Who are the groups involved in Acts 15? We have the Jerusalem Council (v. 4), the Circumcision Party (v.1), the sect of believing Pharisees (v.5), and the new Gentile converts (V. 17-20). What is the debate about? There are two positions: The Judaizers say: The Law of Moses should be kept as part of salvation, beginning with Circumcision (Acts 15:1). The believing Pharisees who were trusting in Jesus as Messiah argued: “Gentiles should keep the Law out of obedience.” Is there anywhere in this passage that teaches the Law of Moses has been abolished, in whole or in part? I do not believe this is the point of the Jerusalem Council.
How do we know this? Peter says the law coming from the Circumcision party, the oral tradition with all of its additional precepts, is bearing the yoke on the new believers. We know that God Himself declares His Law to be easy and light (Deut. 30:11-16; 1 Jn. 4:23). Therefore, if we say that God’s Law is what the Jerusalem Council is arguing about, then we can’t have Peter calling it an unreasonable yoke.
The yoke that is unreasonable is a doctrine that teaches we are saved through circumcision and God’s law. First, circumcision was a sign of the old covenant. This is embedded in the sacrificial system and has been fulfilled in Christ. As Scripture teaches in Hebrews 9, the blood of the new covenant is found when Christ entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. It’s vitally important, hermeneutically, to keep the “covenants” separate from the “Law of God” since covenants (Abrahamic, Noahic, Davidic, Mosaic, etc) are often temporary while God’s Law is eternal.
More importantly, Hebrews 11 teaches that salvation has always been by faith from the very beginning. People were never saved by the Law, and God’s Word never teaches that. Abraham was justified by faith when he offered his son Isaac. Noah was saved by faith when he built the ark. Therefore, in this passage, the Judaizers have the wrong theology: The Law of God is not kept for salvation. The Law of God is kept out of obedience to God. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”
Acts 15:20 demonstrates this since abstaining from the pollution of idols, from fornication, things strangled, and from blood is a directive straight out of the Law of Moses in Leviticus 17:12-16 and Deuteronomy 32:17. I think this makes a strong case that the moral law of God is still binding today.
If one says the Sabbath is not mentioned, well, neither is covetousness, murder, or stealing. The point here is that the council was dealing with the sins of the Gentiles at that very moment. Coming out of paganism, many of them were polluted by idols through temple prostitution and so idolatry was a good place to start: not to have any other gods other than Yahweh. I do find it interesting that the apostles decided to keep God’s command concerning how to eat, such as prohibiting food that has blood or been strangled—which would categorize this (and I believe dietary laws) in the moral system rather than in the ceremonial or sacrificial system. Therefore, what you eat is still morally binding, but that’s for another discussion.
Finally, and this is really the key in this chapter on how to interpret this passage through exegesis and not through eisegesis. Acts 15:21 states: “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
The Greek word translated “for” means that it is relating to what has already been stated. In other words, James is saying not only are the previous four commandments to be kept, but the Gentiles are to continually learn every Sabbath just like it was from ancient generations. James is expanding on Acts 15:20 and he is using the present tense to indicate that the Law of Moses is still read every Sabbath in the synagogues. The Jerusalem Council occurred around 50 AD, approximately 20 years after Christ rose again from the dead. This strongly supports the view that the Law has been taught and kept during the early church. I am not referring to the well-known early Church Fathers such as Ignatius and Clement of Rome, etc since they were anti-Semitic Greek philosophers who converted to Christianity and carried over their platonic ideas into the Hebrew faith.
Finally, Jeremiah 3:8-10 states the House of Israel that was divorced and scattered into the nations is now fulfilled in the coming of the Gentiles. God’s plan was to graft in the divorced, the House of Israel, back together with the house of Judah to save all of Israel (Ezekiel 37, Ephesians 2, Jeremiah 31, Zechariah 8:13). Therefore, God did not create a new nation. He already has a chosen nation, and we as Gentiles have been grafted in by the blood of Christ (Romans 11:17-19).
For these reasons, I do not believe God’s Law was changed at the Council in Jerusalem. Jesus famously said, “I did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.” I believe Jesus meant what he said. It is my prayer God opens your eyes to this truth.