1And 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.
2When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
3And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.
4And 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.
5But 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. (Acts 15:1-5, King James Version)
It’s easy to take verses completely out of context and try to make it say something that it does not say. V 5 above is a prime example. It is used to set up a strawman in order to portray Paul’s adversaries in this debate as saying that the issue was that Gentiles had to keep the Law of Moses. Then, by knocking down their position, they “prove” that Gentiles do not have to keep the Law of Moses, which would mean the holy days, the Sabbath, clean and unclean meats, etc. However, is that really the issue?
We need to look at the context of this verse and the history of the Church. In conclusion, we should look at what has replaced what as the sign of God’s people.
The first verse frames the entire argument. “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” This should be pretty straight-forward if it weren’t for a bias against keeping God’s Law. Being circumcised was viewed as keeping the Abrahamic covenant. Jews required their proselytes to become circumcised before becoming full-fledged Jews. That’s why you sometimes read about two levels of proselytes. One level was the “God Fearer” level. These kept most of the laws and rituals short of circumcision. Cornelius was such a convert. The other was a full-fledged proselyte who was circumcised.
The tie-in is that in order to keep the Law of Moses in their minds, you had to become circumcised. Since the Jews viewed circumcision as a requirement to become a physical Jew, their reasoning was that you also had to become circumcised to become a spiritual Jew. In short, they were saying that you had to become a physical Jew in order to become a spiritual Jew.
It can be too easy for us to dismiss their reasoning, as we have pretty much the opposite problem these days. We are far removed from their situation, and so it might not at first strike us as a logical train of thought. However, their reasoning actually was quite logical. It would have been what they expected. It would have been the continuation of what they had done previously.
However, being logical doesn’t always mean being right. If you have an incorrect assumption, you will likely have incorrect conclusions. The logic might be just fine, but the input is tainted. “Garbage in, garbage out,” goes the saying.
Notice, though, that the original contention was not about keeping the Law of Moses at all. Rather, it was about fulfilling the Law through the ritual of circumcision. It was their assumption that you could not keep the Law of Moses without circumcision. It was rightly viewed as the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. They equated being God’s people with being descended from Abraham (Jn 8:33). What they forgot is that Gentiles are not descendants of Abraham.
Peter stood up in Ac 15:7-9 to explain how he went in to Cornelius, who was not circumcised. He also makes an important point that the heart is being purified among Jews and Gentiles alike. We need to be mindful that God wants circumcision of the heart (Ro 2:29), and we will revisit this at the end of the article.
21Then Peter went down to the men which were sent unto him from Cornelius; and said, Behold, I am he whom ye seek: what is the cause wherefore ye are come?
22And they said, Cornelius the centurion, a just man, and one that feareth God, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews, was warned from God by an holy angel to send for thee into his house, and to hear words of thee. (Acts 10:21-22, King James Version)
He was "a just man" and "one that feareth God". Would he have been "just" or God fearing by disobeying God? Would Cornelius have had a "good report among all the nation of the Jews" by breaking the Sabbath, eating pork and doing as he pleased?
“Just” is G1342 “dikaios”, which means “righteous, observing divine laws”. This does not sound like someone who cast God’s Law aside.
34Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:
35But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. (Acts 10:34-35, King James Version)
Here, we see righteousness again. This time, it is G1343 “dikaiosyne”, derived from “dikaios”. What is righteousness?
25And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us. (Deuteronomy 6:25, King James Version)
172My tongue shall speak of thy word: for all thy commandments are righteousness. (Psalm 119:172, King James Version)
So, it would appear that the proponents of Gentile circumcision were not that far off the mark, at least at this point, although they were a bit misguided. It wouldn’t be until after this conference that those who insisted upon circumcision would become something more than just misguided because at that point they would be disregarding the direction of the Holy Spirit.
Now, back to Acts 15.
20But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
21For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. (Acts 15:20-21, King James Version)
We should recognize that James said this. You know, the one who wrote the “epistle of straw” that Martin Luther hated so much. He didn’t like the Book of James because it clearly contradicted his idea of being saved by faith “alone”.
23For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
24For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
25But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. (James 1:23-25, King James Version)
James upheld the Law in his epistle, and he did in Acts 15 as well. Both vv 20 and 21 are a unit. Taking v 20 out of context, some stop short and don’t realize that even v 20 is from the Law of Moses. Even the “strangers” among the Israelites were not to eat of blood (Lev 17:10-12). Things strangled was due to the fact that the blood would have been retained within the carcass. Obviously, idol worship and fornication would have been so condemned by various places in the Law as well.
James, then, is speaking from Jewish tradition, but it is a tradition solidly based upon the Law. Some claim that he is paraphrasing from the Noahidic covenant, but nowhere does Genesis 9 specify idolatry and fornication.
James doesn’t stop there. He says the Gentiles are being preached from the writings of Moses. Why would that be important if it were done away with or not applicable to them? Furthermore, why would they even hear it “every sabbath day” if the Law of Moses was not required?
