Acts 15 Explained—It’s not what you’ve been taught!

Acts 15:1, Custom of Moses. This “custom of Moses” is based on Exodus 12:48, where the law required that all males to be circumcised before being allowed to partake of Passover. In other words, be part of Israel, one had to become circumcised and observe the Passover and all Israel was required to do so (Exod 12:47). Foreigners were forbidden from keeping the Passover (Exod 12:43) until they were circumcised. From this, the Pharisees of the first century got the idea that circumcision is a prerequisite for salvation. In opposition to this false concept, Paul points out in Romans chapter four that Abraham was justified by faith, not by the rite of circumcision. After all, Abraham come into a relationship with YHVH 24 years before being circumcised. Therefore, the custom of circumcision as a prerequisite for inclusion within the nation of Israel was merely a physical requirement to be part of a physical nation. It is, however, not a requirement to be part of the spiritual nation of redeemed Israel or, as Paul calls it, the Israel of God (or Elohim, Gal 6:16), of which the saints are a part. Circumcision wasn’t a requirement for Abraham to be saved, and it isn’t a requirement for us to be saved either, again, as Paul points out in Romans chapter four. The custom of Moses requiring Israelite men to be circumcised was necessary in order to protect the sanctity and integrity of the physical nation of Israel from foreign and pagan influences and was not prior to or subsequent to the physical nation of Israel intended to be a prerequisite for eternal salvation as Paul, again, makes clear in Romans chapter four.

Acts 15:10, Yoke on the neck. Many Christian commentators teach that Peter is making a reference to the Torah when he speaks of a yoke being put around the neck of the people of Israel meaning that Torah-observance was an impossibility. Yet, Moses told the Israelites that Torah-obedience wasn’t impossible (Deut 30:11–14), and that it would be a source of life to them (v. 19), and would be a source of wisdom and understanding for them, thus eliciting the curiosity of the surrounding nations (Deut 4:6–8). Were Moses and Peter at odds with each other thus violating the unity of Elohim’s Word (John 10:35)? Or was Peter referring to something else other than the Torah-law of Moses? At issue in the Acts 15 Jerusalem council was whether circumcision was a prerequisite for salvation (Acts 15:1). True, the Law of Moses required all male children to be circumcised on the eighth day (Lev 12:2–3), and all males to be circumcised in order for one to partake of Passover (Exod 12:43–49). This later requirement may be construed to mean that circumcision is a prerequisite for salvation, and evidently some of the Pharisees of that day held to this belief. However, in the Testimony of Yeshua, neither Yeshua nor the apostolic writers make salvation dependent on the rite of physical circumcision. This position is correct, since Abraham come into a spiritual relationship with YHVH some 24 years before he was circumcised, as Paul states in Romans chapter four. The emphasis in the Testimony of Yeshua, rather, is placed on circumcision of the heart, which is the higher spiritual principle—even as it was in Moses’ day (Deut 10:16; 30:6)—to which physical circumcision pointed. 

When Peter speaks of a yoke that hindered the Gentiles from coming into the kingdom, to what is he referring? He is referring to the non-biblical concept circulating among some of the Jewish converts to Yeshua that circumcision was a prerequisite to justification leading to salvation, which is something it was never intended to be. 

Many Christians today erroneously think that the yoke Peter was referring to was obedience to the basic requirements of the Torah. Rather, what he was referring to was the customs Moses established (which become known as the law of Moses), which exceed the basic requirements of the Torah. In this case, it was the custom the circumcision as a requirement for inclusion in the nation of Israel and is based on the Passover requirements found in Exod 12:43–49. Elsewhere, Paul makes no mention of the Gentiles needing to be circumcised to become part of Israel, but only a spiritual relationship with Yeshua is required (Eph 2:11–18).

The yoke that Peter is referring to, and as we’ve already noted, is the concept that a man can redeem himself from sin by his own good works including Torah-obedience. If this were true, then this would leave a sinner carrying the yoke of his own sin and the consequences of that sin, which is death—a yoke that no man can bear. For if we seek to be saved through works rather than through the faith in the Messiah, then his sacrifice to pay for our sins is of no benefit to us. This is the context of Peter’s statement in Acts 15:10, for in verse nine he mentions having one’s heart purified by faith (in Messiah’s death for our sins), and in verse 11 he talks about being saved “through the grace of the Lord Yeshua the Messiah.” This is salvation by grace through faith in Yeshua, which is not based on works (of Torah-obedience). Paul refers to this same salvation “formula,” if you will, in Eph 2:8–9. Paul elsewhere reiterates Peter’s idea of a circumcision–works based formula for salvation being a yoke when in Gal 5:1–4 he refers to circumcision for salvation as “a yoke of bondage.”

