“Known to God from eternity are all His works.” Acts 15:18
After Jesus’ ascension back into heaven, many members of the early Christian church unfortunately continued following the Law of Moses while worshipping pagan idols. Self-appointed false teachers throughout Israel fully embraced these practices, causing countless people to stumble in their newfound faith. The apostles had their hands full.
To make things more challenging, the news of God’s new covenant of grace—that it was not just for Jews anymore but also for Gentiles—did not always go over very well. The false teachers especially took offense.
In Acts 15, a few of these teachers confronted the apostles directly, demanding that everyone adhere to Mosaic Law. To settle the matter, the apostles and elders convened a formal meeting in Jerusalem, from which they declared a decree that forever changed Christianity into what we know today.
Rewind to Acts 10
The apostles (Jesus’ twelve disciples) logically knew Jesus’ grace is for all. They had seen Jesus forgive sins and heal many people, both Jew and Gentile alike. But the reality of equal grace did not sink in immediately. It was not until the Holy Spirit commanded Peter to go to a Gentile’s house to preach the gospel almost twenty years after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1) that their eyes opened.
Acts 10 tells of an angel visiting a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Verse two says Cornelius was “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household” and “prayed to God always.” According to the angel, the time had come for his household to hear the gospel, so he commanded Cornelius to send a group of messengers to the apostle Peter.
While the messengers were en route to Peter’s house, the Holy Spirit gave Peter a dream. The dream was of a large sheet containing all the animals that were forbidden to be eaten as Moses’ Law dictates. God then tells Peter to rise, kill, and eat the animals. Peter protests, saying, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” But God responds by saying three times, “What God has cleansed you must not call common (v10-15).”
This moment is when God first permitted all people to eat whatever they want without any dietary restrictions, including pork, ostrich, certain birds, and much more (Learn more about what this encounter means here: The Part Where God Says It’s Okay to Eat Bacon).
Much more than dietary changes, God was reminding Peter of a far more critical principle: Everything God has ever or will ever create is not “common” or “unclean.” Everything He has touched and breathed into life is perfect. They are special and wholly welcome in God’s kingdom.
In other words, God’s grace and the promise of heaven are available to anyone who desires it. He does not restrict it to only Jews. The old covenant of the Law is officially gone, and now we live under a new covenant of grace, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, His death, and resurrection.
Peter’s Eyes Open
As for Peter, it took some time for him to understand the dream. While he was trying to figure it out, Cornelius’ messengers arrived, asking Peter to return to the centurion’s home with them. Though they were Gentiles, Peter agreed to go out of obedience to the Holy Spirit (v19-20).
But after he arrived at the house, things got a little uncomfortable.
Cornelius met Peter outside the house, as was customary. He then invited Peter to go inside the house and meet his family. It wasn’t until Peter walked through the front door that he fully understood what the divine dream was about.
It is important to understand that Jews never entered a Gentile house. Never. That would be “unclean” and completely taboo. For Peter to be standing inside this centurion’s home must surely have been quite unsettling for a man who followed the Law faithfully all his life.
As he stood there, Peter reminded the family that what he was doing was entirely unheard of, essentially saying, “You’re all a bunch of sinners, and I’m not supposed to be here.” But then, he remembered the dream and realized these “sinners” were just like him, that Jesus died just as much for them as He did for Peter and the disciples. The realization caused him to humbly confess, “But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean (v28).”
With his apology accepted, Peter began to preach the gospel. While he was talking, the Holy Spirit “fell upon those who heard the word (v44),” and they all spoke in tongues and praised God. Peter then commanded them to be baptized.
Acts 10 is the first recorded time in the Bible where a Gentile had come to Christ under the covenant of grace. It is also the first time any of Christ’s disciples acknowledged and believed that anyone could receive salvation and the Holy Spirit regardless of who they are. It was an extraordinarily pivotal moment not only in Peter’s life but also in the early church.
Fast forward to Acts 15, where disagreements over the idea that Gentiles can be saved were quickly coming to a head.
Acts 15: The Apostles Convene
After false teachers of the Law confronted the apostle Paul and his partner Barnabas in Antioch, the two missionaries decided to go back to Jerusalem and speak to the apostles about it. Upon their arrival, they were confronted again, this time by the Pharisees, who said,
“It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)
The confrontation with the Pharisees compelled Paul and Barnabas to call all the apostles and elders together in what has become known as the Jerusalem Council.
It is unknown how much time had passed between Peter’s visit to Cornelius’ house and when the apostles convened. But scholars generally agree that both events occurred approximately twenty years after Jesus’ ascension.
This point is important. Twenty years had passed, and the apostles and other disciples still believed and taught that salvation was only for the Jews. They were all still living under the old covenant of Law. That is until the Holy Spirit spoke to Peter in Acts 10.
The time had come for the church to change.
Not surprisingly, it was Peter who first spoke up at the meeting in Acts 15. He gave one of the strongest defenses of salvation by grace through faith alone found anywhere in Scripture.
“Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth (at Cornelius’ house) the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So, God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith…But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” (Acts 15:7-11, my addition)
The Bible records the crowd became silent. Paul and Barnabas then declared the miracles they had seen among the Gentiles during their missionary journeys. James responds by quoting a prophecy from the book of Amos.
“After this, I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down. I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up so that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the LORD who does all these things.” (Amos 9:11-12; Acts 15:16-17)
The prophet Amos’ prophecy indicates salvation for Gentiles is not contrary to God’s will nor His plan for Israel. And James makes the point that Amos never says anything about Gentiles needing to convert to Judaism to receive salvation.
The prophecy, fulfilled during Peter’s experience at Cornelius’ house, indicates there is no longer a need for anyone to convert to Judaism first to receive God’s gift of grace. His mercy is accessible to anyone who asks for it.
The Gentiles Rejoice
In Acts 15, the apostles agreed not to bother the Gentiles who were turning to God. Instead, they wrote a letter now known as the Jerusalem Decree (Acts 15:23-29).
The apostles first sent the letter to the Christian Gentiles in Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas first had their heated encounter with false teachers. It was kept short and to the point, instructing them to abstain from the evil the false teachers were promoting, such as idol worship (including eating the meat offered to idols), sexual immorality, and the Law’s dietary restrictions. Further, they pointed out that circumcision was no longer required.
The Gentiles rejoiced over the news. They no longer had to keep the Law to receive salvation. Now and forever, salvation is received simply by faith in Jesus alone and believing He is the promised Messiah who died and rose again for our sins.
Saved By Faith, Not Works
It took twenty years, but Peter and the apostles finally figured out that salvation truly is for anyone who believes in Jesus. No matter who you are, where you come from, or what you have done, Jesus invites you to accept His gift of grace. His mercy is available to everyone. All you must do is ask for it, and He will gladly give it to you.
It is imperative to understand we no longer must adhere to the guidelines of the Law. It is not sufficient to ensure salvation due to its performance criteria (Romans 3:23). We cannot achieve our salvation through our works, good or otherwise. Simply put, we cannot do it on our own. Only God can save us.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9
Have you accepted God’s gift of grace? You do not have to do anything except believe that He is the true Son of God, the promised Messiah who died on a cross for our sins and rose again to conquer death forever.
If you’re ready to receive forgiveness, He’s lovingly waiting for you.