In Acts 15, we have the elders, apostles, missionaries, prophets, and the Holy Spirit coming together to decide if the Gentile Christians were to keep the Old Covenant Law and circumcision. Most Christians teach that the Old Covenant was abolished at the cross. If this is true, then why was the conference needed? Why not just say that Jesus taught us a more excellent way and be done with it? Or the Old Testament scriptures about a new covenant? The conference deals only with Gentile Christians and not Jewish Christians. The rules that were decided on by all -- "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and us" -- were directed only to the Gentile Christians. Why not the Jewish Christians?
I find it amazing that one of the earliest problems in the Church were people trying to get Christians to follow the Old Testament. Though the issue was answered by God, people are still arguing 2,000 years later. And you wonder why the Christians met to discuss the issue in Acts 15?
Though the New Testament was revealed in a relatively short time span, it still took about 50 years to record the new covenant. We read the results and wonder why people didn't know all that we know, but at the time Acts 15 took place, it wasn't necessarily true that once could flip over to Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, or Hebrews to quote that God said on the matter. If you look just a few chapters earlier in Acts 10 and 11 people were shocked at that time Gentiles could become Christians with becoming Jews first. They even had a meeting, recorded in Acts 11, to discuss whether it was proper. Yet today, we merely have to go to Galatians to see that this was what God intended.
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
Acts 11 helps us to understand Acts 15. What we find in Jerusalem is an element who refused to see what God was doing.
"Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, "You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!"" (Acts 11:1-3).
After Peter explained all that happened including that the Holy Spirit had given the Gentiles gifts, the opposition collapsed. "When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, 'Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life'" (Acts 11:18).
But it doesn't mean all of them gave up. These opponents, Judaizing teachers, took their doctrine to other countries. "And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question" (Acts 15:1-2). You'll find a lot of people misunderstanding the purpose of Paul and Barnabas' trip to Jerusalem. They were not going to decide whether the Old Covenant was still in effect or not. Nor did they go to find out if Gentiles needed to become Jews in order to be saved. The question had already been answered in Acts 10 and 11. Paul and Barnabas already knew it was false doctrine -- that is why they opposed it.
The problem is that they had people coming from Judea teaching false doctrine. The fact that they came from Jerusalem where many of the apostles and the earliest Christians lived gave weight to their words. What the brethren did was send men to Jerusalem to determine whether the church in Jerusalem supported this false teaching or not.
It didn't take long for these men to root out the problem. "And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, 'It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses'" (Acts 15:4-5). The contention is that God expects the Gentiles to become Jews. So the matter was examined.
Why didn't they just ask a prophet to settle the matter? I can think of several reasons:
- God generally expects His people to use the minds that He gave them. Examples abound where God expected people to use their heads: Moses and the water from the rock, Saul and the killing of the Amalekites, Job's trial, etc.
- It sets an example for us. A disagreement arises and the people examined the evidence to see what God expected. We see a procedure that can be replicated for handling disagreements today.
- The fact that it didn't take a miracle to come to the right conclusion shows us that we can handle problems today even without the miraculous gifts of the first century.
"Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. And when there had been much dispute, ..." (Acts 15:6-7).
The fact that there was much dispute tells us that both sides presented their case. This wasn't a shutout. It isn't that people didn't consider the reasons for requiring people to follow the Old Testament. What led everyone to conclude against these Judaizing teachers were the following points:
- Peter recounted that Gentiles had already been shown to be acceptable to God without following the Old Testament. He noted that the Jews commonly found the Old Law to be a burden hard to follow (Acts 15:10). He also pointed out that there aren't two sets of rules for salvation. "But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they" (Acts 15:11). This answers your contention of why the Jewish brethren weren't considered. The answer is that they were.
- Paul and Barnabas testified that miracles continue to be done among the Gentiles, even though they aren't following the Old Law, thus demonstrating God's approval.
- Finally, James cites the Old Testament to show that God planned to save Gentiles as Gentiles -- not as Jews.
The conclusion is that the Old Testament is not binding. They sent out an open letter to make sure people know that they did not authorize the false teaching. "Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, "You must be circumcised and keep the law" --to whom we gave no such commandment" (Acts 15:24). Take careful note of this. They aren't saying that they changed their mind. They said they never taught this and never asked anyone else to teach this doctrine. In essence, the Judaizing teachers in Jerusalem failed to convince the church in Jerusalem that they should change their teaching. The evidence from God was solidly against these false teachers. This isn't a new doctrine. No new rules were created -- as men, they wouldn't have had the authority to make such rules anyway. This is the current doctrine being reiterated and reinforced; this is why they mentioned that the letter had the support of the Holy Spirit.
The letter was sent to the Gentile churches because this is where the false teachers were spreading their ideas. The letter took a huge notch out of the false teachers' position. They can't claim that the church in Jerusalem believes as they do. Jerusalem made sure everyone knew that they don't teach Christians to keep the law of Moses.
The result was that everyone was relieved to learn that they didn't have discord among the churches. "When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement" (Acts 15:31). This was the answer they were hoping to hear but had feared might not be the case in Jerusalem.