JERUSALEM: LAW OR GRACE?
AN EXAMINATION OF ACTS 15:1-30
And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."
These words in Acts 15:1 introduce an issue which challenged the Christian church soon after its inception and would continue to be debated among the believers for years to come.
Answer for yourself: But where
did this controversy originate?
Answer for yourself: Why was it such a
crucial matter for the early church?
Answer for yourself: How did the apostles deal with this challenge to the early church, and what were the repercussions of their decision?
This essay is an attempt to answer these and other questions surrounding
this intriguing central episode in the book of Acts. First, the background and
cause of the circumcision question will be considered; secondly, the nature and
implications of the question itself; thirdly, the process of debate and
decision followed by the Jerusalem council; and finally, the ramifications of
the apostles' edict for the early church as a whole.
In order to trace this issue back to its roots, one
must go back to the Old Testament and consider what it has to say about the
relationship between Jew and Gentile. In the Garden of Eden and in the world of
Noah's day, there was no separation between the two groups for everyone at that
time were Gentiles. The Law of Moses given to Israel had not yet been given at
Sinai, yet God's Laws existed in an oral form since the Garden of Eden when
given to Adam. Certain admonitions and restrictions were given to Noah by God
after the flood (Gen. 9:1-7), but these were few and general in nature. These
were called the Laws of
Noah within the Covenant of Noah given and intended for all
mankind to observe, thus providing a way of fellowship and relationship with
God. Not until God chose Abraham and his descendants to become his unique and
special chosen people, Israel, and not until He raised up Moses to lead the
Israelites out of bondage and to communicate to them His Law, did a clear
distinction emerge between Jew and Gentile.
distinction appeared, however, God made it clear that He wished the separation
between His people and the pagan nations to be readily apparent at all times
(Deut. 7:6). First, all Jews were to undergo circumcision as
an indelible mark of their relationship to God (Gen. 17:10-13). Of course,
Israel was not the only middle eastern nation to practice circumcision, but for
the Jews the ritual had special significance. In addition to this distinguishing mark
of circumcision, God gave the Israelites a detailed and complex set of dietary,
religious and social laws designed to remind them of their call to holiness and
to prevent them from associating too closely with their Canaanite neighbors
Although Jewishness was largely a matter of ancestry - descent from
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- it was nevertheless possible for a non-Jew to become part of the
however, a Gentile wished to leave his pagan gods for the worship of Yahweh and
enter in to God's covenant with Israel, he must first be circumcised (Ex.
12:48-49) and then accept the Mosaic Law as binding on himself. One could not
claim to be a worshipper of Yahweh and yet refuse to revere and keep the
Over the thousands of years mankind chose not to obey God's ways and lost
much of the truth of God, including the revelation of Noah. At Sinai within the Laws of Moses we find
the Laws of Noah contained. These Noahide statues (66) were
intended for Gentiles and these plus the others which totaled 613 Mitzvoth were
given to the Jews. At that time there was no other means of approach to God
[for both Gentile and Jew] except through the Mosaic ritual and regulations for
mankind had lost the revelation of God. Thus God was required to reiterate them
plus others at Sinai once again.
For centuries -- even millennia -- this pattern persisted.
Prior to Yeshua's coming, Israel
had an intense hatred for the Gentiles and such animosity prevented Israel from
making it easier for Gentiles to come to God by being a light to them of the
Noahide Covenant with their 66 Laws. To make it harder for them, they insisted
on circumcision, knowing full-well that most pagans and Gentile men who
worshipped their false gods through fornication and fertility rites would
object to such a sever measure, especially when circumcision was administered
to their "organ" of worship. Jesus was to change
that through his followers who were motivated by his death and resurrection to
take into all the world in the Great Commission the Laws and Covenant of Noah
for the non-Jewish nations. At first his exclusively Jewish disciples
understood the message of God's good news as belonging to the nation of Israel
alone (as it had previously been customary to exclude Gentiles except upon full
conversion and circumcision), but the Holy Spirit soon directed otherwise, and
the message spread through Philip to the half-Jewish Samaritans (Acts 8:5-8)
and the non-Jewish proselytes to Judaism (Acts 8:26-36), through Peter to the
uncircumcised "God-fearers" like the Roman
centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1-2), and finally through Cypriot and Cyrenian
disciples to the pagan and idolatrous Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21). With the advent
of the apostle Paul's ministry, great numbers of Gentiles began coming to the
Lord (Acts 13:48-49). The issue of
how these non-Jewish believers were to
be incorporated into the church body, therefore, became
Answer for yourself: Was Israel to continue to make it difficult for Gentiles to come to God by requiring circumcision which was never within the Covenant of Noah, or would they, since the resurrection of Yeshua, heed his words and the words of his Pastor James and repent and no longer require of Gentiles such an excluding rite?
