The Great Debate: Acts 15
Acts chapter 15 is debated in many circles today. Protestant Christianity points to it as proof of the authority of the 12 Apostles to “change the rules.” Messianic Judaism (note: ‘Messianic Judaism’ is separate from the ‘Messianic’ belief for the purpose of this writing) uses Acts 15 as its “gentile flagship.” That is, that the four laws given to “gentiles” (lit. ‘nations’) in verse 20 (and repeated in verse 29) are the only ones required of the converts. These four laws are: to refrain from the “pollution” of idols (this is commonly viewed as being food sacrificed to idols), to refrain from eating anything strangled, to refrain from eating blood, and to refrain from whoring (sexual immorality).
Let’s explore these four laws a little further. Then we’ll consider the logic behind the decision of these four laws. Lastly, we’ll examine, in FULL context, the entire encounter of Acts 15.
Exodus 34:14-15 & Numbers 25:1-2 speak of bowing to false gods and “eating of their sacrifice.” Here, it would seem, is a clear-cut commandment to refrain from “pollutions of idols” straight out of TORAH itself!
These next two go together. When slaughtering an animal for food or sacrifice (or both), a common way of doing this was to strangle it or break its neck. When doing so, however, the blood does not drain properly. Now Genesis 9:4, Deuteronomy 12:23, and Leviticus 19:26 all say NOT to eat blood. In Judaism (and even Islam) there is a very specific way to slaughter an animal. The Kosher way includes ensuring the animal does not suffer, and draining all the blood. If an animal was strangled, it would have been impossible back then to make sure the blood would drain properly. It would begin to thicken and even harden in the muscle and other tissue as time went on. So, eating something strangled would, in turn, cause one to eat something with blood.
This last one should be the easiest. No one, neither Christian nor Messianic Jew, argues to defend whoring. But let’s review the verses anyways. Basically the entire chapter of Leviticus 18 is devoted to listing the sexual sins that Elohim says to NOT do. Exodus 34 (as part was listed above) says, not only to simply abstain from eating of heathen sacrifices, but it also says not to “whore after their gods.” Pretty strong statement. But we see that was ALWAYS Israel’s problem. The Prophet Hosea had to marry an ACTUAL prostitute to illustrate this relationship between YHWH and Israel (Hosea 1:2). Jeremiah and Ezekiel both prophesy AGAINST Israel because she has gone and committed adultery and idolatry (Ezekiel 16 & Jeremiah 3). All over the New Testament we also see MANY warnings against sexual sin. Including Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 6, saying that those who live in sexual sins (fornication, adultery, homosexuality) and refuse to repent will NOT make it into the Kingdom. In verse 18 he says “FLEE sexual immorality!” Run away from it.
So, we can see that these commands are Torah-based. Torah-lite, if you will. Now, let’s consider the LOGIC in this.
Assuming that the Apostles are ALL in agreement about this, they are stating that “gentile converts” should be required ONLY to do these four things. IF Acts 15:10, when mentioning the “yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” was the Torah, then the Apostles are telling them these are the only things they have to do. Could that be true, though? Because what about murder? Murder isn’t included in these four laws. What about theft? There’s no prohibition on stealing in Acts 15. Keeping the Sabbath holy? Not even mentioned. Coveting? Not a word. Bearing false witness against your neighbor? Taking the name of Elohim in vain? And all of these are only the Ten Commandments, not even scratching the surface of the other HUNDREDS of commandments. So, is it logical to say that “gentile converts” are ONLY required to keep the four laws? Personally, I say no. But you decide for yourself.
Lastly, let’s look at the FULL context of Acts 15. Notice that there are multiple groups of people. Verse 1 says “certain men.” Verse 5 says some of the believers of the sect of the Pharisees. Then, of course, you have Paul and Barnabas arriving to meet with James, Peter, and the rest of the Jerusalem Council. So three major groups of people. “certain men,” “believing Pharisees,” (*note: Paul calls himself a Pharisee and we are pretty sure he was a believer, Philippians 3:5) and then of course the Apostles.
So, who says what? Well, these “certain men” come down from Judea (verse 1) and started teaching that unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved. The next group, the “believing Pharisees” say it is necessary to be circumcised AND keep the Law of Moses.
Very closely examine the first group. Certain men. Notice very carefully that these men are NOT called believers. Just “certain men.” Now, they came down from Judea and started teaching, so we can assume they’re Jews. Who else would start teaching (and have enough authority and knowledge to cause a problem) from Judea?
