Monday, December 3, 2007

Acts, Chapter 15

By the time we get to chapter 15 of acts we have come a long way in one book alone. Remember how well everyone in the church got along in the first few chapters of Acts just after the Holy Spirit was given to them? Well, the church to this point had ballooned so much that disagreements about doctrine were beginning to come out of the woodwork. Chapter 15 is one full of discord and we see that many of the elders were starting to spend time putting out fires and settling egos, yet the gospel still moved forward.

The first major disagreement came over circumcision. If you study the Old Testament any circumcision was a big deal. It goes all the way back to the book of Genesis as a tradition for the Jewish people. In Genesis 17:11 God sets circumcision up as a sign of the covenant between Abraham and Himself. The covenant was that Abraham would be the father of many nations, and every male in his household was asked to be circumcised as a part of the covenant. Not only that, it was to be handed down through the generations as a sign of this agreement. If you weren't circumcised, you weren't part of this covenant.

As we know though, Jesus had a tendency to break old traditions down so He could set up new ones. Though the covenant of circumcision was about more than a flap of skin, Jesus established that He was the new covenant with the sons of Abraham. Just as he broke down the barriers of the old law to include the Gentiles, He breaks down the barriers here for the sake of spreading His gospel. Paul got this because he was already doing the work of Christ by spreading the Word to the Gentiles. Some Jewish believers did not agree, however.

1Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." 2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. 5Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." – Acts 15:1-5


Notice some of the errors here in the first part of this passage. It is clearly stated that it was men, not God, that said you could not be saved without being circumcised. Paul was naturally a little skeptical about this, as he knew that belief was a matter of the heart and not about a physical act. We see that he takes this question back to Jerusalem where a great debate raged. The debate is understandable, especially when Genesis 17 says that those who are not circumcised are cut off from the covenant of Abraham. This is where Peter becomes the voice of reason.


8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." – Acts 15:8-11


This shows the power of God and how the message and the heart is more important than even the most sacred of Jewish traditions handed down through the centuries. Peter is saying that it doesn't matter if you are circumcised or uncircumcised because of what is on your heart. No one was able to save themselves before Christ regardless of circumcision because salvation is found in Christ. We cannot bear that yoke on our own. The uncircumcised Gentiles believed this as well, and therefore they were saved. The message is that salvation is in Christ alone, not some physical work.




  1. Does the covenant of circumcision still have meaning today?
  2. How well did the church handle this first test of its doctrine?
  3. Why would something as mundane as this cause such a stir?

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