(This is a discussion of a missionary attempt by Paul, based on what is written in Acts (and in other books of the Bible.)
He was Paul, the Pharisee. He was the one who oversaw Stephen’s stoning. He was the one who hated Christians and what they stood for. He was the one who sought them out to imprison and kill them. He was the one who persecuted believers, and, in doing so, persecuted the Messiah.
He was Paul, the apostle. He was a man whose vision changed his life. He was a man who went to nations near and far to preach the story of the God of Abraham and the Messiah. He was the one who loved all people and desired to help save them, who wrote meaty letters to them to admonish the growing churches. He was a man who endured all sorts of set-backs, persecution, and physical hardships, in the name of Yeshua. He was a martyr who died for Messiah.
Can you believe he was the same man? There was a drastic difference between the Paul he used to be and the Paul he became.
(Note: Paul’s Hebrew name was Sha’ul. However, Paul is the name most people recognize, so for this essay I will refer to him as ‘Paul”.)
After Paul first started talking about Jesus, it seemed that you couldn’t get him to stop! It didn’t matter if you imprisoned, shipwrecked, or tried to stone him, the guy just wasn’t at all fazed!
One scenario I would like to cover in this essay is the reason for the Jerusalem Council, (which was held in AD 50,) and the result of said council. The reason I want to discuss this is because I disagree with my teacher in his interpretation of the Jerusalem Council verdict. He believes, (as do many Christians), that the decision meant that Christians no longer have to obey the Law of God as given at Mount Sinai. (The Law is documented in the first five books of the Bible.)
In the beginning of Acts chapter 15, we see that there were people telling new converts that they must be circumcised in order to obtain salvation. Obviously, this idea was seen as incorrect by the apostles. Getting circumcised cannot give you salvation. We are saved by faith, like Abraham, whose faith (belief and obedience) made him righteous. (see Genesis 15:6 and Hebrews 11:8.)
Therefore, the council convened to discuss their response to the mislead congregation. They decided that in their letter, they would tell the people to “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:26.) At first glance, it would appear that these are the only rules by which believers have to abide.
But let’s back up a bit.
Why would the apostles tell the new Christians to abide by these rules? They didn’t say anything about not murdering. They didn’t say anything about not stealing. So why only these four rules?
Well, the new Christians had just come out of a pagan system of worship, in which they would offer animals to their gods as bloody sacrifices, then drink the blood of the offerings. They would eat meat from animals which had been strangled to death, and then they would engage in sexual immorality with both male and female temple prostitutes. This was a very gruesome reality of the pagan religion. It was similar to the time when the Israelites were at Mount Sinai, sinning against God by worshipping the golden calf, and “sat down to eat, and rose up to play.” (Exodus 32:6.) So basically, the apostles were telling the people to give up their specifically pagan temple worship.
“But there’s more to being a Christian than just giving stuff up.”, you might say. I agree, and so did they. In verse 21, the apostles land the clincher in their reasoning. “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:21.)
What does it mean when it says “Moses” is read? At the time, believers would meet in the synagogues on the Sabbath to read the law (which was called “Moses”, because it was given to Moses at Mount Sinai) and the prophets (the Bible books of the Old Testament.) If the new believers would give up their pagan practices, then when they went to the synagogues, they could learn to study and obey the Law from the teachers and other believers.
God does not want us to worship him in the way the pagans do. (Deuteronomy 12:29-32) New believers must discard the pagan ways of worship and learn to obey God in the way he has commanded them.
Although salvation does not come through circumcision, does this mean that circumcision is unimportant? Of course not! It is a way we can show love to God by our obedience.
Some people believe that when Paul went to deliver the letter, he would tell the Christians that they did not have to be circumcised. If this was true, then why did Paul circumcise Timothy just before taking him along in order to tell the gentiles that they did NOT have to become circumcised? (Acts 16:1-3) The theories don’t match up.
We must therefore conclude that although circumcision is not necessary for salvation, it is a way to obey God in a way he has commanded us to. It is a way to show others that we believe in Yahweh.
This brings up the issue of ‘circumcision of the heart’. Physical circumcision does no good without the circumcision of the heart, as we see in the prophetic times. Israel strayed from Yahweh in their hearts yet continued to offer Him sacrifices. He hated that they were only serving Him outwardly, while inwardly they worshipped others. (Isaiah 1:11-15, Jeremiah 4:4.)
In fact, Deuteronomy 30 itself refers to circumcision of the heart, so this is not a new concept.
What if Yahweh wanted us to circumcise physically … and circumcise our hearts … at the same time?
10 years later, Paul came back to Jerusalem, and they rejoiced at the many new believers. But the elders told Paul that there were some people saying “Paul teaches that the new believers MUST NOT circumcise their children.” (Acts 21:17-26.) Were these reports true? Or were the people lying?
In verse 24, James gave Paul advice on how he ought to respond.
“Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” – Acts 21:24, NIV (emphasis mine)
So the reports were NOT true! Paul was in fact living in obedience to the law. As we know, Paul believed that leaders should set a good example for the believers, as he said when he advised Timothy in his first letter. (See verse below.)
“…. But set an example for the believers, in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12
Paul set a good example for the believers in his life, by “living in obedience to the law.” He, an apostle of Christ, was following the Law even twenty-nine years after the resurrection of Christ!
Contrary to common Christian thinking, the narrative in Acts 15-21 does not mean that the apostles decided against new Christians following the Law. In fact, they were in full support of it!
However, you cannot gain your salvation through following the law, and THAT is what Paul and the apostles were concerned about.
All throughout the Bible, it is written that the Law is good, reviving the soul, sweet, righteous, a lamp and a light … and it is true. (1 Timothy 1:8, Psalm 19:7, Psalm 119:103, Romans 7:12, Proverbs 6:23, psalm 119:142.) God’s law is not a burden or just a bunch of rules. It defines the boundaries for a healthy life and a strong walk of faith.
Let me know your thoughts!