“For it has seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us to lay no further burden upon you than these necessary things”
In the introduction to these stories on the Councils of the Church, we agreed to travel together to remote times and places. You may not agree with men of science on the possibility of time travel (I don’t as well) but I am not content with eye witness accounts, I want to witness with my own eyes.
The bright darkness of dawn long forgotten; the sun, shining with full brightness of day is safely mirrored on the Great Mediterranean Sea as some burning white amidst the vast blue sky. It’s about three hours before noon. Two men are seen discussing afar off, walking away from what must be a Jewish synagogue. The man on the right, stockily built, with his bruised head a little too small for his broad shoulders, looks up to his companion, slender and of comelier appearance, as he continues his speech.
His words are familiar, they have become more popular since he escaped being stoned to death by some zealous Jews in nearby Iconium, a district of Galatia. He was not killed, Paul, because those rabid Jews stopped stoning after they saw him drop to the ground, thinking him already done for.
“Through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom of God”, he said.
Barnabas seemed to have happier events in mind – the conversion of many Jews in Derbe, the restoration of firm legs to the crippled man in Lystra by Paul in the name of the Lord Jesus. Soon, they arrive at a gathering of the rest of the brethren in Antioch. Paul is sure there are some men here who must be visitors as he had dwelt with this flock long enough to know each sheep by name.
“You are Gentiles, we Jews, first-class children of Abraham with whom our God and Father made a covenant —“, one man of the new company is heard articulating.
They had come from Judea and, before the arrival of Paul and Barnabas, were teaching the brethren that it was impossible for Gentile converts to the Faith of Christ to be saved without first observing the Law of Moses. Nay, that it was absolutely necessary for the Gentiles to become Jews first and then Christians.
One of the brethren refers the orator to Barnabas telling him all that had transpired in their absence.
“But you cannot make them Jews whom have been baptized in Christ, being Gentiles”, Barnabas replies, as the orator finishes his speech.
“Did not Christ our Lord, Son of God yet man of Jewish blood say that He was not sent but to the lost sheep of Israel?”, he retorted.
Paul, observing the contest continue, calls the attention of both men and of the others present as he began to speak.
“The Lord Jesus died for the salvation of all who shall come to Faith. I myself, am a Jew of equal might but was sent by the Lord Jesus to preach the Faith to the Gentiles. The Faith and not the Law. The Lord has confirmed the acceptance of the Gentiles by the many signs wrought amongst them and witnesses are not wanting amongst us”.
The audience fell quiet for a while signaling conviction of the words of Paul until the orator again asks,
“What say you, should the Law be done away with?”.
Whether it was Barnabas’s affirmation of his following Christ and not the Law which even the ancients could not keep, or no, the debate almost ran into a frenzy as some were for Paul and Barnabas, while others, Jews, were for the other party. It was agreed that Paul and Barnabas and some others of the Jews from Judea should be sent to the rest of the Apostles and priests in Jerusalem about the question.
The envoy – Paul, Barnabas and five men from the converts, former Pharisees – arriving Jerusalem, were received with gladness by Peter, James the Greater – bishop of Jerusalem, and John. Barnabas began to recount the many signs wrought in the name of the Lord, not just by Paul or himself, but of other disciples as well. He told of the influx of the Gentiles into the Church and how entire households gave up their former idolatry for the Faith and were baptized.
“We have seen the liberty that is in Christ. The Lord not imposing on them the observances of our former Judaism, but that they seek His kingdom and its justices —“, Paul was still saying when one of the converts of the Pharisees cut in, “But they must be circumcised and be commanded to observe the law of Moses. And for this matter have we come down to Jerusalem from Antioch”.
It is only about twenty-seven years since our Lord’s Ascension. The eleven Apostles, following the instruction of their Lord and Master, have remained among the Jews, teaching and baptizing many. Of the three thousand souls baptized on the day of Pentecost, none was non-Jew. Neither Mathias, now replacing Judas, nor the other Apostles had considered the implication of the Faith on the Gentiles. Although our Lord asked them to remain in Jerusalem until the coming of the Paraclete, He also enjoined them to teach all nations – Gentile as well as Jew.
