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Thoughts and Commentary on Today's Reading:
Acts 15 is one of the most misunderstood chapters in the Bible. This passage of Scripture describes the decision of the Jerusalem Council regarding the admittance of Gentiles into Spiritual Israel. Many scholars use this chapter to claim that the Law given to Moses at Mount Sinai was nullified and no longer applicable to "New Covenant" Gentile believers.
The Encyclopædia Britannica reflects this erroneous conclusion, saying that the Jerusalem Council was "a conference of the Christian Apostles in Jerusalem in about AD 50 which decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to observe the Mosaic Law of the Jews":
“…A conference of the Christian Apostles in Jerusalem in about AD 50 which decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to observe the Mosaic Law of the Jews"
Encyclopedia Britannica ("Jerusalem, Council of")
What is said in Acts Chapter 15 that causes many Christians and Bible Scholars to feel justified in doing away with the Torah (the Hebrew name for the Law of God)? Well, actually, there are about four verses which are being misunderstood and misapplied.
Acts 15:10-11, 19-20 "Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood."
At first glance, it really appears that the Gentile converts were given a short list of requirements, which set aside the rest of the Torah, making it inapplicable to them. From this interpretation of Acts 15, many Christians have come to view the Torah as a “Jewish” thing, which only Jews need to understand, reverence or keep.
But, is this the right interpretation of Acts 15? Were the Early Christians in the Jerusalem Council setting aside the Torah, making it irrelevant to Gentile converts? In this study we're going to thoroughly examine the actual question brought before the Jerusalem Council by Paul and Barnabas, and the solution that James and the Jerusalem elders arrived at to resolve this issue. Along the way, we'll look closely at what the text of Acts 15 really says.
One key thing in understanding a teaching, is that each Scripture must be understood in the context of the other verses around it. So to understand Acts 15 verse 10, we need to begin with verse 1. Here the problem which the Jerusalem Council was meeting to address is clearly given.
Acts 15:1 "And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved."
The Bible states that some men came to the assembly of believers in Antioch, Syria from Judea and started teaching that circumcision "according to the custom of Moses" was a necessary part of salvation. The word "custom" is translated from the Greek noun ethei (lit. "custom," "law").
The root word ethos is sometimes used in the Bible to denote commands from the Law of Moses (Luke 2:42; Acts 6:14; 21:21). It must be noted here that the problem was not the WHOLE Torah writings of Moses. Rather the problem which caused the Jerusalem Council to hold a special meeting was the issue of CIRCUMCISING the Gentiles, as was stated in the writings of Moses. So there was no issue with the whole Torah. The issue at hand was causing uncircumcised adult males to have to undergo circumcision at the time of baptism.
Leviticus 12:1-3 "And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised."
Interestingly enough, when God Commanded that boys be circumcised on the eighth day, He also provided special physical blessings on the eighth day. For example, on the eighth day, the infant develops the ability for his blood to clot. Also, many physicians say that the infant has less pain in being circumcised on the eighth day.
Now, with that background detail, let’s continue with our study of Acts 15. Considering the pain involved in circumcision after the eighth day, it is more understandable that the Gentile converts would find adult circumcision to be a fearful burden. And this was the context and original concern which sparked the famous Jerusalem Council session, recorded in Acts Chapter 15.
So once again, according to the Bible, the whole purpose for convening the Jerusalem Council was to discuss whether or not Gentile converts were required to be physically circumcised in order to be accepted into the body of Messiah and begin their walk with God.
The Bible gives another dimension to the council session in Acts14:4-5. Here we see that the Rabbinic believers were demanding that the Gentile believers should be BOTH circumcised AND keep the Law of Moses.
Acts 15:4-5 "And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the Law of Moses."
Now that we clearly see the issues at hand, let us consider WHY? What part of the Early Christian fellowship were the Gentiles being required to be circumcised and keep the Torah to participate in? Did they have to be circumcised and obey the Torah in order to attend Church with the Early Christians? Did they have to be circumcised and obey the Torah in order to be baptized and join the Church? For what were circumcision and Torah observance requirements?
The Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to attend the Church services of the Early Christians or to hear the apostles in the Synagogues. In Acts 17, and several other places, we hear of Greeks and Gentiles attending the Church services, and becoming converted by this meeting attendance. Clearly, they didn’t get circumcised prior to even being converted.
Acts 17:10-12 "And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few."
