The Jerusalem Council
The Jerusalem Council took place in Acts 15, and as the first and only infallible council, the truth proclaimed in it is surely very important to us, and would have bearings on how we are to properly interpret the epistle to the Galatians, and in fact, as we shall see, the Gospel.
But 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.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 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. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 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? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“‘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, 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 known from of old.’
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 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. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15: 1-29)
To analyze this passage, it may be helpful to look at various aspects of it.
Occasion for the council
The occasion for the council can be seen in verses 1-2, in which certain men from Judea, purportedly from the Jerusalem church, came to Syria Antioch and began to teach a certain doctrine — that salvation is impossible unless the believers adopt the sign of the Old Covenant ie circumcision. Such a sign is to be administered according to the Old Covenant, because it is stated as being "according to the custom of Moses", which is to say what those Judean teachers desire is not merely the 'surgical' cutting of the foreskin, but it being done as a sacramental sign of the Old Covenant. It must definitely be remembered that these teachers came from a Judaist background, being orthodox Jews, and therefore they most certainly know the letter of the Law reasonably well, having being "forced" to memorize the Torah from young.
Such a teaching causes dissension and debate between these teachers on the one side and the apostle Paul and Barnabas on the other side. And the disputation was rather heated, so much so that the church at Syrian Antioch who were disturbed by these Judean teachers decided to send representatives to the Church at Jerusalem to enquire of this issue; to the apostles who are the foundation stones of the church (Eph. 2:20).
Appeal to the Council
As it was mentioned earlier, representatives were sent to the Church of Jerusalem from the Church at Syrian Antioch. However, does this mean that it was an appeal from one church to a "mother church" so that there is precedent for a centralized system of government or Episcopal polity? No, for the appeal was made to "the apostle and elders", while the church body was mentioned in verse 12 and verse 22 as being present while the issue was being hammered out. The appeal terefore was to the apostles mainly, and the elders in the Church of Jerusalem who rule and teach the church in conjunction with the apostles. Further proof that a church-to- church appeal isn't what Scripture is describing nor teaching can be seen in Paul's attitude in this particular episode, which we shall see below.
Paul the Apostle and the Council
Paul, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, certainly had the authority of an Apostle, and he could always use that authority to proclaim authoritative teachings of Scripture, which he in fact did when he wrote his various epistles especially the teaching epistles (ie Romans, Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians). As an Apostle, he could always pronounce the infallible truth and judgment on these Judean teachers who were disturbing the Antioch Church (like he did in various epistles he wrote), yet he didn't do so in this particular instance.
Various theories are advanced as to why Paul did not do so, of which being subject to a church council being one of them. Yet such a theory is not viable in light of the fact that verse 3 recounts how he continues to share the conversion stories of Gentiles along their way to Jerusalem, which certainly means that in his mind his mind was made up on the truth regarding the conversion of the Gentiles. We must remember that the Judaist opponent of Paul declared the Antiocheans unsaved unless they partake of the Old Covenant sign of circumcision, so the context is of the salvation of Gentiles who most assuredly do not possess the sign of the Old Covenant. Yet Paul proclaims along his way to Jerusalem the ... salvation of the Gentiles, which would be strange since there is no prior indication that the Council will judge in Paul's favor and if not, then Paul's recounting of the Gentiles' salvation would be strange and outrightly premature.
If Paul was not subjecting himself and his doctrine to the Council, then why would he seemingly subject himself to the judgment of the Council? Or can it be that Paul confidently knew that the Council would definitely judge in his favor? Yet even if so, why? One reason was certainly due to the fact that the Judaists came from Judea, so Paul may have come to the source to solve the problem that seems to be coming from the Jerusalem Church. Another thing was to propel the church to consolidate the position of the Church on this particular pertinent topic — the Gospel message. As we will see in our study of Galatians, Paul's passion was for the Gospel and this issue was one area in which Paul was determined that the Church be strong in.
With regards to the issue of the judgment of the Council, since the apostles are led by Christ, there shouldn't be any conflict between their beliefs as Christ leads them in the Truth, so therefore Paul could be certain about them judging in his favor in the final analysis, which they in fact did.
