Does Acts 15 teach that we are not to obey the Law of God as written by Moses, or just that we can not be saved by observing the law? To answer this, we need to know the debate and the groups involved. You may have always been told what to believe about Acts 15, now…let’s test it.
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It is taught that Acts 15 concluded the ground breaking conclusion that gentiles are not to be taught obedience to God’s Law as written by Moses. However, is that really what Acts 15 teaches us?
The debate is centered around a false works base salvation model starting with circumcision.
Then some men came down from Judea and started to teach the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the Law of Moses, you can’t be saved.’
What about verse 5?
But some believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The gentiles must be circumcised and ordered to keep the Law of Moses.’
Does that mean we should still be obedient to God’s Law like those in verse 5 suggest? Most do not examine the context of these verses as it relates to the counsel’s decision.
What is the meaning and purpose of the four commandments found in verse 20?
Verse 21 is NEVER CITED in the decree James issues.
After all, Moses has had people to proclaim him in every city for generations, and on every Sabbath his books are read aloud in the synagogues.’
What is the purpose of verse 21 in James’ decision?
Acts 15:1-21 Then some men came down from Judea and started to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Law of Moses, you can’t be saved.” Paul and Barnabas had quite a dispute and argument with them. So Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders about this question. They were sent on their way by the church, and as they were going through Phoenicia and Samaria they told of the conversion of the gentiles and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported everything that God had done through them. But some believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The gentiles must be circumcised and ordered to keep the Law of Moses.” So the apostles and the elders met to look into this claim. After a lengthy debate, Peter stood up and told them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God chose me to be the one among you through whom the gentiles would hear the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows everyone’s heart, showed them he approved by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between them and us, because of their faith-cleansed hearts. So why do you test God by putting on the disciples’ neck a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we could carry? We certainly believe that it is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, the Messiah, that we are saved, just as they are.” The whole crowd was silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul tell about all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the gentiles. After Paul and Barnabas had finished speaking, James responded, “Brothers, listen to me: Simeon has explained how God first showed his concern for the gentiles by taking from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets. As it is written, ‘”After this, I will come back and set up David’s fallen tent again. I will restore its ruined places and set it up again so that the rest of the people may search for the Lord, including all the gentiles who are called by my name,” declares the Lord. ‘He is the one who has been doing these things that have been known from long ago.’ Therefore, I have decided that we should not trouble these gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write to them to keep away from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from anything strangled, and from blood. After all, Moses has had people to proclaim him in every city for generations, and on every Sabbath his books are read aloud in the synagogues.”
Some questions should be asked.
- Who are the groups involved?
- The Jerusalem Counsel (Acts 15:4 – First Century Church Leadership)
- Circumcision Party (Acts 15:1 – Unbelievers; Salvation by the Law) this is the group found in Galatians
- Pharisees in the Faith (Acts 15:5 – Believers; Salvation by Faith) they still observe God’s Law out of obedience just like Paul (a Pharisee)
- New Gentile Converts (Acts 15:20 – Sun god cultic temple worship) recently come into the faith but still very deep in their cultic traditions such as drinking blood, temple prostitution, eating unclean strangled animals, and worshiping false gods
- What is the debate about? Two Groups, Two Doctrines, Two Places
- The Law of Moses should be kept as part of salvation (Acts 15:1) Legalism
- Believe first in the faith and then still keep the Law of Moses out of obedience (Acts 15:5)
It is very important to understand that the people in verse one are NOT the people in verse 5. In verse 1 they are people who do not believe. In verse 5 these are people who are believers.
In summary the debate is about whether the gentiles should be keeping the Law of Moses as a means of salvation (v.1) or be keeping the Law of Moses out of obedience as a result of our faith (v.5)
The debate was NEVER about whether the Law of Moses was still valid.
The debate was whether keeping the Law of Moses was for salvation or not.
The gentiles were either not keeping the Law of Moses well or were not keeping the Law of Moses at all. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a debate.
So the apostles and the elders met to look into this claim. After a lengthy debate, Peter stood up and told them, ‘Brothers, you know that in the early days God chose me to be the one among you through whom the gentiles would hear the message of the gospel and believe.’
Peter further explains…
God, who knows everyone’s heart, showed them he approved by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between them and us, because of their faith-cleansed hearts.
This is a direct evidence AGAINST the party of unbelievers. Peter is saying salvation by works… NO WAY.
So why do you test God by putting on the disciples’ neck a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we could carry?
No one anywhere in Scripture has ever been able to keep the Law of Moses perfect for salvation! Meaning salvation must be by some other means.
God’s Law is easy…
Indeed, these commands that I’m giving you today are neither confusing nor unattainable for you. They aren’t in the heavens, so you have to ask, ‘Who’ll go up to the heavens for us and get it for us so we can hear it and act on it?’ And they aren’t beyond the seas either, so you have to ask, ‘Who’ll cross the sea and get it for us so we can hear it and act on it?’ No, the word is very near you–it’s within your mouth and heart for you to attain.” “Look, today I have set before you life and what is good, along with death and what is evil. That’s why I’m commanding you today to love the LORD your God by walking in his ways and by observing his commands, statutes, and ordinances, so that you may live long, increase, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter to possess.
For this demonstrates our love for God: We keep his commandments, and his commandments are not difficult
The yoke that is unbearable is the doctrine that states we are to be saved by God’s Law and the commandments of men. Salvation through the Law is impossible, which is why God’s grace is necessary.
Peter only speaks against position #1 (v1) and NOT against position #2 (v5) that the believers in the faith still keep the Law of Moses in obedience not FOR salvation but BECAUSE of salvation.
Peter does not say anything about those in position #2 (v5)
Peter goes on to state that this faith of the gentiles is demonstrated by the new gentile converts by grace in Yeshua the Messiah.
We certainly believe that it is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, the Messiah, that we are saved, just as they are.
This silences the debate from the Circumcision Party’s position and provides support for believers in the faith. This then prompted Paul and Barnabas to report even further evidence that the gentiles are not saved by works through the Law but by faith.
There is still no debate in Acts 15 about whether the Law of Moses has been abolished. Still only 2 positions.
After the testimony of THREE witnesses has concluded, Peter brings out the final witness. Direct Scriptural support.
What Peter is doing is very important. God does not do anything without first revealing it to His prophets.
It is unreasonable to expect new converts to follow all of God’s ways immediately. They are continually growing and learning God’s ways.
The position is verse 5 is that all believers obey all the Law of Moses from first conversion. James needs to deal with this.
James offers a Scriptural process for those who are not born and raised in the ways of God. The gentiles are coming out of a culture of deep pagan worship. The counsel states that they need to deal with their heavy sins first. Their idolatry. They cannot worship both God and Satan.
According to James, what more are we to do than just the four things stated in verse 20?
After all, Moses has had people to proclaim him in every city for generations, and on every Sabbath his books are read aloud in the synagogues.
They will continue to grow and understand the Word throughout their lives. Doesn’t this make sense? Isn’t this how you and I proceed through the word of God? We learn throughout our lives, as we understand Scripture we apply the teaching to our lives.