And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria , declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem , they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them. But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. . .
[Jacob (James) said,] “Wherefore my sentence 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 15:1-6, 19-21, NKJV)
So, did the Jerusalem Council really just toss the Torah out the window? Not at all!
First, note that at no point is the question even raised about Jewish believers keeping the Torah: It was assumed as a given that they should (cf. Acts 21:21-25)! The question was how to handle the influx of Gentile converts, as I pointed out in my response to a post by Peter Goodgame back here.
Dealing With the Common Interpretation: Was This the Starting Point or the Finish Line?
Let’s assume for the moment that the classical interpretation of this passage, that the only commands from the Torah that Gentile converts were expected to keep were the four outlined here, is correct. This immediately begs the question: Did the Apostles envision these commands as the end-all, be-all of a Gentile Christian’s walk, or did they merely intend these to be the initial requirements for salvation and fellowship? The data strongly favors the latter.
First, notice what is missing from these four commands: the two most important:
“Rabbi, which of the mitzvoth (commandments) in the Torah is the most important?” He[Yeshua] told him, “‘You are to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ This is the greatest and most important mitzvah. And a second is similar to it, ‘You are to love your neighbor as yourself.’ All of the Torahand the Prophets are dependent on these two mitzvot.” (Mat. 22:36-40)
That’s right, the two foundational commandments on which all Scripture is built are not even brought up by the Jerusalem council! That tells us right there that something other than the creation of a distinct list of commands for Gentile believers is being discussed here. More on that in a moment.
“Well, those are the moral commands, which are universal,” one might argue. “Maybe they’re dealing with which ceremonial commands Gentile believers are still under.” This argument falls apart on two points.
First, other ceremonial commands were indisputably required of Gentile believers and are universally recognized as such: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for example. It’s interesting that these rituals (calling them “sacraments” doesn’t change anything—a ritual is a ritual) which have been at the center of debate in the Ekklesia for two millennia and which are considered a requirement for salvation in many groups aren’t even mentioned here. Furthermore, Paul commands that the Passover Feast be kept in 1Co. 5:7-8 and told the Colossians not to be dissuaded from observing God’s Appointed Times in Col. 2:15-17. Jacob tells the sick to come to the elders for anointing with oil (Jas. 5:14, cf. Mark 6:13).
Second, the Scriptures themselves make no hard distinction between the “moral law” and the “ceremonial law”—it’s all one Torah. It’s surely a moral commandment to release the poor from their debts, yet that commandment is intricately linked with the ceremonial observance of the Sabbatical year (Deu. 15). Indeed, since the moral commandments tell us how to go about loving our neighbor, it stands to reason that the ceremonial commandments, by which we “tie them [God’s words] on your hand as a sign, put them at the front of a headband around your forehead” (Deu. 6:8, cf. Exo. 13:9) is part-and-parcel of the Prime Commandment, “Hear O Israel , the LORD our God, the LORD is One; and you are to love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources” (Deu. 6:4-5, cf. Mark 12:29-30). To try to separate the two is to say that the Prime Commandment is no longer in effect, but the second most important commandment is.
On the contrary, since we see that there were many other commands that the Gentiles were expected to follow, as evidenced in the epistles, we should understand that these four commands, if indeed they were the only commands of the Torah required as a prerequisite to acceptance and fellowship, were intended as a starting point, not the finishing line.
Salvation by Works?
In this view, the Apostles were dealing with walking a tightrope: If they emphasized Torah-observance and in any way made it a prerequisite to fellowship, then they would a) send out the message that salvation is by faith plus works, and b) put an enormous stumbling-block in the way of those who wanted to come to God. Let’s look at those two issues separately a moment.
Issue A is intimately tied to the racial issue which we deal with more thoroughly below, but it was also tied to avoiding making belief in the Messiah Yeshua just another mystery religion. Every mystery cult had their “path to salvation” where if you did x, y, and z exactly right you could supposedly ascend. Christianity was the only religion which said that not only did God simply want your trust and love, but which said that if you tried to earn the gift that was freely offered, you were insulting your Benefactor.
Issue B was just as much a problem: The fact was that many Gentiles simply could not keep the whole Torah as a matter of practicality. A slave could not insist on taking the Sabbath off, for example, nor could even many free men. Being circumcised was considered self-mutilation by the Greeks; imagine if you tried to join a church and they insisted that you had to cut off your right ear! Therefore, if they made Torah-observance a matter of fellowship, many who would otherwise want to repent and come to God would be discouraged.