Now in the Talmud (collection of Jewish writings, mostly including the oral law once it was written [it also contains the Jewish laws that are NOT taken from the Torah]) there is a book called Sefer Ahava (meaning Scroll or Book of Love). This section of the Talmud contains what the Jews call “laws of Elohim’s love,” that is, positive commandments that He gave for His people to lead better lives. In Sefer Ahava, under the section of Milah (circumcision), and Halacha 7 (almost like chapter 7) it lists the command that the Jews placed upon themselves. (*Note: these can be read online on the Chabad’s website here: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/932325/jewish/Chapter-One.htm)
This portion reads, “When a convert enters the congregation of Israel, he is obligated to undergo circumcision first. If he had been circumcised while he was a gentile, it is necessary to extract the blood of the covenant on the day that he converts.”
(*Note: the majority of the Oral Law was not written for more than a hundred years AFTER the Acts 15 debacle. However, the laws in Sefer Ahava were taught somewhere between 300-180 BCE. In any case, the Jews taught these laws BEFORE the Acts 15 debacle occurred)
Now this seems a bit bizarre, does it not? And yet, it is COMPLETELY fitting with the Acts 15 debate. The “certain men from Judea,” who were most likely Jews, came down and started teaching “you cannot be saved unless you’re circumcised.” They taught this, because that’s what was written in THEIR laws. Continuing.
Mark 7:7 (or really the whole chapter) is when Messiah is confronting the Pharisees yet again. Here, He quotes Isaiah in saying “in vain do they worship Me. Teaching as teachings the doctrines (commands) of men.” In verse 9, He says “you set aside the Commands of Elohim, in order to keep your tradition.” And in verse 13 He says, “…and many such traditions do you have.”
Also, look at Matthew 11. Particularly His statement in verses 28-30. He says His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. Yoke. Could this be similar to the yoke mentioned in Acts 15:10? The Greek says zygos in both verses, meaning yoke.
Deuteronomy 30:11 – “For these commands which I am commanding you today are not too difficult for you, nor are they far off.” So here Elohim Himself is saying the Torah (see verse 10, where He states “this Book of the Law.”) is NOT too difficult for us.
1 John 5:3 – “In fact, this is love for Elohim: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.” So here are our two witnesses to establish a matter. John echoes what Moses wrote, saying that Elohim’s commands are not too hard for us.
So, back to Acts 15. Notice the context up to verse 10. Two separate “laws” have been mentioned. The Law of Elohim (called the Law of Moses) in verse 5, and the laws of the oral law that the Jews referenced in verse 1. So, simply letting Scripture interpret Scripture, which law is too burdensome? The law of Elohim, or the law of man? According to TWO different Biblical writers (though the same author, The Almighty) the Law of Elohim is NOT too burdensome. So, Acts 15:10, when Peter says “Now, therefore, why are you putting Elohim to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” can NOT be talking about The Law of Elohim. Because if Peter is saying the Torah is too burdensome, then he is lying and DIRECTLY breaking scripture, because he would be teaching CONTRARY to it. Thus Peter would be declared a false prophet, which we know he was not. And there were those, even in NT times, that were able to do it. In Luke 1:5-6 we are told that Zacharias and Elizabeth (John’s parents) “walked blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of YHWH.”
But wait, there’s more!
In verse 20, when the judgment is made to give four commands to the “gentiles,” those four commands were VERY specific to the time period they were living in. For instance, why not include murder or lying in those commands?
In that time, they lived among Greeks, Romans, even Scythians and barbarians (Col. 3:11). These pagan peoples had MANY practices of worship for MANY different gods. Paul even makes a comment on how many gods they have in Acts 17. Common practice in worship of these gods included offering a sacrifice, and having relations with a temple prostitute. In offering sacrifice, they would kill the animal (many times by strangulation, as this was easy) drink its blood, eat part of it, and “seal the deal” by laying with a temple prostitute (Hosea 4)
In Luke 16:13 and Matthew 6:24, Messiah says that man cannot serve two masters. In 1 Corinthians 10:20-21, Paul says that what the heathens offer to their gods is actually offered to demons. He says you cannot take part in the table of demons and the table of YHWH. Scripture is VERY clear that you must NOT take part in paganism, if you wish to draw near to Elohim. Jeremiah 51:45 and Revelation 18:4 both say, “come out of her, my people.” They speak of Babylon. Not just the physical Babylon, but the spiritual system of Babylon. That is, its stark paganism and sin.
