We know we can trust the decision James makes here because he was not a usurper who illegitimately replaced Peter as head of the kingdom church, as some say. Paul calls him an apostle (Gal.1:18,19), and the Spirit must have thought he was an apostle too, for He inspired Paul to write that!
And we know Paul thought James was the new leader of the apostles because he mentions him before Peter in Galatians 2:9. When Peter was the leader, he was always mentioned first when apostles were listed. And Paul must have thought James was authorized to make agreements like the one in Galatians 2:9 or he wouldn’t have made it with him. Finally, we know we can trust James’ decision that Gentiles didn’t have to keep the law because it agreed with Paul’s epistles!
But why would James think Gentiles would have to be told not to worship idols (Acts 15:20) if they turned to God “from idols” (cf. IThes.1:9)? It was because he knew that through-out Israel’s history, Jews combined the worship of God and idols (cf. Judges 17:3), and he was afraid the Gentiles would too—and they did in Catholicism!
But why’d James think he had to tell them not to commit fornication (Acts 15:20)? It was because he knew they’d think grace was a license to sin, like the Corinthians did (ICor.5:1,2). Paul saw that coming and dealt with it in Romans 6, and James saw it coming and dealt with it here.
But why would James tell Gentiles they couldn’t eat blood (Acts 15:20) if he agreed they didn’t have to keep the law? It was “for” the sake of Jews who would be offended by it (Acts 15:21). Paul said the same thing in Romans 14:14-18.
The Jerusalem church then wrote letters to the Gentiles to tell them about James’ decision (Acts 15:22). Before Paul, you’d never catch a Jew calling Gentiles “brethren” (v.23)!
They wrote the Gentiles saying they knew some Jews had “troubled” them by telling them they had to keep the law (v.24) That’s the same word Paul used in Galatians 1:4-7 and 5:10,12! That word “subvert” (v.24) means to turn aside (Lam.3:35,36). Those Jews had made them turn aside from grace to the law. In time past, spiritual subversion involved turning away from the law, not to it (Josh.23:6), but there’d been a major dispensational change with Paul’s ministry. Timothy must have had trouble with legalizers as well, for Paul uses that word “subvert” in writing to him too (IITim. 2:14). He reminded him that the answer is found in “rightly dividing the Word” (v.15)! You see, the law is in the Word, but rightly dividing helps you realize that not everything in the Word is to you!
How did they know what seemed good to the Holy Ghost (Acts 15:25)? It was because the Spirit filled Cornelius when he got saved without the law (Acts 10:43-48). James found that very convincing (Acts 15:14).
One of the ways men worshipped idols was by eating meat that was sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29). Paul later said we can eat that meat, but not if it offended weaker brethren (ICor.10:27-30). The way to convince weaker brethren that we are free to eat things that were forbidden under the law isn’t to eat those things in front of him while trying to explain it to him! That’s not grace! The gracious thing to do is to lay aside your liberty when in his company.
The world says, “Let your conscience be your guide,” and they think that’s living life on its highest plane. But Paul tells us to let our brother’s conscience be our guide. That’s living life on the very highest plane imaginable. But if the grace of God that saved you means anything to you, that’s the plane you should strive to live on. Remember, when you sing, “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground” that that hymn is a prayer. In it, you’re praying to live like this, so don’t sing it unless you mean business for the Lord!
A video of this sermon is available on YouTube: “The Decision Of The Jerusalem Council” Acts 15:19-29