Obviously, Gentiles could go to church without circumcision and without being fully Torah observant (they would obviously learn more and more of Torah in every service - so this was an area in which they were still growing). So the issue in Acts 15 wasn’t about the Gentiles being circumcised and fully Torah observant in order to attend meetings. What then? What did the converted Jews say the Gentile converts couldn’t do unless and until they became circumcised and Torah observant?
The issue was not Church attendance, nor even baptism, the issue was that circumcision and full Torah keeping were prerequisites for keeping Passover. This was not Rabbinic law! The Torah prohibited any uncircumcised person from keeping the Passover.
Exodus 12:43-49 "And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the Passover: There shall no stranger eat thereof: But every man's servant that is bought for money, when thou hast circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof. A foreigner and an hired servant shall not eat thereo... And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you."
Well, considering that the Torah plainly states that no uncircumcised person can keep Passover, it makes a whole lot of sense to see why the converted Jews, who understood Torah, were requiring circumcision of the Gentile converts. The other issue of keeping the whole Torah is also present in the Passover requirements. For it says that the stranger and the home-born, or Jew and Gentile alike have one Law. This means that both the Jew and Gentile have the same Torah.
Consider the interesting implications to this background detail. Many Christians use Acts 15 to say the Gentiles only have a short list of things they need to do after conversion. But, this wasn’t about conversion at all. These Gentile converts could go to church and be fully functioning members of the church family until it came time for the Spring Feasts.
But, this part of the story isn’t normally told, because most Christians want to believe that feast keeping is a Jewish thing. Yet, here the Gentiles and Jews alike were so concerned about keeping Passover that there was controversy about it! The Gentiles wanted to keep the Passover, too! They just hoped this didn’t mean they had to become physically circumcised. But the whole chapter of Acts 15 with the Jerusalem council wouldn’t even have been necessary at all, if the Gentile believers didn’t need to keep the Feast in the first place!
Ironically, one of the Bible chapters most commonly used to show that Feast-keeping is done away with for Gentile converts, actually shows how important keeping Passover was for Gentile believers!
Since the Torah plainly instructed that uncircumcised people could not keep the Passover, how is that the Jerusalem Council let the Gentiles off the circumcision requirement?
Actually they didn’t set aside even the smallest part of Torah. Circumcision was very much still in place and was just as required for anyone wanting to Feast with God after Calvary as it had been previously. But once Yahshua died on the Cross, shedding His Own Blood for our sins, the shedding of blood was no longer necessary.
Deuteronomy 30:6 "And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live."
The requirements for fellowship with our holy God are not different today than they were for past generations. This view of Acts 15 displays a complete lack of understanding about the real issues or intent. It is still required that no spiritual strangers partake of the Seder blessings. Perhaps you will remember that the meal now called “the Lord’s Supper” was actually the Saviour keeping the Passover with His disciples.
Yahshua said to His disciples, “with desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” Luke 22:15. The "Lord’s Supper" is the Passover Seder.
As we consider this, let’s read 1 Corinthians 11:26-29:
"For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till He come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body."
Since Paul wrote to the Gentile converts in Corinth about the importance of being spiritually circumcised prior to keeping Passover, we can clearly see that Paul didn’t believe the Torah circumcision requirement was set aside for Gentiles by the Jerusalem council. Circumcision was still very much in place, but the old burden of shedding blood was no longer needed, now that the Saviour’s Blood had been shed. From this burden of physical pain and hardship, the Gentile converts were spared.
But what about the idea that the Gentiles were given a short list of requirements in Acts 15?
Acts 15:19-20 "Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood."
Between the 1st and 2nd missionary journeys there was "a long time" in Antioch in Syria (Acts 14:28).
Acts 15:21 "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day."
After the council session ended, Paul returned to Antioch and worked there a while (Acts 15:30-35). Now, if the correct interpretation of Acts 15 is that the Gentile converts only had to keep three things in Torah, you would expect to see the Gentiles only keeping these three where-ever Paul was involved. Certainly Paul would have taught them what the apostles had agreed upon.
But as I will show you, we don’t see the Gentile converts only obeying these three Torah principles. Instead we see them obeying numerous other Torah statutes long after the counsel’s decision. This is evidence to show that the Gentile converts didn’t view the Acts 15 list as all they would EVER do to change from their old lives. Rather, it was the short list they were to start with in their new walk with God.
