Two major interpretations about the “Jerusalem Council” are commonly held by preachers and Bible expositors today. We read about this detailed discussion taking place amongst the early Christians in Acts 15:1 – 29. On one side were the Judaizing teachers, demanding that Gentile Christians observe the Law of Moses. On the other side, the apostles of grace argued in favor of freedom from the Jewish Law.
One interpretation of this text holds that Gentiles were not to be considered proselytes to Judaism, and therefore, not required to keep the laws and customs of the Jews, because they have replaced the unbelieving nation of Israel as “true Jews”. In this way, the Tabernacle of David has already been restored to the Church as, “spiritual Israel”. We reject this interpretation.
The Jerusalem Council actually affirms Gentile believers are “fellow-partakers” of Jesus Christ through the gospel, not “take-overs” (Eph. 3:6). Therefore, the requirements of the Mosaic Covenant were not transferred to Gentiles as “a yoke of bondage” upon them (Acts 15:10).
The Gentiles are still a distinct people from Jews, yet entitled to all the promises of Christ, because they are “fellow-heirs” and “fellow-members” of the same Body. They are not a replacement of the first Body. They never will be Israelites, but rather, they comprise “the commonwealth of Israel”, and recipients of the same benefits by extension (Eph. 2:12). The restoration of David’s Tabernacle has absolutely nothing to do with what transpired in the first century Church.
The apostle James expresses to the council that a major purpose of the Church Age is the calling out of Gentiles by the gospel. He says, “Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name” (Acts 15:14). Just as Jesus affirmed in his “Parable of the Pearl of Great Price”, there will always be salvation among the Gentiles (Matt. 13:45, 46).
The Gentiles’ salvation, like the pearl formed in the oyster by gradual accretion, will slowly become evident in this world. Until the “fulness” of the Gentiles come into the Body of Christ, the Lord will gradually call out a people for his name from among them (Rom. 11:25).
James is telling his audience in Jerusalem what the prophesied future age (the millennial reign of Christ) has in common with this present age. The words of Simeon (Simon Peter) concerning the first conversion of Gentiles at the household of Cornelius prove it (Acts 10, 11) and, according to James, the Old Testament prophets “agree” with it. He cites one prophet to make his case.
If we pay close attention to James’ quotation of Amos, we see how it relates to the original prophecy, and we are able to properly exegete the meaning of the apostle’s application. Let us compare and contrast the two passages in question:
“In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, declares the Lord who does this.” – Amos 9:11 – 12, ESV
“After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from old” – Acts 15:16 – 18a, ESV
C.I. Scofield once remarked, “Dispensationally this is the most important passage in the New Testament”. In other words, “it is perhaps the best passage in the New Testament for testing the correctness of the Dispensational method of interpreting Scripture” (Allis, 1945, p. 145).
There are many excellent texts that one may use to “test” the premillennial viewpoint of prophecy and prove the veracity of our hermeneutic. However, these verses in Acts are especially powerful in providing us with an inspired commentary on a vivid Old Testament promise of a coming kingdom in Israel.
Those who reject Dispensational Premillennialism will argue that James describes a present fulfillment of Amos’ prophecy. They assert that the Holy Spirit outpouring upon the Cornelian household was the ultimate accomplishment of what Amos spoke about in his earlier writings.
The kingdom promised by Amos has already reached its zenith through the entry of Gentile believers during the Church Age, they contend. By replacing unbelieving Israel, the Gentiles have “restored” David’s tent. This is certainly not the case for the following five reasons:
Firstly, James supplements the prophecy of Amos with the words, “after this”. Since these words are not found in the Amos prophecy, we know the prophesied events refer to something James expects will take place “after” his own time (i.e. after the Church Age). Furthermore, James omits the words, “in that day”, which, by implication, precludes any possible fulfilment of the prophecy in his own day.
Had James believed the prophecy applied to present-day events, he would have surely retained the phrase, “in that day”. Instead, he applies it to a later time period by substituting those words with, “after this”. It would take place “after” the inaugural entry of the Gentiles into the Body of Christ. Like the initial salvation of Gentile believers, Gentiles would also enter the kingdom when David’s booth is restored. There is a commonality, but the events are, nevertheless, distinguishable from one another.
