We know that the Jerusalem Council was convened as a result of the heated debate in Antioch by Barnabas and Paul with the men from James (Acts 15:1). I hardly believe that a few Sunday school teachers (like me) could create such a controversy in our denomination of Christianity, just because we disagree with our pastor or the pastor of another body of believers in our denomination. However, if several leading men in my denomination had a disagreement with other leading men, such a conference would inevitably occur to avert a schism within our denomination. Would this be a logical conclusion? If so, shouldn’t we see the men from James as high ranking men at the Jerusalem church as well?
When Barnabas and Paul arrived at Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church (Acts 15:4). How many of the body of believers were there to welcome them is not said, but we can safely assume the church’s rank and file at Jerusalem gave them a warm welcome. Luke also tells us that Barnabas and Paul were welcomed by the elders and the Apostles there as well. I think it is a little odd that Luke should phrase the welcome separately like this, unless there is good reason, and I think there is.
The final phrase of Acts 15:4 shows that Barnabas and Paul “declared all things that God had done with them.” How should we understand this? Does Luke mean for us to understand what God had done through Barnabas and Paul, or are we to understand that these things were “declared” privately before them—i.e. the elders and the Apostles (Acts 15:4; cp. Galatians 2:2). I believe there is just cause for us to take Luke’s words in Acts 15:4 to indicate a private meeting with the Apostles, Peter and John (cp. Galatians 2:9) and the elders of the Jerusalem body of believers.
Notice that Luke shows Barnabas and Paul declaring what God had done in their ministry in two places. First, they rehearsed the work God had done before a group of brethren in Acts 15:4, and then they rehearse everything once more in Acts 15:12, but this time we know it is before the whole body of believers at Jerusalem. Why would Barnabas and Paul rehearse what God had done in Galatia twice before the same crowd? It is more logically taken that Barnabas and Paul reviewed what God had done before two different bodies at Jerusalem, namely they conferred first with the Apostles and elders in verse-4 privately, just as Paul tells us in his letter. So the them in Acts 15:4 isn’t to be taken for Barnabas and Paul, but for the Apostles and elders who were welcoming them privately.
It was very important that the Apostles and elders understood what Barnabas and Paul did in Galatia and why forcing circumcision upon the gentiles would make the Law our mediator before God rather than Jesus. I think many of us don’t take into consideration that Jesus called the Apostles to be his witnesses, not theologians. Anyone, no matter what his education can declare to others what he witnessed. I don’t mean to play down the office of the Twelve, but I believe it is safe to assume that Paul was the educated rabbi and the Twelve were not. He was able to discern all the shades of meaning used in the behavior and doctrine of the men from James at Antioch. Peter, though no doubt pricked in his spirit that what they were doing was wrong, didn’t check himself but was unaware what effect his own behavior had upon both the Jewish and gentile believers in the church at Antioch. So a private caucus was necessary, otherwise, Barnabas and Paul would never be able to get a fair hearing before the whole body of believers, which included a part of the Pharisaical sect that ‘believed’; and these would be more than happy to correct the omission of the Law in the Gospel preached to the gentiles (Acts 15:5).
Therefore, after their conference with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, Barnabas and Paul met with a very vocal opposition in the believing Pharisees (Acts 15:5), but after a fair exchange between those that were of the circumcision (cp. Acts 11:2) and the delegates from Antioch, Peter stood up and reminded everyone what occurred in Caesarea in the home of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. If God placed no difference between Jew and gentile by falling upon those gentiles in the same manner as was done with Jews in Acts 2, how could anyone speak against what God does? If those folks were uncircumcised when they received the Holy Spirit, how could keeping the Law give them greater favor before God? This seems to be Peter’s argument.
Notice one more very surprising matter in Peter’s speech. It seems ten years previous and continuing the Jerusalem church must have discussed the Cornelius incident with great intensity and care. What God did was not expected; he surprised the Jewish believers. They may have been concerned how the gentile brethren should fit in, for no doubt rumors of Paul’s success in Cilicia must have reached them, and when gentiles in Antioch received Christ, the Apostles and elders at Jerusalem knew it was inevitable that table-fellowship between gentile and Jew was quickly approaching and concerns needed to be worked out. When God received all the gentiles in Cornelius’ home the way he did—without circumcision, without baptism, without the Law—the Apostles and elders knew God had made it clear that these things were not necessary for salvation. According the conclusion at the end of Peter’s speech at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:11, the fact that God received the gentiles as he did in Caesarea taught the Jewish brethren the true nature of their own relationship with God.
Afterward, the church body were in a more receptive frame of mind and listened attentively to Barnabas and Paul, as they declared what God had done through them in Galatia (Acts 15:12). When they finished, James gave his ruling on the matter, and it was decided to compose letters for the affected churches (Acts 15:13-21), but I’ll speak more about these things later. The main two points in this post are, first, that it is illogical to presume Barnabas and Paul would have twice declared what God had done to the same body of people. Their first declaration in Acts 15:4 occurred during a private caucus before the church leaders, just as Paul tells us in Galatians 2:2. Secondly, Peter’s surprising statement that God’s reception of the gentiles at the home of Cornelius about ten years previous to the Jerusalem Council had taught the Jewish believers the true nature of their own salvation.