Salvation by Faith; Growth by the Word
Therefore, they came to a most merciful and graceful decision: They set the bar for fellowship low. They insisted only that new converts “abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.” Each of these four items is directly tied to the pagan practices of the day: Idolatry, temple prostitution, strangled sacrifices, and drinking blood were all regular practices which, if the new believer avoided them, would prevent him from participating in the pagan culture of the first century.
As it turns out, there is a parallel in the Talmud to the stance the Apostles took:
Then how do I interpret the verse, “That I may take the house of Israel in their own heart” (Eze. 14: 5)? Said R. Aha bar Jacob, “That is written with reference to idolatry. For a master has said, ‘The sin of idolatry is so weighty that one who denies idolatry is as though he had confessed to the entirety of the whole Torah.’” (b. Talmud, Qiddushin 40a)
Likewise, Princeton scholar Dr. Davies writes that the non-Messianic Judaism of the Apostles’ day had developed a whole body of literature
to popularize the good life among the heathen. It described the way of life that all men should lead, seeking by means of saws and aphorisms, narratives and rules, to guide men into the right way. Judaism . . . recognized that mankind as a while could not accept the Torah in its fullness but in the derek ‘eretz [“Way of the Land”] literature it offered to all a way that they could follow, a signpost to the desirable goal. It was, of course, hoped that the knowledge of derek eretz would whet the appetite of a convert for the whole Torah later on. (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, 132f)
This seems to be very much the stance that the Jerusalem Council took: Separate the Gentiles from idolatry and bring them into the worship of the One, True God through the Messiah, and it would be as if they kept all of the Torah–that is, by faith they would be considered as righteous as if they kept the whole Torah.
Tim Hegg concurs in his book, The Letter Writer. He points out that in the initial list (v. 20) the definite article “the” appears before each of the four items indicates that “[e]ach of the four must have been things that both the Jewish community as well as the Gentiles were aware of and that could be identified by single terms” (p. 272); the second list lacks the definite articles so that “it consists of only four words connected by the word ‘and’” (p. 270), so as to make the list easier to memorize and pass on. He goes on to suggest that the different order of the second list was so that “the two items that primarily identified the idol worship of the pagan temples . . . became the ‘bookends’ to envelop the entire list” so that “the four items given to the Gentiles are a unified whole identifying idol worship in pagan temples” (p. 272).
Thus rather than listing four separate categories of prohibited practices for the Gentiles, the four requirements describe a single category—the pagan temples and their rituals. And though idolatry would naturally be considered outside the scope of a believer’s life, what the Apostles are calling for was conformity to the additional rabbinic halachah that pertained to idolatry—the “fences” not found in Scripture but necessary in this realm for inclusion into the Jewish community.
If the Mishnah give us a picture of the 1 st Century rabbinic viewpoint then we can see that fences had been built to guarantee a clear separation between synagogual community and the idolatry of the Hellenistic culture in which it existed. The Apostles were willing to lay this “burden” upon the believing Gentiles in order to preserve them from any accusations of idolatry, something that could have never been tolerated in the wider Jewish community. (p. 273)
This understanding matches the contents of the list itself: While fornication and ingesting blood are specifically prohibited by the Torah, eating something strangled (provided that the blood is drained) and eating food that had been sacrificed to idols are not. They are logical inferences one can make from the Torah’s general prohibition against idolatry (strangulation being one of the chief means by which animals were sacrificed in Greek culture), but then, that’s what halakha is supposed to be.
Some propose that these items were meant to be the only requirements on Gentile Christians forever, but if so, by what right did Paul tell the brethren to stay away from theft and contentiousness or to honor their parents and send monetary support to Jerusalem? Why did Jacob command support of the poor and not favoring the rich? None of these items were on the list!
Therefore, it is understood by those of us on the Messianic side that the four commandments were never meant as an end, but as a starting-point. By separating the Gentile believers from idolatry (and this would have its own social consequences), they would become “clean” enough to enter the synagogues as God-fearers to worship and learn about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob alongside their Messianic Jewish brethren. This is why Jacob concludes with, “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (v. 21).
The idea was that since the Holy Spirit was being given freely to the Gentiles who believed, that the Apostles would trust the Spirit to finish what He had started in His own time. However, even within that expectation, we see the Apostles exhorting the churches, giving specific commands, and even passing judgment on those who sinned, so it was not expected to be an automatic or smooth process. But it was one that they ultimately trusted in God to bring to completeness.
