The Jerusalem Letter
Open Your Bible
Acts 15:1-35, Romans 2:17-24, Galatians 5:1
BY Jen Yokel
I couldn’t tell you the date or anything else about it, but I know this: I was six years old when I first acknowledged a desire to follow Jesus. I’m not sure any first grader would know entirely what she was getting herself into, but I prayed a prayer and was baptized one morning at my small Christian school.
That was over thirty years ago. I’ve been trying to figure out the way of Jesus ever since.
Becoming a Christian isn’t a one time prayer experience that fills our brains with knowledge and our hearts with constant joy. It’s an ongoing process of learning and unlearning, wrestling and seeking our way toward greater freedom. When we look all the way back to the beginning of the church, we see the very first Jesus-followers having the same experience. The Twelve walked and talked with Jesus, then worked to share His story and build His Church. As people from an array of non-Jewish cultures joined the fold, new believers had to contend with a huge question: “What must we do to be saved?”
When a particularly confusing debate arose in Antioch over the need for Gentile believers to adopt Jewish traditions, the apostles and elders gathered in Jerusalem to work it out. The Jerusalem Council was a time to debate and search Scripture, all in an effort to discern the true essentials of following Jesus. I love how Peter expresses the heart of God in his speech to the council: “He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:9–10).
In a diverse, growing community, Peter stands up for the newcomers who don’t have the insider knowledge of Jewish culture. Bringing all nations into the family is what Jesus commissioned them to do, after all. Paul and Barnabas back it up with exciting stories from their missionary travels. James advocates for a simple way, because “we should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God” (v.19).
Doesn’t this feel freeing? Following Jesus was never meant to be burdensome, and it’s certainly not meant to erase the incredible diversity of the kingdom. It’s a narrow way, true, but a narrow way marked by freedom (Galatians 5:1).
The result of this conversation was the Jerusalem Letter, a loving message to Gentile believers, written to ease their confusion and give clear direction. It was clearly what they needed to hear, because, “when they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement” (Acts 15:31). Not only that, the council sent leaders to these churches to offer them presence and guidance. There is always more to learn and room to grow, but, thank God, we don’t have to do it alone.