Peter, after a brief discussion with James and John, summons the other of the Apostles as well as some presbyters he and James had ordained.
“Our Lord promised to be in the midst of two or three gathered in His Name. Behold, we are more than three. He Who will be with us until the end of the ages is no less with us in this very beginning”, Peter said, opening the assembly after everyone assumed his seat following the prayer. He granted hearing first, to those converts of the sect of the Pharisees. The one who spoke in Antioch repeated his speech, with near perfect reminiscence. Barnabas presented the other side of the argument, and so the dispute continued, even as before until Peter, rising up, said to them:
“Men, brethren, you know that in former days God made choice among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the hearts, gave testimony, giving unto them the Holy Ghost, as well as to us: And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why tempt you, God, to put a yoke upon the necks of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we believe to be saved, in like manner as they also.”
Great calm attended his somewhat impulsive but consonant speech. A fair dove flew gracefully through the silence above the assembly and as the distinct flapping of its wings died away, Paul and Barnabas began to tell what great signs and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. When these had returned to their seat, James, bishop of Jerusalem, added, saying:
“Men, brethren, hear me. Simon has related how God first visited to take to the Gentiles, a people to his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets, as it is written: After these things, I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down: and the ruins thereof I will rebuild. And I will set it up: That the residue of men may seek after the Lord, and all nations upon whom my name is invoked, says the Lord, who does these things.”
He went on to draw up, in agreement with all the rest, a letter addressed to the brethren at Antioch containing the decrees of the Apostles and of the council. All present subscribed their names at the end of the letter, Peter signing first, then James, and John, the rest of the Apostles, Paul after Mathias, then Barnabas and the other presbyters present. Two men were chosen of the prophets in Jerusalem, Judas, surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, to return with Paul, Barnabas and the men from Judea, into Antioch to deliver the letter written and sealed by the Apostles themselves. Judas and Silas were to serve as proof of the authenticity of the letter, repeating the exact content of the sealed letter by word of mouth. The council afterward dispersed.
The decrees of this first council of the Church, more disciplinary than dogmatic, has been preserved for us by St. Luke, a disciple of St. Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, and it reads thus:
The apostles and ancients, brethren, to the brethren of the Gentiles that are at Antioch and in Syria and Cilicia, greeting. For as much as we have heard that some going out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, to whom we gave no commandment: It has seemed good to us, being assembled together, to choose out men and to send them unto you, with our well beloved Barnabas and Paul: Men that have given their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves also will, by word of mouth, tell you the same things. For it has seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us to lay no further burden upon you than these necessary things: That you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication: from which things keeping yourselves, you shall do well. Farewell.
[Acts 15: 23 – 29]
See, then the power of the Council of the Church, presided over by the chief Shepherd, St. Peter, dealing with matters of Faith and Morals. If this council had decreed it necessary for Gentiles to observe the Law of Moses, it would have been binding. But it pleased “the Holy Ghost” and them “to lay no further burden”.
This discipline was to ease the entry of the Gentile converts into Jewish company, the latter though converted, many still suffered scruples in the matter of eating such meat as was termed unclean in the Law of Moses. It was probably after this Council that St. Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians condemning those who tried to seduce them from the Gospel he had preached.
“I wonder”, he writes, “that you are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ, unto another gospel. Which is not another: only there are some that trouble you and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema. As we said before, so now I say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema.”
[Galatians 1: 6 – 9]
Where will we sail next? Nicaea, again in the East some three centuries later. An archdeacon named Arius is teaching, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses now err, that Christ, the Son of God is not truly God. Again, some Christians think the date of Easter should follow the date of the Jewish Passover, others following the custom in Rome, assert otherwise.
How was this settled? What will we see in Nicaea?
Until next week, I am seasick already.