Monday, 6 March 2023
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.” Acts 15:5
The previous verse had Paul and Barnabas reveal to those gathered in Jerusalem all that God had done through them. This was a ministry that started with evangelizing the Jews. This continued at each city they traveled to, but it eventually went almost solely to the Gentiles, such as was recorded of the evangelism in Antioch of Pisidia –
“Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us:
“I have set you as a light to the Gentiles,
That you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.”’
48 Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Acts 13:46-48
In such instances, these Gentiles believed the word they heard without a single note of law observance. In fact, the only substantial mentioning of the law was essentially a note revealing the inadequate nature of the law to perfect anything –
“Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; 39 and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” Acts 13:38, 39
Despite this, and despite the obvious nature of God’s grace being the reason for sending Jesus Christ, it next says, “But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up.”
A margin note in some texts makes these words a part of the narration of Paul and Barnabas. In other words, it is still them speaking about the events that occurred including the coming of the Judaizers to Antioch which precipitated the journey to Jerusalem. However, it appears more natural that this is not their narration of the past, but a renewed attack against the doctrine of Paul and Barnabas during the gathering.
As such, while the assembly was seated, these men rose up to speak. This is what Paul did in Acts 13:16 when he was asked to speak to the synagogue there. These Pharisees have risen up to state their voice. Here, it clearly says that these were believers. They had heard the word of faith and they had received it as such. Despite this, they began by saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them.”
If they had stopped with these words and explained them as referring to the circumcision of the flesh according to the instructions given to Abraham, they may have been able to convince the gathering that it was necessary as a sign of that covenant. However, there was already a sign of entrance into the New Covenant, which even the circumcision of Abraham anticipated.
Abraham believed and was deemed as righteous (Genesis 15:6). Later, the Lord instructed him and all with him to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17). But those things, when properly understood, only anticipated the coming of Christ. As such, faith is what saves. After faith comes, the rite of baptism is then administered as an ordinance. It is an outward sign of the inner change that has taken place.
Circumcision did not save Abraham and water baptism does not save a believer. But bringing up the circumcision of Abraham may have helped flesh this matter out more fully. That did not happen, but the epistles will more fully explain such things. Despite this, the circumcision of the flesh is not all that is on the mind of these Pharisees. As they next say, “and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
This goes back to the same false doctrine that was introduced in Acts 15:1 –
“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.’”
To more fully understand the weight of this teaching, refer to that commentary. In short, these words would heap the entire Law of Moses, with all of its many rules and regulations, directly on the shoulders of the Gentile believers. It would also mean that their conversion, meaning their belief in the gospel message, was insufficient to save them. They were still condemned, and they would have to be brought into the bondage of the law to be free. The thought is contradictory and twisted.
This is what Paul wrote about in his letter to those in Galatia –
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? 2 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? 4 Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” Galatians 3:1-4
If they had received the Spirit after believing, it was a clear indication that God had approved of them, and they were saved. Deal done. Paul and Barnabas have presented their words to the council in Jerusalem, and it is as if what he has conveyed meant nothing at all. To these Judaizers who have arisen, it is as if the work of Jesus Christ that began in them was only partially effective, but they had to continue to work towards their salvation.
Life application: The words of the Pharisees do not mean that they were not saved. But it does mean that they have completely misunderstood what happened when they believed the gospel message. God’s grace was poured out on them, but they thought that it was an initial act of grace only. To them, this allowance opened a door that they needed to keep open on their own merits. But this is contrary to the words of the Lord that will be spoken later to John –
“I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name.” Revelation 3:8
It also is contrary to the words of Jesus during His earthly ministry –
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
18 He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” John 3:16-18
The work of Jesus Christ isn’t merely an initial act of grace but an eternal one. Today, because of the decision of the council in Jerusalem, and also because of the words of the epistles, what the Pharisees have proposed in Acts 15 are heretical and to be condemned by any who teach them. At the time, this was a necessary step for the church to take so that such issues could be completely understood and recorded.
Unfortunately, to this day people reinsert the law into their Christian theology. Do not allow this to be imposed upon you! Live in Christ and by the grace of Christ. Trust in His merits. God was fully pleased with the work of Christ, evidenced by the resurrection. Why would you assume that God is any less pleased with you when you have trusted in the work of Christ?
Thank You, O God, for the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Praise to You forever and ever for what You have done through Him. All glory, power, majesty, and honor to You, O God! Amen.
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