Answer for yourself: Would Yeshua and his
teachings through his church carry more weight than the anti-Gentile doctrines
espoused by the majority of Israel at that time?
The earliest converts to Christianity had been the Jerusalem Jews who heard Peter's stirring sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36). They had been "pierced to the heart" by his call for repentance, and some three thousand of them had been baptized on that first day alone (Acts 2:37, 41). It was only natural, therefore, that these Jewish believers would feel anxious about seeing so many Gentiles entering the fellowship without undergoing the traditional conversion process (especially circumcision). After all, in the recent past no Gentile could be counted among God's people unless he was circumcised and submitted to ALL the Law (613 and not just 66): why should it be any different now?
So it was that while Paul was ministering in the Gentile territories of
Asia, he encountered a number of Jewish Christians who had traveled up from the
Jerusalem area to make sure that the Gentiles understood their legal
obligations as imposed by the present Religious establishment in Jerusalem.
background (Phil. 3:5) certainly gave him a ready understanding of the
Judaizers' position, but on the basis of his knowledge of the gospel of grace,
he strongly opposed their teaching.
Answer for yourself: To what did Paul refer when he speaks of "works of the Law" in Gal. 2:
Contrary to what you might have been taught the Galatians letter originally dealt with only one "law" and that was the law of circumcision.
Years later he
would explain to the Galatians: A man is not justified by the works of the Law
(CIRCUMCISION) but through faith in Christ Jesus... by the works of the Law
(CIRCUMCISION) shall no flesh be justified... if righteousness comes through
the Law (CIRCUMCISION) , then Christ died needlessly. (Gal.
Paul and Barnabas fought the Judaizers in Antioch for some time before it became clear that the debate must be resolved by official means (Acts 15:2). At last the church at Antioch decided to send a delegation, led by Paul and Barnabas, to Jerusalem to consult the apostles and elders there. Whatever was decided at the council would determine the practice of the Gentile believers throughout the Roman Empire and throughout subsequent history.
Arriving at Jerusalem, Paul and his company were welcomed by the apostles and gave a full report of their ministry among the Gentiles (vs. 4). However, when the specific reason for Paul's visit was discussed, some of the believers of Pharisaic background immediately declared their support for the Judaizers. Not only must the Gentile believers be circumcised, they said, but they must be made to observe the Law as proselytes to Judaism had done in the past. Otherwise they were not truly saved (vs. 1,5).
Answer for yourself:
Was this really such an important issue?
Answer for yourself: Couldn't the Judaizers
have been allowed to prevail to keep the peace, or, as a compromise, couldn't
the issue have been left up to individual conscience?
The apostles and elders quickly saw the foolishness of any such
superficial means of dealing with the situation. No, it must be discussed and
debated thoroughly, and a firm decision made, even though large numbers of
Jewish believers and potential believers might be alienated if the ruling were
not in the Judaizers' favor. If it were deemed necessary for a Gentile believer
to accept circumcision and follow the Law "to be saved" (convert to
Judaism as previously), then the death of Jesus would have been just another in
a long line of dying Messianic pretenders. But convinced through his
resurrection his followers no longer heard various clamorings of this or that
from other Jews, but a "voice" within all voices that called for the
end of bigotry and repentance from Israel where they returned their hearts back
to their fathers and the love for all mankind. Such motivated them to return to
the teachings of the Patriarchs and no longer enforce circumcision upon the
non-Jews for acceptance with the Israel of God.