A new disciple once asked me once about the relationship between faith and works and how he could know he was saved. I told him, “You know you are saved because you have trusted Yeshua for the work He has done, not what you have done. Like Israel , you have already been delivered from Egypt by God’s grace and now you are at Mt. Sinai to learn what He wants to teach you. You’ve been given a new heart, a new inmost being that earnestly desires to obey God. So when you read His Word, don’t look at it as a set of commands that you’re in trouble if you don’t memorize and keep them all; look at them as the words of your beloved Father, who is teaching you bit by bit and day by day to be more like him.”
One of the three major events which resulted in me becoming a Messianic was enjoying a Passover dinner given by Rabbi Scott Sekulow at the Southern Baptist church I was then a member of. I was amazed at how every element pointed to Christ, and I couldn’t figure out why we as Christians weren’t regularly celebrating this feast. It had nothing to do with feeling “under the law,” or fearing that if I didn’t keep it I was in trouble. Rather, God in His Spirit spoke to me through the Passover, and blessed me through it. Around the world, millions of Christians are starting to discover the same joy of keeping God’s Feastdays and discovering their Jewish roots. They didn’t do so because someone told them it was a requirement, but because like the 1st Century Gentile believers, somebody preached Moses to them in their synagogue (church), and the Spirit responded in them. I think the Apostles meant for the same to happen, so that learning about God would be a joy instead of a crushing burden.
But There’s More! Ethnicity and Tradition and the Jerusalem Council
So far, we have dealt only with the common interpretation of Acts 15 that the four commands given here were the only parts of “the Law” that Gentile believers were (and are) required to keep. We have seen that even if that interpretation is largely correct, since the Apostles gave or alluded to additional commands from the Torah which should be kept in their epistles (as indeed Yeshua did in the Gospel accounts as well), that we can only understand these commands to be the prerequisites to salvation and fellowship, not the end-point of a new believer’s growth.
However, the context of the passage tells us that there was something more going on, as does a comparison of Scripture-to-Scripture. Indeed, we find as we probe deeper that the issue before the Council was not Torah-observance, but ethnicity—which is to say, cultural identity—and tradition!
The First Key: Entering the Synagogues
Jacob’s final statement is the first key to truly understanding this passage. Here it is as rendered in the CJB:
“Therefore, my opinion is that we should not put obstacles in the way of the Goyim who are turning to God. Instead, we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication, from what is strangled and from blood. For from the earliest times, Moshe has had in every city those who proclaim him, with his words being read in the synagogues every Shabbat.” (Acts 15:19-21)
Here Jacob links the four commandments that they imposed on the Gentiles with the preaching of Moses—that is, the Torah delivered by Moses—in the synagogues. This has often been interpreted by commentators to mean, “After all, we’ve heard the Law taught in the synagogues for fifteen centuries, and it hasn’t done us any good, so why should we make the Gentile Christians obey it?” However, this interpretation is flawed. Remember that in this time, the Ekklesia had not yet separated from the synagogue. Indeed, we see that Gentiles often swamped the synagogues to hear this word of the Messiah who came to save the whole world (cf. Acts 13:42ff, 14:1ff). There was nowhere else for them to go to hear of the One True God, but they were often opposed by those Jews who did not believe in Yeshua.
Now note carefully what caused the uproars that Paul and Bar-Nabba (Barnabas) faced as they tried to preach the word of the Messiah: It wasn’t their teaching that the Messiah had come in the person of Yeshua, but rather that the Gentiles were flooding into the synagogues. Luke tells us that “when the Jews who had not believed saw the crowds” in Antioch-Pisidia, “they were filled with jealousy” (Acts 13:45), and it was this jealousy, this desire to keep the synagogue “a Jewish thing” that provoked those who were not persuaded that Yeshua was the Messiah to attack the Gospel. We see the same thing happening again in Iconium (14:5).
Therefore, we should understand Jacob’s closing remark to be connected to the uproar caused by the Gentiles trying to enter the synagogues to learn about the God of Israel. We’ll return to this point in a moment.
The Second Key: Salvation by Ethnicity?
