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Acts 15 and Our Heritage in Christ
by Fred Mobley
reprinted by permission from the Christian Beacon.
A publication of United Christian Ministries
The decision made by the Church at Jerusalem about what is required of Gentiles has caused much confusion over the years. The Church gave four prohibitions that applied to Gentile converts in Act 15:19-21: They were to "abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood." Why were these four prohibitions required for Gentile converts? And what was the meaning of these prohibitions?
Many try to use these Scriptures to justify doing away with observing the Sabbath and the Holy Days; in fact, this is a common explanation in mainstream Christianity. Some have said that it means that the Sabbath is only binding on Jewish Christians but not binding on Gentile Christians, thereby creating two classes of Christians. After nearly 2,000 years, how can we even know what the Church had in mind when this pronouncement was made? Moreover, does it have any application to our lives today?
First, we need to know what caused the Church to make this decision regarding Gentile converts. In Acts 15 we find that the purpose of the meeting in Jerusalem was to discuss circumcision; it had nothing to do with the Sabbath or Holy Days. Peter makes it clear in Acts 15: 7-11 that spiritually God did not consider the Jews and the Gentiles as two different classes of Christians but looked on them as the same.
Paul expressed the same idea in Galatians 3: 26-29: "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise."
How Jews Viewed the Gentiles
To understand what happened in Jerusalem, we need to understand how the Jews viewed the Gentile world. They divided Gentiles into the following three classes:
1)Heathen - The Jews considered most Gentiles as heathen idolaters and would have nothing to do with them at all. Most of us are aware of this attitude even though it was not what God had commanded of Israel. An example of this attitude is shown by Peter in Act 10: 28.
2) Proselytes - Converts to Judaism were circumcised and were considered part of Israel.
Acts 2 lists those who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost; among those are named both Jews and proselytes. Acts 6 shows that these proselytes were part of the Church before Peter first took the Gospel to the Gentiles.
3) God-fearers - These were Gentiles who worshipped God but who were not circumcised. Josephus tells us that many were interested in Judaism at that time, yet did not want to become apart of Israel probably because of circumcision. Cornelius was such a person, as shown in Acts 10:2, 22, 34-35 and 13:16, 26.
Notice in the verses cited above that Paul makes a clear delineation between the Jews and the God-fearers. Acts 11: 1-3 also shows that those who were called God-fearers were not circumcised. In these verses, we see the first reaction of the Jewish Christians to Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and the statement that Cornelius and his household were not circumcised
God-fearers dated long before the first century. We find this class of people throughout the Old Testament, in which they are usually referred to as "strangers who dwell or sojourn with you." Leviticus 17:12-13 tells us:
"Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall even pour out the blood thereof, and cover it with dust."
Here we find two of the prohibitions of Acts 15: 19-21. Eating blood and by implication eating anything strangled were prohibited because the blood was not poured out.
In Leviticus 18: 26, we read about another prohibition mentioned in Acts:
"Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; [the sexual sins list in the verses above] neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you."
God-fearers were to avoid fornication.
In Exodus 20: 10, strangers or God-fearers are to observe the Sabbath:
"But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates."
This verse contradicts the idea of some that the Sabbath was only given for Israelites.
Leviticus 16: 29, Exodus 12: 19, and Deuteronomy 16: 10-14 all show that the stranger or God-fearer was to keep the Holy Days, again contradicting the idea that these days were only for Israelites. As Deuteronomy 31: 12 indicates, God’s laws are for the stranger as well as the Israelite:
"Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the LORD your God, and observe to do all the words of this law."
However, the Old Testament does show that there was one difference placed between the proselytes and strangers or God-fearers:
"And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. One law shall be to him that is home born, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you" (Exodus 12:48-49).
In order to keep the Passover, the stranger had to be circumcised, thus becoming an Israelite (Exodus 12:48). This triggers the question as to why the Passover was not addressed in Acts 15 at the meeting in Jerusalem.
