This is definitely one of the drier passages in the book of Acts. The entire chapter is dedicated to a big meeting of the church. As someone who has sat through his share of church business meetings, I can understand why people have trouble getting excited about this story.
That’s a shame, because the issue that is decided here is one that affects each of us today. It has already been established by the story of Peter and Cornelius that Gentiles can receive the Gospel. But that left another question open: do these Gentiles have to follow all the Old Testament law? Do they need to convert to Judaism (remember, Christians still largely viewed themselves as Jews following the Jewish messiah).
Some believers thought that the answer was an obvious “Yes!” If these people were going to be part of God’s people, then of course they needed to follow all of His commandments to be saved. They should follow kosher, get circumcised, dress in traditional garb and learn Hebrew so they can read the Torah!
But Paul and others argued for something different. They said that the whole message of the Gospel is that we aren’t saved by following a bunch of rules. If that could save us, then we wouldn’t have needed Jesus to die in the first place! Salvation doesn’t come from obeying the law, but by admitting that we can’t and trusting in God’s grace to forgive us.
Paul would later go on to explain this idea in his letter to the Ephesians like this: “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-9 HCSB)
Following Christ should result in us living better, more godly lives. But that isn’t what saves us - Jesus already did that. Those good deeds are a result of what God’s spirit is doing in our lives; His power transforms us, remakes us as we follow in Jesus’ footsteps. By trusting in Him, we turn ourselves over to Him and Him do the work.
This council might make for dry reading, but the decision they came to is the definition of our faith.