Since this is the immediate context of the events leading up to the Jerusalem Council, we need to factor it into our understanding of the source of the controversy and Jacob’s judgment. First, the controversy: The original issue (in 15:1) was not over the Torah, but that some Judeans taught the Gentile brothers, “You can’t be saved unless you undergo circumcision in the manner prescribed by Moses.” Later, some of the Messianic Pharisees added to this that they must also keep the Torah (v. 5), but the first issue was a matter of ethnicity; that is, cultural identity.
First, let us look at what circumcision meant in the 1st Century. It was more than just the removal of the foreskin (though that in itself was a barrier to the Greeks, as already mentioned); rather, “circumcision” was synonymous with “being a Jew” (cf. Gal. 2:7ff, Col. 3:11). When a Greek was circumcised as a proselyte, he ceased to be a Greek and became a Jew. By saying that one had to be circumcised as a prerequisite for salvation, the Judaizers were saying that God only cared about the Jews. Such a view was actually contrary to the Torah itself, not just the New Testament; Israel was supposed to be a priestly nation (Exo. 19:6), ministering to the nations as the Levitical cohenim ministered to the tribes, and teaching them about the Eternal Father and His ways. Instead, by the 1st Century, Israel had built a wall around the Temple to keep the Gentiles from drawing near!
It is a common misperception that Judaism teaches that one is saved by obeying the Torah—a misperception that many Jews today believe. However, the Mishnah teaches that a Jew’s place in the world-to-come is not on the basis of his merits, but on being a member of God’s covenant people, Israel :
All Israelites have a share in the world to come, as it is said, “your people also shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.” (m. Sanhedron 11:1)
It was only natural then, that when the Gentiles began flooding into the synagogues to hear about the Messiah that a loving and holy God had sent to redeem them, the larger Jewish community, to whom Yeshua’s Messiahship was still an open question, responded by saying that these Gentiles could indeed be saved—if they entered Israel’s covenants by undergoing the rabbinical ceremony of circumcision, giving up their identity as Gentiles and becoming fully Jewish (Acts 15:1).
This was the original question before the Jerusalem Council: It wasn’t a question of whether Gentiles should obey God’s commands, but a question of whether salvation was by faith in Yeshua HaMashiach regardless of one’s genealogy, or whether salvation was by faith plus being Jewish!
When faced with this controversy, the Jerusalem council opposed the Judaizers on two bases: First, the obvious work of the Holy Spirit, who for example did not wait until Cornelius and his family proselytized to Jewishness but instead came upon them in power while they were still Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48). And second, on the basis of a prophecy in Amos 9:11-12 which said that there would be Gentiles, not just converted Jews, called by God’s Name. This prophecy was hardly alone in the Tanakh (the OT); for example, Isa. 11:10 says, “And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse (the Messiah), who shall stand as a banner to the people; for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious.” The apostles therefore understood that to force Gentiles to become Jews to receive full fellowship was to deny God’s promises and deny the evidence of the Spirit.
The Third Key: The “Yoke” of the Oral Torah
“But,” one might object, “didn’t the Apostles also call the Torah a yoke too heavy to bear (Acts 15:10)?” Not at all! First, let us consider what the Torah has to say about itself:
For this mitzvah which I am giving you today is not too hard for you, it is not beyond your reach. It isn’t in the sky, so that you need to ask, ‘Who will go up into the sky for us, bring it to us and make us hear it, so that we can obey it?’ Likewise, it isn’t beyond the sea, so that you need to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea for us, bring it to us and make us hear it, so that we can obey it?’ On the contrary, the word is very close to you–– in your mouth, even in your heart; therefore, you can do it! (Deu. 30:11-14)
In other words, there is nothing about the Torah that is arduous or humanly impossible to keep—and in that lies our just condemnation under God’s Law. If keeping His commandments was impossible, then He wouldn’t hold us accountable for keeping them; but having given us a Torah that we could keep, our true rebellious nature is made manifest.
Yeshua Himself, though endorsing every last letter of the Torah and saying that those who taught against keeping the least command would be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven (note that the issue is teaching falsely, and that it clearly isn’t a salvational issue), said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Mat. 11:28-30, NKJV)—this in contrast to the heavy burdens His contemporary rabbis were tying to mens’ backs (23:4). He did not regard the Torah—properly interpreted and applied—to be a burden.
