Question: "What is the history and significance of the church at Jerusalem?"
Answer: Jerusalem is where the church began. Jesus had told His disciples to preach the gospel everywhere, but to start at Jerusalem (Acts 1:8). God, in His grace, extended the offer of forgiveness to the very people who had been most responsible for Christ’s death; He granted the very city where the Lord was crucified the honor of becoming the birthplace of the church. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to indwell the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, and in His power the church began (Acts 2).
After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the gospel began to spread, and gatherings of believers came together in various cities. These gatherings were called “churches” (“called-out assemblies”), and the church in Jerusalem was the group of believers living in Jerusalem. The first record we have of these churches is the book of Acts, which follows the journey of the apostles, Paul in particular, as they evangelize the world and minister to the churches in various cities. The apostles wrote letters, or epistles, to those churches: Ephesians—a letter to the believers gathered in Ephesus; 1 and 2 Corinthians—letters to the church in Corinth, and so on.
The church at Jerusalem played an interesting role in the conversion of a Jewish religious leader named Saul. After his conversion, Saul was given a new name and became the apostle Paul. But before this, Saul was persecuting the church at Jerusalem so heavily that the believers were forced to disperse to other towns (Acts 8:1). Saul was also directly involved in the execution of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:54). Stephen was a deacon in the church at Jerusalem and one of those who suffered persecution there (Acts 6:7–8). Even as believers fled the persecution in Jerusalem, the apostles stayed behind, and Jerusalem became a home base for the Jewish church for years to come (Acts 8:1).
Another notable event associated with the church at Jerusalem is Peter’s vision about the Gentiles receiving salvation. In Joppa, Peter had a vision that involved animals considered unclean under Jewish law, and God told Peter to “kill and eat” those animals. The message was that God had declared these animals and, by extension, pagan Gentiles to be “clean” now. The Jews in the church should not be afraid to accept Gentile believers into the fellowship, because, in Christ, all are made clean, and God had accepted the Gentiles. This new way of thinking was immediately put to the test, as Peter was summoned to the home of a Roman centurion, who believed in Christ along with his entire household (Acts 10). Peter reported these events to the church at Jerusalem; the Jewish believers there were skeptical at first, but Peter told them he had witnessed a genuine conversion of those Gentiles, accompanied by a sign: “The Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15, ESV). The church at Jerusalem then accepted believing Gentiles as brothers in Christ.
Some time later, as more and more Gentiles were added to the number of believers, the church at Jerusalem became the scene of a debate about circumcision: was it necessary for a Gentile believer to keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved? The Jerusalem Council, comprised of the apostles and elders of the church at Jerusalem, convened to discuss the matter. Some of the leaders in the church at Jerusalem argued that the Gentiles should be circumcised (Acts 15:5), but Peter refuted them (verses 7–11), and Paul and Barnabas “related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (verse 12).
Peter’s argument to the elders at the church at Jerusalem is found in Acts 15:7–11:
“And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’”
Peter made the point that the Gentiles were saved by faith, not by the law. The Jewish Christians (and all believers) were also saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, not by works of the law, because, as Paul argues elsewhere, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20, ESV). Circumcision was part of the law, and Peter calls that law “a yoke on the neck . . . that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” and then asks the Jewish Christians why they would want to burden the Gentiles with that yoke. The law of works had been replaced by a new law, the law of faith that depends on Christ’s work rather than our own (Romans 3:27; Galatians 2:16).
This debate at the Jerusalem Council was the first time the message of “the gospel, which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16, ESV) was stated clearly and publicly.
The church at Jerusalem became the focus of relief efforts because of a famine in Judea. In Syrian Antioch, a prophet named Agabus predicted a widespread famine, and “the disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29–30). Later, as he was traveling throughout the Mediterranean world, Paul collected more funds from the Macedonian and Achaean churches for the poor saints in Jerusalem (see 1 Corinthians 16:1–4; 2 Corinthians 8:1—9:15; and Romans 15:14–32).
Today in Jerusalem, the rich Christian heritage is still evident, with many churches, cathedrals, monasteries, etc., in the Old City. Places that receive visitors every year include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (shared by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox churches), the Church of the Redeemer (German Lutheran), the Church of St. John the Baptist (Greek Orthodox), the Chapel of the Flagellation (Catholic Franciscan), the Church of the Holy Face (the Greek Catholic order of the Little Sisters), the Church of Saint Alexander Nevsky (Russian Orthodox), and St. Mark’s Syriac Church and Monastery (Syriac Orthodox).