The debate among the apostles and elders went on at length, possibly for several days. No doubt many scriptures were consulted, many arguments raised. Luke does not record all the deliberations and all the evidence, but he does supply for us the closing remarks which decided the issue. First Peter rose up to speak, followed by Barnabas and Paul, and the final pronouncement was made by James "the Just", the half-brother of Christ who had become prominent in the Jerusalem church.
THE CONCLUSION OF THE COUNCIL
Peter's attempt to persuade his brethren was based on his personal experience of how God had worked in the hearts and lives of the Gentiles who had believed through his ministry. He described how God had not only directed him to share the gospel with pagan people, but had showed His approval by bestowing the Holy Spirit on those who had believed (vs. 8). By giving the Spirit He had clearly shown that in His sight the Gentile believers were no different from and no less privileged than the Jewish believers.
Answer for yourself: This being the case, what grounds were there for saying that the uncircumcised Gentiles were inferior in God's sight and needed to do more to complete their salvation?
Answer for yourself: Had God Himself made a mistake in giving the Spirit prematurely to people who were not truly saved?
Surely not, said Peter.
Answer for yourself: Why, therefore, were the Judaizers attempting to be more strict than God Himself in this matter?
The burden of keeping the Law was heavy, and no man had ever been able to fulfill it completely (vs. 10). Therefore the Law could never be the means by which salvation came. Salvation was through the grace of God as a free gift, and this was just as true of the Gentiles as it was of the Jews (vs. 11).
Paul and Barnabas' subsequent address to the council is not recorded, though it is summarized by Luke in verse 12 of the chapter. Their approach was similar to Peter's, in that they argued their case by relating their personal experience of God's mighty work among the Gentiles. Perhaps they related the incident at Lystra where God used Paul to heal a lame Gentile who had believed (Acts 14: 8-10) or told how God had set his stamp of approval on Paul's witness to the Gentiles by reviving him after he was stoned by a mob in the same city (14: 19-20).
In the face of the mounting evidence the crowd was silent, considering carefully the things they were hearing. But the final word must belong to James.
James was known and respected, even among unbelieving Jews, as a pious and Law-abiding man. His testimony in the world was impeccable and his authority highly regarded in the church. Because his love for the Old Testament was so well known, it was likely that the Judaizers believed he would be on their side. They were in for a surprise. James opened his argument with a quotation from the Old Testament, but the verses he gave came not from the Law but from the Prophets. Using a prophecy recorded by Amos, James described how in the past God had revealed that the Gentiles would come in to God's kingdom and be called by His name. God would surely support and strengthen Israel (vs. 16), but not for her own sake: rather, Israel would be used to draw the rest of the nations to Himself (vs. 17).
In light of this prophecy,
James explained, it would be wrong to hinder the Gentiles from receiving the
gospel by putting extra requirements upon them (CIRCUMCISION). The Gentile
nations as a whole had never been given the Law (613 which included
CIRCUMCISION but only 66 which did not include CIRCUMCISION); the Law (613) had
been given to Israel. In the past Gentiles who wished to follow God had joined
the Israelite nation, but this was no longer the case. In the past few Gentiles
had believed; now great numbers were coming to faith. It was clear that the
Jerusalem church had repented of their bigotry toward Gentiles due to the
admonition of their believed resurrected Messiah. It was clear that something
significant had changed in Israel's dealings with mankind, and this could not
Gentiles were not to be burdened with the observance of the ALL the Law (613
including CIRCUMCISION) to be accepted within Israel and with God any
longer...as imposed previously upon them by the Jews
Rather they were to be encouraged and supported to accept God's gracious gift of Eternal Life which was being taken to them without the rigorous restrictions as before, and this was all done in the name of Yeshua..the one who is the ultimate goal and fulfillment of the Law (Rom. 10:4, Gal. 3:24-25).
Nevertheless, the issue of how to facilitate closer relations between Jewish and Gentile believers could not be ignored. There was no reason that Gentiles should give needless offense to the Jews by continuing in strongly pagan practices, and it was also necessary that Gentile believers should maintain some standard of godly conduct which might make them a testimony to their neighbors both Jewish and Gentile. Perhaps James also had in mind the basic commandments given to Noah prior to the Law, which Jews today still consider to be binding upon Gentiles.
