This message intends to shed light into what I see as a departure from what God intended with regards to the salvation of non Jews or Gentiles. God indicated through Paul that it was always his plan that Gentiles also be saved. This is the mystery that Paul refers to that has now being revealed. God by his own sovereign will, chose the nation do Israel, through whom his message will be spread to all nations. God rescued them from Egypt and through Moses, he gave them laws which included, the moral law (Ten Commandments), ceremonial laws (sacrificial and worship) and the judicial laws. These classifications are not in the bible but are just created to sort of make the distinctions easier. God made it clear that they were to obey these laws as part of the covenant we now know as the old covenant.
Exodus 19:4-8 (ESVST)
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles ‘wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 8 All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.
This was the old covenant that God made with Israel at the mountain of Sinai. This covenant continued until the death of Jesus when the covenant was made absolute and replaced by the new covenant Jer 31:31-34.
Now having this background, let’s look at our message of Acts 15. Just as a background, Paul and Barnabas have been preaching throughout and met some Jews in Antioch who caused trouble for them because of jealousy that many Jews were converting to Christianity, these same Jews ended up causing Paul to be stoned in Lystra. After this Paul and Barnabas went via Iconium back to Antioch continuing to preach and setting up churches. When they arrived in Antioch, they gave feedback to the church. This then brings us to Acts 15:1
Acts 15:1-6 (ESVST)
1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “ Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
“Some men” from Judea. These men are not identified but all we know is that they were teaching that unless one is circumcised according to the custom of Moses, they cannot be saved. Now, “circumcised according to the custom of Moses” refers to Levictus 12:3
Leviticus 12:3 (ESVST)
And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
This also comes from Genesis
Genesis 17:11 (ESVST)
You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.
The circumcision was a sign of a covenant between God and Abraham. This carried even through the Mosaic laws and after. So, these men clearly were referring to this circumcision in Lev 12:3 and Gen 17:11. The word “saved” refers to salvation that Paul, Barnabas and other Apostles were preaching salvation through faith in Jesus. This is what Peter said regarding salvation during Penetrcost:
Acts 2:38 (ESVST)
And Peter said to them, “ Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore these men were saying this salvation cannot be achieved unless you are circumcised. One thing that is important to note is that these men were not arguing against the salvation that was preached but, they were actually adding to the requirements. While Paul was preaching salvation by faith, they were preaching salvation by faith plus circumcision.
2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
The word “dissension” means dispute. After this teaching of circumcision by these men, there was a big dispute and debate between Paul, Barnabas and these men. If there was a dispute, it can only mean that they did not agree with each other. As a results, Paul, Barnabas and the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders to get clarity on this issue.
3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.
As they were on their way to Jerusalem they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria giving feedback on how Gentiles were being converted and this pleased all the brothers that they were traveling with. They also gave feedback when they arrived in Jerusalem to the elders and apostles.
5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
Believers who belonged to the party of Pharisees. Some Pharisees became Christians but brought their Judaic beliefs with them. They believed that Gentiles must first become converts to Judaism and be circumcised before being eligible to be saved by faith.
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.
This matter of wether the Gentiles who were being converted must also be circumcised and obey the law of Moses to be saved, was the very reason why the first council called the Jerusalem council was convened to discuss. The question was that should non Jews or Gentiles, convert to Judaism before they can be saved. In other words, should non Jews or Gentiles over and above their salvation by grace through faith, also obey the law of Moses to be saved. In a nudshell, the question was, is salvation, by grace through faith only or by grace through faith plus the works of the law.