Acts 15 is one of the most misunderstood chapters in the Bible. This passage of Scripture describes the decision of the Jerusalem Council regarding the admittance of Gentiles into the Messianic congregation (Heb. qahal, Gr. ekklesia) of Israel. Many scholars use this chapter to claim that the Law given to Moses at Mount Sinai was nullified and no longer applicable to "New Covenant" Gentile believers.
The Encyclopædia Britannica reflects this erroneous conclusion, saying that the Jerusalem Council was "a conference of the Christian Apostles in Jerusalem in about AD 50 which decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to observe the Mosaic Law of the Jews" ("Jerusalem, Council of").
In this article we're going to thoroughly examine the actual question brought before the Jerusalem Council by Paul and Barnabas, and the solution that James and the Jerusalem elders arrived at to resolve this issue. Along the way, we'll look closely at what the text of Acts 15 really says.
The 15th chapter of Acts starts by immediately identifying the problem:
ACTS 15:1 And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom [ethei] of Moses, you cannot be saved." (NKJV)
We are told that some men came to the assembly of believers in Antioch, Syria from Judea and started teaching that circumcision "according to the custom of Moses" was a necessary part of salvation. The word "custom" is translated from the Greek noun ethei (lit. "custom," "law"). The root word ethos is sometimes used in the Bible to denote commands from the Law of Moses (Luke 2:42; Acts 6:14; 21:21). Here is the circumcision command found in the Law of Moses:
LEVITICUS 12:1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 "Speak to the children of Israel, saying: 'If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. 3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.' " (NKJV)
Instead of this command from the Law of Moses, the messianic Jews from Judea were apparently using the circumcision command for the Passover as the basis for their teaching:
EXODUS 12:43 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "This is the ordinance of the Passover: No foreigner shall eat it. 44 But every man's servant who is bought for money, when you have circumcised him, then he may eat it. 45 A sojourner and a hired servant shall not eat it. 46 In one house it shall be eaten; you shall not carry any of the flesh outside the house, nor shall you break one of its bones. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 And when a stranger [ger] dwells with you and wants to 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 a native of the land. For no uncircumcised person shall eat it. 49 One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger [ger] who dwells among you." (NKJV)
Yeshua was the fulfillment of the Passover (I Cor. 5:7). Apparently, the position of these Jews was that a Gentile who wished to partake of Yeshua's sacrifice was the same as a "stranger" (Heb. ger) who anciently dwelled among Israel and desired to observe the Passover. Therefore, these Jews believed that in addition to baptism, adult Gentile males had to be circumcised before they could partake of the true Passover and become part of the covenant people, Israel. Since uncircumcised Gentiles were a significant part of the Antioch congregation, this message clearly upset the members there.
ACTS 15:2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue [zetematos]. (NASU)
Paul and Barnabas, who were in Antioch at the time, did not agree with the teaching brought by these Messianic Jews. They vigorously debated this view with the men from Judea. Finally, the members of the congregation decided to send Paul, Barnabas, and others to Jerusalem to request the opinions of the apostles and elders on this matter.
The Greek noun zetematos, translated "issue" above, is SINGULAR. This is important to recognize because it tells us that there was only ONE issue here – the necessity of circumcision for a Gentile to be saved and receive the covenant promises of Israel. There were no other topics being debated.
It is vital to understand that obedience to the entirety of the Mosaic Law was NOT the issue in question at Antioch OR the issue ruled on by the Jerusalem Council! This is a crucial point to comprehend if we are to truly grasp the reason for and the meaning of the decision rendered by James (Acts 15:19-21). Later in this study we will examine the requirements established by the Jerusalem Council for the Gentiles that were accepting Yeshua and see where these requirements originated.
ACTS 15:3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. (NKJV)
As Paul, Barnabas, and the others from Antioch made their way to Jerusalem, they recounted to the groups of believers they met in Phoenicia and Samaria how God was calling and converting Gentiles. This was a source of great encouragement to these congregations.
