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Acts 15: The Council at Jerusalem and the Law of Moses

The Hebrew Roots Movement (HRM)  and Islam share a teaching that the law of Moses still stands for people today. However, Acts 15 proves this to be a false teaching. The decision of the Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 was not that the Gentiles were not required to follow the Law of Moses (as historically and correctly taught by the Church for the past two thousand years), but rather the Council ruled that the Gentiles would learn the Law over time. Those who teach that we should still Judaize typically believes that the main focus of the Council at Jerusalem was solely on circumcision and not the Law of Moses. To support this view Judaizers focus on two verses, pulling them out of the context, and adding their own interpretation with no surrounding evidence from the full text of Acts 15 to support it:

Acts 15:1:
And certain men coming down from Judea were teaching the brothers, “If you are not circumcised in the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Acts 15:21:
For Moses has had from ancient generations those who proclaim him in each city, being read in the synagogues from one Sabbath to another.

Based solely on these two verses the Muslims and Hebrew Rooters alike, come to the conclusion that circumcision was the only issue at hand and the Council ruled that the Gentiles would learn the Law of Moses over time by attending the synagogue each week. Reading Acts 15 in context, however, shows that the whole Law of Moses was part of the discussion at the Council and not just circumcision according to the Law:

5 But some of those from the sect of the Pharisees rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” 6 And the apostles and elders gathered together to see about this matter. 7 And after much dispute, Peter arose and said to them: “Men, brothers, you know that from early days God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, the knower of hearts, bore witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as also [He did] to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But through the grace of the Lord Jesus, we believe that we will be saved in the same manner as they.”

It is clear in verse 5 that the whole of the Law of Moses was part of the discussion as it states “and command them to keep the Law of Moses”. Had circumcision been the only issue at hand, the Law of Moses would not have been mentioned at all much less with the Pharisees desire to command the Gentiles to keep the Law. Furthermore,  in verse 6 it places both issues together as one matter as it states that the Apostles and the elders came together to consider “this matter” indicating that circumcision and the Law of Moses were one issue combined, rather than two distinct issues. Had this been two distinct issues that were debated logically speaking the text would state these matters indicating the separation of the two. The wording, however, indicates that both issues were one and the same to the first century Church.

It should be noted here that in the Old Testament, circumcision was an initiation which Gentiles had to undergo prior to keeping the Law of Moses. Physical circumcision went along with the written carnal Law. No one was ever circumcised unless they were going to follow the Law as this is what the Law required. Contrasted to this, under the New Covenant the Law was Spiritual and written on the heart and circumcision of the heart was to be the initiation which was based on faith.

This is important to remember since in verse 7 Peter makes the distinction between the written word, or carnal Law, when he says “by my mouth” indicating that the spoken word of the good news of Christ was being taught to the Gentiles as opposed to the written letter of the carnal Law. Peter, who had received the Holy Spirit, or Spiritual Law written on his heart, taught with his words as opposed to teaching by the Law of Moses. And this verse 8 goes on to state is what converted the Gentiles and resulted in their possessing the Spiritual Law or the Holy Spirit.

Since the Gentiles had believed in what Peter had taught about Jesus, their faith was the circumcision and based on their faith the Holy Spirit (Law) was given to them as well and had already purified their hearts. What else was needed if the purpose was already accomplished?

Therefore, we know from the following verses that the Law of Moses was not a requirement for God had already given the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit, having descended onto the believers in the upper room on Pentecost, marked the end of the written Law and the beginning of the Law of the Spirit, as Pentecost was the same day that the written Law had been given on Mt.Sinai.  It is obvious from Scripture that one had been fulfilled with something better. The Old way was only shadows; physical circumcison as the initiation to keeping the Old Law. But the New way was Spiritual; faith (circumcision of the heart) as the initiation and then recieving the Holy Spirit (the New Law) to follow. And there is an abundance of Biblical evidence to prove this without relying on cherry picking verses (see Jeremiah 9 and 31, Deuteronomy 30, Romans 2, 2 Corinthians 3, Philipians 3).

Going back to Acts 15, Peter then asks “why test God” and place a “yoke” onto the Gentiles when they will be saved, like the Hebrews such as Peter, by faith in Jesus. We know that the Law can not save as the Bible is blunt about this fact. If it had been able to save then Jesus’ life and death were pointless. Again, if the Gentiles already possessed faith that would lead to salvation, what need is there for observance of the Law of Moses. What will it accomplish aside from placing them under pointless observances since Jesus was what the Law foreshadowed in the first place?

Further showing that those who believe was are still under the Old Law adds to the interpretation of the Council at Jerusalem is the most important portion and is found in Acts 15:28-29 which never once mentions the requirement of learning the Law of Moses later:

28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. -KJV

Nothing is mentioned in this letter to indicate that the Council at Jerusalem had decided for the Gentiles to begin with the four Noahide Laws, which are called necessary , and then learn the Law of Moses overtime. In fact, the letter states that the Council had decided to “lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things“.  Had the Council decided that the Law was to be learned over time, it seems logical that instructions would have been sent in this letter explaining that Gentles were to attend the Synagogue each week to learn the Law of Moses. If the Gentiles were already attending the Synagogue each week then instructions would have stated that they should make an effort to learn the Law of Moses and remember it.

The issues discussed at the Council were obviously very important as they debated the matter for a while. It seems if such a debate took place before they came to their decision,  great care would have been taken in instructing the Gentiles in detail on what was decided for them. However, the letter is rather short, blunt and to the point, using the same wording from the Council dialogue. Only four basic things related to idolatry were given to the Gentiles with the summary, “which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well”, indicating that this is all else that is required. Remember that the Gentiles already had faith in Christ and had received the Holy Spirit. The Law of Christ (the Law of Love) was already written on their hearts.

Conclusion

The Law pointed to Jesus and since he has come to Earth, it has been fulfilled. The HRM, Islam and other such groups that misinterpret the Law as applying to Christians today add significantly to Acts 15 through speculation and assumption on the meaning of two verses from Acts 15. No where in Acts 15 are the Gentiles told to go to the synagogue each week to learn the rest of the Law. Had this been the intention of the Council of Jerusalem, the letter sent to the Gentiles would have indicated this fact.

The wording of Acts 15:21, it simply means that the Law has been taught in the synagogues every week for generations, who in comparison to the Gentiles which have believed Peter’s words and received the Holy Spirit, can not accomplish this same act of salvation. Some may say this is adding to Scripture however the whole New Testament proves this as well as the prophecy from Amos discussed just in Acts 15. In context of what is discussed in Acts 15, the Law did not accomplish what the Gospel was accomplishing.

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