Hellenists vs. Hebrews
The Jerusalem decree of Acts 15 is perhaps one of the most important moments of the New Testament. But we obviously need to look at the history leading up to it in the book of Acts, and the surrounding cultural environment. The early Jerusalem church was largely comprised of three groups: the born & bred ‘Hebrews’ (those raised in Palestine with deeply Jewish cultural moorings), the Hellenistic Jews (those who had been brought up in Greek thought & culture), and a smaller group of Gentile “God-fearers”. At Pentecost we see all three groups coming to faith in Christ (Acts 2:5).
The predominant group was heavily Hebrew. With the Jewish tendency to look down upon Hellenistic Jews and especially Gentiles as inferior, a great issue was inevitably to be decided. One thing that brought some friction between these different Christian groups was when the widows of the Grecian/Hellenist Christians were being overlooked in the mercy ministry. There was murmuring (Acts 6:1), and from this issue arose the order of deacons (which interestingly were comprised entirely of Hellenistic Jews). This was the first attempt to maintain unity amongst the early Christians; but this “cultural friction” was to come to a head a few years later.
To Circumcise or Not?
Fast forward several years, and you have very successful evangelization of Hellenist Jews of the diaspora (those Jews living outside of Palestine), as well as many Gentile believers, and these were forming the early churches whose names are now so well known (Galatia, Colosse, and some others). The Hebrew faction was zealous to ensure that the Gospel of Christ be not compromised, and the Hellenists & Gentile believers were equally zealous for the purity of the Gospel.
However, a vital question arose: “what must a Gentile do to be a Christian?” Which is itself the larger question: “What is it to be a Christian?” The Hebrew Party, understandably, did not want to see the rich and ancient legacy of the Jewish culture to be lost; the ultimate symbol of that culture being the sign of the Covenant: circumcision. This proved to be a real divisive point as it placed a great hurdle before Hellenistic Jews and especially the God-fearing Gentiles who were coming into the New Covenant of Christ.
So What’ll It Be?
This is what led up to the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. The ruling which James–Jesus’ brother–gives, is quite remarkable. That they believe Jesus was Lord and Christ, were Baptized and thus could eat of the Lord’s Supper was assumed. The real question was would they demand Jewish cultural practice be placed upon the Hellenist and Gentile Christians? Or, would they acknowledge that Christ was Lord over those cultures too, and would sanctify them by His Spirit? Here is James’ summary:
Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. Acts 15:19-20
The Apostles concluded that the Hebrew culture (though the Gospel was deeply seated in Israel’s history and Scriptures, Laws and Prophets) was not to be enforced upon the Hellenists and Gentiles. This meant that baptism, not Hebrew culture as signified and summed up by circumcision, bound believers in covenant to Christ. All this in accordance with the Great Commission (Mat. 28:18-20).
This decree though not disparaging Hebrew culture, summarizes it by drawing out three principle ways in Hebrew law was to bear upon Gentile believers.
- Repudiation of Idolatry – This is obviously a teaching which is thoroughly Christian, and which Christ Himself taught (Lk. 4:8).
- Abstaining from fornication – The pagan/gentile world was notably sexually licentious, and this being in clear opposition to OT sexual laws (Lev. 18:6-18), as well as Christ’s affirmation of those regulations (Mt. 5:27-28), it was needful that sexual fornication was not something envisioned by the Gospel’s liberty. In our modern gender-bending culture, it is important for Christians to note that one of the earliest of Christian decrees doubled down on what God intended for human sexuality: fidelity within monogamy or else abstinence.
- Things strangled and from blood – This prohibition is likely tied up with the cruel practices associated with idolatry.
So, this decree essentially summed up Jewish culture; to put it another way, it decreed that Jewish culture was: worship the One True God in Jesus Christ (i.e. no idolatry), and honor Him with your body (i.e. the no fornication). This is really a reiteration of “Love God and love thy neighbor”.
All this is instructive to us modern believers. Our forefathers of the faith obeyed the Great Commission, and went out to baptize and disciple the nations, and the Jerusalem Council’s decree made it plain that they (at least in part) envisaged the Gospel permeating and then sanctifying ALL cultures. The Hebrew Christians were humble enough “to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things” (Acts 15:28-29); the Gentile believers were expected to respond in love by repudiating the grosser & obscene vestiges of their respective pagan cultures.
We are still under the same Lordship as they, and our commission is no less: go make disciples, teach them to obey, baptize them, and watch the nations stream into the Mountain of our Lord (Is. 2:2).