ACTS 15:4 And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. (NKJV)
Upon reaching Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas reported all that God had done through them among the Gentiles to the apostles, elders, and the whole congregation (at this point, there had not yet been an unscriptural division into "laity" and "clergy"). They provided an explanation of the problem that had arisen in Antioch which had necessitated their appearance in Jerusalem.
ACTS 15:5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, "It is necessary [dei] to circumcise [peritemnein] them [autous], and to command them [paraggellein te] to keep [terein] the [ton] Law [nomon] of Moses [Mouseos]." (NKJV)
Paul and Barnabas spoke to the assembly and laid out the matter at hand. Afterward, some of the Pharisees in the congregation rose up to support the teaching about circumcision that had come to Antioch.
The translation above seems to indicate that the Pharisees were not only advocating circumcision, but also the keeping of the entire Law of Moses. However, this impression is due to an inaccurate rendering of their statement from Greek into English. Translating the Greek literally, the Pharisees said, "dei [It is necessary] peritemnein [to circumcise] autous [them], paraggellein [to instruct] te [and] terein [to keep] ton [the] nomon [Law] Mouseos [of Moses]."
What does the statement "It is necessary to circumcise them, to instruct and to keep the Law of Moses" mean? The key to understanding this assertion by the Pharisees is the little Greek particle te ("and"). This particle joins the Greek verbs paraggellein ("to instruct") and terein ("to keep") together. The particle te is periphrastic in this verse; that means it is used to connect two verbs that say what could be expressed by a single verb.
Therefore, the meaning of the Pharisees' statement is that it was necessary to circumcise the Gentiles in order to instruct AND keep the Law of Moses. The Pharisees believed that the act of circumcising the Gentiles would serve a dual purpose; it would educate them on the Law of Moses at the same time they were obeying that Law.
ACTS 15:6 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. 7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe." (NKJV)
Having had both sides of the issue presented to them, the apostles and church elders assembled together to discuss the matter. Apparently both sides of the argument had supporters. After a heated discussion, the apostle Peter stood up and began to relate how Gentiles had originally been brought into the church.
ACTS 15:8 "So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. (NKJV)
We have to keep in mind that Peter's point here is directly related to the issue at hand – circumcision. Peter's point was that God gave Cornelius and his house the Holy Spirit without requiring them to first be circumcised.
ACTS 15:10 "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke [zugon] on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able [ischusamen] to bear [bastasai]?" (NKJV)
By his question ("why do you test God?"), Peter rebuked those who wanted to require the circumcision of adult Gentile converts in order for them to become part of the covenant people of Israel. Since the ONE issue being discussed here was circumcision (NOT the entire Law of Moses), context requires us to understand that it was circumcision which Peter referred to as a "yoke." The word zugon ("yoke") literally referred to a piece of wood that fastened on the neck of a beast of burden. But here Peter uses it figuratively to refer to circumcision as something that was burdensome or difficult for the adult Gentile men to endure.
The final two Greek verbs in Peter's statement, ischusamen bastasai ("were able to bear"), are both in the aorist tense. In Greek, the aorist tense in all of its moods represents the action denoted by it simply as a one-time event. The verb ischusamen comes from the root ischuo. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says that the primary meaning of this word is: "'to be strong or powerful' physically" (p. 397, vol. III).
Peter's statement to the Council was intended to point out that the Pharisees were trying to lay a burden on the adult Gentiles that none of the Jews themselves would have been physically strong enough to endure. The Tanakh alludes to how painful it was for an adult male to undergo the ritual of circumcision.
To illustrate this point, let's look at the story of the rape of Jacob's daughter Dinah by Shechem the Hivite. After having sex with Dinah, Shechem and his father Hamor sought to persuade Jacob and her brothers to give her to him in marriage. The brothers were angry about the situation, and concocted a plan to get revenge for their sister. They told them that Dinah would marry Shechem if all their males consented to be circumcised. Since he was captivated by Dinah, Shechem agreed. He and his father then persuaded all the males in their city to be circumcised in order to be able to intermarry with the Israelites. We'll pick up the story in Genesis 34:24:
GENESIS 34:24 And all who went out of the gate of his city heeded Hamor and Shechem his son; every male was circumcised, all who went out of the gate of his city. 25 Now it came to pass on the third day, when they were in pain, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, each took his sword and came boldly upon the city and killed all the males. 26 And they killed Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah from Shechem's house, and went out. (NKJV)
From this story, it's clear that adult circumcision was traumatic and debilitating to those who underwent the ritual. Peter's question in verse 10 is designed to cause the Jews advocating circumcision to put themselves in the Gentiles' place. Why should they put a physically burdensome "yoke" on the Gentiles that neither they nor their fathers had ever been required to bear?
