The phrase in Acts 15:28 seems a bit odd in our ears today, but I believe there is more to what Luke is saying than what might appear to us as an overly religious or even a presumptuous remark. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…” what does Luke intend for us to see?
The context of James’ phrase comes out of the Church’s first great controversy; namely, how are the gentiles to be received into a heretofore predominantly Jewish movement? The problem of understanding the true nature of the Church’s predicament is that we look at it, i.e. the Jerusalem Council, through the theological lens provided for us in Paul’s epistles. But, the truth be told, no letter by Paul has come down to us that predates the Jerusalem Council.
What Luke preserves for us is, no doubt, a much more peaceful and amicable record of that event than was actually experienced by the nascent Church. For example, Peter probably knew ahead of time after his rooftop vision in Acts 10 that whatever would occur in Caesarea would not be received well back in Jerusalem, and he was correct (Acts 11:1-3). This is why he brought with him six Jewish witnesses, brethren who resided in Joppa (Acts 11:12). If Peter hadn’t anticipated trouble from at least some in Jerusalem, why did he bring those six men with him to witness what would take place? Moreover, if trouble wasn’t anticipated in Jerusalem, why did the Jews from Joppa return to Jerusalem with Peter, if not to verify his claims to a doubting audience?
Although Luke doesn’t overtly describe the tension the Church experienced over the admittance of uncircumcised Gentiles, the fact that it took 10 years to be finally resolved, is testimony enough to show the circumcision issue was not settled simply because six people witnessed what had taken place and supported Peter’s story. Nevertheless, what God had done in the Cornelius household at Caesarea was instrumental in how the Jerusalem Council came to its decision.
One of the issues, I believe, Luke wants us to see in the matter of controversy within the Church is not that the Church is an equal partner with the Holy Spirit, but that the decision that was finally made was not **forced** upon the Church by God, or for that matter by men vying for political power over the people. Rather, God made his will known in Caesarea 10 years before the Jerusalem Council took place. During this time the Church struggled with theoretical theology, but in the end, it was fellowship that emerged victorious. What seemed to threaten the unity of the nascent Church developed into a greater assurance that Jesus was committed to its leaders throughout the struggle, patiently permitting them (his unequal partners) to catch up to his will and confirm the decision he already made in Caesarea. I believe this is implicit in James’ words “And to this agree the words of the prophets…” (Acts 15:15), for not only must we agree with God but so, too, must the Scriptures be made to agree with what God does, and that without changing the wording of the Scriptures themselves.
I believe more than anything else, this is what Luke intends for us to see in what came out of the Jerusalem Council. Had he recorded the decade of uneasy debate that, no doubt, did occur, the peaceful and amicable grace provided the Church by the Lord, while he waited for his Bride to make herself ready (Revelation 19:7) for him, would not have been so evident as seems here. Luke’s record would have been too muddled with theological issues for anyone to see the peaceful and patient work of the Spirit that brought the Church strongly and decisively into communion her Lord on the issue of discrimination. God shows himself to be wholly receptive of all mankind, despite one’s ethnic culture, and so should the Church follow her Lord.