So again, why these four specific laws? Because the “gentiles” could not continue to offer sacrifices to false gods, and sleep with prostitutes, if they expected to be let in the door of the synagogue. This explains Acts 15:21. “The Law of Moses is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” But the “gentiles” wouldn’t have been allowed INTO the synagogues if they were still engaging in open sin. But how else would they learn the rest of Elohim’s law? It wasn’t like it is now, back then. Not everyone had their own copy of the Bible. And bear in mind, the entire New Testament wasn’t written yet. They had the Torah, Prophets and the Writings (Tanakh, OT); and if they wanted to hear them they would have to go to the synagogues and/or the Temple. Only synagogues (and the Temple) had copies of the Scriptures, and these were read every Sabbath. This is also key to explain part of the custom of both Paul and Yeshua. (See Luke 4:16, Acts 17:2)
But until the gentiles ceased their pagan practices and idolatry, the Jews would not have let them in the door of the synagogue. And if they had not been let in the door, they couldn’t have learned the any of the Torah. The Apostles did not have time to teach them every single Command all at once. So the easiest thing to do was have them learn the rest of them in the synagogues.
Now, lastly, the statement of the Pharisees. The Pharisees, notice, did not say you cannot be saved unless you are circumcised. They did, however, say it is necessary to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses (Torah). Necessary for what? Necessary for obedience. John 14:15 Messiah says, “if you love Me, keep My commands.” Note, again, that when this was written, there were no gospels. There was no Acts 15. There was no New Testament! There was the Tanakh. The Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. Now why should we take the advice of Pharisees? Because they were Believers! They were believers who, like Paul, were “of the sect of the Pharisees.” These “believing Pharisees” would have studied the Tanakh their entire lives, and would have memorized the entire Torah by the time they were 13! And we struggle with memorizing John 3:16, Romans 6:23 and Genesis 1:1!
Now although Messianic Jews use this section of Scripture to support the false idea that non-Jewish believers are subjected only to a minimal amount of laws; Judaism also teaches something similar. In Judaism they point to the seven laws given to Noah, called the Noachide Laws, as being the only binding commandments for non-Jewish converts. In addition to this they add the requirement of circumcision, even the drawing of blood if they are already circumcised. As we have seen thus far, this does not hold water (physical or Scriptural). It is yet another attempt to support the idea that individuals who have Jewish blood are somehow of greater status or more important than those without it. It is, for lack of a better way to put it, racist.
Consider John 5:46 where Messiah says, “if you would have believed Moses, you would believe Me, because he wrote about Me.” In Luke 16 we find the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Abraham’s response to the rich man could also be paralleled with John 5. Now are we to believe that this great witness of Yeshua (after all, He is saying that Moses is a witness of Him) was for the Jews only, and not for the entire world? If you do not have the Tanakh (the foundation of which is the Torah, see article The Tree of Life for more) then you have no basis for your faith at all. If you do not understand the Torah, you will not understand the reason of the coming of Messiah Yeshua, and you especially will not understand why He has to appear twice.
Lastly, some laws given by YHWH Himself, to help better understand why Acts 15 cannot be telling “gentile” or “foreign” converts that they are absolved from keeping the Torah once they come into belief.
Numbers 15:15 – “There shall be one statute for you of the assembly, and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before YHWH.” (*Note: could also compare Numbers 15:15 with Romans 10:12 –“no distinction between Jew and Greek…” and Galatians 3:28 – “Neither Jew, nor Greek…for all are One in Messiah.")
Numbers 15:16 – “There shall be One Law and One Ruling for you, and for the 'stranger' who sojourns with you.”
Exodus 12:49 – “There shall be One Law for the native, and for the 'stranger' who sojourns with you.”
Joshua 8:33 – “And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of YHWH, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of YHWH had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel.”
Now this verse in Joshua is very important. It states that “all Israel” is defined as native AND sojourner.
Also, it wasn’t just Jews that came up out of Egypt.
Exodus 12:38: – “A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.”
“Mixed Multitude,” so not just Jews. See also article titled Who is Israel? for a further explanation of the “sojourner” and how the Law applies to the native and the sojourner as well.
I think Solomon says it best.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 – “Let us hear the conclusion of the matter: Fear Elohim and keep his commandments, for this applies to every person.”
