Acts 15 is a very misunderstood passage. Today, we are going to delve deeper.
“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).
Some have said that the “yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear” is the law, but this interpretation contradicts what God said about His own Law. Even John, a New Testament writer, attests to the freedom that law provides: God’s commandments are not burdensome. Let’s look at these verses:
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”.
So what is the yoke of bondage? 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. The “yoke” that Peter refers to is the yoke of man made rules. The Pharisees had burdened the people down with man made rules (Matthew 23:4). This caused people to trust in human effort instead of looking to God. Salvation by human effort is impossible. If circumcision was a necessary requirement for salvation, then we could earn our salvation. That would make the sacrifice of Christ of none effect. In Ezekiel 20, God rebukes the Israelites for being disobedient to His laws and commandments, and He said, “I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by” (verse 35). The laws that were not good and they could not live by were man-made rules. Because they refused to listen to God’s rules which were good for them and easy to live by, they were given over to rules that were bondage.
When the apostles conferred to decide how to handle this question, they decided that “…we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (Acts 15:20-21). These four commands are the minimum requirements for Gentiles so that they could attend the Synagogue and learn the law on the Sabbath. Notice that the Apostles even specify what they want Gentile converts to learn (Moses), where they want them to learn it (Synagogue), and when they want them to learn it (Sabbath)! Some have said that these four requirements are the only four things that Gentile believers in Jesus should obey, but this interpretation has problems because lying, stealing, coveting, idol worship, and a host of other sins are not listed either. Paul said thieves, coveters, and drunkards will not enter the Kingdom (I Cor. 6:9-10). When we read it in context, the apostles are establishing a minimum level for Gentiles so that they can attend synagogue and hear the Word of God.
This same command is repeated to believers in Judea in Acts 21:17-26. In this second mentioning of this decision, we learn something very important about the life of Paul, God’s chosen instrument to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. “When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.’ The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when their days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.” Paul, God’s chosen instrument to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, was questioned by his Jewish friends. Reports came about that claimed he was teaching Gentiles to turn away from the law. Paul is then tested by his fellow brothers: If he participates in the purification vows of the men, then he will show that the reports are not true and that he is obedient to the law (and teaches others to do the same). In the latter half of this passage, Paul partakes in the purification vows of these men in the temple area and shows them that he does not teach against the Law of Moses or break the Law of Moses himself.
You must remember that circumcision was the sign of the covenant. This was why this became a big issue in the early church.
For Gentile converts, the only way to hear the Word of God was to go to a Synagogue and the only day for them to hear the word of God is on the Sabbath. Requiring converts to be circumcised or be completely obedient to Torah before even coming to church might have made new converts think that salvation came by works. In fact, many Gentiles might have been discouraged by this because it takes time to learn God’s ways and walk them out. Realizing this, the apostles made the requirements simple. When Gentiles enter into the synagogues and other places of worship, they can learn with everyone else as long as they follow those four precepts.
God Bless and Shalom!