The activity and success of the Apostles was creating increasing interest among the Gentiles. The pressure by the Sadducees and especially the Pharisees had stifled the conversion of Jews to the Savior.
Now the pertinent question confronting the Antioch Assembly, which Paul and Barnabas were to help answer, was how necessary is circumcision for the Gentiles? The Jewish leadership said it was mandatory. “And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
Missionaries of the Assembly at Antioch, however, had accepted uncircumcised Gentile believers into their ranks. Because the issue was raised, Paul and Barnabas, along with some others, were sent by the Assembly to Jerusalem to see what should be required of the Gentiles coming into the Assembly.
In Acts 8: 14, the Jerusalem apostles had sent Peter and John to help the brethren in Samaria with their question concerning baptism of Gentiles. A later Jerusalem meeting recorded in Acts 21:18 was to clear suspicions of Paul. Jerusalem was looked upon as the spiritual center for the scattered assemblies. Now they were to recommend a course of action in dealing with Gentile converts.
Peter said there is no difference among peoples in Yahweh’s eyes: “And Elohim which knows the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Spirit, even as He did unto us, and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9).
Peter emphasizes that Yahweh gave the Holy Spirit to both Samaritans and Romans, that everyone potentially can be saved by the grace of Yahshua. The nagging question remained: Why then was circumcision required for any man to enter the Temple? (Ezek. 44:7).
One issue was already clear. Yahshua is now our High Priest and we are not required to offer animal sacrifices in the Temple. We can approach Yahweh directly anywhere, any time, once we accept‘ Yahshua. He explained this to the woman at the well: “But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him. Yahweh is Spirit: and they that worship him must worship [him] in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).
Animal Sacrifices and Physical Circumcision
Upon hearing of the matter of circumcision of Gentiles, both Paul and Barnabas recalled their experiences of miracles and the wonderful things that had taken place among the Gentiles who gladly accepted their message. James the brother of Yahshua then summarized the decision of the Apostles: “Simeon [Peter] has declared how Yahweh at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written” (Acts 15:14-15).
James goes to some length to show that Yahweh’s purpose is to reveal Himself to the Gentiles, to take from them a group of people for His Name. Not to save the world now, but to take out a nucleus of chosen faithful from both Israel and the Gentiles. These will become the kings and priests to rule in the Kingdom, Revelation 1:6. The salvation of the world comes later, Revelation 20:6.
“After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after Yahweh, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my Name is called, says Yahweh,who does all these things” (Acts 15:16-17).
James emphasizes that Yahweh is now calling out a special people. The called-out ones today are of the Melchizedek priesthood under Messiah. Animal sacrifices and circumcision are not required of us, for this “residue of men” will be baptized into His Name,and called by His Name. Circumcision has a deeper meaning already explained in the Old Testament as being humble and of a willing heart: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” (Deut. 10: 16). We are to love Yahweh with all our heart and be obedient to Him in all things. He will soften the heart of our offspring and lead them to obedience:
“And Yahweh your Elohim will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love Yahweh your Elohim with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).
Circumcise the Heart
The New Testament teaches that circumcision is not a great concern for the people of Yahweh. Our goal should be obedience to Yahweh and to His Commandments, His way of life: Paul wrote, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of Yahweh” is what is important (l Cor. 7: 19). When a person is baptized into the body of Messiah,he or she stands before Yahweh as sinless. All sins are washed away, and we are justified in Yahweh’s eyes, washed clean of our past.
Henceforth we can go directly to Yahweh in prayer and have our sins forgiven. We are now a new creature, a son or daughter of the Most High Elohim. Baptism is a cleansing, and with repentance is referred to as the circumcision made without hands. “In whom also you are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Messiah” (Col. 2: 11).
James then goes on to caution the brethren not to make things difficult for the new Gentile converts by expecting them to keep the sacrificial laws and be circumcised. When one is converted to Yahweh‘s truth and follows it, then one is circumcised in heart. That is what Yahweh wants!
Remove Practices of Heathenism
His next suggestion was that a letter be written to all the Gentiles with the following message: “But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time has in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (Acts 15:20-21).
This letter to the Gentiles has four special prohibitions mentioned: 1) have nothing to do with idols, 2) no fornication, 3) eat no strangled animal, 4) drink no blood. Why these four? Simply because these customs of the Gentiles played prominently in their former worship. They had before worshiped idols and dealt with temple prostitutes. They often ate strangled animals in order to eat the life-blood of that animal. They also drank blood from an animal, assuming to transfer to themselves the strength that was in the blood of a bull or goat.
The Gentiles were to avoid these four habitual practices immediately. Then, James says, they will in time learn the rest of Yahweh’s truth because when they attend the synagogues or assemblies every Sabbath, the other laws will be preached and explained to them.
James‘ summary of the proposed action pleased the apostles and elders along with the entire assembly. They decided to send theirselected men to Antioch with the following letter: “The apostles and elders, your brother, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syriaand Cilicia:Greetings, We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your mindsby what they said. So we all agree to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul- men who have risked their livesfor the name of our Sovereign Yahshua the Messiah. Therefore, we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are toabstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell” (NIV, Acts 15:23-29).
A Starting Point
This letter does not specifically include the point that each Sabbath the laws of Yahweh would be taught by reading of the Torah each week in the synagogue. But from verse 21 we learn that such is the intent. A removal of offending practices was the starting point, while more truth would be revealed once these abominations were eliminated. Silas, Paul, and Barnabas stayed in Antioch for some time teaching the people more of Yahweh‘s truths.
Paul and Silas later went on to Derbe and Lystra where Paul met young Timothy. They continued to deliver the letter warning thegentiles to desist from idol worship, from drinking blood, eating strangled meat, and from sexual immorality. They were also expected to observe the Sabbath each week and join in worship with the assembly.
“And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the assemblies established in the faith, and increased in number daily” (Acts 16:4-5). In Acts 21 Paul was commended for his activities among the Gentiles. The elders glorified Yahweh over the thousands among the Jews that believed. However, there was gossip that Paul was teaching the Jews who were among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after their customs.
To convince the people of his integrity, Paul was advised to purify himself with four other men who had a vow. Paul then could dispel any doubting, while the truth would be shown that Paul was orderly, keeping the law, verses 21-24.
Words Added to the Text
Verses 25–26 are quoted below to show that translators have added the capitalized words that are not in the text of Acts 21. Carnal man strives hard to do away with the law and set aside obedience, calling it bondage. But Paul kept the law and taught us to keep it as well.
“As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written [and] concluded THAT THEY OBSERVE NO SUCH THING, SAVE ONLYthat they keep themselves from [things] offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication. Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for everyone of them” (Acts 21:25-26, boldface words not in the text, omitted by newerversions).
To recap, Acts 15 is the account of the Jerusalem meeting of the Elders in deciding how to deal with Gentiles who become a part of the assembly. There were four pagan customs they were to refrain from participating in as they began their walk with the Savior.
They were also expected to meet with brethren on the Sabbath where they would have Moses taught and the Torah expounded to them. Note that the Gentiles were to be taught from the Old Testament, the teachings of Moses. Perhaps some day we can join the great throng Yahweh is preparing and teach and help others in the Kingdom. We read of this prophecy in Isaiah:“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of Yahweh‘s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exaltedabove the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people–shall go and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the Elohim of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word ofYahweh from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:2–4).
Paul answers those who would return to physical circumcision, “For in Yahshua the Messiah neither circumcision avails any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which works by love” (Gal. 5: 6). May his words be a guide to all who would miss the spirit of the law whilekeeping the letter.
by Donald R. Mansager