord to send an angel to free Peter and save the church from sorrow upon sorrow. However, in all these attacks and trials, even though the church suffered and was hurt, at the same time it overcame and grew – certain of the love of the Lord Jesus and knowing that nothing could happen to them that was outside His control.
Since that time, Paul and Barnabas had been sent out from a church at Antioch in Syria and had travelled to quite a few places to tell Jews and Gentiles about Jesus, establishing churches in places where there had never been any before. Although, as we know, there had also been a lot of opposition from those who refused to believe their message about Jesus.
But then, perhaps one of the greatest threats to the church arose and found itself the focus of attention for that church in Antioch of Syria. Because, into the church, which was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers, came Jewish teachers from Jerusalem with a message that caused a great deal of pain and confusion. They taught that a person wasn’t really saved unless, in addition to believing in Jesus, they were also circumcised and obeyed the Jewish law given to Moses. In other words, they were saying that believing in Jesus wasn’t enough for the Gentiles - that they needed to become Jews as well.
Needless to say, this caused a lot of pain and suffering for the believers in Antioch who had always thought that they were saved simply by believing the message about Jesus dying in their place on the Cross and that His death was enough to save them from the punishment they deserved for the sin and failure in their lives. These Jewish teachers were in sharp disagreement with Paul and Barnabas who did not accept what they were saying and argued strongly against them. It was a situation that couldn’t carry on and needed to be urgently resolved. So, wisely, the leaders of the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas, along with a number of other people, to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders of the church there to get the issue resolved once and for all!
As they travelled to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas met with the various churches along the way and encouraged them by telling them all about the things the Lord had done during their missionary journey, and that Gentiles, too, were believing their message. When the churches heard their news, they were all filled with great joy.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the whole church, including the apostles and elders, and they were able to spend some time telling them about what had happened on their missionary journey. This raised the question about what was required by Gentiles in order to be saved. So, the same issue that had been raised in Antioch was now being raised in the church in Jerusalem, as some believers who were also Pharisees stood up and said, ‘These Gentile converts need to be circumcised and told to obey the teachings of Moses,’ which, of course, Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed with!
So, the leaders of the church gathered to discuss the issue in some depth! It was a long discussion but, at the end of it, the leaders came back to the church to deliver their findings.
Peter was the first to speak and started by reminding the gathered church that, some time ago (probably 10 years or so earlier), God had chosen him to be the person through whom the gospel would be preached to the Gentiles. This happened when Peter went to see the Roman soldier, Cornelius, who had been given a vision of an angel telling him to send for Peter, so that Peter could deliver this important message to them. Then, Peter reminded the church that God had confirmed He’d accepted those Gentiles by giving them the exact same sign as He’d given to the Jews when they’d believed. That sign was the baptism of the Holy Spirit and their ability to speak in languages they’d never previously learned! He pointed out that God hadn’t made ANY distinction between those Gentiles and the Jews. God had accepted them, and made them clean based solely on their belief.
Then Peter asked a rhetorical question, which is a question that doesn’t actually need an answer because the answer’s obvious. He asked, ‘Why are we challenging God by trying to put the same heavy burdens onto the Gentiles’ shoulders that neither we nor our ancestors could bear?’ He finished off by stating clearly, ‘We believe that we are all saved in exactly the same way, by the underserved mercy and love of the Lord Jesus!’
That in itself was fairly compelling but, after Peter had finished, Paul and Barnabas told the whole church about all the amazing signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
Lastly, James stood up as the senior elder of the church in Jerusalem. This wasn’t James the brother of John, as he’d been murdered by Herod some time ago. Instead, this was James the son of Mary and Joseph, and so a sort of brother to Jesus.
‘Everyone, listen to me,’ he began. ‘Peter has told you all about the very first time God reached out to save the Gentiles and to take from them a people for Himself.’
These words would have meant a great deal to the Jews listening to James, as the Jewish Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament, often use the words, ‘to take from them a people for Himself,’ to refer to the calling of the Jewish people to their special relationship with God. So, the fact that James was using it for Gentiles was very significant.
But then James went on to explain further, quoting prophecies from the Old Testament that looked forward to that very time – a time when Gentiles would join the Jews together as people belonging to God. He quoted a passage from the book of Amos that firstly talked about God rebuilding His house, which they understood to have taken place when God raised Jesus from the dead. The passage then goes on to talk about all humanity coming to the Lord, including Gentiles! And not Gentiles who had become Jews, but Gentiles who had always been Gentiles, but who would still become His people.
‘So, it is my conviction that we should not make it more difficult for these Gentiles who are turning to God,’ James continued. ‘Instead, I suggest that we write a letter to them to help them know the things that they should avoid, so that fellowship between Jews and Gentiles can continue in the church.’ James understood that some of the things Gentiles did might be problematic for Jews and so made suggestions about what to avoid so that nothing could hinder the fellowship in the church. These things were: avoiding meat that had been offered as a sacrifice to idols, which Jews would find unacceptable to eat; avoiding the kind of relationships that the Scriptures advise against, as found in the book of Leviticus, which he summarised as ‘avoiding sexual immorality’; and lastly, not eating the meat from animals that had been strangled or eating blood, which Jews would find difficult to deal with.
At this, the church decided to write the letter that James had suggested and also, maybe because they wanted to show their complete support for Paul and Barnabas, they decided to send a couple of important elders with the letter, to help Paul and Barnabas explain it to the church in Antioch.
This is what the letter said:
‘This letter is from the apostles and elders, your brothers in Jerusalem. It is written to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. Greetings!
We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but we did not send them! So, we decided, having come to complete agreement, to send you official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are sending Judas and Silas to confirm what we have decided concerning your question.
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements. You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.’
Without delay, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch in Syria with the letter and delegation, and the whole church there was called together so that they could hear what the letter said and hear from Judas and Silas.
The arrival of the letter and the confirmation it brought that there was nothing more needed for salvation than to believe in Jesus the Saviour brought great joy to the church.
Judas and Silas talked at length and, being prophets, they encouraged the church, strengthening their faith. Then, after having stayed a while in Antioch, they eventually returned to Jerusalem with the blessing of peace from the church in Antioch. Meanwhile, Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch and, along with a great many other people, continued to teach and preach about Jesus there.