“Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10).
The Church of God was growing and strengthening. It is said in the Holy Scripture that “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Of course, first of all the apostles preached about the coming of the Messiah promised by the prophets for the Hebrews “to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; 5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God” (Romans 9:4-5).
However, not all of them could accept the Good News about salvation. Not all of them managed to believe in the Messiah, who had been crucified on the cross and had died in such a disgraceful way. The crucified Christ became a stumbling block for many righteous Hebrews. “As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame”” (Romans 9:33). After the Hebrews did not accept the word of the apostles, following Christ’s commandment – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20) – they addressed with their preaching to the pagans, and the results of it came rather quickly. Christian communities began to emerge everywhere, and there were more former pagans than Hebrews in them. At the apostolic time people still went to the Temple, and we see that Apostles Peter and John “went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour” (Acts 3:1). In many aspects, the life of the early Christian church was still determined by the Law of Moses and its prescriptions. Immediately the question arose: what about the pagans who believed in Christ? Should they obey the Law of Moses or not? To solve this issue, the apostles and presbyters gathered in Jerusalem.
As Apostle and Evangelist Luke states in his Book of Acts, there was a long negotiation at the apostolic council until Supreme Apostle Peter stood up and addressed the whole council: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth 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. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 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).
The whole council fell silent after Peter’s speech and listened to Apostles Barnabas and Paul who began to tell “how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). After their stories, Apostle James took the floor, who was the head of the council since he was the bishop of the Jerusalem Church. He referred to the speech of Peter and said that the ancient prophets agreed to his words that all the peoples would seek for the Lord, among whom His name would be preached, and thus he judged then “that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but t at we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:19-20).
The Holy Spirit saw that decision fit, as well as all the apostles of Christ and the whole Church did. The apostles decided to chose the men among themselves with Apostles Barnabas and Paul – “men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26) – and send them to Antioch to other Christians who were waiting for the decision of the council.
Along with the first persecutions, the issue of the pagans who had converted to Christianity and their attitude to the Law of Moses, became the first serious trial for the Church of God. Christ’s Church managed to overcome that problem and thus underlined its universal calling and remained loyal to the words of its Divine Head: “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
What St. John Chrysostom says in his works:
Observe Peter from the first standing aloof from the affair, and even to this time judaizing. And yet (says he) ye know. Perhaps those were present who of old found fault with him in the matter of Cornelius, and went in with him (on that occasion): for this reason he brings them forward as witnesses. From old days, he says, did choose among you. What means, Among you? Either, in Palestine, or, you being present. By my mouth. Observe how he shews that it was God speaking by him, and no human utterance. And God, that knouelh the hearts, gave testimony unto them: he refers them to the spiritual testimony: by giving them the Holy Ghost even as unto us. Everywhere he puts the Gentiles upon a thorough equality. And put no difference between us and them, having purified their hearts by faith. From faith alone, he says, they obtained the same gifts. This is also meant as a lesson to those (objectors): this is able to teach even them that faith only is needed, not works nor circumcision. For indeed they do not say all this only by way of apology for the Gentiles, but to teach (the Jewish believers) also to abandon the Law.
Reflections in the Holy Church tradition:
Let us extol those two great luminaries of exceeding radiance, the all-wise Peter and Paul, who have been manifested as the heads of the Disciples, radiating with the fire of the divine Spirit, and burning up the darkness of error, thus attaining worthily their abode in the Kingdom on high, being equal in grace and rank. Wherefore, we cry unto them, saying: O Apostles of Christ God, seek forgiveness of iniquities for those who eagerly celebrate your holy memorial (3rd Kathisma).