Acts 15 Obedience or legalism

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A major supporting pillar of the doctrine that teaches parts of God’s law have been abolished is found and often cited in Acts chapter 15.` It is taught that the Jerusalem Council concluded in a groundbreaking decision that converted Gentiles are not to be taught obedience to God’s law as written by Moses. However, is that really what Acts 15 teaches us? In just reading verse 1 we learn that the debate is centred on a false “works based” salvation model, starting with circumcision.

But what about those in verse 5? Does that mean we should still be obedient to God’s law like those in verse 5 suggest?

Most do not examine the context of those verses as it relates to the council’s decision. What is the meaning and purpose of the four commandments in 15:20 below?

Also, why is it that Acts 15:21 is always ignored as part of the decree in mainstream commentaries? That is just quite bizarre. Why is James ignored here? Was he talking nonsense? What is the purpose of Acts 15:21 in James decision?

To start, let’s read Acts 15.

Acts 15:1-21
1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. 3 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. 4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.

Acts 15 – Obedience and Legalism – The Council at Jerusalem

5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. 6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. 7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. 8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; 9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. 12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. 13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: 14 Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. 15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, 16 After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: 17 That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. 18 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. 19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

Some questions that should be asked:
1) Who are the groups involved?

Group A) the Jerusalem Council (vs 4) – This is the first century church leadership – They are facilitating the debate at hand and generating a decision to send to the Gentiles.

Group B) is the Circumcision Party (vs. 1) – They believe that circumcision is necessary for salvation (they are legalistic) and they are teaching the Gentile converts this doctrine. This group is also found in Galatians 2:12, Acts 10:42, etc.

Group C) is the believing sect of the Pharisees (vs. 5) – Defined, and this is important, as valid believers, they are (of course) are saved by faith and thus they know they cannot be saved by keeping the Law, but they still keep the Law out of obedience – just like Paul, also a Pharisee. This is very important to understand. Scripture is calling this group valid believers in the faith, AND teaching that the law of God, as written by Moses, IS VALID.

And lastly,

Group D) New Gentile converts (vs. 7, 12, 14, 17-20, and 23) – This group has recently come into the faith but many are still deep into their pagan false god worship traditions – such as drinking blood, temple prostitution, eating unclean/strangled animals, and worshipping false gods. (vs. 20)

2) The next question we should ask is “what is the debate about?” We basically find that there are two positions in the debate in Acts 15.

Position 1 – The Law of Moses should be kept as part of salvation:

Acts 15:1
“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” The “Circumcision Party” – as this particular Jewish denomination was called – began teaching the new converts outside of Jerusalem that the Law of Moses – starting with circumcision – is necessary, key word necessary, for salvation.

This group forced Paul and Barnabas to travel to Jerusalem to settle this matter.

Position 2 – They believe first in the faith and then still keep the Law of Moses out of obedience:

Acts 15:5
But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the Law of Moses.’”

In verse 5, these are Pharisees who “believed,” meaning they have faith. This group (Position 2) in verse 5 is stated to be believers, which means they have faith in Jesus and they understand the only way to salvation. The other group in verse 1 (Position 1) placed their faith in works.

It is important to note that the group in verse 1 was not comprised of believers, as they believed salvation came from keeping the law. This would be faith in themselves (or legalism), instead of the finished work on the cross. You are not saved or considered a believer if you believe the law of God saves you. Also, the group in verse 1 was a group from outside of Jerusalem, and the group in verse 5 manifested days later inside of Jerusalem.

These are clearly two distinct groups, with two different doctrines, from two different places, in two different instances, and are both interested in having their position projected onto new Gentile converts. Thus it was necessary to debate both positions in the Jerusalem Council for a decision on the matter.

We now have our two debates from our two main groups. One of these positions will be correct, the other will be clearly wrong. In summary, the debate is about whether the Gentiles should be

1) keeping the Law of Moses as a means to salvation (vs. 1)


2) be keeping the Law of Moses as a matter of obedience as a result of faith (vs. 5). The debate is between one of these two choices. No one suggests anywhere in chapter 15 or even throughout the rest of scripture that there is a third option in which the Law of Moses has been abolished, in whole or in part. That is NOT stated to be part of the debate. That is NOT what the Jerusalem council came together to discuss.

