Acts 15:1 - 41
ESV - 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.
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The situation that led up to the Jerusalem Council was that Gentiles were being saved. The church at that time was mostly made up of Jewish believers. So, the question was asked if Gentiles should have to become Jews and accept the Jewish practices to be saved, as some were teaching, Acts 15:1-5. The dispute led to the apostles and elders coming together, commonly called the “Jerusalem Council,” to settle this matter, Acts 15:6. Peter spoke first, relating the fact that the Gentiles heard the gospel and believed, as he also testified in Acts 11:1-18. It was senseless for them to have to bear a burden the Jews had not been able to bear, Acts 15:7-11. This was followed by a report by Barnabas and Paul in how God had worked wonders and miracles among the Gentiles, Acts 15:12. Then James, the half-brother of the Lord, who seems to have been the leader of the church of Jerusalem and the moderator of the council, rendered the decision, Acts 15:13-21. The minimum requirements were thought best for believing Gentiles who wanted to fellowship with believing Jews. The saved Gentiles were not to be troubled about having to observe Jewish practices, except in certain things, which are the four areas listed in Acts 15:20. Furthermore, the Jews would have been comfortable with these requirements. As a result of the meeting, Judas Barsabas and Silas, along with Paul and Barnabas, were sent with a letter to all believers where Paul and Barnabas had ministered. When they read the decision, they were encouraged and joyful, Acts 15:22-31. One may wonder how the Jerusalem Council came up with the instructions they gave in Acts 15:20 for the Gentiles to observe. They were based on Scriptures, not picked randomly, but from Leviticus 17 and 18. The principles from this passage were applied to this situation. The letter gives the four requirements in the same order as given in Leviticus: Things offered to idols, Leviticus 17:7-9 Blood, Leviticus 17:10-12 Things strangled, Leviticus 17:13-14 Sexual immorality, Leviticus 18 This passage seems to be what was on the mind of these leaders because foreigners or Gentiles who lived among the Jews, are specifically mentioned in this section, Leviticus 17:8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 18:26. Also, Leviticus 18:24-30 impresses the need to not defile oneself as the nations were defiled and were cast out. In context, after the provisions of God for the people in the first sixteen chapters of Leviticus, then chapters 17-18 explain the expected behavior on the basis of His provision. In Leviticus 18:1-5, God said, “I am the Lord” or “I am the Lord your God,” emphasizing His covenant name and covenant with His people. Then the following section, Leviticus 19:1-20:27, calls on all the people, living in the land of Canaan, to be holy. Led by the Spirit and using the Scriptures as a guide, the Jerusalem Council rendered and published a decision that was appropriate for God’s people, both Jew and Gentile, Romans 14:19.
The issue before the council in Acts 15 primarily addressed the question of how Gentile Christians were to be included and recognized alongside their Jewish counterparts in Remnant Isra'el. The reason the answer was not obvious to the Jewish apostles is because of the longstanding theology among Jews that Isra'el was comprised of Jewish people exclusively. The conclusion of the council, then, was that Gentiles did not need to become proselytes in order to enjoy full covenant status in Isra'el, which naturally includes Torah/Law participation (the term “circumcision” in Acts 15:1, 5 was shorthand for “conversion to Judaism”). The council was not voting on how much Law the Gentiles should keep in order to be saved, nor were they contemplating how much Torah Gentile Christians should be keeping after they become saved. There was one primary question and it had to do with how Gentiles got into Isra'el. Indeed, as the council would eventually decide, and as Peter had first testified in the home of Cornelius, the inclusion of the Gentiles was by the grace of God, not by means of a man-made ceremony. How then do we understand the Four Prohibitions? In order to assure their acceptance into the newly emerging Messianic Communities, the Gentiles were to make a decisive break with the pagan temple and its idolatry, which would involve ridding themselves of any of the pagan customs that marked that idolatrous form of worship. The Four Prohibitions is NOT a short list of how many commandments Gentiles must keep. As already pointed out, it was a list designed to promote peace within the early Messianic communities. Based on these data, it is imperative, then, that we understand this central biblical truth: the bringing near of the Gentile believers was not effected through negating the Torah (doing away with circumcision, etc.), but through overcoming the rabbinic teaching that required Gentiles to “become Jews” through becoming proselytes in order to be received into the covenant people of Isra'el. The gospel message of the Apostles proclaimed that, like