Many people argue that the Torah, or the Old Testament, is for the Jews and the Gentiles do not have to abide by these Jewish teachings and instructions. One of the primary sources for this belief system is Acts Chapter 15.
In this section of the Brit Hadashah (New Testament) we read about The Jerusalem Council. Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem to address serious issues that they were having with the gentile converts who were coming to faith in Messiah Yeshua. They had been sent to see the Apostles and elders; primarily James, John and Peter, about what was required of these new converts.
In verse one we are told what the “hot topic” of discussion was going to be about in this meeting; the big problem that was causing all of the dissension.
“And certain came down from Judea and taught the brethren, 'unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
It continues: “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.”
So, keeping it all in context, they were going up to Jerusalem to ask the apostles and elders whether or not it was necessary for the gentile converts to be circumcised “for them to obtain salvation”.
Just a little history lesson. Moses did not institute circumcision, that came from God to Abraham. God made a covenant with Abraham and circumcision was the “sign” that sealed the covenant. Circumcision had nothing to do with salvation. It had nothing to do with salvation for Abraham nor anyone after him. So, why would it state “unless you are circumcised according to the custom (tradition) of Moses, you cannot be saved”?
According to the “oral torah” of the Jews, which they believe was orally handed down from Moses, a person could not obtain salvation unless they were circumcised. This circumcision would then mean that their conversion to Pharisaical Judaism was complete and they would be subject to the Pharisees and all of their mandated doctrines of man. These are the doctrines of man that Yeshua spoke out against. Yeshua stated that they had taken the “traditions of man and made them doctrines of God”. He also had much to say about the “heavy yoke” that these traditions had put upon the people that they were not able to bear. This had nothing to do with the written Word (Torah) of Yahweh but it was about wanting to make the gentile converts go through a ritualistic conversion to Pharisaical Judaism of the first century. Today, Rabbinical Judaism still requires circumcision if a male wishes to convert to Judaism. Even if the man has already been circumcised he must still go before a Rabbi and have a brit milah and be re-pricked to draw blood. Only upon having done this can he be a true convert.
The issue in Acts chapter 15 is that the Jerusalem Council argued that it was not necessary for the gentile converts to convert to Judaism. The gentiles were not required to become “partakers of the traditions” of the Pharisees. This chapter is not saying that a gentile does not need to be circumcised to partake of the covenant of Abraham, it is saying that they did not have to be circumcised by the “tradition of the oral law” that the Jews kept and made them subject to the Pharisees and all of their “takanot”. (Takanot is a Hebrew word denoting major legislative enactments within Jewish oral law: their traditions) Likewise, this chapter is not saying that gentile converts should not keep the teachings and instructions, written Torah, of Yahweh. It is saying that they do not have to keep the “traditions of the fathers” (The Pharisaical Jewish Leaders).
In verse 20 four things are listed that gentile converts must keep and observe: “abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.” This is an interesting passage and deserves much more attention than I am willing to give in this lesson. There is much historical evidence to support that the original wording of this passage suggested the three “big” sins that all people on the earth (including gentiles) were to refrain from ever committing: idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. Within each of these are many, many sins which could be committed. Idolatry itself would contain so many sins that it would be hard to list them all here.
Somehow most of the translators laid out the four as if most of them had something to do with animals: food polluted by idols, animals strangled and the drinking of blood. At least that is the way some commentators have arranged it. The truth of this list, from a Jewish perspective, is quite different. Jews believed that all humans should begin to honor the Creator by observing these basic and simple statutes.
These gentile converts were just coming into the faith. They had repented of their sins and accepted Yeshua as their Messiah and now they wanted to know how they were suppose to walk, what was required of them to walk out their new found faith in Messiah. The Apostles were giving them the basic starting points: stay away from idolatry, don't murder, and refrain from sexual sins. We do the same thing when we have new converts among us today. We give them some basic teaching on how their lives should now change. Then we advise them to read their Bible, pray, and find a good church to attend so that they can continue to learn and grow in the LORD and understand what God expects out of them, so that they will be pleasing to Him.
The Apostles instructed the same thing for these new converts. Their advice was this: you do not have to convert to Judaism and be subject to our “traditions” but we want you to begin your walk by doing these three things we have told you, and then they tell them this in verse 21:
“For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in synagogues every Sabbath.”
Wow, in other words the Apostles agree that the new gentile converts need to attend synagogue every Sabbath so that they can hear the Word (Torah) of Yahweh, which is going to be read every week in synagogue, and then they can mature in their walk, learning from Torah what is expected of them.
Since very ancient times the Torah, Prophets and Writings (TaNaKh – what most Christians call the Old Testament) is read in synagogues every Sabbath. Yeshua Himself participated in this reading
(Luke 4:16-17). During the first century it was still the practice of Jews and Gentiles (God fearers) to meet together in the Synagogues on the Sabbath. The book of Acts attests to this practice.
So, as we can see upon closer examination, Acts Chapter 15 in no way excludes non-Jews from obeying the Torah. In fact, it does just the opposite. It instructs them in some basic tenants of the faith and then further instructs them to attend synagogue on Sabbath so that they can hear the Word read to them and learn what else is required of them. The only thing that they are told that they do not have to do is convert to Judaism, through circumcision, and submit themselves to the takanot (man-made traditions) of the Pharisees.
I hope this lesson has shed light on the Jewishness of Yeshua, His first disciples and the New Testament writings.