They came together to discuss the doctrine in verse 1 and the doctrine in verse 5. Those are our choices. That is very critical to understand, because many choose to ignore the debate at hand and invent a new debate with new context. Acts 15 verses 1-5 set the context and the specifics of the debate at hand, that either:

The Law yields salvation


Keeping the Law just yields obedience in our faith after salvation.

The converted Gentiles were obviously not keeping the Law of Moses very well or even at all or there would have been no cause for either side of the debate. In verses 6-7, we learn that the Jerusalem Council came together to consider this matter and this grew into a large dispute. In verses 7-12 several things happen. Peter stood up and gave testimony proving that the Gentiles could be saved by just faith. This is direct evidence against the “Circumcision Party’s” position which we called Position 1.

In verse 10, Peter appeals to Scripture and notes that no one in Scripture has ever been able to keep the law perfectly to yield salvation, no one has ever been successful in bearing that yoke; meaning salvation must be by some other means.

We know that simple obedience to God’s law is not an unreasonable and difficult yoke as God Himself declares His law to be easy and light (Deuteronomy 30:11-16, 1 John 4:23). If God says the law of God as written by Moses is easy, then we cannot have Peter saying it is bondage or unreasonable yoke.

What Peter is referring to as a yoke that we are unable to bear must relate to those in verse 1 in some way, but not against what God said. The yoke that is unreasonable is a doctrine that teaches that we are saved through God’s law and the commandments of men. Salvation through the Law is indeed impossible, which is why God’s grace is necessary. This is also direct evidence against the “Circumcision Party’s” theological position, in Position 1.

Peter is clearly taking the position of the only remaining debate in Acts 15, “Position #2,” which is that the believers in the faith that still keep the Law of Moses in obedience, not for salvation, but because of their salvation. Notice Peter does not say anything against position #2 (those in vs. 5).

Peter goes on to state that this faith of the Gentiles is demonstrated by the new Gentile converts by grace in Yeshua Ha’Maschiach (vs. 11). This silenced the debate from the “Circumcision Party” – Position #1 – and provided support for the believers in the faith – Position #2. This then prompted Paul and Barnabas to provide even further evidence that the Gentiles were saved not of works through the law, but of faith (vs. 12). It should be noted that the debate in progress is still consistent with the debates established in verse 1 and verse 5.

No supposed “new debate” as to whether any of God’s law has been abolished has still not been presented in the text. This is still all about the debates presented in verse 1 and verse 5, either keeping the Law of Moses for salvation, or keeping the Law of Moses as believers in the faith only, this is very important to note.

Reminder . . .

We can now proceed to verses 13-19.

Acts 15:13-15
13 And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me: 14 Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. 15 And with this the word of the prophets agree, just as it is written:”

After the testimony of three witnesses has concluded, James brings out the final witness, which is direct Scriptural support. The process James is using is important, because according to God’s Word, God never does anything without revealing it to His prophets before, (Amos 9). James, of course, knows this and begins teaching what the prophets state on this matter.

We find that in Jeremiah 3:8-10 that the House of Israel, or the Northern Kingdom of Israel, was divorced and scattered into the nations, or in other words Gentiles. James proves that it was always God’s plan to graft in the divorced House of Israel, back together with the House of Judah to save all of Israel (Ez. 37; Ro. 11; Eph. 2; Jer. 31; Ezek. 36; Acts 2:36; Mt. 10:5-7; 15:24; Zech. 8:13).

Watch James pull out prophecy that agrees with Peter:

Acts 15:15-17
15 And with this the word of the prophets agree, just as it is written: 16 ‘After this I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; 17 so that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the LORD who does all these things.’