Abraham of old, covenant membership was based upon faith, not upon the flesh (ethnic status). Acts 15:21 affirms one Law for both Jews and Gentiles to obey, particularly as both groups will learn it in the synagogues every Sabbath day. The “yoke that neither we nor our fathers could bear” (Acts 15:10) most certainly is NOT God’s gracious Torah; it is a man-made system of “righteous behavior” as regulated by the prevailing policies of that day. Practically speaking, “One Torah Theology” believes that God historically gave one covenant document to follow as a way of life for anyone wishing to identify as covenant Isra'el. Naturally, this would also include those from the nations who have been grafted into Remnant Isra'el. Instead of purporting that the NT is for Gentile Christians, and that the Torah was or is for Jews only, One Law commits both Jews and Gentiles in Yeshua, as children of faithful Abraham, to follow after the Torah of Moses, while retaining our distinctive ethnicities as Jews and Gentiles together in the Body of Messiah. Messianic bible teacher Tim Hegg’s thoughts are fitting for our conclusion: The mystery of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant people of God was not that the Gentiles would, in fact, be included (for this was known since the beginning, Gen 12:3, etc.), but the manner in which they would be included, namely, as fellow-heirs and not as a separate group unto themselves. That the Gentiles would be blessed with the covenant blessings, and that they should worship the one God of Israel, was fully spoken of by the prophets (v. 26). But the exact method, i.e., through the giving of the Spirit Who would graft them in—this was only revealed in the Apostolic era, at least in its fullness. For even Peter himself was amazed that the Spirit was given to the Gentiles in the same manner as He was given to the Jewish believers (Acts 11:15).
Acts is the transitional book from Israel's prophetic 'kingdom of heaven' gospels, to the gospel of God's grace as given to Paul for all outsiders of Israel's believing remnant or 'little flock'. Israel was having difficulty with understanding how non-covenant Gentiles were being allowed access to God without first having to go through them, as was God's revealed plan 'since the beginning of the world' for Israel throughout the Old Testament (Luke 1:70). God however had kept secret 'since the beginning of the world' His other plan for salvation by His grace through faith in Jesus Christ and His shed blood (Rom 16:25). This path concerns 'the church, the body of Christ' (us), and is unique from Israel's 'kingdom of Heaven'. Both however are contained in Christ, and within the larger realm known as the 'kingdom of God'. Eph 1:10 "That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:" The details of this church were given to and through the apostle Paul from Christ ascended (Eph 3:2), and is why there is such a seeming disparity between the thirteen epistles of Paul (Romans through Philemon) and Israel's kingdom gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the Hebrew epistles, and especially the prophetic Hebrew books of Daniel and Revelation. Acts 15:5 states that a sect of Pharisees became believers, but were adamant about having the new coming Gentile believers circumcised and to follow the law of Moses. Peter had to remind these Jews that God had showed him a dream where it was now acceptable for Gentiles to also have access to God (Acts 15:7-8 referencing the Cornelius visit of Acts 10). They finally came to an understanding of this, but had some 'house rules' that they asked be shared with the Gentiles (heathen) as the message of God's grace was to be spread (Acts 15:20). They also agreed that the 'gospel of the 'uncircumcision' (any outsider of Israel's covenant promises) should be shared by Paul, as it was received by Him directly from Christ ascended, and not by Peter: Gal 2:7-10 "But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; 8 (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) 9 And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. 10 Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do." Throughout his epistles, Paul is constantly reminding his established assemblies of the dangers of 'falling from grace' by going back to Mosaic law based doctrines, or following other religious 'doctrines of men' where the cross of Christ may then become of 'no effect' (1 Cor 1:17). Although ALL scripture is true and profitable for our learning (2 Tim 3:16), OUR Truth (doctrine) becomes more evident when scripture is read and studied the way God commands us to by 'rightly dividing' it. Our gospel of salvation is pertinent during God's 'dispensation of grace' and of Jesus Christ crucified: 2 Tim 2:15 "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." 1 Cor 1:23 "But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;" Eph 3:2-5 "If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: 3 How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, 4 Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) 5 Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;"
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