Acts 15 highlights a critical event in the life of early Christians as the fulfillment of our Lord’s command in Acts 1:8 takes place with the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. The elephant in the proverbial room that must now be addressed by the largely Jewish church is what is to be done with the influx of Gentile (pagan) believers. As had already been addressed in Acts, those from Jerusalem regularly had to verify the gospel spread to those outside of Jerusalem. This happened first as Philip took the gospel to Samaria after the death of Stephen and rising persecution of Christians. In Acts 8:14, Peter and John are sent from Jerusalem to Samaria in order verify the validity of the mass evangelization and end up praying for them to receive the Holy Spirit, subsequently baptizing them. Then, in Acts 10, Peter begins to spread the gospel throughout Judea highlighted by a vision from the Lord commanding him not to call common or unclean what God had created, namely Gentiles. Subsequently Peter is told to find Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, who ultimately believes and is baptized, along with his household. The “apostles and brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God” so Peter travels to Jerusalem in order to explain how God had opened the door of salvation to even the Gentiles. Upon his arrival, he is confronted by the Circumcision Party who criticized him saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” This same Circumcision Party, likely composed primarily of Pharisees, becomes central to the discussion in Acts 15.
Transitioning to Paul, as he begins his itinerant ministry, he begins advancing the gospel into Gentile lands, mostly beginning in their synagogues, but often evangelizing Jews (to a lesser extent), Hellenists, and Gentiles. Seeing the gospel spread to the Gentiles, often enraged the Jews who would persecute Paul, even to the point of attempting to assassinate him. When he returned to Antioch, hearing of the gospel spread, “some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1) After debating them, Paul and Barnabas are sent off to Jerusalem to confront the source of the teaching. All of this sets the context and highlights the temperature of the early church with respect to Gentile inclusion. By requiring circumcision of the Gentiles in order to be saved, the Circumcision Party was on the one hand essentially saying that they must become Jews and on the other hand adding works to their faith.
At what has become known as the Jerusalem Council, Peter is the first to stand up and give a defense of the gospel spread to the Gentiles. His response is below:
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”Acts 15:7-11
After the assembly’s response of silence, Paul and Barnabas interject with their own experiential evidence of how God had opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles and had shown them signs and wonders. Then James, the brother of Jesus, stands up and addresses the gathering. In doing so, he cites Amos 9 and provides instruction on what aspects of the law ought to be followed by the Gentiles.
13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
16 “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’
19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”Acts 15:13-21
James’ response is the final one at the council, not because he held a hierarchical position, but because the apostles and the church had determined the course of action based on the direction of the Holy Spirit. Significant for understanding how the Gentiles were to be included, i.e. should they take the sign of circumcision or not, is James’ citation of Amos 9:11-12. The context of this passage from Amos is a prophecy concerning the judgment of Israel (7:1-9:10) followed by a message of restorative hope (9:11-15). In this prophecy, Amos lays out the doctrine of the remnant of Israel (1 Kings 19:18) so often described among the Old Testament prophets as a testament to the sovereignty and mercy of God, but also to God’s faithfulness in being true to His promises made to Israel. If He keeps His promises to a remnant of Israel, then He has indeed kept his promises. It is this same remnant principle that Paul develops in Romans 9-11. The key element of the remnant in Amos involves the promise that God will, “rebuild the tent of David that has fallen.” By tent of course we aren’t meant to think of a camping tent, rather this is a reference to a house, but again not one of sticks and stones. Instead, this tent/house is a dynasty, and it has in the background God’s promise to David of a dynastic house in 2 Samuel 7:11-16, commonly referred to as the Davidic Covenant. Within that covenant, God promises to raise up David’s offspring, “who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” The reference in this passage, while proximal may have Solomon and the building of a temple in view, it’s distal fulfillment is Christ, the Davidic King and the House or Dynasty that He will build. The dynasty of King Jesus, being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets was to include both Jews and Gentiles into one family. This is made explicitly clear when James cites the passage from Amos with respect to the Gentile inclusion in the gospel of salvation.
Many of those who hold to what has classically been referred to as dispensationalism refuse to see the unity of two peoples, Jew and Gentile, into one people, here referred to as David’s tent or dynasty. Instead, they desire to maintain a distinction between the two peoples, much like those of the early Judaizers or Circumcision Party who placed Jewish priority above even salvation by faith alone. The entire New Testament is a witness to the reality that the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down in Christ and the two have become one by faith. In reading the Old Testament in light of the New, it becomes apparent that God has always had a salvific plan, not exclusive to Jews, rather a plan to extend salvation to the world beginning in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the world.
I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”Genesis 12:3
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”Isaiah 49:6
Soli Deo Gloria!