The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 (Part 1 of 2)
By Kelly McDonald Jr.
In Acts chapter 15, there was a dispute about Gentiles who accepted Jesus as their Savior. One of the questions they considered is the following: should these converts be circumcised to receive salvation? This discussion generated a lot of controversy. Unfortunately, many people misunderstand the meaning of these verses.
In this two-part series, we will examine the council and the implications of various claims people make about it. First, we will look at the text and break down the meaning:
“Some 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.’ This 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. The 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 brothers very glad. When 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. Then 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.’ The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now 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? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are’” (Acts 15:1-11, NIV, bold emphasis mine).
Before we go further in the chapter, we need to clarify the section I have placed in bold. What is the “yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear”? Some have claimed that this refers to the Ten Commandments. One way to confirm or deny any claim about Scripture is to compare it with other Bible verses. So, let’s look at some verses to see what they say about the Law of God.
Deut. 30:11-14 – “For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
I John 5:2-3 – “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”
James 1:25 – “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the word, this one will be blessed in what he does”.
In Deut. 30:11-14, God said that His own law was not hard to understand or difficult to observe. In the New Testament, John and James attested that the law was not burdensome and that it granted us liberty.
So what is the yoke of bondage from Acts 15? The question that the apostles and elders met to consider in Acts 15 was whether or not circumcision was a requirement for Gentiles to be saved. In this account, the Pharisees also pushed for observance of the law. The fact that the Pharisees were involved is an important detail when we consider the interpretation of Acts 15. Context matters. Here’s what Jesus said about them:
2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:2-4, NIV, bold emphasis mine).
The Pharisees followed rigid man-made rules that burdened people and caused people to trust in human effort instead of trusting God. They were burdensome and at times negated the commandments of God (see Matthew 15:1-20 as an example). So its not that the Law was a problem here, but their man-made rules. The “yoke” that Peter refers to is the yoke of man-made rules of the Pharisees. This interpretation is consistent with the rest of Scripture.
So what did the Apostles decide on this matter?
We will finish this series next week!
Kelly McDonald, Jr. is the BSA President. www.biblesabbath.org