Studies in the Book of Acts
The Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15)
“Certain people came down” (15:1)
While Paul and Barnabas are teaching at Antioch, some people come from Judea and demand that the Gentiles should become practicing Jews before being regarded as real believers. Luke summarizes their claim in a sentence: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1).
These hard-line Jewish Christians are confronted by Paul and Barnabas, who get “into sharp dispute and debate with them” (15:2). This is a key moment in the conflict about Gentile conversion. As Luke tells the story, he will also address some doctrinal arguments, but before we get to that, let us see how Paul deals with the question in his letter to the Galatians.
Apparently, the extremists took their legalistic message to other churches, including those in Galatia, which Paul had recently evangelized. The controversy broadened so that Jewish Christians were not even allowed to eat with Gentile believers. At some point Barnabas, and even Peter, seemed to side with the extreme position (Galatians 2:11-13).
At this point, the crisis is threatening the unity of the church. It is also striking a blow at the heart of the gospel of salvation by grace. Paul writes: “This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Galatians 2:4-5).
Peter probably thinks that it is a centrist position: Gentiles can be part of the church, and Jews can continue to be scrupulous about table fellowship if they wish. Doesn’t everyone get what they want? No, says Paul. He cannot accept a church in which Jews and Gentiles have to eat at separate tables, as if the Gentiles are unclean, unacceptable, not even part of the same family.
If the Jewish rigorists have their way — insisting on strict observance of Mosaic rituals — the church will eventually split. At best, two separate churches will form, one Gentile and the other Jewish. Or Gentile Christians will be forced to place their faith in Jewish regulations rather than the work of Christ.
The people from Jerusalem consider themselves to be representatives of James, not renegade teachers. (But James did not authorize them — see 15:24.) Paul refers to them as “certain men [who] came from James” (Galatians 2:12). But they claimed more authority than James had given them (Acts 15:24).
As we shall see, James, Paul and Peter will eventually agree. The rigorous view implies that a Gentile must become a Jew in order to be saved, and the apostles do not want this false message preached in the church.
“Unless you are circumcised” (15:1)
Luke presents the hard-line argument as one that stresses the need for Gentile converts to be circumcised. But he soon shows that the circumcisers want Gentile converts to practice the entire “law of Moses.” Basically, they are teaching that a person cannot be saved unless they become proselytes, converts to Judaism.
The conflict exists because there are people in the church from sharply varying cultural backgrounds. At one end are devout Jerusalem Jews who continue to worship at the Temple. They scrupulously observe all the cultic practices that define the Jewish way of life — all the laws found in the covenant God made with the Jews at Mt. Sinai. Circumcision is a crucial point. From the time of Abraham, circumcision helped define a person’s faith in God and being part of the people of God. [Genesis 17:10-14, 23-27; 21:4; 34:15-24; Exodus 12:44, 48; Leviticus 12:3; Joshua 5:2-8].
But now an increasing number of formerly pagan Gentiles are entering the church. Their religious life had been centered around pagan temples and their culture had been that of the wider Greek and Roman world. They had been idolaters with little interest in the Jewish way of life. And they do not want to undergo the painful circumcision process since it has no cultural meaning for them.
However, Jewish Christians fear that the Gentiles entering the church will change the nature of the church. In Judea, the religious leaders tolerate the Jewish Christians because they keep the law – they are faithful to the covenant of Moses, even if they do happen to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Their messianic beliefs are merely a harmless superstition, as long as they continue keeping Jewish customs. But now, if Gentiles come into the church without keeping Jewish laws, that will encourage Jewish believers to be less zealous about the laws as well, thereby bringing persecution from the Jewish leaders.
The Jewish Christians are afraid that many Gentiles have grown up in a culture of loose morals. Their easy entrance into the church might weaken the moral standards. Thus, the circumcisers want Gentiles to become like Jews in lifestyle — as evidence of their conversion, if nothing else.
Many Jewish Christians consider themselves to be part of the righteous remnant of Judaism. God has given them salvation, but as their part of the bargain, as evidence that they are part of the covenant, they must keep its laws.
The mental background of the Jew was founded on the fact that he belonged to the chosen people. In effect they believed that not only were the Jews the peculiar possession of God but also that God was the peculiar possession of the Jews. (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series, page 112)
And circumcision is one of the proofs of this exclusive relationship with God (Philo, The Migration of Abraham 92). No doubt many Jews of the time, like Philo, believe that circumcision is more than a ritual (Special Laws 1.8-11; 1.304-306). It is a symbol of religious commitment. The rigorists, like other Jews, see the physical act of circumcision as proof of one’s allegiance to God (Josephus, Antiquities 20:38-48).
Zealous Jews believe that a man must be circumcised in order to enter the nation of Israel and to be part of its righteous remnant. A failure to circumcise is regarded as a sign of apostasy (1 Maccabees 1:11-15). Gentiles who are not circumcised and who do not practice the Jewish religious life are considered unclean.