From the Old Testament evidence, it seems clear that the strangers or God-fearers were to abstain from blood, strangled animals, fornication and, since they were to obey God’s Law, idol worship. Thus the four prohibitions of Acts 15: 19-21 are consistent with Old Testament requirements. What the Church was proposing for Gentile converts was not anything new. It was a clarification and restatement of what had always been necessary for a Gentile who wanted to worship the God of Israel and to dwell with Israel. The Church was not making new rules and regulations and imposing them on the believers through some hierarchical system, but rather they were looking to God’s Word for guidance.
What James was saying in verse 19 of Acts 15 was simple:
"No, you don’t have to become a physical Jew as those who want you to be circumcised are insisting. All we are saying is that you should obey the requirements that have always existed for Gentiles who want to dwell with Israel."
He was articulating what Paul later wrote in Romans 8: 28:
"For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God."
Circumcision of the heart was not something that Paul thought up after the Jerusalem conference. It was a concept taken from the Old Testament, for God had told Israel that they were to circumcise their hearts in Deuteronomy 10:16-19:
"Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff-necked. For the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Notice in this passage that God specifically tells Israel they are to love the stranger.
So we see that the Church was not going against the Old Testament practices or setting new doctrine, as some nowadays would have us believe. The circumcision party was trying to place totally unscriptural requirements on the Gentiles and to set doctrine that went against what God had clearly shown the apostles when Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit. The men of the circumcision party claimed that they had the authority of Jerusalem to circumcise, when in reality they had no such authority. As Acts 15:24 shows, this group was trying to take dominion over the faith of the brethren.
The discussion in Acts 15 was not about Christ’s law versus Moses’ law or even selective obedience to God’s law. Today, many mistakenly try to apply a twentieth-century mindset to a first-century problem, not realizing that the decision related to what was necessary for Gentiles to become spiritual Jews through faith in Jesus Christ.
Neither was it a question about the requirement that Gentiles must be circumcised in order to take the Passover. The Church realized that Jesus had fulfilled all sacrifices. He was the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for every man, Jew or Gentile. Therefore, sacrifices were no longer necessary and any commandment or regulations relating to those sacrifices had no bearing on the subject of circumcision or non-circumcision.
Even before the crucifixion, it was recognized that Christ was the ultimate sacrifice.
John 1: 29: "The next day John [the Baptist] seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world."
And Paul showed that Jesus had fulfilled the sacrifice of the Passover in I Corinthians 5: 7. Since all were to worship God in spirit, the circumcision that truly mattered was also of the spirit (Col. 2:9-11).
But the problem did not end in Jerusalem. Paul had to deal with it again, as we see in Galatians 5: 2. Most Bible scholars agree that it was not Jewish Christians who were trying to get Gentile Christians circumcised, but rather Gentile judaizers who were pushing for circumcision. They apparently thought that if they became physical Jews, they would be on a higher spiritual plane and more like Christ.
Now we are seeing the same type of mentality among the Churches of God.
There are certain groups and individuals who believe that we need to do things the way the Jews do them in order to be more spiritual and to draw closer to God. They are not yet asking people to be circumcised, but they believe that God’s people need to wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls, to face Jerusalem when they pray, or to light special candles on the Sabbath. Or they perhaps recommend baking a special bread for the Sabbath and/or doing other things that they think are based on first-century Judaism. In reality, however, the vast majority of these traditions originated with the Jews of central Europe during medieval times. None of these actions are intrinsically wrong, but to claim that they put a Christian on a higher spiritual plane or may be necessary for salvation is an approach that differs very little from the false claims made in the first century about circumcision.
God established Israel as a physical nation based on physical promises. Christ founded the Church, spiritual Israel, based on better promises—spiritual promises! Moreover, if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and an heir to the promises. It is not necessary to go back to the physical rituals of Israel or the Jews in order to receive those promises!
What James and Paul said almost 2,000 years ago still applies today. Our heritage is in Jesus Christ—not in first-century or any other era of Judaism.
Circumcision for Christians must be of the heart and not of the flesh. ***