The catalyst for organizing the Jerusalem Conference occurred in the city of Syrian Antioch. A sect of the Jews known as the Pharisees, who had become believers in Jesus Christ, began to openly teach (especially to gentiles) that salvation could not be achieved unless a person was circumcised.
The main thrust of the argument is found in the first verse of Acts 15 and is reiterated in Jerusalem (verse 5) when the church gathered to discuss it. The Bible states, "Now certain men who had come down from Judea (to Antioch) were teaching the brethren, saying, 'Unless you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'" (Acts 15:1, HBFV throughout).
The debate regarding this contentious issue, which involved Paul, Barnabas and Pharisees from Judea, became so hot that the church sent the two apostles, along with others, to Jerusalem (Acts 15:2) in order to resolve the issue in consultation with the original apostles and church members.
It is important to note that the issue which caused the gathering to be convened centered strictly around circumcision and its role in salvation, and NOT whether the entirety of God's Old Testament laws were binding or not on gentiles. It concerned how people were accepted by God (known as justification).
Jews in general, especially the zealous Pharisees from Jerusalem, looked upon circumcision as what brought them into a relationship with God. For the Jew this rite was the equivalent of a Christian baptism.
At the conference, Peter testifies that God has given uncircumcised but repentant gentiles the Holy Spirit (which makes them a Christian). The Apostles Paul and Barnabas also report before brethren in Jerusalem how the Eternal wrought many miracles through them as they preached the gospel to those who were not Jewish (Acts 15:12). This evidence supports Peter’s conclusion that it makes no sense, and in fact adds an unnecessary burden, to require already converted gentiles (let alone those seeking to have a relationship with God) to become circumcised.
8. And God, Who knows the heart, bore witness to them (gentiles - verse 7) by giving them the Holy Spirit, even as He did to us . . . 10. Now therefore, why do you (the Pharisees and those who believed circumcision was required in order to receive salvation) tempt God by putting a yoke upon the necks of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15:8, 10 - 11)
The "yoke" Peter discusses in verse 10, from its immediate context, is not the content of God's law but the FALSE approach that had grown up in Jewish (especially Pharisaical) tradition regarding how a person was justified and saved.
The Consensus Decision
19. Therefore, my judgment (the Apostle James) is that we do not trouble those of the Gentiles who have turned to God; 20. But that we write to them to abstain from pollutions of idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled and from blood (Acts 15:19 - 20, see also verses 28 - 29)
The primary conclusion arrived at by those in Jerusalem was that salvation was freely available to both Jew and gentiles without the prerequisite of having to be circumcised. Race and ethnicity were not important in the process of saving individuals. People of different nations could accept Jesus as Savior and Messiah without becoming Jewish or an Israelite.
The Jerusalem Conference did not pluck the four prohibitions listed in verse 20 (and again in verse 29) arbitrarily out of thin air. These restrictions, based upon Leviticus 17 and 18, were the same four prohibitions that the competing non-Pharisaical interpretation of the law had said should be imposed on the gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism. These prohibitions actually reinforces the fact that God's law were still IN FORCE for New Testament believers.
Before their conversion to Christianity, gentiles who worshipped false gods were notorious for practicing what is listed in Acts 15:20. This part of the decision made by the conference merely reminds them that their former behavior was wrong and encourages them to continue their rejection of how they formerly lived and worshipped.
An Incorrect Interpretation
The decision of the conference held in Jerusalem was written down and sent to the churches (Acts 15:22 - 23). It began with the following words that acknowledged the reason why a decision was needed.
24. Inasmuch as we have heard that certain ones among us (i.e. former Pharisees) who went to you have troubled your souls with words, saying, 'You are obligated to be circumcised and to keep the law' (to whom we gave no such command) (Acts 15:24)
An antinomian (anti-law) interpretation of Acts 15:24 claims that circumcision and "the Law" (found in the Old Testament) are basically separate entities, with the former just one law out of the latter, and that the conference abolished both, excepting the still binding regulations found in verse 20 (reiterated in verse 29).
The gaping hole with this logic is that if this interpretation were true then ONLY the four restrictions listed in verse 20 would still be in force while other Old Testament restrictions such as not to murder, steal, commit incest and so on would not! Such logic would abolish the two great commandments of loving God above all and your neighbor as yourself (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18). As the Bible states, the only issue under discussion at the Jerusalem meeting was whether gentiles needed to be circumcised or not in order to receive salvation.
The outcome of the conference was NOT a ruling that stated that Christians no longer were obliged to keep the bulk of God's Old Testament law. The decision arrived at was that gentiles were not required to be circumcised before they could enter into a covenant relationship with God. This opened the door for a greater number of gentiles to enter into the saved community of Christians, which had been made, up to this time, mostly of converted Jews.
The ultimate influence of the Jerusalem Conference was that it led to a separation between Christianity and Judaism as world religions, and encouraged gentiles to become Christians. Because of its openness in accepting anyone who repents of their sins and accepts Jesus as their Savior, Christianity since the first century A.D. has grown tremendously larger than the Jewish religion. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2010 there were about 2.2. Billion Christians in the world. For the same year, only about 14 million people worldwide are considered Jewish. This translates to Christianity being more than 150 times LARGER than those who consider themselves Jews.