Acts 15:20, We write to them. These were the four requirements that the apostles imposed on the new converts to Yeshua for coming into the congregation of the saints. This is how the process worked in that day: First the gospel was preached in the streets (outside the church). Second, the Gentiles accepted the gospel message, believed in Yeshua and were baptized. Third, they were invited into the fellowship of the believers. Fourth, they were discipled in the ways of biblical righteousness. As the saying goes, first you catch the fish, then you clean the fish. This process takes a while. That’s where verse 21 comes into play (see notes at v. 21).

This verse also lists the four requirements the apostles imposed on new converts before they could be admitted into the fellowship of believers. Some of these strictures were culturally specific to that era, such as not eating meat sacrificed to idols. The other three requirements are applicable today and are actually from the Torah-law of Moses. These are: abstaining from sexual immorality, and properly butchering meat, and not eating blood. These last two requirements were important elements of the biblical dietary laws as found in the Torah or law of Moses.

Curiously, and hypocritically, many in the mainstream church who use Acts 15 as “proof” that the Torah-law is no longer applicable to believers in Yeshua at the same time totally ignore the four requirements that the apostles imposed on the Gentiles in this verse. How many Christians actually follow the dietary requirements listed in this verse, which are from the Torah? How many sermons have you heard in the church about koshering your meat to get all the blood out of it before you eat it? So, if one believes that the apostles are freeing believers from the Torah, and all that Gentiles now have to do are these four requirements listed in this verse, then why aren’t Christians at least scrupulously obeying these minimal requirements?

Acts 15:21, Moses…synagogue…every Sabbath. Why did James make this statement? What is he really saying here? What is the relevance to the previous discussion of mentioning that Moses is preached in the synagogue every Sabbath? The inference is that the saints can learn all about the legal requirements of the Torah (the practical aspects of how to love Elohim and one’s neighbor [Mark 12:29–31; Rom 123:8–10], how to love Yeshua [John 14:15], how not to sin [1 John 3:4] and how to walk in righteousness [Ps 119:172], how to know Elohim [1 John 2:3–6]) by going to the synagogue each Sabbath. Why else mention this? If the law was done away with, then what is the relevance of this statement? There is none!

Acts 15:24, Keep the law. The issue here is not whether Torah-obedience is necessary for a redeemed believer, but rather whether circumcision and following the customs of Moses (as opposed to the eternal principles of the Torah) is a prerequisite for salvation.


8 thoughts on “Acts 15 Explained—It’s not what you’ve been taught!

  1. Natan…This may be basic and what I should know, but I have to ask…How exactly does one distinguish between “the customs of Moses” (when for ex, Moses didn’t just make something up but was told by father, ie…Moses didn’t invent circumcision, Father did) and an eternal principle? I need help knowing the difference….it is a bit muddy to me… Thanks, drb

    • Good question.

      My best understanding with regard to the “custom” or “manner” of Moses as mentioned in Acts 15:1 this: The principle of circumcision both of the flesh and the heart is from the Father and speaks to the need of humans to be heart circumcised of which physical circumcision of males (who are the spiritual heads of their homes, thus representing what needs to occur to the whole family both male and female) is but a symbol of a higher, spiritual and more important reality, namely, that of spiritual circumcision. So the overall principle comes from the Father. How it was specifically implemented and applied in daily life, or the exact details of how the law was walked out, was sometimes specific to the era in which humans are living. This is a fundamental distinction between the basic, eternal and over-arching principles of the Elohim’s Torah-law compared to “the law of Moses.” The principles of the former are for all time and for all people, while the latter are the specifics of how those principles are applied in the daily lives of a particular people at a particular time. Some of these specific laws may or may not apply to us today. For example, how many of us now use an ox for work or transpiration? We don’t, but the principle of the ox in the ditch still apply, even though most of us have never even seen an ox much less own or use one. The eternal principles of the Torah, like the ox in the ditch scenario, never change, but exactly how these principles are applied may vary from one generation and culture to another. This concept is very different than what the Christian church teaches about the law of Moses, which they say was “fulfilled” by Yeshua, which they take to mean was “done away with” or abrogated, so that we no longer have to do it. This concept, of course, is fundamentally flawed and illogical and is patently absurd. If it were true, then it would be now permissible to murder, lie, have sex with animals, not have to tithe to your church, etc., etc.

