The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ among non-Jewish people raised questions of doctrine and procedure that the young church had not encountered when missionary work was done among Jews only. Little more than fifteen years after the death of Christ, problems were encountered that made a top-level resolution necessary. The decisions not only would affect the Church in matters of doctrine but also would have a bearing on missionary procedures and the practice of religion in individual families.
The council was not held in a vacuum, nor was it a mere academic exercise. It was attended by people of strong opinions, religious convictions, traditions, and biases whose lack of agreement made the council necessary. There was, in effect, a crisis forming in the young church, and the moderate, inspired resolution by Church leaders was the best possible response for the time.
The Roots of the Problem
The need for the council was the consequence of doctrinal and cultural factors that had been at work among both Jews and Gentiles for centuries. These influences came together in the growing Church of Jesus Christ. A review of some events covered in the first fifteen chapters of Acts will help us understand the thrust and direction of the early Church and see what led to the Jerusalem Council.
It is recorded in the first chapter of Acts that the resurrected Christ, preparing to ascend into heaven, told the surviving eleven members of the Twelve not to extend their ministry beyond Judea until after they received the Holy Ghost. They would then be empowered to go to Jews, Samaritans, and the "uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8)--among the Gentiles. Matthias, one who had been a witness of Christ's ministry from its beginning, was chosen to fill the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve (see Acts 1:15-26).
The second chapter of Acts records that about one week after the Ascension, at the annual feast of Pentecost, the Holy Ghost descended on the Twelve and they spoke in tongues to people who were present. Thousands of Jews from more than a dozen nations were gathered at Jerusalem for the feast; following the manifestation of the Spirit, three thousand of these visitors were converted to the Lord in one day (see Acts 2:41). It is of particular importance to note that the people who came from all those nations were both "Jews and proselytes" (Acts 2:10). The term proselytes as used in the New Testament always means Gentile converts to Judaism.
Among the three thousand converts to the Church of Jesus Christ on that day of Pentecost, some certainly would have been from among the proselytes--and these would be the first persons of Gentile lineage to join the Church in that dispensation. But note this important fact: even though they were of Gentile lineage, they had all previously converted to Judaism, which means they were circumcised, ate only foods sanctioned by the law of Moses, offered sacrifice, and honored the Sabbath day in proper Jewish style. Religiously, they were Jews, and thus the Church membership remained exclusively of Jewish background. This reflected the instruction of Jesus to the Twelve more than two years earlier, when they were starting on their first missions, not to go among the Gentiles or Samaritans at that time (see Matt. 10:5).
Widening the Boundaries
Chapters three to six of Acts deal with the ministry of the Twelve among the Jews in and around Judea. The Church grew rapidly with Jewish converts, and persecution came from Jewish leaders. Growth brought the need for administrative enlargement in the Church, and seven men were called to assist the Twelve. Among these were some with Gentile-sounding names, such as Stephen, Parmenas, and Nicolas, who is further identified as a proselyte from Antioch (see Acts 6:5). Stephen was subsequently accused by the Jews of having taught that Jesus would destroy Jerusalem and the temple and "change the customs Moses delivered us" (Acts 6:14). (He is the earliest noted in our records to face this latter accusation.) He was brought before the Sanhedrin; his bold testimony, recorded in chapter seven, so angered the Sanhedrin that he was stoned to death.
Chapter eight reports the official establishment of the Church in Samaria. Culturally, this was a half step beyond teaching only the Jews, yet the beliefs of the Samaritans were similar to the traditions of Jewish converts to the Church. A genealogically Israelitish people mixed with other nations, the Samaritans were technically not Jews, but still they practiced the law of Moses.
To the Gentiles
However, the conversion of Cornelius and his family at Caesarea, recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts, was a major step for the new church's missionary system--a full step toward taking the gospel to all the world. A vision (see Acts 10:9-18) taught Peter not only that the Mosaic law's strict prohibition of certain foods was about to end, but also that he and the Church must be ready to accept all those whom God was willing to cleanse.
Cornelius's baptism is the first clear case of a Gentile coming into the Church without having obeyed the requirements of the law of Moses--circumcision, the law of carnal commandments, ceremonial law, and so forth. Many Jewish brethren in the Church objected to this direct membership process and complained to Peter, but he answered their criticism with a recital of his vision and of the workings of the Spirit in the matter (see Acts 11). Despite this divine direction through the Lord's anointed, however, some Jewish members of the Church remained reluctant to accept the change, "preaching the word to none but ... Jews only" (Acts 11:19).
