To circumcise or not to circumcise – Acts 15

Controversy.

I suppose where truth is to be defended we will always have controversy. Everyone thinks they have the right answer. Yet, our own convictions, experiences and even selfish ambitions play a part in our interpretation of truth. Much like the political systems of civilized countries, the new church had a method of dealing with the interpretation of truth. They had apostles and elders in Jerusalem that were the authority – and they had spirit-led discussion.

Here’s the scenario:

As the church had just recently come into agreement about the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church, some Jews started teaching (insisting) that Gentiles must first be circumcised before they could become part of the church. This was all based on certain scriptural references (see Exodus 12:43 – 49) but Peter and Barnabas argued that since in his experience, the Holy Spirit came upon those Gentiles he was teaching, just as it had happened that fateful day we read about in Acts 2. There was no circumcision, just the gift of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, since the Holy Spirit did not seem to be concerned about the lack of circumcision in the Gentiles, neither should they.

Apparently, the discussion became quite heated, and Paul and Barnabas and some others were sent back to Jerusalem for an answer. Ultimately, James agreed with Paul and judged that Gentile males would not need to be circumcised to become a part of the church of Israel. But, he did have some other suggestions:

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

How is it that the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised, but they must now follow these new “rules”? This was my first thought. Exchanging one ritual for four others? I didn’t see the Holy Spirit requiring the Gentiles in the home of the Roman Centurion to eat certain things and avoid others. As I meditated on this, I started to wonder if this was simply instructions (teaching) on what to do next, rather than requirements for “membership.”

So I looked up this chapter on the Internet and here’s some good information about James’ four new recommendations (found at http://users.aristotle.net/~bhuie/acts15.htm):

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:

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.

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).

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.

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.

You see, some have cited this chapter as evidence that the entire Mosaic law was abolished with the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, it’s only talking about a single aspect – circumcision. James’ guidelines were tips on how Gentiles could be accepted in synagogues on Sabbath.

I equate this to how we encourage those who come to our churches to study the Bible, learn about sins to avoid, habits to help us grow. Just because a person receives Jesus Christ and believes and is baptized, this does not mean the need to nothing else, but to just continue living the same way they had been. On the contrary, when we give our lives to God, we are joining the battle and we need to know the tools to keep us on track and strong.

The other encouraging thing in reading about the New Testament church, is the method they had to deal with controversy. They had structure and hierarchy to protect the truth. They were able to deal with issues as they came up and this was key to their survival. I have seen a number of fledgling ministries and churches get crushed because they thought they could survive without this.

Forgive us, Lord, when we try to push our own agendas instead of looking to what You want. Ultimately, what we want is to please You.

grace & peace,
e

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