Acts 15: Gentiles and the Law of Moses

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Acts 15 fascinates me.  The Messianic Jews were wondering what to do with the Gentiles that were coming to faith in the Messiah.   Here are some highlights:

Verses 1 and 2 state the problem.  Some men came from Judea to Antioch and started teaching the believers, “You cannot be saved unless you are circumcised as the Law of Moses requires.”  Paul and Barnabas got into a fierce argument with them about this, so it was decided that Paul Barnabas and some of the others in Antioch should go to Jerusalem and see the apostles and elders about this matter (GNT).

If you read all of Acts 15, you will discover that more than one group of Jews thought that circumcising Gentiles was necessary–but not for the same reason.  The first group (verses 1-2) thought it necessary for salvation.  The second group in verse 5 saw it differently. “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 obey the law of Moses” (NIV). In other words, they believed that the Gentiles were saved by faith but they should nevertheless be circumcised and follow the law of Moses. This spawned a lively debate.

After hearing Peter, Paul, and the other debaters, James reached this conclusion.  “It is my opinion,” James went on, “that we should not trouble the Gentiles who are turning to God.  Instead, we should write a letter telling them not to eat any food that is ritually unclean because it has been offered to idols; to keep themselves from sexual immorality; and not to eat any animal that has been strangled, or any blood.  For the Law of Moses has been read for a very long time in the synagogues every Sabbath, and his words are preached in every town” (Acts 15: 19-21 GNT).

Notice that “the basics” were a combination of food laws and moral law.  James was confronting the paganism that was rampant in the Roman Empire, which involved drinking blood and having sex with temple prostitutes.  No doubt he was also influenced by verses like the following:  Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood–I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people.  For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.  Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood” (Leviticus 17: 10-12 NIV).

I find verse 21 in Acts 15 most intriguing:  For the Law of Moses has been read for a very long time in the synagogues every Sabbath, and his words are preached in every town.”  The implication is that Gentiles could go to the synagogue on the Sabbath and hear the Law of Moses read. The New Testament did not as yet exist and neither did the printing press.  Whenever Paul referred to the Scriptures, he was referring to the Old Testament.

He wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed” (2 Timothy 3: 16 GNT).

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