But at Antioch of Syria, a great city about 310 miles north of Jerusalem, there began to be so many Gentiles joining the Church that the Brethren in Jerusalem sent Barnabas there to oversee the growth (see Acts 11:20-26). Barnabas was a good choice diplomatically: a Jew of the tribe of Levi by lineage, reared in Cyprus (a Gentile environment), a convert to the gospel, "a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith" (Acts 11:24; see also Acts 4:36). Seeing the magnitude of Church growth among the Gentiles in Antioch, Barnabas sent for Saul (later known as Paul the Apostle), whom he had long known (see Acts 9:26-27), to come and assist him.
Chapters 13 and 14 of Acts tell of a yearlong missionary journey in which Barnabas and Paul visited Barnabas's home country of Cyprus, and many cities in what is now central Turkey. They preached first to the Jews, then to the proselytes who came to the synagogue, and organized branches and ordained elders in the cities they visited. The Jews who did not believe their teachings opposed their efforts.
Barnabas and Paul taught that the gospel of Jesus Christ is greater than the law of Moses and that the law on its own could save no one (see Acts 13:38-39). Envious Jews, seeing the multitudes who came to listen to the two disciples of Christ, spoke against their teachings. Barnabas and Paul responded: "It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, ... lo, we turn to the Gentiles" (Acts 13:46). There were Gentiles who heard them gladly, "and as many as believed were ordained unto eternal life" (JST, Acts 13:48). Obviously, many Gentiles were baptized directly into the Church without having observed the law of Moses.
Word of the success of Barnabas and Paul reached Jerusalem, and Acts 15:1 records that certain Judean members of the Church who were much concerned went to Antioch on their own, without authorization from the Twelve or any of the presiding Brethren of the Church, and declared to the new Gentile members that "except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved."
This clearly stated the problem: Was obedience to the law of Moses, with all its attendant performances, required for salvation now that Jesus Christ had made the Atonement? While the emphasis in the Jewish members' teachings seems to be on circumcision, that ritual was the token of the covenant that the Lord Jehovah had made with Abraham (see Gen. 17). Both the covenant and the token were to be a heritage for Abraham's posterity in the generations after him (see Gen. 17:9-10). Circumcision identified one as a believer in the true God and in the covenant. This token was continued in the law of Moses. Throughout the book of Acts and the epistles, circumcision is generally used as a one-word representation for the entire law of Moses; hence when the Jewish members of the Church insisted that Gentiles be circumcised, they really meant that the Gentile converts should obey all of the law of Moses.
Barnabas and Paul contended with the visiting brethren from Judea on this important matter involving not simply a point of tradition or custom but a fundamental doctrinal issue regarding the atonement of Jesus Christ. The dissension became so great that it was decided the matter could only be settled by the presiding officers of the Church at Jerusalem. Barnabas, Paul, and others would go to Jerusalem to place the question before Church leaders (see Acts 15:2).
The significance of the question is threefold:
1. Did Jesus Christ by his earthly ministry and atonement fulfill the law of Moses, with its multitudinous ordinances and performances?
2. If so, would converts from non-Israelite peoples still have to obey the law of Moses in order to become baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ?
3. And should Church members, Jew and Gentile, have their children circumcised as a requirement for salvation?
The settlement of these questions would have profound effect on how members regarded Christ's mission. It would also affect the missionary procedures of the Church and the religious behavior and practices of every family in the Church with regard to their children for generations.
The Council Convenes
When Barnabas and Paul arrived in Jerusalem to see the Brethren, they were respectfully received and had opportunity to give account of their success among the Gentiles. However, there were in Jerusalem many Jewish members who had been Pharisees before their conversion to Jesus Christ; many of these would not give up their adherence to the law, insisting that "it was needful to circumcise [the Gentiles], and to command them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). Therefore, "the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter" (Acts 15:6).
After much disputation among the council members, Peter rose to speak of the role God had assigned him in missionary work: "that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe" (Acts 15:7). He reminded the congregation that the conversion of the Gentiles was the work of God and that God "put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9). He also declared that both "we" and "they" would be saved "through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 15:11). This is an affirmation that without God's grace, none of our works are sufficient to save us.
Following Peter's testimony, the multitude in the council listened as Barnabas and Paul told of the "miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them" (Acts 15:12).
