Acts 15 – the Circumcision Issue
We did not find anything specifically pertaining to Torah in Chapter 14, so we’ll go on to Chapter 15. Chapter 15 is very enlightening regarding the apostles’ attitudes toward Torah. Unfortunately, due to the Greco-Roman mindset in which it is usually read, the chapter has been sadly misunderstood and badly taught.
The basic history is this: Paul is in the midst of his ministry to the Gentiles when believers from Jerusalem come to visit. They are Torah-observant and are convinced that these Gentiles cannot be considered true Israelites unless they are circumcised and go through proper traditional rabbinic procedures for acceptance into the Faith. (See the commentary on Acts, Chapter 13, Part 2) Of course, as talmidim (disciples) of Y’shua, these men see “the Faith” as being the historical Covenant Kingdom of Israel, now under the Kingship of Messiah Y’shua and governed by scriptural Torah – what we might call today ‘pure Judaism’!
Paul disputes with them: he believes that circumcision is not necessary prior to salvation nor possibly even for salvation.
Circumcision is at the heart of the Covenant, so of course a great controversy arises. The consensus is to appeal to the apostles in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, a big meeting is held at which both Paul and “the Party of the Circumcision” present their cases. The apostles confer, and James, as leader of the Assembly, renders his decision. 
In Paul’s day, believers were called ‘The Way’ or ‘Nazarenes,’ and they were viewed as a sect of Judaism. Therefore, initially it was assumed that any Gentile convert to the Nazarene sect would be expected to follow the same ‘conversion’ rites as any convert to Judaism – a long and involved process invented by the rabbis.
In essence, the Party of the Circumcision believed that a Gentile could not be ‘saved’ (be considered righteous and ‘right with God’) unless he went through the official rabbinic procedures that all proselytes were expected to follow. One of those procedures was circumcision, but there were lots of other requirements as well. Paul’s contention, on the other hand, was that the converts’ status as ‘saved’ (righteous) did not depend on the condition of their flesh or their completion of official procedures, but rather on their faith.
Y’shua said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:50
It is important to understand that the men who demanded circumcision came from Jerusalem. The believers in Jerusalem at that time consisted almost exclusively of Jews – who had of course been circumcised at 8 days of age, according to the terms of the Covenant. The few Jerusalem Gentiles who had become believers, we must infer from the demands of these men, had undergone circumcision when they became believers, in accord with the normal procedure expected of all proselytes. To these Jerusalemites, circumcision upon declaration of faith was a normal and natural part of a new believer’s identity as a grafted-in Hebrew.  They also understood that if an uncircumcised Gentile were to attend an ‘orthodox’ synagogue, his very presence could, according to rabbinic teaching, make the other attendees ritually unclean – an intolerable situation!
To Paul, excited about the deeper spiritual truth behind circumcision, the actual cutting of flesh was sort of an anti-climax. From his more mystical perspective, ‘If we have already been circumcised in heart, which is what YHVH is truly looking for, then can’t the fleshly circumcision be ignored?’
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. Deut 10:16
And YHVH thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love YHVH thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live. Deut 30:6
Circumcise yourselves to YHVH, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings. Jer 4:4
So what did the apostles decide?
Christians have been taught that the Apostles decided that believers did not have to undergo circumcision, and that they only had to:
- Abstain from pollutions of idols (pagan worship);
- Abstain from fornication (extramarital sex, often related to pagan worship);
- Abstain from the eating of things strangled (referring to pagan offerings);
- Abstain from eating blood (also consumed as part of pagan offerings).
A cursory reading of the passages involved appears to support this teaching as the whole story. However, there are some things that need to be reconsidered.
Take Another Look
First we should note that the apostles did not state that their decision applied to all believers, but rather was directed specifically to new Gentile believers. In other words, the apostles and other Jewish believers fully expected to maintain their own Torah observance.
With that in mind, we must remember the scriptural principle that there is ONE law for both Jew and Gentile, and that we are carefully and explicitly taught (by Paul himself) in the NT that Gentile believers are adopted into the nation and family of Abraham, thereby becoming true Israelites themselves and part of the Covenant (Torah-observant) community. (Ephesians 2:19, Romans 11:17, etc.)
Thus, when we read James’s decision, we must read with all these bits of background information in mind.
Wherefore my sentence [decision, judgement] is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 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 hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. Acts 15:19-20
The significance of that last verse is completely lost upon most modern Gentile readers:
For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.
If you are like us, this verse never made any sense. It seemed out of place, and not even applicable to the subject at hand. After all (looking at this from the Christian perspective), if believers are worshipping on Sunday and they are not observing Torah, why would it matter what happens in a Torah-observant synagogue on Saturday?
It was not until we read these verses from the Hebraic point of view that we were able to understand what was being said. If we were to paraphrase this in modern English geared to our Greco-Roman understanding, we might rephrase this entire passage to say:
[Premise: We Jews have spent a lifetime learning Torah, and even we are still learning.] Therefore, my decision is that we should not overwhelm Gentiles [people who are ignorant of Torah] who have just come to faith by loading them down right off the bat with mitzvot [Torah instructions]. Initially we should just instruct them to avoid those things associated with pagan worship: that is, to abstain from idol worship, fornication, eating things that have been strangled, and the eating of blood. In time, they will learn all the other mitzvot when they go to synagogue every Sabbath and hear Moses [Torah] read and taught.