The matter has been certainly settled. Clearly the Circumcision Party’s position has been beaten to death. The group, and theological position in verse 1, are rendered in error through the establishment of two or three witnesses. The conclusion of the matter is that salvation has nothing to do with the keeping of the Law (vs. 1). the only remaining position, as part of the debate, is that the Gentiles should keep the Law of Moses as a matter of just obedience (vs. 5). Again, no one said anything against the doctrine presented in verse 5. Thus “those in verse 5” are rendered correct. As we will see, the final decision sent to the Gentiles supports the council’s decision on the matter, demonstrating James’ agreement with those in verse 5.

Acts 15:18-19
18 Known to God from eternity are all His works. 19 Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God,

So, as already established, God’s law is easy (Deuteronomy 30:11-16; 1 John 5:23). So why does James declare we need to make it easy on the converted Gentiles? There are two likely reasons. Bearing the yoke of verse 1 (salvation by works) is a yoke that no one can bear. Thus, James is suggesting that salvation is by faith alone. That is certainly true and could be the intent behind James statement.

However, given the context of the next two verses there appears to be more to what James is saying. James takes it a step further. Not only is it a yoke to expect believers to keep God’s law for salvation, but it is also unreasonable to expect new believers to understand and apply all of God’s ways immediately. The converted Gentiles were obviously still learning God’s ways. No one can learn all of God’s ways overnight. As verse 18 states, God knows all of His works from eternity. Obviously we do not. We are not God. Unlike God, we have to learn God’s ways. That is James’ point. Believers are still expected to apply God’s ways, just as those in verse 5 stated. But those in verse 5 seemed to set the expectation of immediately observing of all of the law of God as written by Moses as soon as one becomes a believer. We are not God, and we do not know all His works as soon as we become a believer. James needs to deal with this. Now, this is still different than those in verse 1, the Circumcision Party. That group expected others to keep certain commandments for salvation. The believers in group 5 differ in this way. They are true believers in the faith. Obedience is to be a result of what we place our faith in, the Word of God, not an attempt to earn salvation. If there is at least one important thing to understand in this study, it is that there is a difference between legalism, salvation by works, and obedience to the Word of God because of our faith. The first process is an unbiblical process… the latter is how Scripture teaches obedience. Rather than demand such unreasonable expectations on the converted Gentiles, James is going to offer a scriptural process in verses 20-21 to facilitate such a process of learning God’s ways (His law). The position of the group in verse 5 is understandable. This is a new situation to the Jews. They have to realize that the Gentiles were not born and raised learning God’s ways…it simply takes time. It would be an unrealistic burden and yoke to demand complete knowledge of the law of God overnight.

The Gentiles are coming out of a culture rooted deep into pagan cultic tradition and religion. It is all they have ever known, and they do not yet know how to fully walk in God’s ways. Their multiple gods, idols, idol worship (temple prostitution and drinking of blood), etc., are all historically known practices that would need to first be addressed as brand new converts in the faith. We cannot serve two masters, the table of God and the table of demons (Luke 16:13; 1 Cor. 10:21).

The council states that the new believers need to address the following first and that it should be their only focus for now:

Acts 15:20
20 “But that we write unto them, that they may abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.”

This directive is straight out of the Law of Moses (Leviticus 17:12-16; Deut. 32:17). Rather than suddenly overwhelm them with the whole Law of Moses, it was the council’s recommendation that they start with dealing with the priority or the weightier sins first, primarily idolatry, which as Paul states in his letters, is the same as worshipping demons. Isn’t this just like we handle new converts today? Focus on the blatant, weightier sin first, work on the rest as time goes on. Believers cannot be part of a pagan cultic idolatry and at the same time claim to be following the one true God. That issue had to be addressed first. We cannot serve two masters, God and haSatan. Once the converted Gentiles addressed those things, they would then be allowed back into the synagogues for a very important reason related back to the debate we find in verse 5, the winners of the debate.