A better translation of Peter's question into English is: "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we would be strong enough to bear?" Adult circumcision was never required of the Jewish disciples of Yeshua because they had been circumcised on the eighth day after their birth in accordance with the Law of Moses (Lev. 12:1-3).
ACTS 15:11 "But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they." (NKJV)
Peter ends up by affirming that circumcision is not what saves a believer, but rather the grace of God shown through Yeshua the Messiah. This was an obvious rejection of the position put forth by the Jews who had gone to Antioch (Acts 15:1).
ACTS 15:12 Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. (NKJV)
Paul and Barnabas followed up Peter's speech by listing the things God had done among the Gentiles through their ministry. The point of mentioning these miracles and wonders was to show that God had accepted the Gentiles without requiring them to first be physically circumcised.
ACTS 15:13 And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, "Men and brethren, listen to me: 14 Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of 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 will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; 17 so that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the LORD who does all these things.' 18 Known to God from eternity are all His works." (NKJV)
After Paul and Barnabas finished speaking, James the brother of Yeshua, the leading elder in the Jerusalem congregation, spoke to the group. He confirmed the words of Peter, and then supported them with a quotation from the prophet Amos. In verses 16 and 17, James quotes Amos 9:11-12 from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
It's interesting to note the context of the passage from Amos that James quotes. Here is the entire prophecy:
AMOS 9:8 Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the kingdom of sinners, and I will cut it off from the face of the earth; only I will not utterly cut off the house of Jacob, saith the Lord. 9 For I will give commandment, and sift the House of Israel among all the Gentiles, as corn is sifted in a sieve, and yet a fragment shall not in any wise fall upon the earth. 10 All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, "Calamities shall certainly not draw near, nor come upon us." 11 In that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and will rebuild the ruins of it, and will set up the parts thereof that have been broken down, and will build it up as in the ancient days: 12 that the remnant of men, and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called, may earnestly seek me, saith the Lord who does all these things. 13 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when the harvest shall overtake the vintage, and the grapes shall ripen at seedtime; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall be planted. 14 And I will turn the captivity of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities, and shall inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and shall drink the wine from them; and they shall form gardens, and eat the fruit of them. 15 And I will plant them on their land, and they shall no more be plucked up from the land which I have given them, saith the Lord God Almighty. (Brenton's LXX)
This is clearly a messianic prophecy which speaks of the Kingdom of God being established in the Holy Land. James' use of this particular prophecy indicates that he very likely identified those Gentiles coming to faith in Yeshua as the members of the scattered House of Israel ("Ephraim") mentioned in Amos 9:9. For more information on these "Gentiles," see my article on the lost tribes of Israel.
ACTS 15:19 "Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. (NKJV)
Here James announces his judgment on the matter under question. Adult Gentile men would not be required to be circumcised. However, James did expect that these Gentiles would abstain from four things in order to become part of messianic Israel:
(1) Eating food sacrificed to idols;
(2) Sexual immorality;
(3) Eating the meat of strangled animals; and
(4) Eating blood.
This decision by James raises several questions in the mind of a modern reader. Why did he choose these four particular requirements? Where did they come from? Was this all that Gentiles had to do? Or were these simply the beginning steps they had to take to enter into the congregation of Israel?
The four requirements James bound upon the Gentiles are halakah based on commands found in the Mosaic Law. In Hebrew, halakah literally means "the path one walks." Each of these commandments was based on ancient requirements found in the Law of Moses for a "stranger" (Heb. ger) who desired to live among the tribes of Israel. In fact, all the original commands can be found in the 17th and 18th chapters of Leviticus.