So, just to run it into the ground, we again ask the question: DID the apostles teach AGAINST the Word (including Law) of Elohim? If they did, they would be false teachers. IF they taught AGAINST the Torah, then they do NOT belong in Scripture. But this isn’t the only mention of one of the Apostles teaching against the Law.
In Acts 21, Paul arrives in Jerusalem and is greeted by the elders (verse 17) who inform him that the Jewish BELIEVERS are zealous for The Law, and that they have heard that Paul teaches to turn away from the Law. Verse 24, they advise Paul to go with some men who have taken a vow and need to finish their offering and shave their heads. They tell Paul to go with them, and “join in their purification rites,” so that “everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” No truth to these reports. No truth that Paul is teaching AGAINST the Torah.
In Acts 24, Paul says the he believes everything written in the Torah and the Prophets (verse 14).
Remember that Scripture CANNOT and WILL NOT contradict itself. If there appears to be a contradiction, then either your understanding is wrong or it is simply a translational error. If Elohim Himself said there is ONE LAW for the native-born AND for the stranger dwelling amongst Israel, then that means there is ONE LAW. Not two. Not four. Not seven. Not 613. Just ONE. One entire Torah (lit. instructions) that applies to EVERYONE that wishes to follow YHWH Elohim. To walk as the Messiah Himself walked, as He walked Torah and did so perfectly.
YHWH, through Moses, said there is ONE LAW (Num. 15, Ex. 12) and YHWH, through Paul, said there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile (Rom. 10, Gal. 3) once they have entered His covenant.
We like to use the “grafted-in” terminology of Romans 11. We know that, whether we are born of the direct lineage of Jacob or not, we can be “grafted in” to the Tree of life, in the same way that some of the natural branches are “cut off.”
We also like to use the analogy of adoption. Israel is the child of YHWH, and gentiles, through the shed blood of Messiah, can be adopted into His family, but consider this: is YHWH perfectly Fair? Is He perfectly Just?
If I have a son (I have two, actually), I will give him certain rules to follow. When he breaks one or more of those rules, there is discipline (punishment). Now of course the purpose of the discipline is the hope that he doesn’t break that rule again. Now when he’s a baby, I give him a little grace. If he can barely crawl, then he doesn’t yet know that he’s “breaking a rule” by knocking books off the bookshelf. But by the time he’s 15, he will be mature enough to know that knocking books off the shelf is against the rules. Now let’s say that when my son is 15, I adopt an infant. In order to be fair and just, I have to give the adopted son the same rules as the natural-born son, correct? And yet, being a baby, can I expect the adopted son to be able to know and follow all of the rules I have set in place? Certainly not; at least, not all at once. So, as I did with my own son as he was maturing, I give him a little grace. Now, when my son is 30 and my adopted son is 15, I expect both of them to be mature enough to know not to knock books off the shelf.
See what I’m getting at here? New “baby believers” haven’t even been in the faith long enough to KNOW all of Torah, let alone FOLLOW it. So they are given a little bit of milk (1 Cor. 3 & 1 Pet. 2) before they are given meat. And over time, they come into the fullness of truth, and the fullness of understanding. That is the purpose of Acts 15. Give them four little rules to abide by to cease joining themselves to false gods. Then, when they enter the synagogue, they learn the rest. Later down the road they are expected to be mature enough to know the difference between right and wrong, clean and common, holy and profane. They are adopted and “co-heirs” of Messiah (Gal. 3).
BUT, don’t take my word for it. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “Prove (test) all things. Hold fast what is good.”
1 John 4:1 – “Test all spirits, whether they are of Elohim…”
And lastly, be Berean (Acts 17). Search the Scriptures thoroughly, to determine if what you are being taught, and have been taught, is true. Shalom.
5/29/2016 03:50:36 pm
How is the discipline of the Assembly of Messiah maintained during the time that the non-Jews are on their way to full observance? How much time do they have and how is the time of learning to observe concluded? Or when are they fully responsible for a Beit Din if they for example transgress the Sabbath commandments? What are the Scriptural criteria for this? And how exactly do legitimate the commandments that are not in the Written Torah but nevertheless accepted by the Jewish community? For example the commandment not to do money transactions is not in the Torah. Yet it is universal accepted practice.
6/17/2016 06:33:42 am
Shalom, Ronald! Thank you for your comment.
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J. A. Brown