But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. — Acts 15:5-6
A “fork in the road” is a metaphor for a deciding moment in life or history when a major choice of options is required. In researching the origin of that phrase, I discovered that folk wisdom suggests the metaphor comes from an ancient Russian tale. In it, a knight on horseback approached a point where the road split. He saw an inscription: “If you ride to the left, you will lose your horse; if you ride to the right, you will lose your head.” Perhaps that was not a difficult decision to make, but it certainly was a potentially life-altering one!
The American poet Robert Frost mused upon this idea in his well-known poem “The Road Not Taken.” It begins, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .” and concludes with the author stating that his choice “has made all the difference.” That is a life principle, isn’t it? Decisions have consequences. At times, one small turning point determines the outcome.
We find an example of a major fork in the road of Christian history in today’s text. The leaders of the Early Church faced the question of whether Gentile believers had to be obedient to the requirements of the Mosaic Law — specifically the rite of circumcision — in order to be saved. Paul and his followers insisted that a person was justified by faith alone, while most of the converted Pharisees asserted God would not set aside the Law in receiving a Gentile believer. While the Pharisees could not deny that Gentiles had been genuinely converted through the preaching of Peter, they found it difficult to relinquish their long-held tradition of gaining favor with God through the keeping of the Law.
How different the course of Christian history might have been if the council at Jerusalem had yielded to pressure and chosen the path of insistence upon conformity to the Law’s requirements! Christianity could have been limited to a sect within Judaism, the emerging Church could have been back under bondage to the Law, and the expansion of the Gospel could have been impeded or carried out through another avenue. Instead, the Spirit-led decision — and one foretold in the prophecies of the Old Testament — allowed the Church to grow unhindered by the cultural differences between the Jews and Gentiles, and to fulfill its God-ordained mission of expansion into the whole world.
There is a lesson here for us. When we come to a “fork in the road” in our personal lives, we too may be influenced initially by personal convictions. But like the elders at Jerusalem, we must seek divine guidance. We should look to Scripture for directing principles and the confirmation of God’s Word, while whole-heartedly submitting to God’s will. In addition, we may need to seek the counsel of godly Christian friends and leaders. We want to be certain that God is directing us! While our personal decisions may not impact the course of Christian history, they may well determine our eternal destiny.
Today’s text describes the first session of the Early Church held by the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem (often called the Jerusalem Council), which probably occurred about A.D. 50. The decision made by James and the church elders at this session is one of the most crucial determinations recorded in the Book of Acts.
In the infancy of the Early Church, most of those who converted to Christianity were Jews who had already been circumcised according to Old Testament Law. However, as the groups of Gentile believers at Antioch, throughout Galatia, and in other areas grew, it became imperative that a decision be made regarding whether Gentile Christians should be required to follow Jewish Law, as some insisted.
Verses 1-5 record that after Paul and Barnabas disputed with those who felt circumcision was necessary, the determination was made to bring the matter before the Apostles and elders at Jerusalem. This is evidence that while the Early Church was still in its infancy, the groups of believers in various locations operated under the direction of church officials. The fact that when conflicts arose in a local assembly, the church authorities in Jerusalem settled the matter, also indicates that there was a hierarchy of authority within the church.
Verses 6-12 relate that Peter, Paul, and Barnabas reminded those present at the meeting that God had accepted the Gentiles based on their faith alone, rather than adherence to Jewish Law. Peter reiterated that God had confirmed the authenticity of the Gentiles’ conversion by “giving them the Holy Ghost” (verse 8). He cites this as evidence that God had previously purified their hearts by faith (verse 9), thus substantiating not only the baptism of the Holy Ghost, but also the doctrine of entire sanctification.
The Apostle James was the brother of Jesus and moderator at the council, as well as pastor of the church at Jerusalem. In verses 13-21, he was the one to declare the conclusion that only believing in Christ is necessary for salvation. He rooted his declaration in Scripture by referencing “the prophets” and citing the words of Amos who foretold that God’s intention was to call all of mankind to Himself (see Amos 9:11-12).
Verses 22-35 relate that James’ declaration was supported by “the apostles and elders, with the whole church,” their unanimity bearing witness that the conclusion was Spirit-inspired. The only restrictions placed on the Gentiles was abstinence from certain idolatrous practices that broke the Law of Moses and were also specifically applicable to “strangers” dwelling with them. The decision was confirmed by a letter that was taken by a delegation to the Gentile believers, which brought great joy to the believers at Antioch.
(Hannah's Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
IV. The witness “unto the uttermost part of the earth”
B. The Jerusalem Council (15:1-35)
1. The dissension (15:1-5)
2. The discussion (15:6-21)
a. Peter’s testimony (15:6-11)
b. Paul and Barnabas’ testimony (15:12)
c. James’ judgment (15:13-21)
3. The decision (15:22-35)
a. The letter to Antioch (15:22-30)
b. The ministry to Antioch (15:31-35)
When we face a major fork in the road, looking to God for guidance is the only sure way to make the right decision.