It was the age-old horror of the strict Jew, based on the Law of Moses, of contamination with those who were technically not within the covenant relationship — outwardly signalized by circumcision — and who ate food not permitted by the Law from utensils which had not been ceremonially cleansed. Thus the issue was more than that of admission to membership of the church. It involved also the question whether Jewish Christians ought to mix socially with uncircumcised Gentile Christians, to eat…at the same table, and to share in the same eucharistic celebration. (Neil, 168).
“You cannot be saved” (15:1)
It’s important to look at circumcision and the Law of Moses from the point of view of conservative Christian Jews. As far as they know, the entire Torah is still in force. There had been no clear teaching from Jesus to the contrary. In fact, he even seemed to teach the continuance of circumcision and various other rituals (Matthew 5:18; 23:1-2, 23; Luke 2:21-24; 5:14). He certainly lived as a Jew.
They [the Judaizers] found it hard to believe that Gentiles could be saved and become members of the people of God without accepting the obligations of the Jewish law. One can sympathize with their position; after all, what evidence was there that the law, which represented the will of God for his covenant people, had been repealed? This was the point which was pressed by some Jewish visitors to Antioch. (Marshall, 242)
Peter’s experience with Cornelius (Acts 10) shows that any effort to distinguish between “clean” and “unclean” people has no relevance as far as salvation is concerned. Peter explained this to the Jerusalem church. At the time, the Jewish Christians swallowed their concerns and accepted the fact that God is giving salvation to Gentiles (11:18).
The Jewish extremists accept the idea that the gospel is going to Gentiles; they know that the covenant of blessing extends to all nations (Genesis 12:3; 22:18; 26:4). The Scriptures say that the Gentiles will be saved in the last days (Isaiah 2:2; 11:10; 25:8-9; 49:6; 55:5-7; 56:7; 60:3-22; Zephaniah 3:9-10; Zechariah 8:23).
So what’s the problem? They do not want to exclude the Gentiles, but they insist on certain requirements for how inclusion is possible: The Gentiles should be proselytized in the context of Jewish faith, and not apart from it. Hence, they call for Gentile circumcision, for Gentiles to become Jews. That is why these people are commonly called Judaizers.
For these overscrupulous Christians in Jerusalem, the outreach to Gentiles was to come from within their group and to follow a proselyte model, not to come from outside their group and be apart from the law. In the last days, [they said] all nations are to flow to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem…not depart from it. (Longenecker, 444)
The Judaizers see Israel — or at least the righteous people within it — as God’s agent in bringing the blessings of salvation to the Gentiles. They can be saved only through Jewish customs, the methods God approved to keep the remnant righteous, or within the covenant of salvation.
Thus, the conclusion about Jewish observances is obvious to the Judaizers. Yes, God is giving salvation to the Gentiles. But if they want salvation, they must begin observing the Jewish ritual laws. Before they can be accepted as first-class Christians they must begin living like the Jewish Christians do. In short, the Judaizers say that Gentiles have to become Jews before they can be Christians.
The rapid influx of Gentiles into the church in both Antioch and the cities of southern Galatia had raised again the whole question of Gentile admission or, more precisely, the terms on which they should be admitted. It was one thing to accept the occasional God-fearer into the church, someone already in sympathy with Jewish ways; it was quite another to welcome large numbers of Gentiles who had no regard for the law and no intention of keeping it. (Williams, 256)
Thus, the stage is set for a fundamental showdown between the Judaizers and people like Paul, who say that Gentiles are grafted into the church through faith alone.
Go up to Jerusalem (15:2-4)
With the controversy over circumcision for Gentile converts raging in the church at Antioch, and no doubt spreading to other cities, something needs to be done. So the church at Antioch appoints Paul, Barnabas and some other leaders to go to “Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question” (15:2).
We know Paul’s beliefs about this from his own writings (Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 5:2-3; 6:15). A strict and vocal Jewish Christian minority in Jerusalem and Judea does not agree with Paul. They insist that Gentile converts accept such aspects of Jewish life as circumcision. This forces Antioch to ask for a major church synod, in approximately A.D. 49, with the apostles and elders of Jerusalem. The unity of the church is threatened, and an official ruling by the leaders seems necessary.
The Antioch delegation travels through Phoenicia and Samaria on its way to Jerusalem. The delegates preach in the churches along the way, explaining how the Gentiles are being converted (8:4-15; 11:19).
Paul and his group are enthusiastically received by the churches in these areas. Finally, the delegates arrive in Jerusalem where they are “welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders” (15:4). Luke is preparing his readers for the good news that Paul’s Gentile program will be positively received by the leaders and the church.
Pharisees demand circumcision (15:5)
Upon coming to Jerusalem, Paul and his delegation officially meet with the church leaders and report “everything God had done through them” (15:4). But certain Jewish Christians who belong “to the party of the Pharisees” then rise up to challenge Paul (15:5).
This is the first mention (except for Paul) of converts from the sect of the Pharisees. This group within the church — Christian Pharisees — are calling for circumcision. These Pharisees are believers who accept Jesus as the Messiah. As influential members of the Jewish andChristian community — and being experienced teachers — they are leaders among the Judaizing group. Clearly, the pro-circumcision lobby within the church is a powerful one.
