Thursday, 2 March 2023
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.” Acts 15:1
Acts 14 ended with a note that Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch with the disciples for a long time. What becomes certain now at the start of Chapter 15 is that their doctrine was noticed by the Judaizers and spoken against. Gentiles had begun to enter the church and yet remained uncircumcised. That is evident by noting Luke’s opening words of the chapter which begin with, “And certain men.”
The word “men” is inserted. They are identified by an indefinite masculine pronoun. It could rightly be translated, “And some.” Inserting men is fine because the pronoun is masculine, but Luke is certainly being imprecise, demonstrating that these were people with no standing or authority to do what they will do. He does not identify them as “brethren,” nor does he describe any ranking or authority as he did in Acts 6:7 (for example) when he said –
“Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
What is meant by this is that these priests, the stewards of the Law of Moses, had placed themselves under a new authority. They had gone from Moses to Christ. As for these men now being mentioned by Luke, no names are given, implying that they are just a group of men with obviously no authority to direct matters. This is in contrast to Paul and Barnabas who are called apostles in Acts 14:14, even if Barnabas’ apostleship was temporary and under the authority of the church at Antioch. Of these unnamed men, Luke says that they “came down from Judea.”
Rather, the verb is an aorist participle, “having come down from Judea.” Because of the use of the participle, one thought will lead to the next. For now, it is noticeable that it doesn’t say that they were from Jerusalem, of the Levites, of the priests, or sent by the apostles. There is no hint of any authority at all, whether in the church or of the leadership of Israel. Instead, these men – seemingly converted to Christianity – were merely from Judea without any recognizable qualifications. And even if they once had standing, such as the priest mentioned above from Acts 6, they have no recognizable standing with the church. All that is given is that they have come from Judea. And yet Luke next says, “and taught the brethren.”
Imagine someone coming from Washington DC, a nobody with no authority at all, who knocks on your door and says, “I am here from Washington DC to explain to you why you cannot possess a gun.” Will you listen to him? What authority does he actually possess? This is what Luke is trying to get his audience to think about by the way he has structured his words.
Some people, who obviously have no authority at all, have been introduced into the narrative. Luke has not even called them “brothers” as is so often the case in Acts. The only thing that identifies them is that they are from Judea. And yet, they are now teaching a congregation without recognizable authority. And what do they say? Luke next records their words as, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Rather, the Greek more poignantly states the matter using negatives – “If you are not circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you are not able to be saved.” There is a mark of total exclusion in their words. And more, they don’t simply say, “If you are not circumcised, you cannot be saved.” Rather, they say, “According to the custom of Moses.”
This is not an identifier with Abraham as the father of the Hebrew people as recorded in Genesis 17. Rather, it is an identifier with the Law of Moses received at Mount Sinai. In other words, these few words spoken by these anti-Christian Judaizers, heaps the entire Law of Moses, with all of its many rules and regulations, directly on the shoulders of the Gentile believers.
With no standing other than where they were from, these unnamed have thrown the congregation into an uproar. It is true that Moses was told by the Lord before the introduction of the law that those who participated in the Passover were to be circumcised, as is recorded in Exodus 12:44-48. However, that was later codified into the law itself in Leviticus 12:3 for all born under the law. Thus, this supposed teaching of these unidentified men has set aside the grace of Christ and brought the Law of Moses back to the main center of attention.
Life application: In the example above concerning someone coming from Washington DC, it is obvious that the place where he came from does not give him any authority at all. He is a nobody that has no power. And yet, because of where he is from, you might say to yourself, “I’d better listen to this guy. He is from D.C. and so he must know what he is talking about.”
Now transfer that exact same thought to your life in Christ and see if you, or someone you know, are guilty of making the same error in the past. Have you ever turned on the TV or the internet and seen someone who is from Israel (or simply some Jew) tell you that you shouldn’t be eating pork or that you must support Israel in order to be saved? If not, this may sound ridiculous to you, but both of these teachings are heard among the Judaizers of today.
Maybe you heard from someone who is in the Seventh Day Adventists say that unless you observe the Sabbath you cannot be saved. Have you been told by someone in the Church of Christ that you must be baptized in the Church of Christ in order to be saved? Have you ever heard that unless you are under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, you can’t be saved? Each of these is a claim made by people today.
The list goes on and on of people claiming what saves and that if you don’t do what they tell you then you cannot be saved. Who are these people? What authority do they possess? The only source we have for such matters today is the Bible. It is the authority by which God has spoken out these matters and there is no other. This is because it is the word of the Lord through His chosen prophets, apostles, and authors.
If the word does not agree with what they say, then they are false teachers. And this goes directly to the heart of whether extra-biblical revelation is still given today. Because if it is, then the Bible is not the final source for such matters, and we are left in a sea of absolute chaos.
The Seventh Day Adventists believe that Ellen G White, their founder, received extra-biblical revelation. Likewise, Mormonism makes the same claim concerning Joseph Smith. The Roman Catholic Church believes it has authority over the word and it accepts extra-biblical revelation is valid. People believe Jesus speaks to them in dreams and visions. If we accept one word of extra-biblical revelation, then we must accept them all because there is no standard to determine which is true and which isn’t because the authority of the Bible is not absolute.
Think these things through. Either God has spoken and that is it, or we have no sure word by which to guide our lives in Christ. Be grounded in the word, reject anyone who teaches contrary to what the word says, and ignore anyone who claims a dream or vision from God. People like that have been around since the very beginning of the church and they are still out there today. The challenge of Acts 15:1 is the first main internal challenge the church faced, and the church is still facing it to this day.
Lord God, how evident it is that we need to know what the word says. Without that, we are possibly placing ourselves under the whims of anyone who claims some type of authority that is not granted by You alone. Your word is truly to be our guide, and so may we be competent in our pursuit of knowing it more from day to day. To Your glory, we pray. Amen.