This passage describes for us the dilemma of the Church experiencing a diversity of opinion and perspective. As followers of Jesus, we are desirous to live in harmony. Personality, life experience, previous religious and cultural backgrounds, and our own brokenness, all contribute to how we perceive and understand spiritual truth.
The early church had Jewish believers who were devoted to what they had believed and were taught around customs that shaped their perspective about what following Jesus meant. Then Gentile believers began to be converted and declared their intention to follow Jesus and be part of the Church, but they had never been taught or embraced rituals around circumcision, Sabbath, or rules around food. This created a crisis for the leadership.
As I have spent time with this passage, I see some key things that brought resolution. Peter called the Church to be unified around the essential beliefs of the faith. Peter stated that these believers received the Holy Spirit. He also observed that their hearts were cleansed by faith. He declared that God did not make a distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles as they entered into a journey of faith. Peter was clear we are all liberated through the grace of the Lord Jesus.
Jesus became the sacrificial lamb because he did not want any to perish. He is aware of how broken we are, and in desperate need of redemption. His heart is for all peoples, not just for a chosen few. Peter took a respectful stance in this situation as he recognized these Jewish rules could become a burden to new believers coming from outside the Jewish culture. There were significant conversations around this, first of all with the leaders and congregation at Antioch. Paul and Barnabas travelled to Jerusalem and consulted with the apostles and elders. Again there appeared to be a climate of respect as they had conversations around these issues.
The counsel from James was that they not burden the new Gentile converts with their Jewish rules. They created freedom for things that were not essential to the faith. But they did establish some boundaries that invite respect for both sides of the conversation. There was an attitude of love and charity in the resolution for all involved. I see this as a good model for church unity as we navigate through the complex issues of our current culture.