The church at Antioch and the church at Jerusalem had close ties. They shared the acquaintances of Barnabas and Paul. When the prophet Agabus had predicted a great famine over all the land, as mentioned in Acts 11, the Antioch brethren took up an offering and sent money to Jerusalem, knowing that poorer region would be afflicted greater than they themselves would be. Charity and kindness are indicators of true Christian love and bind both the giver and receiver together in rejoicing over God's goodness.
You can imagine the distress that a largely Gentile congregation might feel when brothers from a close sister church come and plant doubt of their salvation in their minds. If they were truly lacking in anything they would honestly want to know. Salvation from sin and an acquaintance with God were new and cherished concepts to these Gentile Christians. They wouldn't want to lose it. Paul and Barnabas know the Gentile brethren have complete salvation, but they and others are sent to Jerusalem, the source of the conflict, to clear up the matter.
It is now about twenty years after the church began, and still the church in Jerusalem is made up of mostly Jews. The conversion of Cornelius, and Paul's success with the Gentile nations, had not had much of an impact on the Jerusalem brethren. They had not seen the necessity of thinking through this issue before. It dawns on some of them that with the Gentile population increasing in Christ's church, they--the Jews--will become the minority. Pride and overinflated self-importance get in the way. They want their heritage preserved, and they want it binding on the Gentiles. They think they can justify its binding, since through their heritage Christ came into the world. They want circumcision, according to the Law of Moses, bound on the Gentiles if they wanted to be considered their brethren. They wanted it bound as a requirement for salvation.
The apostles present in Jerusalem along with Paul and Barnabas knew what the outcome was going to be. They had not come together to figure out what they were going to believe or teach. It wasn't up to them to set doctrinal facts. That had already been determined for them by revelation. God made those decisions and informed the apostles through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had already instructed the apostles (through Peter) in this matter at the conversion of Cornelius. The issue was further instructed to Paul as witnessed by his miracles and converting numerous Gentiles throughout Asia Minor and the Syrian region. Therefore they had not come together to figure out what God wanted them to do, they had come together to bring the two churches as a whole into agreement with God's will.
It is interesting to note that although they knew what the answer had to be, they still listened to the Judaizers. (Definition - "Judaizers" were Jews who wanted to bind Mosaic Law on all Christians.) "Men who are in error can never be convinced that they are wrong by denying them freedom of speech. Not until they have been allowed to express themselves to the last word are they capable of listening dispassionately to the other side. The apostles, knowing this, or at least acting on it, permitted the Judaizers in the church to say all they wished to say before any reply from them was made to their position and arguments." (Editor's note: Source of quotation not specified.)
After reading through the account here in Acts 15 of both sides and Peter's remark about "why do you want to put a yoke on these disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?", it reminded me of an older sibling complaining to a parent that the younger sibling didn't have to do something the older one had to do. Something like, "You always made me eat my peas, why aren't you making my little brother do it now?" Which, when translated, means, "Make them suffer as much as I had to suffer."
I don't think these Jews were consciously thinking that way, but after trying to please God under the Mosaical Law, probably this new Christian life just seemed too easy. Surely, the Gentiles should have to do more than Paul was asking them to do.
The Judaizers wanted the restrictions of the Law of Moses, represented most by circumcision, bound on the new Gentile converts. The apostles, with the wisdom imparted them by the Holy Spirit, knew that what was necessary at one point in time was now not necessary. Paul explains that very clearly in Galatians 3:19, "What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come." That Seed being the seed promised to the great patriarch Abraham, through whom all nations would be blessed - which everyone there professing to be a Christian would agree - that Seed was Jesus Christ the Son of God. Paul goes on in Galatians to say that the Mosaic law could not impart life, nor impart righteousness. In verses 23ff, "Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge TO LEAD US TO CHRIST, that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law." We've been freed from that law which no man could perfectly keep. We've been freed and saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus. The shackles are gone, the burden of sin removed. And in its place: (Matthew 11:28) "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." What a contrast! Shackled and imprisoned by law - or the gentleness of Jesus's grace. There's no contest as to which we will choose, is there?
The apostles counsel the Gentile brethren on four points. Abstain from the pollution of idols, from fornication, from what is strangled and from blood. All four of theses were associated with pagan worship. These four things would have been the Gentiles' religious background, and some of them may have had a problem putting these things out of their lives, just as the Jews had a problem putting the Mosaic law out of their lives. The apostles are sending the message to both sides of the argument that the past is irrelevant now.
What's relevant now, now that we are free from the Old Law? Christ's Law--a law that frees us from sin and damnation. It is a law that frees, but it does have its precepts and restrictions. There are two kinds of law in the New Testament.
I hope these new Christians at Antioch didn't have much problem with these new restrictions given to them in this letter mentioned in Acts 15, because instead of looking at Christianity as something that restricts us, it is proper to view Christianity as giving us a freedom to find ways to be helpful to others.
The task now is to stop these Jews from focusing on what the Gentiles did not have to go through - the Law - and get everyone's attention and focus back on Christ and His love. Galatians 5:6, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." Verses 13-14 "Serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: Love your neighbor as yourself."
This won't be the end of the problem either. For a couple of more decades yet, the writers of the New Testament will be battling idolatry and legalistic, law-binding Jews within the church. And today the battle continues. The idols have changed and the laws that men try to bind have changed, but the answer is still the same. Get the mind off of the things and power of the world; stop trying to watch and catch someone else not following laws that we want bound. Instead, let's look forward to Christ's return and be prepared. Let's get our ideas in harmony with God's revealed will. Let's unite behind the one Lord, one faith, one baptism. AND GET OUR MINDS FOCUSED ON CHRIST, HIS GRACE AND HIS LOVE. Let's fill our lives with fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5) - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR