Acts 15:6-21 The First General Assembly Of A Church In Transition.
The meeting at Jerusalem was the first General Assembly of the new church. It was a time of transition on many fronts. Luke informs us that “the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter” of whether circumcision was required for new Gentile converts (v. 6). So there was both a transition of leadership, and also a transition from the old covenant to the new. This is the one and only general meeting we are made aware of that involved both the apostles and elders. The apostles were transitional leaders, once the work of transition was completed, including the completion of the new covenant revelation, their office would cease. It was evidently important that this matter be settled in their presence, as a part of this transition. To this end it was Peter who rose to begin the discussion, as one who was uniquely confronted by God and called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles that they might believe, something which he had originally objected to doing (v. 7 Cf. Acts 10).
Their conversion was evidenced by the giving of the Holy Spirit to them, as it had been for Peter and those present (v. 8). By so doing He showed that He had purified their hearts by faith (v. 9). We should note this well, they did not purify their own hearts as a condition of acceptance, but rather the Holy Spirit sovereignly purified their hearts by faith, that is, their faith was given to them as a gift, a faith which was placed in the only one who could purify their hearts. God indeed knew their hearts! In that event of the giving of the Holy Spirit, Peter also insisted on the Gentiles receiving what was then the sign of the new covenant administration-baptism (Cf. 10:44-48). As Luke recorded earlier, “those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (v. 45). There were therefore plenty of witnesses present for this transition which was taking place.
Peter makes the point that the very act of circumcision had become an expression of works righteousness, because this is what Jesus had also pointed out (v. 10). Those of their fathers at that time performed even that which was commanded under the old covenant, in order to be seen (Mt. 23:5). For this reason they had bound the people with a burden neither they nor their disciples could bear (v. 4). This is what Jesus meant when He said that there were things, such as circumcision, which they commanded to be observed, because at that time the LORD had still commanded to be observed, but not according to the works righteousness of their teachers. This is also why Peter makes the point that even though they, that is the believing members under the old covenant, were circumcised, it was only that which was to be observed as the old covenant sign of the one covenant of grace, for he believed that “through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they” (v. 11).
This appears to have been enough for those gathered there to be silent so Paul and Barnabas could speak. So at this very meeting, Peter who was considered to be the apostle to the Jews, spoke in favour of what the Lord was doing through Barnabas and Paul with the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas then explained how the same apostolic signs had accompanied their ministry as had accompanied the other apostles (v. 12 Cf. 14:27; 15:3-4). This further bore witness to the God ordained transition that was taking place. It then came to James, who in support of the preceding testimonials, affirmed the fulfillment of the prophetic witness, that God was in fact taking from among the Gentiles “a people for His name” (vv. 13-15, 7). This is that time which Amos referred to as David’s tent being rebuilt after it had “fallen down” (v. 16), “so that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the LORD who does all these things” (v. 17 Cf. Amos 9:11-12).
So James, in reference to the fulfillment of Amos’ prophecy, also shows how the taking of a people was the sovereign work of God, in giving faith, and thus making the calling Amos spoke of effectual. Furthermore, God did not just foreknow these things because He is all-knowing, He foreknew these things because He alone predestined them. “Known to God from eternity are all His works” (v. 18). All of this proof, from multiple witnesses, was enough for James to say that he judged that they should no longer trouble the Gentiles with the requirement of circumcision (v. 19). However, just because there was this obvious change from the old covenant to the new, and hence of covenantal signs and administration, the Gentiles should nevertheless not suppose that they were free from all the law. Some things had changed, but the law remained. So James suggested that they write a judgment from the General Assembly that they “abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood” (v. 20).
Those things specifically mentioned by James were not the only things they were to abstain from, as they were not the sum and total of what James was referring to. James very clearly affirmed all the law as it had come from Moses. “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (v. 21 Cf. 13:15, 27). This again shows how they were very much still in a time of transition. In quoting both the prophets and Moses, James was affirming the validity of the entire old testament, and in particular with regard to Moses, the continuing validity of the law. James emphasized the points which he did because these were of particular concern for the Gentiles given the backgrounds which they came from. Idolatry and sexual morality were still forbidden, and according to James, the other prohibitions of Leviticus (v. 20 Cf. 3:17; 17:10-14; 19:26; Acts 21:25; I Cor. 6:9; 8:1; 10:20, 28).*
* “James finds support in the Scriptures and the testimonies of Simon Peter, Barnabas, and Paul that God wants the Gentiles to be free from the ceremonial law and the demands of the Judaizers. The Jewish Christians are to recognize that Gentiles are not to be bound by Jewish ceremonial law. The Gentile believers must consider the scruples of Jewish Christians and not offend them by eating food sacrificed to idols, or eating the meat of strangled animals (Lev. 17:10-14; 19:26).” (NGSB p. 1738)