The fact that there were enough converted Pharisees to have an influential voice in the affairs of the church indicates that the Jewish-Christian party had a powerful case for dictating terms to the pro-Gentile faction. (Neil, 171)
Must obey Moses’ law (15:5-6)
At the Jerusalem conference, the Pharisaic believers immediately begin to insist: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (15:5). There is a long debate on the issue, but Luke dismisses it with a short phrase: “After much discussion…” (15:6).
Luke doesn’t give us any of the Judaizers’ supporting arguments. But they probably base their teaching on Genesis 17:1-14, which says that God’s covenant with Abraham was ratified by circumcision. This applies to members of his household and to foreigners. If anyone refuses circumcision, that person is to “be cut off from his people” (verse 14). First-century Jews believe that the promises of salvation go back to this covenant with Abraham, and circumcision is part of it.
The Judaizers may also be referring to Exodus 12:48. This verse says that a foreigner living in Israel who wants to observe Passover has to be circumcised. So the circumcision party is using strong evidence from Scripture and from tradition in defense of circumcision as being necessary. On the other hand, Paul and the Antioch delegation do not have proof-texts that say circumcision is not needed. For the moment, it seems like the Judaizing party has the upper hand.
The apostles are faced with this question: Should the church follow the Torah literally in all its details? That is, do Scripture and tradition have a greater authority than the principle of faith in determining the basis who is in the people of God?
Peter’s speech (15:7-11)
At some point in the meeting Peter gets up. He makes a strong case for admitting Gentiles into the church on the basis of faith alone. He argues that God established a precedent, perhaps a decade earlier, of bringing Gentiles into the body of believers through faith. (He is referring to the example of Cornelius and his family discussed in Acts 9:32 through 11:18.)
“God, who knows the heart,” said Peter, “showed that he accepted them [the Gentiles] by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (15:8-9). God showed that he accepted a Gentile even while he was uncircumcised.
This summarizes Peter’s argument. He insists that faith is more important than ritual observance in defining a Christian. The proof is that God is giving his Spirit to the Gentiles without them first becoming Jews. Peter emphasizes that conversion is God’s doing, not the work of either the preacher or the believer. People do not decide on their own to take a place among the people of God. God is the one who converts them, and he does it by giving his Spirit, not by requiring the person to practice certain rituals.
Luke enables Peter to finally draw the full conclusions from his initial vision and command, “things God has cleansed, you stop making common” (10:15). Peter has come to understand not only that the vision was about the Gentiles, but recognizes that faith is the principle used by God for this “cleansing of the heart.” (Johnson, 262)
Although the council doesn’t make an issue of it, the truth is that only faith can cleanse Jews as well (a point made in the book of Hebrews). Everyone is saved by the grace of God, not through the practice of any system of cultic religious works. Faith is the basis of salvation for Jews and Gentiles alike. This faith is a righteousness that comes from God through the Holy Spirit, and is mediated by Christ. It is this faith that saves (Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:28).
Unbearable yoke to bear (15:10)
Peter brands the zealots’ desire to force the Gentiles to live as Jews a test of God — challenging something he has already done — and “a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear” (15:10). He says the legalistic faction is calling into question God’s will — which he had already made quite evident.
God is circumcising the Gentiles through the Spirit, not with the knife. Insisting on the ritual law is challenging God himself on his actions, Peter is saying. It is questioning the rightness of God in his cleansing the Gentiles through the Spirit. The call for circumcision has the effect of putting God on trial. The Judaizers are saying that God is not doing enough, nor doing it right, in allowing Gentiles as Gentiles to be full participants in his body, the church.
Rather, what should be on trial is the cultic cleansing system of the Jews. It had been tried for hundreds of years and found deficient. The law of Moses is irrelevant as far as salvation is concerned and is simply a burdensome lifestyle of “do’s-and-don’ts.” In one word, it was a “yoke.”
The word “yoke” (Greek, zygos) refers to a restraint. It can be a physical restraint placed on oxen (Deuteronomy 21:3). Or it can be a metaphor for political or social oppression (2 Chronicles 10:10; 1 Timothy 6:1). In this case, the law of Moses is both a physical burden and a form of religious oppression, even though well-meaning Jews are using it to keep themselves separate from the world. But when people use it to separate themselves from other believers, they are failing to keep in step with what God is now doing, bringing Gentiles and Jews into one people.
Jesus said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). People burdened and weary with sin, guilt and religious duty can come to Christ and find rest in him. That is what Peter is saying. The Christian way of life should not be religiously burdensome. That is a lesson all churches and religions need to learn.
Peter ends his speech by echoing the thought of Paul: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (15:11). Peter is on Paul’s side and his thoughts are quite Pauline. Peter puts his stamp of approval on Paul’s work, phrasing salvation in terms of grace — as the apostle to the Gentiles will frequently do as well. Luke, quoting Peter’s words to this effect, now makes no further mention of Peter anywhere in Acts.