Acts 15 is a critical moment in Luke’s story. The controversy related in this account will plague the church for years to come. The issue is the focal point of Galatians and Romans and Ephesians.
Luke has already told us about the extreme prejudice of the Jerusalem church against anyone not a Jew. Chapter ten reveals a prejudice shared by Peter and the Jerusalem church: if you are not first a Jew, you cannot be a Christian. Christianity is only for Jews. By the end of Acts chapter eleven, you get the impression the matter has been laid to rest, but prejudice dies hard. The church in Antioch has been home to Christians of a variety of backgrounds for several years. Hard-liners from the Jerusalem church arrive in Antioch and lay down the law: If you are not a Jew, you cannot be saved.
Paul and Silas and a number of Christians go to Jerusalem to dispute this matter. The debate is intense. Peter testifies from his own experience that this cannot be so. Paul and Barnabas testify from theirs. But the clincher comes from James, who puts the matter to rest with a quote from Amos 9. In other words, the Lord’s word is the final word.
Acts 15 reveals that the early Church wasn’t any more “perfect” than any church today: pettiness and prejudice, as well as the struggle to control others is perpetual problem. The final word, however, is not that of those in “authority,” nor does it consist of the testimony or experience of the principals. It is, and must be, the word of God. We need not think, however, that this will make all the issues go away, as Paul’s letters attest. Most importantly, because these differences persist, the Apostles do not tell the proponents: “get over it.” Rather, they tell everyone that compromises must be made to show respect for the traditions of others. Our Church today would do well to remember these lessons.