In this matter, James defined the path that the Gentiles should walk in order to be accepted by the Jews. James used a halakic interpretation of these commands from the Law of Moses regarding the ger to address how first-century Gentile "strangers" could be accepted into the assembly of Israel.
Let's look at these four commands from the Torah and see how James interpreted them for the Gentiles of his day:
(1) The precursor requirement to abstain from things contaminated by idols is found in Leviticus 17:3-9. This command requires any ox, lamb or goat sacrificed by an Israelite or a ger to be brought to the door of the Tabernacle of Meeting. The reason for this requirement was because these animals were being sacrificed to demons outside the camp instead of to God (Lev. 17:7). Paul tells us that the sacrifices Gentiles made to idols were actually sacrifices to demons (I Cor. 10:19-21). Therefore, James' command based on Leviticus 17:3-9 was designed to remove this demonic influence from the lives of the Gentiles coming into the assembly of Israel.
(2) The command against sexual immorality comes from Leviticus 18:6-23. This passage is an extensive listing of forbidden sexual practices and relationships. Included in this wide-ranging list are incest, homosexuality, adultery, and bestiality. Leviticus 18:26 states that neither the Israelites nor any ger that dwelt among Israel should commit these abominable sins. All of these were detestable practices that had made the Gentiles (Heb. goyim) unclean (Lev. 18:24).
(3) The commandment against eating animals that had been strangled was based on Leviticus 17:15-16. This passage states that Israelites or a ger living among them would become unclean by eating animals that had died naturally or had been killed by wild beasts (cf. Lev 22:8). This command has its basis in the commandment against eating blood. An animal that has been strangled (or has died naturally or been killed by wild beasts) has not had the blood properly drained from its body. James proclaims that Gentiles coming into the church were to keep from becoming unclean by avoiding such things.
(4) The command to abstain from eating blood is found in Leviticus 17:10-14 (as well as Gen. 9:4; Lev. 3:17; 7:26-27; 19:26; Deu. 12:16, 23; 15:23). Neither the Israelites nor the ger dwelling with them were supposed to eat the blood of an animal, because the blood sustains the life of the flesh (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:11, 14; Deu. 12:23).
So as we can see, all the underlying commands found in Leviticus 17 and 18 applied to the Israelites as well as the ger living with them. James took these ancient commands from the Torah and built halakah upon them for the Gentiles coming into messianic Israel.
Since the entire Law of Moses was never the focus of this dispute, James' judgment could not have abolished the Mosaic Law in favor of the four requirements he put forth for Gentiles. If substitution had been his intention, he certainly left a lot of holes in his "replacement" law code. He failed to cover murder, theft, and many other uncivilized actions prohibited by the Law of Moses and condemned in the New Testament.
Simple logic requires us to admit that James' four requirements for the Gentiles were not all the laws they were expected to follow as believers in Yeshua the Messiah. So why did James only address these four? He tells us in the next verse:
ACTS 15:21 "For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath." (NKJV)
What does the concluding statement by James mean? This declaration has been widely misunderstood by scholars because of a prevailing antinomian bias in interpretation. However, if we keep in mind that James is explaining here the reason for his decision not to require circumcision of adult Gentile males, as well as the reason for the four commands he did bind upon the Gentiles, this verse begins to make sense.
With this statement, James answered the Pharisees' earlier contention that it was necessary to circumcise the Gentiles in order "to instruct and to keep the Law of Moses" (v. 5). Instead of immediate circumcision, he ruled that the same goal of instructing and keeping the Law of Moses could be achieved by the Gentiles attending Sabbath services in the synagogues.
James expected that after being accepted into the congregation of Israel by obeying these four minimal requirements, the Gentiles would attend synagogue services on the Sabbath and LEARN the Law of Moses. If one was truly converted, with this familiarization would come OBEDIENCE. The uncircumcised Gentiles would be taught the command of Leviticus 12:1-3 and would understand that it was required that they circumcise their male children on the eighth day in order to obey the Law.
