In Acts’ eleventh chapter, after Peter has visited a Gentile named Cornelius, having joined him in his house and eating there, he was questioned. “When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, saying, ‘You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.’” (11:2-3) As a bit of a side note, this should remind us of the centrality of the meal table for the earliest of Christians. After Peter explains all that happened, “they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.’” (11:18b)
The fifteenth chapter of Acts, which is often headlined as “The Jerusalem Council,” is predicated on the Gentile question. The chapter opens with “Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” (15:1) This took place in Antioch, which was a major center of the church. “When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement” (15:2). We go on to learn that “When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the elders, and they reported all the things God had done with them. But some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed,” in Jesus, and therefore were part of the church, “stood up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses.’” (15:4-5) Effectively, this circumcision and observance of the law of Moses, which would be an adherence to the marks of the covenant as evidence of inclusion in the people of God, would make these Gentiles into Jews.
Peter would stand and declare that “some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the Gospel and believe” (15:7b). We remember that the use of “gospel” was not to be disconnected from its use by Rome and by Caesar, as announcements about Caesar, particularly in connection with his cult and his worship, were said to be “gospel.” It was a term with which all the people of the empire would have been familiar, so the announcement of a “gospel” was not a novelty. The novelty was that it was being used in reference to Jesus and His kingdom---the new, true King of a new, true kingdom.
With that in our minds, as it would have been in the minds of his hearers and in the minds of those that would later hear Luke’s account of the church (Acts), Peter continues, saying “God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us, and He made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith” (15:8). This “faith” was the confession of Jesus’ lordship, as demonstrated by the close of his statement, which was “we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way we are” (15:11). This was remarkable, in that Peter, as a Jew, was devaluing the marks of the covenant, elevating faith in Jesus, which could only come about by the gracious act of the Holy Spirit (who would believe that a man that was crucified by the Romans was the resurrected Messiah and Lord of all?), as the means by which a person, be it Jew or Gentile, enters in upon the covenant that God first made with Abraham. The point being made, and it is the point upon which Paul would seize with great tenacity, was that Gentiles were to be accepted into the covenant as Gentiles, and that the covenant was being extended to Gentiles, rather than still being limited to those who were Jews by birth or who had become Jews via Judaizing (by circumcision and adoption of the covenant markers).
As a result of Peter’s plea, it is from James, grasping the movement of God’s Spirit, along with a Scriptural and historical justification for that movement, that we then hear “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has explained how God first concerned Himself to select from among the Gentiles a people for His name. The words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David; I will rebuild its ruins and restore it, so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord, namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be My own, says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.’” (15:13b-18) Remarkably, it is determined that the tent of David is to include the Gentiles (resonances of Isaiah 54:2---make your tent larger???), and that this has always been the plan of the covenant-making-and-keeping Creator God of Israel.
In Acts thirteen, we find Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch. Paul speaks to “Men of Israel, and… Gentiles who fear God” (13:16b). During the course of his speech, as he quickly recounts the story of God’s covenanting with humanity, he goes on to say “Brothers, descendants of Abraham’s family, and those Gentiles among you who fear God, the message of this salvation has been sent to us” (13:26). He goes on to punctuate the remainder of his message with words of family unity, speaking of “the good news about the promise to our ancestors” (13:32b), and “to us, their children” (13:33b), climaxing with “Therefore let it be known to you, brothers, that through this one forgiveness of sins,” which is the language of exodus experience and covenant inclusion, “is proclaimed to you, and by this one everyone who believes is justified from everything from which the law of Moses could not justify you” (13:38-39). Here, we need to be cognizant of the possibility that “the law of Moses” stands in for “works of the law,” which were the covenant markers that were to be practiced as the identifying, justifying marks for those who were under covenant.
Thus, through recollection of these scenes as recorded in the book of Acts (which, though the stories would have been shared, were not available in written and standardized form to the churches of the day), we are provided with a glimpse into the struggle. There were doubts. There were prejudices and ancient biases. There was a fear that the status gains of one group (Gentile Christians) were coming at the expense of another (Jewish Christians). In an honor and shame culture, in which honor was a limited good (one only gained honor at the expense of another’s honor), this is more than understandable. There were church-wide conflicts. There were intra-church (as congregation) conflicts. There was a lack of unity on a number of issues, both within bodies and across the body. There were stances taken by one church that would not be taken by another church. Indeed, a review of the New Testament letters informs us that each congregation dealt with different problems at different times and in different ways.