Here we have the first ever Church council. Church history records seven within the first couple of centuries, but this is the only one which is actually part of Scripture. The later ones were important: They helped clarify what the Bible tells us about the nature of Christ and the Trinity. But they don’t have the same authority as this one does.
So what was the question at hand? Simply put, what must a person do to be saved?
What started it all was some false teachers who came into the church and started teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Now to be fair, there was some honest confusion on this point. Once again, this was a time of transition. We were transitioning out of the Law into the Gospel, and from a total focus on the Jews to a worldwide Church where there’s no difference between Jew and Gentile. It would be understandable for some people to be confused.
So we clarified it. The apostles and other leaders of the Church sat down and discussed the issue. They received testimony from three major parties.
First we got testimony from Peter. He was the first one to actively share the Good News with Gentiles back in chapter 10 (Cornelius and his house). He didn’t even finish his sermon before the entire household believed in Christ and God publicly put his stamp of approval on what was happening by performing a “Pentecost-lite” right there and then.
Second they heard Barnabas and Paul relate how the Lord was working through them to bring multitudes of Gentiles into faith in Christ. Just to make it clear that this was from God, the Lord was verifying what was happening through various signs and miracles.
Finally we hear from the chairman of the Council. Quite a change from when he didn’t even believe in his brother as the Messiah! He stood up and presented the official consensus that Gentiles are saved by faith in Jesus. No ceremony is required, nor are they required to follow the Law of Moses. The only thing they asked of the Gentile converts is that they abstain from food associated with idol worship, sexual immorality, from blood and from meat from strangled animals. The reason they asked this is clearly laid out in vs. 21: In considerate sensitivity to their Jewish brothers, the council asked them to avoid public activities which would be most offensive to the Jews. This is not a requirement for salvation, but just an issue of sensitivity to fellow believers who came from a different background.
I wish I could tell you that this was the end of the controversy, but you know I’d be lying. Paul fought for the rest of his ministry against legalists who wanted to add something to the Good News of Jesus. The entire book of Galatians (probably his first epistle) is a refutation of this nonsense.
And it continues to this day. There are plenty of churches which call themselves Christian but don’t present the simple Good News of Christ. There are churches that teach that you need to be baptized for salvation. There are others that teach that unless you’re a member of their church, you’re not saved. Or they hold that unless you take the Eucharist regularly, you’re not saved. Why? Why is this so hard to get? It’s not as if Paul isn’t clear enough.
Simply put, it’s human nature. There’s something inside us that rebels against the Good News. It can’t be that simple. There has to be something more than simply putting your trust in Christ. It actually offends our pride to think there’s absolutely nothing--zip zero nada--we can do to be saved. It's offensive to my sense of self righteousness to hear that when I come to Christ, I bring nothing to the transaction but my sin and my need.
That’s the key, isn’t it? Every other religion in the world tells us we need to do something in order to be right with God. The Good News of Jesus tells us done.
In this world, it’s pretty unpopular to say that not all religions are the same. It’s not politically correct to say that the details of how to be saved are really that important. But this is something for which Paul was willing to lay down his life. I’m sorry, but this is something on which we can’t negotiate.
Once again, if this is a point of confusion to you, if you're not absolutely sure that if you died today you'd be in Heaven, then please please please read this.
Lord Jesus, there’s nothing I can do to be made right with you. There’s nothing I could ever do to take away my sin or add to what you did on the Cross. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your Cross I cling. Please give me the strength to stand for what’s right.