After these things were heard, the Apostle James, who may have conducted the meeting under Peter's direction, offered a type of official pronouncement: The Gentiles who wished to come into the Church ought to face only the necessary requirements of being morally pure and of refraining from idol worship or from eating blood (see Acts 15:13-21; Gen. 9:4). The law of Moses was not specifically mentioned by James and is conspicuously absent from the requirements he voiced.
An Epistle to the Saints
Barnabas and Paul were assigned to return to Antioch, accompanied by Barsabas and Silas, "chief men among the brethren" (Acts 15:22), to report the decision of the council. The Brethren in Jerusalem also prepared an epistle to the Saints in Antioch and the surrounding area. The epistle concludes by conveying the council's decision in these words:
"For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;
"That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well" (Acts 15:28-29).
Acts 15:30-31 reports that when the epistle was read to Saints assembled at Antioch, "they rejoiced for the consolation."
While this account in Acts is brief, we learn some additional details about the Jerusalem Council from Paul's later epistle to the Galatians. We learn, for example, that when Paul went up to Jerusalem, he conferred privately with the Brethren to make certain they were in agreement with what he and Barnabas had done in receiving the Gentiles, "lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain" (Gal. 2:2).
Another important fact we learn from this Galatian epistle is that Paul and Barnabas took Titus, a young Gentile convert, with them to Jerusalem. Paul apparently saw in Titus living evidence that an uncircumcised Greek could be a model of faith and virtue, strong in the Spirit; in him, Jewish members might see an example of the grace of God given to the Gentiles without the encumbrance of the law of Moses. Apparently Paul was successful in his purpose, for he declared, "But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised" (Gal. 2:3).
The Decision's Limited Scope
As forward-reaching and beneficial as the decision was by the Jerusalem Council, it was limited in its scope. The council did not decisively declare an end to the law of Moses, though it did settle the matter so far as the Gentiles were concerned. Furthermore, the council's epistle was not addressed to all members of the Church--only to the Gentile members in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. And it should be noted that the council did not say the Gentiles could not or must not practice the law of Moses--only that they need not do so for salvation.
Why would the Brethren be so ambiguous and noncommittal? They seemed to have said as little as they could about the matter. Was it that they wanted to avoid a division in the Church and did not want to alienate the strict Jewish members? Did they not want to invite persecution from Jews outside the Church? James seemed to have had this in mind when, after announcing the moderate decision of the council, he said, "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day" (Acts 15:21).
By wording the decision the way they did, the Brethren probably avoided a schism in the Church, and no doubt also avoided the ire that would have come from the Jews had the decision been more unyielding. There must have been many who would have preferred a stronger declaration, but the Brethren acted in the wisdom requisite for their situation--not out of mere political or diplomatic expediency, but judiciously, surely acting under the guidance of the Spirit, which the Lord had promised would guide his disciples aright (see John 16:13).
Revelation's Light on Tradition
The moderate decision of the council made possible continuing accommodation of some members' traditions without compromise on essential doctrinal points.
Ten years later, as Paul returned to Jerusalem at the end of his third mission among the Gentiles of Greece and Turkey (Galatia and Asia), the Brethren rejoiced with him at his great successes. But they cautioned him against preaching strong doctrine about the law of Moses in Jerusalem. They said:
"Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law:
"And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs" (Acts 21:20-21).
Because some of these believers would inevitably come to hear Paul preach, the Brethren advised him that before this happened he should make his own public observance of the law; "and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law" (Acts 21:24). Paul followed their advice.
There is no doubt that Peter and the other Brethren knew that the law of Moses was fulfilled. (Latter-day revelation also makes it plain that the law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ; see, for example, 3 Ne. 15:4-5--the Savior's comments to others who had been practicing the law--as well as Moro. 8:8 and D&C 74.) Obedience to the law of Moses was no longer a requirement for salvation since Jesus had completed his atonement. Missionary work among the Gentile nations could go forth directly and without impediment. Yet still there was that conflict between the doctrine of the Church and Jewish culture. The long-standing cultural tradition persisted among many Jewish members for years, even after the doctrinal question was settled.
In like manner today, there may be questions on which the doctrinal foundation is clear but on which tradition or custom are so strong that the Brethren are impressed not to take a firmer stand, trusting, as did Church leaders in New Testament times, that if the basic revealed principles are known, the Holy Ghost will eventually lead the adherents to forsake their tradition, or academic popularity, or peer pressure in favor of the word of God.
The resolution of the problem reported in the book of Acts gives our present generation an informative model as to how both Church members and those of different faiths may react when revelation confronts tradition and long-standing custom. Only living prophets could correctly handle the situation then. Only living prophets can do so in our day.