James, Jesus' Pastor of the Jerusalem Church ruled that although the Gentiles did not need any longer to be circumcised nor to accept the Mosaic Law (613) to be accepted by God or the Jews, they are required by God to follow a few basic principles or morality (called "necessary" in Acts by the Holy Spirit). These the the Laws of Noah that comprise the Covenant of Noah; the Covenant given by God to all non-Jews long before Sinai and the Jewish people.
Firstly, they should stay away from food which had been ritually offered to idols. Later, in his first epistle to the believers at Corinth, Paul would contradict James, pointing out that although such food was not evil in itself, and it was possible for a believer to eat it with a clear conscience, nevertheless Christians ought to refrain from such things if they caused others to stumble (1 Cor. 8:1-13, 10:19-20).
Answer for yourself: Who are we to believe here James, Jesus' hand-picked Pastor of the Jerusalem Church, or Paul?
James's second ruling was that the Gentiles should stay away from sexual immorality, which was an extremely common practice among the pagans who regarded sexual activity with cult prostitutes as a form of worship. Paul also reiterated this teaching to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:15-20). The third ruling was not repeated by Paul in his epistles: the Gentiles were to abstain from the meat of strangled animals and from the eating of blood.
None of these commandments were unreasonable or unduly burdensome, and they served to give some moral direction to the Gentiles and to remind them to be considerate of their Jewish brethren, while at the same time rebuffing the Judaizers who were making observance of the Law "necessary" for salvation. The whole council, including Paul and Barnabas, seems to have agreed willingly with James. A letter was drafted to send to the Gentile churches in Syria and in Asia Minor to notify them of the council's official decision. This letter served five purposes: one, it established that Gentiles who turned from idols to serve the living God were required to follow and adhere to the Laws of Noah as "minimum" requirements of fellowship with both Israel and God; second it made clear that the Judaizers who had come from Jerusalem were not officially sent by the apostles and did not have their approval (vs. 24); third, it showed unconditional approval for Barnabas and Paul in their ministry among the Gentiles (vs. 25-26); fourth it commended Judas and Silas to the work among the Gentiles (vs. 27); and fifth, it laid out in writing the simple requirements the Gentiles were to follow, so that no legalist might misrepresent or add to them (vs. 28-29) as had been done before.
When the meeting at Jerusalem concluded, Barnabas, Paul and their new companions Judas and Silas promptly carried the apostolic letter to the church at Antioch, where it was received with great rejoicing (vs. 30:31). Although the issue of whether or not circumcision and Law-keeping were necessary to salvation remained a hotly debated one in the Christian community for some time afterward, and Paul was soon forced to write a lengthy epistle to the church at Galatia to counteract the grievously effective work of the Judaizers among them (requiring Gentiles to be CIRCUMCISED as a condition of acceptance with Israel and God which God accepted Gentiles in the Noahide Covenant without CIRCUMCISION), there could no longer be a doubt as to the opinion of the leading apostles and elders on this question. The official statement had been made:
Gentiles were justified by faith in God alone, and along with this came the recognition of Yeshua's death and resurrection which was the very catalyst to energize the breaking away from Gentile-hating Judaism a remnant of Jews who would go into all the world and love their neighbors as themselves! Neither circumcision nor observance of the Mosaic Laws was necessary to complete their justification...only the 66 Laws of Noah as their Covenant stipulations.
Jewish believers, too, could see in this ruling a new freedom: knowing that the Law was not necessary for salvation, but it is to be obeyed and adhered to because they are already saved. Obedience to the Law is the zenith of our demonstration of our love for God.
They could enjoy the positive aspects of their Jewish heritage while not
being burdened by it. The Law was necessary to order life and define man's
choices so he could rest assured that these Covenant Stipulations called Laws
were the apex of God's love for man by sharing with all mankind Who He is and
what He does...and by calling man to be like Him gave man a way to become like
God...holy...as He is holy. This is to be done not "to be saved" but
because "we are saved." This is the major difference that Acts 15
corrected and which the Christian church needs to reevaluate in light of Paul's
later teachings and those who followed in his footsteps.