The first century church dealt with a recurring conflict between missionaries to the gentiles and a group that is sometimes called “the Party of the Circumcision.” Acts 15:1 tells us that
…some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
The rest of the chapter discusses this controversy and how the Jerusalem Council responded. I don’t like to reproduce large blocks of text from the Bible here, but I think it’s necessary because the council’s ruling is easy to misinterpret without considering the full context.
Act 15:1-33 (1) But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (2) And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. (3) So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. (4) When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. (5) But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (6) The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.
(7) And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. (8) And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, (9) and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. (10) Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? (11) But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (12) And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
(13) After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. (14) Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. (15) And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, (16) “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, (17) that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things (18) known from of old.’ (19) Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, (20) but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (21) For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.“
(22) Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, (23) with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. (24) Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, (25) it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, (26) men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (27) We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. (28) For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: (29) that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
(30) So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. (31) And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. (32) And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. (33) And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them.
I can see how it might appear to the casual reader as if the Jerusalem council ruled that the Torah does not apply to gentile believers. But a reader more interested in the broader context and a fuller understanding of what he reads might notice a few details that seem to indicate otherwise.
First, let’s define the controversy.
Verse one says that some men came from Judea and told the new gentile believers that, in order to be saved, they must be circumcised according to the “custom of Moses.” Paul, Barnabas, and some others went to Jerusalem (in Judea) to discuss this issue with the apostles and elders (v2). When they had brought the Jerusalem council up to date on their mission to the gentiles and had described the controversy at hand, some of the same group of men were there and reaffirmed what had been told to the gentiles (v5). These might have been the “others” who had accompanied Paul and Barnabas, possibly to ensure that both sides of the argument would be represented fairly.
This is the question that the Jerusalem Council convened to answer: Must the gentile converts be circumcised according to the custom of Moses in order to be saved and should they be ordered to keep the law of Moses? As you can see, there are actually two questions, and if you are unfamiliar with the written Torah, it will be very easy for you to misunderstand the nature of these questions from the text in Acts alone.
Note that verse one states “circumcised according to the custom (ethos in Greek) of Moses.” There is no general command anywhere in Torah to circumcise grown men. There were specific circumstances in which the Hebrews had neglected the command to circumcise their infant sons, and so they rectified that by circumcising themselves as adults, but those were one time events. Nowhere did Moses write, “If a foreigner wishes to be grafted into Israel, he must be circumcised,” or “a grown man who was not circumcised as a child must be circumcised as an adult before he can be acceptable to God.” The Law only stipulates that a newborn boy must be circumcised on the eighth day. This “custom of Moses” was just a custom of men and came with a long list of extra-biblical do’s and dont’s known as the Eighteen Measures of Shammai (briefly mentioned in this Jewish Encyclopedia article). By demanding that new believers must be circumcised in order to be saved, they were adding to God’s Law, something He expressly forbade them to do.
Verse five says that the Pharisees also wanted to order the new converts to keep the whole Law of Moses, something that they clearly weren’t even doing themselves. As Yeshua told them years earlier, “By your traditions you make void the commandments of God.” In fact, since their circumcision was only a man-made tradition, it’s very likely that the laws they intended weren’t the Law of Moses at all, but either the Eighteen Measures or else the full body of draconian and contradictory Jewish law. Peter’s statement (v10) confirms that this is almost surely the case:
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
(Acts 15:10 ESV)
How could God’s Law as delivered through Moses be such an onerous burden when God Himself says that it was not?
Deuteronomy 30:9-16 ESV (9) The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, (10) when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (11) “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. (12) It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (13) Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (14) But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (15) “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. (16) If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.
How could they have been unable to bear the burden of God’s Law about which David wrote such stirring words:
Psalms 119:44-48 ESV (44) I will keep your law (Hebrew: Torah) continually, forever and ever, (45) and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. (46) I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, (47) for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. (48) I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.
So what was the yoke that the Apostles and their fathers couldn’t bear except for the innumerable regulations that lawyers had piled on top of the Divine Law? Yeshua was continually rebuking them for “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9), and this was just more of the same. The “party of the circumcision,” as Paul would refer to them, wanted to make all of these new gentile believers into full-fledged Jews, complete with a Jewish ritual conversion and all the rules and regulations that were impossible to keep and often in direct contradiction to the written Torah.
The actual question at hand was not whether the Law of God (aka the Mosaic Law) applied to the gentile converts, but whether they ought to be required to keep the Jewish traditions that had been added to God’s Law.
Peter urged the council to reject this proposal. What was too difficult for the Jews who already knew the Torah well would surely be even more difficult for the gentiles, and many would turn away in discouragement.
This is James’ final ruling on the issue:
Acts 15:19-20 ESV “(19) Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, (20) but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
Clearly he rejected the idea that the converts must be circumcised to effect salvation, but did he go so far as to reject Torah observance altogether? It almost reads that way! But what about keeping the Sabbath, stealing, coveting, dishonoring parents, and oath breaking? If you refrain from sexual immorality, but hate your brother, have you really done well (v29)? Of course not! Paul, Peter, John, and James all wrote strongly against a number of immoral behaviors that James didn’t even mention, so we know that James didn’t mean for them to interpret his ruling as license to commit everything under the sun so long as it didn’t violate one of these four prohibitions. That would be putting God to a far more severe test than the legalism he was refuting.
So what did he mean? The vital clue in the very next verse is usually ignored:
“For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” Acts 15:21 ESV
James said that they should not trouble the gentiles, but only tell them to avoid these four things, because Moses is taught in every synagogue every Sabbath.
The Apostles had rejected the Circumcision’s premise that a ritual conversion was necessary and had then gone much further than anyone had expected. Not only did converts not need to be circumcised and keep all of the Pharisees’ man-made traditions, but they didn’t even need to keep God’s Law in order to be saved! This was truly radical! But it wasn’t the end.
What were they to do with their salvation now that it was assured apart from circumcision? This is the question that James was really answering. Let me give you my amplified version of his ruling:
“Let’s not discourage the gentiles with a treatise on every moral particular. We’ll keep it simple and easy with just four really important things that will facilitate fellowship between Jews and gentiles. They can progress from there by learning over time just like Jewish children for many generations, hearing Moses read aloud and discussed in the synagogue every Sabbath.” James’ words embodied a great principle of human nature: demand too much, too fast, and you’ll get nothing at all. You’ll break people instead of advancing them.
The controversy addressed in Acts 15 was never about whether gentile believers in Yeshua ought to keep God’s Law as given through Moses. It was about conditions for salvation and for acceptance into fellowship.
This is the very essence of God’s grace: He loves us right where we are, and we don’t have to keep any set of rules to be saved. His grace is sufficient for our salvation. We don’t need to be circumcised, dunked, shaved, bathed, anointed, slain in the spirit, or sprinkled for His grace to be effective at covering over all of our sins and making us His own. All we have to do to be saved is throw ourselves on His mercy, begging His forgiveness and throwing our sins at His feet.
But the liberty we have in Messiah does not mean we are free to make void the Law of God. As Paul said to this idea, “Heaven forbid!” It only means that we are not condemned by our failures as we progress toward the mark of perfect faithfulness. We are free to obey God without fear that every misstep will send us plunging into the abyss.
Start where you are and work to do a little better every day. And if you do these things, you’ll do well.