      The law of Moses or the customs of Moses (which were also from Elohim) was the Torah put into a written or codified form like a national constitution that could then be referred to as a legal guide for governing a physical nation. That is the fundamental technical distinction, as I understand it, between the Torah and the law of Moses. The over-arching principles of the Torah are in no way nullified or abrogated by the law of Moses, since they really are one and the same, and Scripture uses the terms interchangeably, since one doesn’t contradict the other. However, the law of Moses is the application of those principles to the nation of Israel, which existed thousands of years ago in the Middle East and was basically an agrarian society with a tabernacle and priesthood, and was before the cross. Many of these conditions no longer exist for us today (as the Epistle to the Hebrews) points out, so how some of these eternal principles of the Torah are applied may not be the same for us today as they were in ancient times. For example, we can no longer stone people for willfully breaking the Sabbath, committing adultery or homosexuality, or being a witch, even though the Torah dictates the death penalty for these sins. That doesn’t mean that such people won’t die. The wages of sin is still death, and YHVH will ultimately pronounce a death penalty upon all unrepentant sinners (i.e. the lake of fire) at the white throne judgment. We humans just don’t carry out the death penalty upon offenders here and now as occurred under the law of Moses.

      I hope this clarifies the issue for you. We tagged a lot of bases in this discussion, and hopefully this helps. Please don’t hesitate to questions my thesis if you have ideas or scriptures that seem to reveal a different understanding on this issue. This is how we all learn and grow together spiritually. I welcome the challenge to dig in and understand the Word of Elohim better!

  2. I believe that Paul understood that God will circumcise the heart in the new covenant. Jeremaiah 31:31-34 and Deuteronomy 30:6

  3. very helpful. requires a slightly different mindset, but the resulting thoughts make sense. “Getting this right” can be the difference between walking in both Spirit and Truth or…getting hung up on details that are not at the heart of the Truth. Thanks.

  4. Natan, the preachers who tell people what they want to hear, make millions of dollars. The prophets that tell people what they need to hear (the truth), have to work for a living.
    Happy ‘tent making’. John

    • I’m not a prophet, just one crying in the wilderness telling people to repent and get ready for Yeshua. In the mean time, I’ve become a pretty good tent maker!!!

  5. Hi Natan,

    I appreciate the valuable insight you have provided above. Along with what you have stated, isn’t there more. Isn’t James engaging in a very deft move of pastoral leadership, in love and wisdom, affirming Peter, Barnabas, and Paul, while giving the believing Pharisees (and possibly Priests (see Acts 6:7)) a measure of the Law in the correct way? The way I read this passage, the Pharisees/Priests were publicly shamed by Peter (followed by Barnabas and Paul) silencing them based on the activity of the Holy Spirit among the nations/gentiles wholly separate from obedience to the Law. They were leadership within the Jerusalem Church who had just lost face. James steps in and pulls out the requirements from Leviticus 17 and 18 – rules given by Moses that were applicable to both Jew and “sojourners” – governing idol worship, fornication, unclean meat and blood. All things that would cause deep offense to Jewish followers of Jesus in the churches arising in the nations following the diaspora post Pentecost. James is saying, “Here’s what Moses required of sojourners (gentiles) living in Israel, we should require no more and no less of gentiles (sojourners) in the Church.” So, James affirms Peter, Barnabas, and Paul’s stance, while at the same time giving the Pharisee/Priest brothers a dose of the Law thus showing they were not completely wrong which allows them to save some face in the debate. This maneuver gave solid Scriptural guidance AND allowed both sides of the argument to come away in unity. Thoughts?

    • To me the bottom line is very simple. For the Pharisees (and rabbinic Jews to this day), physical circumcision was a requirement for being part of the Israelite community, although not a salvational requirement. The believing Pharisees were adding the requirement of circumcision to the biblical concept of faith as a salvational requirement—something the Bible does not teach and a false concept that Paul goes to great lengths to straightens out in Romans chapter four and the entire Book of Galatian.

      As I read Acts 15, James is affirming the biblical concept of salvation by grace without invalidating Torah obedience. He is not dismissing circumcision as an act of obedience, but merely as a prerequisite to salvation. He then concludes by encouraging people to learn the Torah each Shabbat, and along the way, the guys are probably going to want to get circumcised as an act of obedience to Torah and an outward sign of their serious obedience to YHVH and their desire to be full participants in the Israelite community. Let’s not forget that Gentiles who want to be priests in the millennial temple under King Yeshua will have to be both physically and heart circumcised (Ezek 44:9).

      As far as Lev 17 and 18 go, I see how James’ judgment could play into this discussion. But, in reality, all of Torah is for both the native Israelite and the people of the nations (this is stated numerous times in the Torah, not just in Lev 17:10), so why would James only pick out these two chapters to bring into the discussion? From my experience as a head pastor of a Hebraic congregation for many years, I see his admonitions as a practical one to keep peace in the congregation. You neither want people bringing unkosher food to the community table or the sexually immoral bringing their sin into the congregation. This is a sure way to bring major division and strife into the very house of Elohim. As a congregational leader, I have had to personally deal with both of these issues on a number of occasions lest it destroy the entire fellowship. One’s food preferences and one’s sex involvements are extremely volatile subject now even as they were then.

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