It is a statute that God’s people are not to participate in any form of witchcraft. Also, the statutes require that magic items be destroyed by burning. These statutes are not listed in the Gentile short list of Acts 15. So, if Acts 15 is really ALL the Gentiles were to do, you would expect that Gentile converts could participate in witchcraft. And if they got rid of magic materials, they didn’t need to burn them, but could sell them for a profit! After all, these statutes were not mentioned in the Acts 15 short list. But just a couple chapters away, in the book of Acts, we read about the Gentile believers being converted and repenting from witchcraft practices. Instead of selling their magic books, they burned them, as it said to do in the statutes.
Where were these things in Torah?Acts 19:17-19 "And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. And many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver."
Deuteronomy 18:10-13 "There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee. Thou shalt be perfect with the LORD thy God."
Clearly the Gentile converts of Ephesus still believed this statute was in place. They repented of their sorceries and turned from them.
And when those Gentile converts in Ephesus turned from sorcery and repented, why didn’t they sell their magic books? They were worth about 50,000 pieces of silver? Why did they burn such valuable books? They burned them instead of selling them and getting the silver because this was obedient to the statutes:
Deuteronomy 7:25-26 "The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein: for it is an abomination to the LORD thy God. Neither shalt thou bring an abomination into thine house, lest thou be a cursed thing like it: but thou shalt utterly detest it, and thou shalt utterly abhor it; for it is a cursed thing."
How did the Gentile converts of Ephesus know to do these things, as is recorded in Acts chapter 19? Can we say that they did them because they didn’t know they only needed to obey a short list? No! That was in Acts 15! Clearly, Acts 19 happened AFTER the Jerusalem council. Yet the Gentile converts display obedience to statutes not mentioned in Acts 15!
Could it be that the Early Christians didn’t interpret Acts 15 the way most Christians interpret it today?
Paul, himself, was a feast-keeper. And in his journeys throughout the Gentile realm, his feast-keeping was a well-known fact.
Acts 18:20-21 "When they desired him to tarry longer time with them, he consented not; But bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem: but I will return again unto you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus."
Toward the end of his life, Paul gave a powerful testimony:
Acts 28:17 "And it came to pass, that after three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, he said unto them, Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans."
Clearly, Paul not only kept the Feasts of Yahweh, but believed this was a right practice after Calvary and after the Jerusalem council. Still, Paul was a Jew, and the Jerusalem council was about what was required of Gentile converts.
Paul said he was going to “keep” the feast himself. But when he couldn’t get to Jerusalem to keep it with the big crowds, he still kept it, with whomever he was with - including the Gentiles!
In fact, it was BECAUSE the apostles knew that the Gentile converts would be hearing the books of Moses, also known as the Torah, on the Sabbath day that they were comforted with asking three things of them as prerequisites for keeping Passover. It was never believed that the Gentiles would ONLY do those three things to the exclusion of all the other Torah commands! This is clear from the numerous examples we find of Gentiles keeping the statutes NOT given in Acts 15.
Acts 15:21 "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day."
The most powerful of all the proofs showing that the Apostles truly didn’t expect the Gentile converts to set aside Torah for a new short list is the story found in Acts chapter 21. When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, James greeted Paul, James was the same apostle who first proposed the list of things for the Gentiles in Acts 15. Then James expressed concern regarding rumors going around about Paul James was sure these rumors were false as it says in Acts 21:24. He counseled Paul what to do in order set the rumors to rest.
Acts 21:21, 25 "And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs... As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication."
James instructed Paul on what to do to set the rumors to rest and help the Jerusalem people to know that Paul WAS NOT teaching that the Torah was set aside licensing the Gentiles not to keep it, while keeping a short list from Acts 15. Here’s what James suggested Paul should do:
Acts 21:23-24 "Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the Law."
Sadly Christians are still accusing Paul of licensing Gentile converts in setting aside the Torah. They still cite Acts 15 as being the short list for the Gentiles, while setting aside the rest of the Torah. And they feel justified to do this by misconstruing Acts 15 and some of the teachings of Paul. Yet, as the apostle James testified plainly in Acts 21, nothing could be further from the Truth.
In fact, if it HAD been truth, Paul’s writings could never have come to be part of the Scripture! Why? Because to the “Law and to the Testimony if they speak not according to this word there is no light in them.” If Paul’s writings and teachings were not calling people into obedience to the Torah, He would have had no light at all!
The truth is that Paul and all the followers of Yahshua magnified the Law and made it honorable. The list of things for the Gentile converts in Acts 15 is a prerequisite list for keeping their first Passover. Yet, like all followers of Christ, their enlightenment was to increase. They were to know more and more of the Torah and Truth with each passing week. This growth was ensured by the fact that they would all hear the Torah every Sabbath.