Now the question that naturally follows is this, is all we are supposed to do as believers, those four things? That would be just silly. Who would say that we are to avoid temple prostitution, but I can go and murder someone, or steal. Obviously there is more to this. There is an often unaddressed gap here. There is still a verse that we have not covered in the council’s decision. There is still a verse that is never quoted in mainstream theological presentation of Acts 15. Why? Because they do not know what to do with it. The question remains, if the council’s final decision on the debate was “position B,” then what was the council’s plan to help the new converts move toward obedience to the Law of Moses? Verse 21 gives it away:

Acts 15:21
21 “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Unless Scripture contains just idle words and this is of no consequence, then we know that this is part of their plan for converted Gentiles. The Greek word translated in English as “for” in this case (gar) means that it relates to what has already been stated. It means to expand on what is said. It means that James intended there to be more than those four instructions in verse 20 but, in fact, verse 21 expands or clarifies the instructions that are beyond those initial four.

(1063 gár (a conjunction) – for. While “for” is usually the best translation of 1063 (gár), its sense is shaped by the preceding statement – the “A” statement which precedes the 1063 (gár) statement in the “A-B” unit.)

doers of the wordJust as Y’shua (Jesus) commanded, we are to observe and do what is taught out of Moses’ Seat (Law of Moses – Mt. 23:1-3) and teach all nations to do so (Mt. 28:19-20). Obviously the new converts are expected to do more in their obedience to God than to just remove their false god, cultic temple practices. Removing the false god cultic temple practices is just to be the priority and immediate change. What about obedience to the rest of the commandments? The answer to that gap is verse 21. We learn that they will pick up on it and learn through their study of Scripture on the Sabbaths in the reading of the Law of Moses from Moses’ Seat. Yeshua (Jesus) stated that we are to observe and do what is read out of that seat (Mt. 23:3). That is no different than how most of mainstream Christianity handles new converts today. We are to deal with the priority sin first, and expect them to pick up the rest in their walk through continued study of God’s Word. We do not immediately overwhelm them when they are new in the faith. Nobody can deal with all of their sin overnight. In fact, it is an ongoing process throughout all of one’s life in which perfection is never obtained, but we should constantly strive to “go and sin no more.” James appeals to the Law of Moses read from the Moses Seat in the synagogues on the Sabbaths as the means to gradually call them to obedience of God’s Word in their study. What other purpose can we conclude James intended in making such a statement in verse 21? There is none. That is precisely why, when mainstream Biblical commentators cite Acts 15 to support their law abolishing paradigm that this verse is never cited.

That is a problem.
Some have read Acts 15 and then conclude that the Law of Moses has been abolished. In order to accomplish this conclusion, here is what we would have to do:

1) We would need to ignore the specifically stated points of debate in verse 1 and in verse 5, and instead, inject a non-existent third point of debate, stating that the debate is whether the Law of Moses is no longer applicable to Gentile converts like they were in the Old Testament.

2) We would need to completely ignore the fact that believers existed that taught the law of God as written by Moses as valid, and no one corrected them in the Acts 15 decision, but only supported them.

3) We would need to completely ignore that the council’s decision, based commandments given to the Gentiles as their immediate primary focus, were commandments directly out of the Law of Moses that addresses cultic pagan temple practices. This, of course, is the exact OPPOSITE of stating that the Law of Moses does not apply to the Gentiles. For James to be quoting commandments out of the Law of Moses to suggest that the Law of Moses is obsolete, makes no sense.

4) We would need to completely ignore verse 21 in which James appeals to the fact that the Law of Moses is read every Sabbath, which he INCLUDES as PART OF THE SOLUTION AND DECISION for the Gentile converts.

5) We would need to ignore that Y’shua stated in Matthew 5:17-19 that no commandments were to be abolished until all of the law and prophets have been fulfilled and heaven and earth have passed away.

The new heaven and earth still has not yet arrived, even Peter agrees (2 Peter 3:13). The first heaven and earth do not pass away until Revelation 21.

6) We would need to ignore that there is not any prophecy in all of Scripture telling us in advance that any commandments would ever be abolished, which would contradict Amos 3:7 if commandments in the Law of Moses has been abolished.

