I’ve skipped Paul’s First Missionary Journey. He and Barnabas were sent by the congregation in Antioch to preach the gospel in Asia Minor. And as a result, they had many converts from among both the Jews and the Gentiles.
They returned to Antioch to report their results, only to find themselves confronted with a new, less easily convinced circumcision party.
(Act 15:1 ESV) 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.”
This was, of course, after Cornelius and after Paul’s successful missionary efforts. God was giving the Spirit to these converts, and yet the circumcision party refused to believe the evidence of their own eyes.
Most likely, they were contending that circumcision wasn’t required to become saved but to remain saved — it was a “test of fellowship” or a “salvation issue.” They would have certainly accepted a confession of faith in Jesus to baptize a convert, but they would have immediately insisted that the convert be circumcised to remain in good relationship with God. They were adding to faith.
(Act 15:2 ESV) 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.
It would not have been enough for the elders at Antioch to rule on this question. To avoid dividing the entire church, the question had to be answered in Jerusalem — not just because the apostles were there but because the heart of the circumcision party was there.
(Act 15:3-5 ESV) 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.”
Luke contrasts the reception Paul received among Jews outside Judea — Jews living among the Gentiles — and the Jews in Judea. You see, it’s easy to hate people you don’t know. It’s easy to make up rules for Gentiles that burden them when you have no Gentile friends.
Luke points out that the controversy arose from those converted from among the Pharisees. The Pharisees insisted that all Jews should keep the Mosaic laws regarding the cleanliness of priests, in an effort to win God’s approval and blessings, indeed, to hasten the Kingdom.
It’s ironic that, since the Kingdom has already arrived, they were still pursuing their purity agenda. Perhaps they imagined that their scrupulous law-keeping had persuaded God to send his Messiah.
Luke is explicit that they were still trying to keep the Law of Moses, not merely to be good Jews but to earn their salvation. Read 15:5 with 15:1, and you find that their theology was that the Law of Moses must be kept in order to be saved.
(Act 15:6-11 ESV) 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.”
Peter again testifies to the conversion of Cornelius. He interprets the events as follows:
* It’s about the heart, not the Law of Moses.
* God gave the Gentiles the same Spirit as he gave the Jews.
* This Spirit cleanses their hearts by faith. That is, God has shown his acceptance of the believing Gentiles by giving them his Spirit, who is transforming their hearts.
* The Law of Moses is an unbearable burden.
* Even the Jews are saved by faith, not obedience to the Law.
In short, salvation isn’t about rule keeping but receipt of the Spirit, who produces a changed heart. Therefore, it’s not about circumcision.
Moreover, notice how Peter doesn’t accept the argument that it’s just about circumcision. He knows that the rule-keeping mentality never stops with the first rule. As soon as circumcision would be bound as a salvation issue, other commands would be sure to follow. No one can bind just one.
Therefore, Peter sees no room for compromise. After all, why not —
* Impose circumcision just to keep the peace? Doesn’t the church need the circumcision party to remain united?
* Divide into a circumcision church and a non-circumcision church? Wouldn’t that keep the peace? They could meet across the street from each other.
But Peter correctly perceives that a little legalism would produce more and more legalism. Therefore, the church could and certainly should tolerate and accept the Pharisees. They were members in good standing and welcome to continue to practice their beliefs. But they couldn’t be allowed to impose their views on the Gentiles.
Rather, the solution was for both sides to accept the other, based on a common faith in Jesus, in a single congregation, as one community of faith.
(Act 15:12 ESV) 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.
Amazingly, Paul, the great theologian, didn’t argue theology. He told stories. He related what he’d seen God do.
(Act 15:13-18 ESV) 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.’
James, the brother of Jesus, was evidently the chairman of the meeting. He interprets the stories of Cornelius and Paul’s missionary journey in light of Amos 9:11-12. The quote is from the Septuagint, showing sensitivity to the Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles.
(Act 15:19-21 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. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
V. 21 gives an explanation (“for” = gar) for what precedes. The reason James proposes these rules is out of sensitivity to the consciences of Jews, as Jews live in “every city” and will not be able to accept the Gentiles if they don’t honor their scruples.
Now, what immediately bothers us about that interpretation is that sexual immorality is sinful and frequently condemned in the New Testament. It’s certainly not merely a matter of conscience!
My own view is that this command is in direct response to the elimination of circumcision. If circumcision was seen as a guard against fornication, especially temple prostitution, then porneias (translated “fornication”) has prostitution as its primary definition, but also includes other forms of sexual sin. Hence, James is protecting himself from the accusation that he’s gone “soft on fornication,” a very easy accusation for a church faction to make when he no longer requires circumcision.
“Things polluted by idols” is surely a reference to meat sacrificed to idols, an issue that plagued the early church. “Things strangled” is a reference to how animals are slaughtered. The objection to blood goes back to Noah —
(Gen 9:4 ESV) 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.
— but is frequently repeated in the Law of Moses.
Now, rather than looking at these commands as being about a new “Law of James” handed down from on high, think in terms of table fellowship. Remember, the circumcision party was outraged by Peter eating with the Gentiles! And the early church assemblies were centered on a common meal.
Suddenly, for congregations built on the love feast, the commands make perfect sense. The Gentiles should not serve food that gives offense to the Jews (in parallel with Rom 14). Unity has a price, but the apostles give a close and clear distinction between drawing salvation and fellowship lines over scruples and accommodating those with scruples who are wise enough not to judge over them.
Thus, in Galatians, circumcision and feast days were damnable heresy, whereas in Rom 14, special days and a refusal to eat non-kosher were “disputable matters.” Therefore, Paul has no condemnation for those in Rome who allowed their scruples to be treated as scruples and not as lines of fellowship, whereas in Galatians, the same scruples damned because they divided the church.