The Pharisaic halakah regarding gerim (the plural of ger) becoming part of Israel required immediate circumcision of adult Gentile male converts. James disagreed with this interpretation of the Law of Moses, however. He concluded that God had accepted these Gentiles as they were, with only a spiritual circumcision of the heart. So James' halakic ruling regarding these gerim did not lay the burden of adult circumcision on them, but rather four other requirements based on the Law of Moses. By observing these four commands, the Gentile gerim could be accepted into Israel and could attend Sabbath synagogue services with the Jews.
Yet despite his difference of opinion with the Pharisaic believers, James also thought that the circumcision command should ultimately be observed. He believed this would happen as the Gentile converts grew in knowledge of the Law by attending synagogue services on the Sabbath. Although a common misconception is that only Jews attended synagogues, the book of Acts clearly shows that Gentiles also went there (Acts 13:14-32; 14:1; 17:1-4, 10-12, 17; 18:4).
ACTS 15:22 Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. 23 They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. (NKJV)
James' decision apparently was well accepted by the apostles, elders and the assembly. They decided to write a letter explaining the decision and send it back to Antioch with Paul, Barnabas, and two men from the Jerusalem congregation, Judas and Silas.
ACTS 15:24 Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying [legontes], "You must be circumcised [peritemnesthai] and [kai] keep [terein] the [ton] Law [nomon]" – to whom we gave no such commandment – (NKJV)
Here in the letter we have a restatement of the original problem; some men went out from Jerusalem and preached that circumcision of adult Gentile men was needed to satisfy the Law of Moses. We know that the men who came to Antioch specifically said, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). There was no mention of keeping the entire Law of Moses in the original teaching brought by these men.
The Greek phrase legontes peritemnesthai kai terein ton nomon literally reads, "saying to be circumcised and so to keep the Law." The grammar in this verse shows that the last part of the phrase (terein ton nomon-"to keep the Law") refers to a one time act – circumcision. The Greek conjunction kai ("and so") is used here to emphasize the result of the preceding action peritemnesthai ("to be circumcised"). For the Gentiles, "to be circumcised" would enable them "to keep the Law." The Jewish men who had come to Antioch were simply teaching that it was necessary to circumcise the adult Gentile men in order to conform to the Law of Moses. One single issue from the Law, not the whole Law of Moses, was the subject.
ACTS 15:25 It seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. (NKJV)
Here the letter identifies those who will be bringing the judgment to them, so they may verify that it was sent from Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas were one witness, Judas and Silas were the second witness, and the letter served as the third witness to the decision arrived at by the Jerusalem Council. "By the mouth of two or three witnesses a matter shall be established" (Deu. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; II Cor. 13:1).
ACTS 15:28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (NKJV)
This was the decision from James and the Jerusalem Council for the Gentiles in Antioch. Since the assembly in Antioch clearly knew that the matter of adult circumcision was what prompted this letter, only the four requirements agreed upon by the apostles and elders were listed.
ACTS 15:30 So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter. 31 When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement. (NKJV)
The congregation in Antioch received the letter and rejoiced at the encouragement that the apostles and elders from Jerusalem had sent them. All indications are that they agreed to abide by James' instructions detailed in the letter.
The ONE issue being discussed by the Jerusalem Council was whether adult Gentile men had to be circumcised before they could become part of the congregation of messianic Israel. Some Jews from Judea (probably messianic Pharisees) interpreted the Scriptures to say that they did, and these men went to Antioch to teach that requirement. Meanwhile, Paul and Barnabas disagreed with this Pharisaic halakic ruling and went to Jerusalem to see what the consensus of the apostles and elders was regarding this matter. After much discussion, including a speech against adult circumcision by the apostle Peter, James issued an overriding halakic decision that adult circumcision was NOT required of Gentiles. However, he did lay down commands that they abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating strangled animals, and from eating blood. These four requirements were not a replacement for the Mosaic Law, but rather guidelines on how Gentiles could be accepted into fellowship with Jews in the synagogues on the Sabbath. It was here that James envisioned the Gentiles learning the Law of Moses with the intention of obeying it.
Bryan T. Huie
April 19, 2002