Subject matter of the Council
On the surface, the Council convened to judge with regards to the issue of circumcision and keeping of the law of Moses. It may thus be thought that the issue is with regards to the rituals of Judaism and whether Gentiles needed to become Jews before becoming Christians. N.T. Wright for example treats this as an ethno-centric issue, boosted probably because the works under question were quintessentially Judaist. However, is that truly what the issue merely is, one purely of ethno-centrism, of Covenantal inclusion and exclusion?
As it has been said, a surface reading of the text surely supports this reading as a valid interpretation of the issue before us. For surely, verse 8 does in fact teach that God gave the same Spirit to them as He did to us, says Peter. Verse 9 similarly proclaims that now there is "no distinction between us and them", and that now there is one way — faith — by which all men can be saved, available to both Jews and Gentiles. Similarly, verses 11, and 14-18 proclaims the common position now for both Jews and Gentiles before the Cross.
Now, most certainly, ethnocentrism is a symptom of the problems. In point of fact, Wright's point is correct in that ethnocentrism is a problem, but his diagnosis doesn't go deeper, and thus is in error because it neglects the weightier issues at hand, which is what we would be looking at, in verse 10.
Verse 10 in my opinion is the weak spot for the New Perspective's position on the issue raised in the Jerusalem Council. At the same time, it shows us the heart of the issue of the Law also. In verse 10, we read that the placing of the Law was a yoke which neither the Jews then as like the Apostles nor their forefathers were able to bear. If the practicing of these things was not bearable even for the most orthodox of Jews (cf Phil. 3:5-6), then surely these things were never meant to be practiced with an eye to be saved in any way or shape reformed. Even the talk about Covenantal inclusion/ exclusion fails here, for unless the practicing of the Law was meant to be one big show of hypocrisy like what the Pharisees are often accused of, how can one even begin to talk about obedience to the Law especially prior to the coming of Christ? Notice here that the ability or lack thereof is the issue at hand, not the motive to attempt to obey, as if they meant anything at all in God's sight. After all, judgment by works require truly acceptable works before God, and good motives will not suffice (cf Rom. 2:6-10)
To further confound New Perspectivism, verse 11 follows immediately on the heels of verse 10. On its own, verse 11 may seem to support New Perspectivism, but when placed in context with verse 10, the 'support' vanishes. For in verse 11, the object is God's grace which saves us, and that grace is contrasted (by the word 'But') with the inability of the yoke of the Law which is unable to save since they cannot be kept by any Jew anyway. Such a contrast immediately posits a sharp distinction between Law and Gospel, and confirms that the issue at hand is salvation or soteriology and not merely covenantal inclusion. For if Jewish believers were not saved by the Law but also by grace, whereas previously they were not saved in their law-keeping either, then this Covenant in the New Testament seems to be a new covenant starting with a null set, of which entry into the Covenant was not by law-keeping or obedience or anything else but through the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, and of which before the Cross this Covenant does not yet exist in time.
So with all this said, it can be seen that the issue before hand is indeed the Gospel message; the message of salvation. Is salvation one of grace through faith, or is one of obedience of the Law by fidelity to the Old Covenant rites and rituals?
Judgment of the Council
As it has been hinted previously, the Apostle Peter in verse 10 proclaims the insufficiency of the Law in saving even the Jews who could not keep them. Nevertheless, the Jewish believers were still very much enmeshed in their traditions and only by much sharing of God's miraculous work among the Gentiles, thus showing forth God's approval in reaching Gentiles as Gentiles, were they finally convinced. The council then proclaims judgment in favor of Paul's position, with a few rules meant to eliminate unnecessary tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians such as abstaining from food offered to idols, strangled food and food with blood, which evidently were practices particularly offensive to Jews
Implications of the Council
The verdict in favor of Paul has important implications for the Gospel. For now the Gospel is emphatically stated to be one of grace apart from observance of the Mosaic Law and especially the rites and rituals of the Old Covenant. The split between the blind adherents to the Old Covenant and those who embrace the New Covenant was beginning and the resulting controversy clarifies to us more with regards to the Gospel, as we shall see as we look to the book of Galatians, written many years after the controversy began in Syrian Antioch.
[to be continued]
 John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (IVP, England, 2008), p. 22-23, 133, 147-161.