7) We must ignore that God is the Word and He does not change (Malachi 3:6) and that His Word has existed since the beginning (John 1:1).

8) We would need to ignore that Yeshua Himself stated to observe and do what was read out of the seat of Moses (Mosaic Law – Mt. 23:2-3), and that Yeshua Himself stated that we are to instruct all nations to observe every command Yeshua gave (Mt. 28:19-20), which obviously then includes the Law of Moses.

9) We would need to violate our own hermeneutical principals in doing the above, using eisegesis instead of exegesis.

10) Lastly, we would need to ignore the fact that Scripture calls the Mosaic Law perfect, just, good, life, the light, our path, God’s way, our lamp, freedom, liberty, and holy, thus meaning it would be a very bad thing to abolish God’s law in whole or part as it would destroy all Scripture that just described God’s law written by Moses. Taking away commandments from a perfect law would only render it imperfect and incomplete.

We should be careful not to add or subtract from God’s commandments, and certainly be careful not to accuse those in the Jerusalem council of doing so, especially when they cite the reading of Moses every Sabbath as part of the solution for converted Gentiles.

Deuteronomy 12:32
“See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.” (See also, Dt. 4:2)

It should be clear that Acts 15 does not abolish the Law of God in any capacity. In fact, just after the decision in Acts 15, the council sends them out to deliver the decision of the decree to believing Jews.

Interestingly enough, in Acts 16, before the trip sets out again they meet up with Timothy, who has a Greek father and Jewish mother. Paul circumcises Timothy because of the Jews in that region.

Now, let’s exercise some critical thinking. If Acts 15 teaches that the law of God has been abolished, which supposedly includes circumcision, then why in the world would Paul circumcise Timothy before setting out on a trip that intends to deliver a decree that supposedly abolishes circumcision? That would be the last thing he should have done. If I was Timothy, I would have just cited Acts 15, and that the very decree they were delivering. Would it make any sense for Paul to consider it important to circumcise Timothy while delivering a decree that abolishes circumcision? That would be extremely awkward.

However, if Acts 15, especially verses 5 as part of the debate and verse 21 as part of the decision, we would then understand why Paul had to circumcise Timothy. He had to be consistent with the decree that he was delivering.

Now, some will point to Galatians 2 as an example where Paul taught against circumcision. The irony is that the circumcision party is the same group found in Acts 15:1. They believed circumcision was a means to salvation. That is a FALSE circumcision, not of one of faith. Of COURSE Paul is going to teach against that!

Paul teaches that circumcision as a means to salvation has no value and is false, but the keeping of God’s commandments in faith is what matters, which still includes circumcision.

Now that we have covered Acts 15 at length, we need to cover Acts 21 because they are related. Paul is accused of not teaching the whole law of God as commanded by Moses. James says that he knows that such accusations are not true about Paul and asks Paul to prove that he keeps the law of God by making offerings at the temple.

Interestingly enough, James declares and defines walking orderly in the faith as one who keeps the law of God as written by Moses…

Acts 21:19-26
19 After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. 25 But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.

So, clearly Paul practices and teaches the whole law of God as evidenced here, but why are the four instructions given to the Gentiles from Acts 15 cited here?

We need to realize that there IS a difference between Jews and Greeks. BUT, it is critical to understand what the difference is.

Jews have been raised knowing the law of God. Greeks enter the faith knowing nothing of the law of God. Thus, in Acts 21, when Paul was challenged again about not teaching and practicing the whole Word of God, James showed those to be false accusations, and Paul proved it by paying for the offerings, and James stated that Paul does walk “orderly,” meaning Paul keeps the whole law of God.

Did you catch that? This is interesting. This means that James defines walking orderly as one who keeps the whole law of God, including circumcision.

Now, the original accusation to Paul in Acts 21 was about the relationship with Paul and Jews, but Acts 21 also makes a point in mentioning the same conclusion found in Acts 15 to inform them that the same instructions to keep the whole law of God went out to the Gentiles as well as was detailed in Acts 15.

Additional Reading: The Lifting of the Veil
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