Acts 15 and the Role of the Gentile
Philip Nowland


Acts 15 should be appreciated in its entirety, and seen in the context into which it fits. Before assuming by what James says in verse 21 that he, and the rest of the believers in Jerusalem, were assuming that the Gentiles would become Torah Observant, we should realize what the controversy is all about.

In verse 1, we can see that the controversy had been provoked by certain people from Jerusalem, who traveled to Antioch and attempted to force the church there to circumcise the non-Jewish believers in Yeshua:

Acts 15:1-2 - And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. (NKJ)

The account is specific as to what is meant there by circumcision. It is as "according to the custom of Moses". They mean physical circumcise. We would describe such people today as Judaizers.

According to the "custom of Moses", you were not allowed to observe the Passover unless you were circumcised:

Exodus 12:43-49 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "This is the ordinance of the Passover: No foreigner shall eat it. 44 "But every man's servant who is bought for money, when you have circumcised him, then he may eat it. 45 "A sojourner and a hired servant shall not eat it. 46 "In one house it shall be eaten; you shall not carry any of the flesh outside the house, nor shall you break one of its bones. 47 "All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 "And when a stranger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land. For no uncircumcised person shall eat it. 49 "One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who
dwells among you."

This was reinforced in the Law by:

Numbers 9:14 'And if a stranger dwells among you, and would keep the LORD'S Passover, he must do so according to the rite of the Passover and according to its ceremony; you shall have one ordinance, both for the stranger and the native of the land.'" (NKJ)

It is fair to say that the Judaizers who arrived in Antioch from Jerusalem, meant physical circumcise. For without it, under the Law, you are not permitted to do certain things - such as observe the Passover! These Judaizers went further and said that you cannot even be saved unless you are circumcised:

Acts 15:1 And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."

Later on, at the subsequent Council of Jerusalem, this was seen to include being Torah Observant:

Acts 15:5 - But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses." (NKJ)

These believing Pharisees wished to see two things done to the non-Jewish believers:

(a) Circumcise them (b) Command them to keep the law of Moses

The church's decision was to respond by doing neither!

Indeed Peter pointed among the reasons why this should be the case, by highlighting their own (Jewish) experience regarding this:

Acts 15:10 - "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (NKJ)

So according the Peter, those who were promoting that the church should take the action being suggested, namely:

(a) To circumcise the gentiles, and
(b) To command them to keep the law of Moses

Would be guilty of testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples which neither the Jewish ancestors, nor those present were able to bear.

Now if you are Torah Observant and you do not share Peter's (and his ancestors) negative experience on that point - well that is all well and good!

James drew everyone's attention to a prophecy in the Tanach, from Amos (9:11-12), which had predicted that non-Jews would come to faith in God as a result of the re-building of the Tabernacle of David. Note that he does not say the Tabernacle of Moses, nor does he say the Temple of Solomon - but the Tabernacle of David.

Acts 15:16-17 'After this I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; 17 So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord who does all these things.' (NKJ)

Before jumping into a conclusion that James (and thus Amos) are referring to the rebuilding of either:

(a) The Temple of Solomon or
(b) The Millennial Temple

We should realize that in James time (when he quotes from Amos), the physical temple was still standing and it is unlikely that he perceives that the Tabernacle of David is a reference to that. But he does see that the Gentiles, who had come to faith in God, were seen as part of the fulfillment of that prophecy from Amos. So he has drawn attention to Amos' words because it is evident that the Gentiles who were coming to believe and call upon the name of the Lord were doing so in fulfillment of Scripture from the Tanach. That is obviously James opinion - see Acts 15:15.

His next words are very important in this context:

Acts 15:18-20 18 "Known to God from eternity are all His works. 19 "Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 "but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood." (NKJ)

What does James mean by, not troubling those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God? Well obviously that is his response to the proposition from the Judaizers, who had reinforced their requirements by expecting that the church would:

(a) Circumcise them, and
(b) Command them to keep the law of Moses

Peter had said that such a thing would be to test God, and for James it would be to trouble the Gentile believers. However, James suggests that the church write to the Gentile believers and lay down a basic list of four requirements:

(i) to abstain from things polluted by idols
(ii) to abstain from sexual immorality
(iii) to abstain from things strangled, and
(iv) to abstain from blood

Now YOU may add the words MINIMUM to that if you want, and make it sound as if it were a starting point, hoping that these non-Jewish believers would become Torah Observant in due time, but that is not what was said, and we actually know that was not what happened!

James then adds these significant words:

Acts 15:21 - "For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath." (NKJ)

It is obvious, from observations of history, both within and without the Scriptures, that non-Jewish people did attend synagogue and hear Moses (the Law) being preached on every Sabbath day. This is frequently observed in the book of Acts. James makes this comment obviously aware that this practice would continue, which it did for some years.

BUT to make a gigantic leap and conclude, contrary to whatever had been said previously, by Peter and James, at the council of Jerusalem, that by this James is meaning that these non-Jews would become Torah Observant eventually, is to both re-interpret the facts of the matter, and to overlook the events which subsequently did take place.

If James meant that these non-Jews would become Torah Observant, as believers in Yeshua, by attendance at the local synagogue, then he appears to have been sadly wrong in his assumption, because that is not what happened. I do not think that James is not means that.

Rather, that Torah Observant Jews, of which there were many thousands (probably about 50,000) in the Jerusalem church - see Acts 21: 20, should take heart, that the decision not to lay that requirement upon the non-Jewish believers, will not hinder Torah Observance, for Moses is preached every Sabbath in the synagogues throughout the world.

Philip Nowland - Huntingdon, England

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