Ah, suddenly that passage about Moses makes sense! James agrees with Paul that Torah-observance is not the basis of salvation – it is the demonstration of salvation. He is relying on the fact that the true believer will be anxious to conform himself to YHVH’s lifestyle, and will do so as he learns more about it when Torah is read aloud in the synagogues. And note that James expects that the new believers WILL be in synagogue every Sabbath.
Note also that circumcision is not forbidden to Gentile believers. The option of circumcision still exists: it will simply occur at the appropriate time, at the leading of the Holy Spirit. The uncircumcised believer is not to be judged or alienated from the community. This is Messiah’s Grace in action.
Note that new believers are not expected to go through the traditional rabbinic procedures required of a Jewish proselyte, which up to this time had apparently been followed without question.  This too is consistent with Messiah’s teaching that we are not bound by ‘traditions of men,’ but only by the clear Torah instructions of YHVH. (Please see our article, Y’shua Taught Us to Walk in Torah, not yet published but available upon request.)
Finally, note that many other important commands are not included in the letter, such as: do not neglect the gathering-together of the brethren (Heb 10:25), love one another, forgive one another, don’t get drunk, and the many other instructions that are intrinsic to believers’ fellowship.  This does not mean that the Gentile believers were not expected to follow those commands – merely that the four requirements in the letter are a starting point.
But the letter itself says something different….
The recorded version of the actual letter sent out raises the question again: Should Gentile believers be Torah-observant? 
The Letter: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain [men] which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Master Y’shua Messiah. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. Acts 15:24-29
This passage is often read and taught as saying that the apostles “gave no commandment” that the Gentiles were to be circumcised or that they should keep the Law. However, if one reads carefully, one immediately realizes that the real meaning of the statement is that the apostles did not command those men from Jerusalem to “trouble [the converts] with words.” The visitors had acted without authority. The letter is an apology: We are sorry that they troubled you. They came from our congregation, but they were not acting on our instructions. If you will simply refrain from these four practices, you will do well.
But what happened to learning about Torah in the synagogues? That isn’t mentioned in the letter.
We know from the Chapter 15 ‘transcript’ of the Jerusalem meeting that the apostles were relying on the Holy Spirit to lead these new believers into righteousness as they were exposed to Torah in the synagogues. It is actually very encouraging to see that the final letter sent out to the Gentile assemblies does not command the believers to attend synagogue – it assumes that they are doing so and will continue to do so. What gentle and compassionate leadership! – Just like our Master Y’shua, Who meets us where we are and gently guides us step by step into His Truth! No membership classes, no exams, no ‘counseling.’ Just simple faith directed by love; learning Truth through exposure to the Word. Beautiful!
The Torah was given in the wilderness, and like the wilderness it is free and open to all comers without formalities or introductions: all that wish to do so can enter into it. –Tanchum. Vayakhail.
THE BOOK OF ACTS – Introduction * Chapters 1-5 * Chapters 6-10 * Chapters 11-12 * Chapter 13 (Part 1) * Chapter 13 (Part 2) * Chapters 14-15 * Chapter 16 * Chapters 17-18 * Chapters 19-20 * Chapters 21-26 * Chapters 27-28
By John and Sue Wyatt, email@example.com
© John and Sue Wyatt and The Lamb’s Servant Blog, 2014. Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Lamb’s Servant Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to John and Sue Wyatt and The Lamb’s Servant Blog, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 We were surprised to learn that it was James the Just, brother of Y’shua, NOT Peter, who was the leader of the early church. There is abundant documentation confirming this fact, not least being correspondence from early bishops who acknowledge James as their highest authority. This is significant from the Hebraic perspective: YHVH says that it is the House of David who will be put on the throne of YHVH’s Kingdom. James was of the House of David, whereas Peter was not. All the early church leadership came from Y’shua’s Davidic family, both immediate and extended. This too is well documented.
 Circumcision, by scriptural definition, implies that the person is part of the COVENANT community. These Jewish believers saw the new Gentile converts as new Hebrews, and therefore saw it as necessary that they be circumcised in order to obtain the benefits of the Covenant. The Covenant includes Torah. They fully expected these new converts to be Torah-observant in every way, including being circumcised – like the Gentile believers in Jerusalem.
 There are no scriptural procedures for entry into the Covenant other than male circumcision and a declaration of intent to be faithful to YHVH and His Covenant. The rabbis, on the other hand, had made entry into the nation of Israel a long, complicated and demanding process, as it still is today. According to their rules, even when a proselyte had been officially accepted, it would be five generations before his descendants would be considered true Israelites!
 Some may object that since those commands did not yet exist, having been written down later in the church’s history, that this is not a valid support statement. However, we hear from the apostles in their letters that they are usually repeating what had already been taught in Y’shua’s ministry.
 Some suggest, and it may be possible, that at the time of the Jerusalem Council, James and the other apostles may themselves have been guilty of that secret jealousy which prompted them to exclude Gentiles from Torah-observance. They were, after all, only human and subject to error. We have already seen how Peter had to be corrected in his attitude toward Gentile salvation! However, we see a consistent message throughout the epistles of James, Peter, John, Jude, etc, which assumes Torah-observance by all believers. We are not didactic on the subject of what the apostles believed on this subject – we merely present what the Tanakh teaches, what Y’shua taught, and what we see in the apostolic teaching.