Secondly, It is important to note that James adds the words, “I will return”, within his quotation of the Amos text. This inspired addition to the passage signals that James understood Amos was referring to something which is expected to take place when Messiah comes again to establish his kingdom on earth. Let us allow his language to be understood in its natural sense. The word, “return” (Greek: ἀναστρέφω), means, “to turn back”, “to turn hither and thither”, “to turn one’s self about”, “to sojourn dwell in a place” (Pierce, 1987, Outline of Biblical Usage).
Jesus Christ will come from heaven “a second time”, doing exactly what James said he would do – return (cf. Acts 1:11; Heb. 9:27, 28). As the old saying goes, “If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense lest you end up with nonsense!” Let us not lose sight of the wisdom in this adage and let us reject fanciful rationalizations to the contrary.
Thirdly, James says the prophets “agree” with what had taken place in Acts 10. If it were a fulfillment of Amos 9, he could have easily said so, but he chose to use the word, “agree”. Likewise, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter tells his listeners that what they were witnessing was the same thing foretold by the prophet Joel, but he does not call it a “fulfillment” (Acts 2:16 – 21).
We know that many aspects of Joel’s prophecy never transpired. For example, no wonders were witnessed in the heavens above on Pentecost (v. 19a). There were no signs of “blood”, “fire”, “vapor” or “smoke” (v. 19b). The sun was not turned to darkness, nor was the moon turned to blood (v. 20). None of these things happened!
Peter had not quoted the passage to prove the prophecy had been fulfilled. He simply affirmed, “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel” (v. 16). They received the baptism of the Spirit, they prophesied, they were given visions and dreams. They spoke concerning the promise of salvation in Jesus Christ by calling upon his name (vv. 1 – 4, 17, 18, 21).
The same manner of miraculous Holy Spirit empowerment will be witnessed again during the Tribulation period. Immediately before the coming of Jesus, the chaos predicted by Joel will also ensue (cf. Matt. 24:6 – 14, 29 – 31; Rev. 8:5, 7, 8, 10; 9:2, 3; 14:20; 16:3; 18:9). Pentecost was only the beginning of prophetic application. This example shows us that agreements with prophetic testimony are not necessarily fulfillments.
Fourthly, we know that nothing in Amos’ prophecy has been fulfilled concerning the land, agricultural progress, the rebuilding of cities, and the prospering of Israel. Replacementists will typically emphasize passages that seem, at first glance, to support a past and complete fulfillment of the prophecy, but they are hard-pressed to include the whole context of the Old Testament passage. They avoid and disregard the context because they know that any case to fit the concise promises into past fulfillments is embarrassingly weak.
When forced to deal with specific prophecies about the restoration of land and fortunes to Israel by Jehovah God, these are frequently explained away as, “allegorical” or “apocalyptic”. They basically argue Old Testament prophecy should be discarded as unfruitful, since the New Testament is supposedly “better” and “clearer” than the Old.
J.D. Bales, in his celebrated book, Prophecy and Premillennialism, states as follows, “The New Testament interpretation of prophecy is the inspired interpretation of prophecy. How foolish one must be who maintains that the light furnished by the fulfillment, as set forth in God’s word, is no clearer than the light set forth in the stage of the unfulfilled” (Bales, 1972, p. 33).
Bales thinks that Amos is not clear enough, and cannot be understood, unless the New Testament can be used to reinvent the meaning of his words. What an absurdity! The context of the excerpt mentioned by Apostle James contains some very rich and precise language about Israel’s regathering into the land of Canaan and a bounteous sustenance from the Lord in that coming age (Amos 9:14 – 15). These words must pertain to future events because Israel still had not been expelled from the land when the Jerusalem Council convened, much less planted back into the land to “never again be uprooted”!
Finally, with an utter certainty, we know James is commenting about a second visitation on the Gentiles because he calls Peter’s account a “first” visitation (v. 14). A “first” necessarily implies there will be a second. Since James identifies the event at the Cornelian household as the “first” occasion, the Amos prophecy he recounts must be the second which “agrees” with the first. They are not identical events, but they are alike in that Gentiles come to Christ in both the present age (the Church Age) and the age to come (the Millennium).
We may conclude from this powerful, inspired commentary on Amos that the Restoration of David’s Tabernacle is yet future. Furthermore, James does not teach the replacement of unbelieving Israel with Gentile Christians. The Replacementists are wrong. The Holy Spirit, through Amos and James combined, has the last word. – MAH