What did gentiles need to do to become Christians? This major controversy was settled by the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15. How was the law changed?
When gentiles (those not of Israelite background) wanted to be added to the Church of God, the Church initially followed the Jewish model of how they allowed gentiles to become proselytes to Judaism. This process required that the males first undergo physical circumcision.
Physical circumcision was understandably a huge issue to all descendants of Abraham, for God gave circumcision to the father of the faithful as a requirement. “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant” (Genesis 17:10-12).
God gave this order personally to Abraham, a man to whom all Israelites looked with deep respect. Even now, seeing the statement in Scripture, one can understand why this was an issue to Jewish Christians. It seemed clear that any non-Israelite would have to be circumcised to enter into a covenant relationship with God. But what seems evident to men can often be wrong. God’s thinking isn’t the same as man’s thinking (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Peter’s vision and the conversion of Cornelius
While the New Testament Church began with Jews (Acts 2:1-5), God began revealing His plan to also call gentiles through a vision and a miraculous event that involved the apostle Peter. The account of this is found in Acts 10 and again in Acts 11, where Peter explained its significance to the Church in Judea.
The major event that occurred was God’s direct involvement in the conversion of the entire household of a gentile named Cornelius. Showing that He now wanted gentiles to be part of the Church under the New Covenant, God gave Cornelius His Holy Spirit before Peter even baptized the man. This was different from the way God normally gave His Spirit, which was after baptism. But God performed this miracle in order to change the Church’s way of dealing with gentiles. Be sure to read “Acts 10: Did Peter’s Vision Abolish the Clean and Unclean Laws?” for additional explanation of this vision.
An angry confrontation
After meeting with and baptizing Cornelius’ household, Peter returned to Judea where angry Jews (presumably also members of the Church of God) confronted him (Acts 11:2-3). These people could not understand why Peter met and ate with gentiles (same verses). When first asked for a visit by Cornelius’ advance people, Peter reminded them that Jewish law forbade him to meet with gentiles in the way they were asking (Acts 10:28). But God told Peter to meet with them anyway (Acts 10:19-20).
After he reported the entire story to the Church in Judea, the matter seemed to be settled. “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’” (Acts 11:18).
Paul and Barnabas
After Peter’s experience with Cornelius and members of his household, Paul and Barnabas spent approximately three years traveling through the region of Galatia, establishing congregations comprised of both Jews and gentiles (Acts 13-14). Believing that the physical rite of circumcision was superseded by the more important requirement of circumcision of the heart (Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:29), Paul and Barnabas did not require gentile males to be circumcised.
They taught that the physical rite of circumcision had been replaced by a far more demanding spiritual act—the removing of the nature that resists God’s way of life within every human heart (Romans 8:7). This is another way of saying that in order to become a child of God a person has to undergo a change of heart, a process that the Bible calls “repentance.” (The process to receive the Holy Spirit normally begins with repentance, which is followed by baptism and then the laying on of hands in prayer by the ministry, after which the gift of the Holy Spirit is given. See the “Change” section of the website for more on this.) God blessed the teaching and efforts of Paul and Barnabas as many Jews and gentiles were added to the Church.
This now brings us to the controversy of Acts 15: “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question” (Acts 15:1-2).
The “certain men” are not identified. They were likely members of the Church of God—perhaps people of influence, given the impact their opinion had. Their contention that salvation depended upon physical circumcision created great controversy among the gentiles! It also stirred controversy anew among some Jewish members who were reminded of God’s covenant sign to Abraham.
In support of male circumcision for all who would come into the Church, some Pharisees who were now members of the Church expressed concern about faithfulness to “the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Let’s understand something that confuses some people. Moses never gave Israel a law of his own making. Any law Moses gave Israel came from God. This plain fact is overlooked by those who seek to make it seem as if “the law of Moses” opposed “the law of God.”
It is possible that these men had more in mind than just circumcision. But it is impossible to know with certainty, because the Greek word for “law” (nomos) is the same for any law. One cannot tell by the word alone whether “law” referred to the 10 Commandments, the law of circumcision, the civil statutes God gave to Israel when He was its Sovereign or even to Roman law. Yet it is possible to know with certainty what law was discussed by the ministry and members of the Church at Jerusalem: The law of physical circumcision (Acts 15:1).
Verse 7 says there was much discussion before Peter stood to remind the assembly what God had revealed through him by the conversion of Cornelius and his household. Peter added the obvious truth that God alone decides whom He will call, to whom He will give repentance and to whom He will grant His Holy Spirit.
Paraphrasing, Peter in essence said, “It isn’t up to us or to any man to determine the way to conversion. That’s God’s prerogative.” Then he added that they—the leaders of the Church—needed to be careful not to lay upon the gentiles “a yoke [that] … neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (verse 10).
Peter’s words quieted the multitude, who then listened to testimony given by Barnabas and Paul about the miracles God worked through them with gentiles (Acts 15:12). Following the testimony of Barnabas and Paul, James, as the pastor of the Jerusalem congregation and apparently the chairman of the conference, issued the Church’s ruling.
The official decision in Acts 15
Physical circumcision of males was not to be made a requirement for those gentiles becoming members of the Church. Here is James’ official statement, which was sent to all the Churches of God: “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:19-21).
As an aside, some question why reference was made to idolatry, sexual immorality, strangling and blood. These relate to deeply rooted religious customs practiced by the faiths out of which gentiles were being called into the Church. The Church leaders wanted gentiles to know that the ruling about circumcision did not mean that pagan rites were going to be allowed to come into the Church.
And it’s worth pointing out to those who do not realize that the Church of God kept the seventh-day Sabbath, that Jew and gentile Christians alike were meeting every Sabbath.
Paul’s part was helpful in supporting what Peter had explained. Most importantly, Paul said nothing against keeping the 10 Commandments in Acts 15. This is worth noting, as so many today attempt to pit Paul’s writings against the law of God. Everything about Paul’s example in Acts is in support of the 10 Commandments, including the weekly Sabbath.
In conclusion, the conference of Acts 15 supported the commandments of God. The only law (or custom) that changed at this conference was the requirement of physical circumcision of males in order to enter into a covenant relationship with God. Even that was not a change made by men. The leading ministers of the Church simply acknowledged and publicized the change that God had begun to reveal through Peter years earlier. Physical circumcision of males was replaced by the more stringent New Covenant requirement of circumcision of the heart for both males and females.
For further study on the difference between law and grace, read the articles in the section: “Law and Grace: What Does the Bible Really Say?”