Putting Peter in His Place: Learning Evangelistic Theology and Practice from the Jerusalem Council

October 24, 2011

Any occasion on which all the top leaders of the early church would have gathered to decide a vital doctrinal matter would obviously have been a crucial event in church history. Acts 15 provides us with the only inspired record of such a gathering, the Jerusalem Council. The record of this event in Acts 15, therefore, provides information that must vitally inform our theology and practice.

Petrine, Not Pauline, Priority in the Record of the Jerusalem Council

In that record, Luke relates that false teaching from some men concerning Gentile salvation (15:1) elicited vigorous responses from Paul and Barnabas (15:2a). As a result, the brethren decided that Paul and Barnabas and certain other men should go to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders to address this vital matter (15:2).

The apostles and elders’ meeting with Paul and Barnabas about this issue resulted in “much disputing” (15:6-7a). In response to these developments, Peter (15:7b-11), Paul and Barnabas (15:12), and finally James (15:13-21) addressed the gathered believers.

The inspired record of the deliberations of the Council thus reveals that the Holy Spirit directed Luke to record at varying length the contribution that each of these early church leaders made in settling the issue. Whereas the records of the ministries of Peter and James comprise multiple verses (5 verses and 9 verses, respectively), only one verse records the contribution of Paul and Barnabas.

Moreover, Luke relates another important difference among the testimonies borne by these church leaders. Whereas the recorded speeches by Peter and James both refer to the same specific evangelistic encounter involving Peter (15:7, 14), the record of the testimony borne by Barnabas and Paul refers generically to what God had done among the Gentiles through them.

The order in which these leaders addressed the Council is also significant. First, Peter spoke, followed by Paul. Having heard both of these leading apostles address the Council, James then appears to have weighed in decisively to settle the issue at hand.

James had both Peter’s testimony to the Council and Paul’s testimony to it to draw from in making his decisive remarks. We are not told that he referenced what God did through Paul in saving Gentiles; instead, he specified Peter’s ministry in Caesarea as the evangelistic encounter with Gentiles that provided the definitive evidence of how God had saved Gentiles without their being circumcised or being directed to keep the Mosaic Law.

These observations show that although the crucial issue of how Gentiles were to be saved was decided by ministry from all these church leaders, the record conveys not Pauline priority in these proceedings but Petrine. Our theology and practice must account for this fact properly.

The Jerusalem Council and A Proper Evangelistic Theology and Practice

Several important applications of the Petrine priority seen in the record of the Jerusalem Council inform us about a proper evangelistic theology and practice.

Acts 10 is a more important record of apostolic evangelism than Acts 13

First, the NT records at length two major evangelistic encounters each of both Peter (Acts 2, 10) and Paul (Acts 13, 17). Of these encounters, Paul’s ministry at Athens (Acts 17) took place after the Council and therefore does not pertain directly to the proceedings of the Council.

Acts 15 records explicitly that Peter’s ministry at Caesarea was vitally referenced at the Council, but it does not provide any explicit record that Paul’s ministry at Antioch of Pisidia played an important role in the decision making process of the Council. Thus, the inspired record of the Jerusalem Council teaches us that we should not hold that Acts 13 is a more important record of Gentile evangelism than Acts 10 simply because the former concerns the ministry of Paul and the latter concerns the ministry of Peter. In fact, Acts 15 instructs us that we should give greater importance to Acts 10 than to Acts 13.

Acts 10 must be properly correlated with 1 Corinthians 15 in order to have a proper understanding of the gospel

Second, although we certainly should regard 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 as important for our understanding of gospel preaching, we should note that Paul had not yet ministered in Corinth when the Council took place. Because the Council was able to settle decisively the truth of how Gentiles are to be saved by vitally referring to Peter’s ministry in Caesarea and without any contribution from the record of what Paul ministered in Corinth, we should not elevate 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 in such a manner as to regard it as of exclusively decisive significance for our understanding of Gentile evangelism. Rather, the record of Peter’s ministry in Caesarea must also play a central role in our understanding of Gentile evangelism.

The correctness of this interpretation is confirmed by our noting that Acts 15 records that Peter declared at the Council that “God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel , and believe” (15:7). This statement makes clear that Peter asserted at the Council that he had preached the gospel at Caesarea, and the fact that the record does not show anyone (including Paul) challenging his assertion as flawed teaches us that everyone at the Council regarded Peter’s ministry at Caesarea as authentic gospel ministry. We, therefore, should regard Acts 10 as a key passage that must be correlated with 1 Corinthians 15 in formulating our understanding and practice concerning gospel preaching.

Acts 10 provides vital understanding of apostolic gospel preaching that 1 Corinthians 15 does not

Furthermore, when Acts 10 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 are compared thoroughly, we should note that they do not provide us with two differing approaches to gospel preaching. Rather, what Paul gives us in only the briefest summary form in 1 Corinthians 15 is filled out in at least two important ways by Luke’s record of Peter’s ministry found in Acts 10.

First, Acts 10 teaches us how an apostle preached Jesus as the Christ to unsaved Gentiles (10:38) before testifying to His crucifixion and resurrection (10:39-41). Second, it reveals to us a key truth (10:42) that an apostle proclaimed after testifying to His crucifixion and resurrection (10:39-41) and how he based his subsequent appeal to sinners for salvation (10:43) on the basis of his prior proclamation of that key truth.

Conclusion

A careful examination of the Jerusalem Council account in Acts 15 has shown that the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to write this account in such a way that it emphasizes Petrine gospel ministry in a unique way. We, therefore, should learn from the Jerusalem Council to put Peter in his place in our evangelistic theology and practice by carefully accounting for the priority given to him at the Council concerning his ministry to Gentiles that is recorded in Acts 10 and 11.

Rajesh

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3 responses to Putting Peter in His Place: Learning Evangelistic Theology and Practice from the Jerusalem Council

  1. I’m a little confused. Are you saying that Peter was out of line and the counsel “put him in his place,” i.e. corrected or humbled him? Or are you saying that the counsel gave his message priority, and we should give his message a significant place in our evangelism?

    • Hi David,

      Sorry for the confusion. I am saying that the counsel gave his ministry in Caesarea priority, and therefore we should give the message and ministry that he engaged in there a significant place in formulating our evangelistic doctrine and practice.

      Thanks.