Editor’s Note: This series of posts on Acts 15 is written by guest teacher David Hundert. Thanks, David! The series of five posts begins here.
How do people become disciples of Jesus? What do they need to do? This was a hotly debated question in the early church, as the good news about Jesus expanded beyond the borders of Israel. As non-Jews began to accept the message of good news in Jesus, did they need to adhere to the Jewish law?
Jews had always demanded of all Gentile converts the requirements of circumcision and rituals of the Torah. Why should any of this change for the followers of Jesus? Remember the story of Cornelius in Acts chapter 10? To summarize, Cornelius was a Roman centurion; possibly a Gentile, but certainly according to Acts 10, he was not a Jew. Peter shared the story of Jesus to Cornelius and his family, and they believed and became followers of Jesus, but they weren’t required to undergo circumcision. Also, as we have seen in recent chapters in Acts, Paul, even though he was a Pharisee trained by the famous Pharisee, Gamaliel, had led many Gentiles to follow the way of Jesus, and they weren’t circumcised, so why the concern about circumcision or socializing with Gentiles?
Also in Acts chapter 10, Peter tells Cornelius in verse 28, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” This requirement isn’t specifically mentioned in the Old Testament, but it is spoken of in the Jewish “Talmud” or the collection of laws that expound upon the Old Testament Laws. They are just as sacred and binding on a Jew as the Old Testament itself. So if Jews then, were forbidden to associate with Gentiles, then how could Christians of both backgrounds fellowship?
In Acts 15, as we learned in the previous post, Jewish Christians from Jerusalem traveled to Antioch saying that Gentile Christians there needed to be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas argued with these men, because they were trying to impose the act of circumcision on Gentile believers. These false teachers even went so far as to claim that if you weren’t circumcised, you’re not saved. The church in Antioch then sends Paul and Barnabas, along with some others, to travel to Jerusalem to bring this dispute to the apostles and church elders.
In Jerusalem, Acts 15, verse 5 tells us, “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 keep the law of Moses’.”
Their answer was simple. Since so many Jews had failed to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, they would have conceded the necessity of admitting Gentiles into the messianic community in order to make up the full complement, and they would be forced to concede the work of God and the Holy Spirit in the work that has been done so far by Paul and Barnabas. But their stance, was that those Gentiles should be admitted on terms similar to those required of new converts to Judaism: they must be circumcised and assume the obligation to observe the Mosaic law. Those that were “saved Pharisees” believed that requiring conversion to Judaism was the way to go.
At this point, verse 6 states, “The apostles and elders met to consider this question.” So, they heard the issue, and met separately to discuss it, and then they addressed the rest of the council. Then Peter speaks up. In verses 7-11, we read that Peter, reminded the assembly of his own experience in the household of Cornelius. Even though his visit to Cornelius was “some time ago” (vs. 7), possibly as many as ten years before, the experience had made a real impression on Peter. God had chosen him to witness to the Gentiles. Peter could expect the Jerusalem Christians, including the circumcisers, to remember this account, because he had given them an account after he returned from Cornelius’ house, as we read in Acts 11:1-18. At that time, Christians in Jerusalem had aired their concerns about Peter and Cornelius eating together. Peter explained how God had directed him through a vision, how he had shared the story of Jesus with Cornelius, and how the Holy Spirit had come and filled Cornelius and those in his house, clearly showing that they had become true disciples of Jesus. Upon hearing this amazing news, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem said, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). But now, “sometime later”, they seem to have forgotten, and are sharing the same concerns again.
What Peter had learned on that occasion, was that God looks on the heart, not on external things. God is no respecter of persons. Perhaps Peter had in mind, the distinction made by the prophet Jeremiah, that God does not look to the external circumcision of the flesh but the internal circumcision of the heart. God had convicted Cornelius, looked to the inner circumcision of his heart, and accepted him on that basis. God had proved his acceptance of Cornelius, and the rest of the Gentiles at his home by granting them the gift of his Spirit. God only grants his Spirit to those he has accepted. The fact that they had received the Spirit just as Peter and the Jewish Christians had, was proof that God had accepted Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles on an equal footing. He “purified their hearts” by faith. Peter undoubtedly was thinking of the vision he had on that rooftop, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
For the Jew, circumcision was a mark of sanctity and purity, of belonging to God’s people and being acceptable to him. But in Cornelius, God had shown Peter that true purity comes not by an external mark, but by faith. In the account of Cornelius in Acts 10, his faith is never specifically mentioned, but is certainly evidenced in his following, without question, every instruction God had given him. Here Peter made explicit what was implicit: Cornelius had been accepted by God on the basis of his faith.
And that is what true disciples of Jesus embrace. We become his disciples by faith, not by following rituals.