No, this heavy yoke must be something else; and by simply carefully studying the debates between Yeshua and the Pharisees, it’s not hard to understand what it was: Yeshua never once criticized a single commandment of the Torah, but vehemently opposed adding commandments to the Torah so as to make it a burden or pervert its meaning. For example, He condemned the Pharisees for judging others on how (or if) they ceremonially washed their hands, or for gleaning a bit of food on the Sabbath, or for allowing one to sidestep their oaths and their obligation to care for (honor) their parents by way of legal loopholes. It was the addition of literally thousands of extra-Torahic commands, too many for any other than a scholar to even keep track of, which made the Torah a burden—and it was that culture of legalism that the Apostles wished to protect the Gentile converts from, not the Torah itself.
The use of the term “yoke” in the Rabbinic literature is well attested. The Midrashim speak of the “yoke of the Torah,” as well as the “yoke of God” and “yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” while Sifra and the Mishnah include “yoke of the commandments.” For the Sages, the metaphor of the “yoke” was one of willful submission to the Torah and thus ultimately to the rule of God.
But when the rulings of men became so intertwined with the written Torah that for all practical purposes the two were one, to neglect the traditions of the Sages was viewed as a neglect of Torah. Remember, one of the Sayings of the Fathers warns that interpretations of the Torah that differed from received halachah render a person unfit for the world-to-come. The implication is obvious: to throw off the traditions was to cast away the “yoke of the commandments” and to mark oneself as a heretic.
. . . Yet Paul was unwilling to require the Gentiles to submit to the many man-made laws of the rabbis in order to be received into the community of believers. And his decision to move in this direction was considered by some to be worthy of death. The “yoke” of tradition had sat across the neck of Israel for so long that it was impossible for many to ever envision a genuine faith in God without it. And when it came to the Gentiles it was impossible to consider receiving them apart from their willing submission to the man-made ceremony of the proselyte.
“But the Pharisees specifically refer to the Law (v. 5),” one might object. This is true. However, to the Pharisees (like the Orthodox today), the Law meant more than just the written Torah. It meant their traditions, the “Oral Torah,” as well. Thus we see on the JewFAQ website, under the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith: “The Written Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings) were given to Moses.” To the Pharisees, the Written and Oral Torah were inseparable, and one cannot keep one without keeping the other. Thus we see them:
- Accusing Yeshua of breaking the Sabbath by healing, even though healing was not specifically prohibited on the Sabbath by the Torah.
- Accusing Yeshua’s disciples of breaking the Sabbath for gleaning a snack from a field, even though this too is not specifically prohibited by the Torah.
- Accusing Yeshua’s disciples, and later the Master Himself, of breaking a commandment by not ritually washing their hands before a meal.
In addition, we know that many of the rules regarding ritual purity had been raised to a level specifically designed to keep Jews from even coming under the roof of a Gentile, or even Pharisees from coming under the roof of less observant Jews, as I explain in the series on the Eighteen Measures. Attempting to bring the new Gentile converts under this interpretation of the Law would have completely stifled the Gentile mission altogether.
The Jerusalem Council’s decisions have long been misunderstood by the Ekklesia as a whole. We have seen that the Jerusalem Council never even considered the idea that the Torah was no longer valid and binding on Jewish believers. We have also seen that they were a) dealing only with the prerequisites for salvation and fellowship by the Gentile believers, b) requiring that the Gentiles completely separate themselves from pagan worship, and c) were most likely also dealing with the issue of how much rabbinical tradition was incumbent on the Gentile believers, not with how much of the written Torah was valid. In either case, we have seen that the issue was how best to bring the Gentiles into the synagogues to learn about God from the Torah.
If the intent was merely to get the Gentile Christians off to a good start in worshiping only the God of Israel, exactly how far did the Jerusalem Council expect them to go in their observance. Judging by Jacob’s reaffirmation of the Council’s decision many years later (Acts 21:25), they did not even attempt to answer the question. They were well aware that just as there were commandments in the Torah specific to the priests, some specific to farmers and herders, some specific to men or to women, and so forth, that there would be commandments specific to Israel that the Gentiles would not be required to keep. They trusted in the Spirit and gentle encouragement to bring the Gentiles to following the commandments universal for all mankind, and did not allow debates on specific issues to divide the body. (As we see later in Romans 14.)
Ultimately, the problem faced by the Jerusalem Council is not unlike that faced by many congregations today: How exactly does one go about introducing new believers to the faith? Their answer was a most gracious one that we can learn from: Those professing the Messiah were required to distance themselves from their former pagan lives in order to enter the synagogues–the houses of worship and study–where they would hear the Word of God preached and be encouraged to grow in the Spirit.