To say that the apostles approved of the Gentiles not following the Law of Moses flies in the face of them sitting every Sabbath day in the synagogues listening to the Law of Moses. If it isn’t required, why would they do this?
However, if they were saying, as in v 1, that the Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to keep the Law of Moses, then we really do narrow in on the controversy being over circumcision and not the keeping of the Law of Moses, and the entire chapter makes sense.
Linguistically, a case can be made for this. G5037 is “te”, which can mean “both … and”, but it can also mean “as … so”. It isn’t a stretch for the verse to be translated “It is needful to be circumcised and so command them to thus keep the Law of Moses.” Frankly, it is the only way it can fit in with the notion of having the Law of Moses being preached to them.
Wikipedia states in “Jewish Christian”:
Alister McGrath, former Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford, claims that the 1st century Jewish Christians were totally faithful religious Jews. They differed from other contemporary Jews only in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. However as Christianity grew throughout the Gentile world, Christians were cut off from their Jewish roots.
And in “History of Christianity”:
The first Christians were essentially all ethnically Jewish or Jewish Proselytes. In other words, Jesus preached to the Jewish people and called from them his first disciples. Although the Great Commission is specifically directed at "all nations," an early difficulty arose concerning the matter of Gentile (non-Jewish) converts as to whether they had to "become Jewish" (usually referring to circumcision and adherence to dietary law), as part of becoming Christian. While Judaisers supported these restrictions, circumcision was considered repulsive by Greeks of the Mediterranean Basin. The actions of Peter, at the conversion of Cornelius the Centurion, seemed to indicate that they did not, and this was agreed to at the apostolic Council of Jerusalem. Related issues are still debated today.
Pretty much, when people want to talk about “Apostolic Christianity”, they are forced to consider Christianity’s Jewish roots. Even when Paul stood before Felix, Felix regarded the controversy between Paul and the Jews an internal argument (Ac 25:18-19).
Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, lived 130 – 196 CE. He learned from Polycarp in Smyrna, who in turn learned from John, the apostle. This would have been long after the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. He made a strong argument in favor of keeping Passover on the 14th of Nisan, according to the Jewish calendar. Again, we see the Jewish nature of Christianity even after Paul.
Over and over again, Paul mentions circumcision as a conflict within the churches. It is mentioned in Acts, Philipians and Galatians as a central conflict.
What Marks a Christian?
Obviously, some commentaries are divided. However, the above points to a strong bias rather than what the passage really says.
However, a couple of commentaries like Halley’s Bible Handbook point directly to what the conflict was about without all of the distracting verbage:
Question of Circumcizing Gentile Converts
About A.D. 50. 20 years after founding of the Church. Probably about 10 years after reception of Gentiles into the Church.
Although God had expressly revealed to Peter that Gentiles should be received without circumcision (chapter 10), and the Apostles and Elders were convinced (11:18), yet a sect of Pharisee believers persisted in teaching that it was necessary. And the Church was rent with discord over the question.
In this Council, God (28), led the Apostles to give unanimous and formal expression to the judgment that Circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles; and they sent a tolerant letter to that effect to Antioch, insisting though that Gentile Christians abstain from Idolatry and Immorality, which was so commonly practiced among Gentiles. Abstention from Blood, ante-dating Moses (Genesis 9:4) was for all the race.
~ p. 573
We need to remember that circumcision was the sign of a covenant. In this case, it was a covenant with Abraham.
Passover in the OT was observed with a lamb. Passover in the NT is observed with unleavened bread and wine. Same day, still observed, but different symbols.
Circumcision has been replaced as well. Yet, there are passages in the OT as well that point to the circumcision of the heart as being the important thing (Dt 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4) even before the NT. We are told that a spiritual Jew is one who is circumcised of the heart (Ro 2:29).
Circumcision, though was a sign. It was a physical sign. So, it must be replaced with another physical symbol. What then is the outward sign of belonging to God of the Christian? What sign shows the removal of the deadness of one’s heart?
John came with the baptism of repentance (Mt 3:11). Jesus told His disciples that one must believe and be baptized (Mk 16:16). After the crowd was pricked in their heart after hearing Peter preach his first sermon, he commanded them to be baptized (Ac 2:38), thus outwardly showing their repentance.
Paul directly compares and contrasts baptism and circumcision in Colossians 2.
11In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:
12Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
13And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; (Colossians 2:11-13, King James Version)
One symbol replaces another. Of course, that means the symbolism itself is different. The Passover lamb was symbolic of a physical rescue from bondage. The bread and wine are symbolic of a spiritual rescue. The Passover lamb was forward looking. The bread and the wine look back. Likewise, circumcision was a physical sign of being God’s people and looked forward to a time when all people would be called. Baptism is a physical act representing a spiritual removal of the hardness of the heart and looks backward to when our sins were forgiven by our Savior’s death.
The OT Passover was physical, which meant the entire family participated. The NT Passover is spiritual, which means only those who are able to repent and have done so participate. That is why infant baptism is not practiced in the Church of God, as they are unable to repent until they develop the maturity to tell right from wrong.