Circumcision and Salvation – Understanding Acts 15

Circumcision and Salvation- Understanding Acts 15
James Scott Trimm

Many have wrongly cited Acts 15 as proof that circumcision has been abolished:

1. And men came down from Y’hudah and were teaching the brothers,
Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of the Torah, you are not able to have life [eternal].


In Acts 15 we have a halachic issue being settled by the Rosh Beit Din. In order to understand the proceedings of that meeting and its ruling we must know what the issue was that was before it. In this case Paul’s position is not clearly spelled out in the pashat only his opponents’ position is clearly spelled out in the pashat.

Paul’s opponents’ position is:

“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of the Torah,
you are not able to have life [eternal].”

Now we must ask ourselves: “What are the implications or ramifications of this position?”

We have a good model to work from. A similar position is held today by a group called the “Church of Christ” also known as “Campbelites”. These teach that a person must be baptized in order to be saved. This has resulted in a debate between them and other protestants (especially Baptists). The Baptists often pose the situation of a man who becomes a believer while across the street from a Church of Christ Church. He immediately runs across the street to get baptized and is hit by a truck and killed. the baptists point out that this man according to the Church of Christ position would not be saved. Many Church of Christ evangelists run around with keys to their church so that at any time they can go get that baptism immediately, perchance the person dies before an more opportune time comes.

This would also be the mindset of Paul’s opponents of Acts 15:1. They would believe that that person should become circumcised immediately upon becoming a believer perchance they die before doing so.

The more traditional view in Judaism differs. The more traditional view is that since circumcision and immersion mark the point at which a person becomes a Jew, that they must learn the Torah first. This is because if they are circumcised and become a Jew before learning the 613 commandments of the Torah then they will immediately be violating commandments that they do not know, bringing judgement down upon our whole people (Deut. 28-29 & Lev. 26) . The traditional Jewish approach is therefore to teach the new believer the Torah first.

Now we can see from the remez what Paul’s position is. The opponents are teaching that a person must be circumcised immediately to be saved and then taught the Torah. Paul was teaching that they should first learn the Torah.

2. And Paul and Bar Nabba had much strife and dispute with them. And it happened that they sent up Paul and Bar Nabba, and others with them, to the emissaries and elders who were in Yerushalayim, because of this dispute.


So they took the matter to the beit din.

3. And the assembly escorted [and] all of Phenicia and also among the
Samaritans while recounting concerning the conversion of the Gentiles, and causing great joy to all the brothers.

COMMENTS: Notice that Paul has been converting Gentiles !?!?!?!

4. And when they came to Yerushalayim, they were received by the
assembly and by the emissaries and by the elders, and they recounted to them all that Eloah had done with them.
5. And men stood up, those from the teaching of the Parushim who had believed, and were saying, It is necessary for you to circumcise them and you should command them to observe the Torah of Moshe.


Here the opponents argument is only abbreviated. Here it is stated as:

“It is necessary for you to circumcise them
and you should command them to observe the Torah of Moshe.”

Why does it say this? This on the surface does not even look like the same argument they were making in Acst 15:1. However if we recall our remez it makes perfect sense. This is a statement of chronology:

[first] It is necessary for you to circumcise them
and [second] you should command them to observe the Torah of Moshe.

Now we can see that they are still making the same argument as in 15:1.

6. And the emissaries and elders were gathered to look into this matter.
7. And when there had been much debate, Shimon stood up and said to
them, Men, our brothers, you know that from the first days from my mouth, Eloah chose that the Gentiles should hear the word of the b’sorah and trust.
8. And Eloah, who knows what is in hearts, gave testimony concerning
them and gave to them the Ruach HaKodesh as [he did] to us.
9. And he made no distinction between us and them, because he
purified their hearts by trust.

COMMENTS: Kefa addresses the opponent’s position as fully stated in Acts 15:1. He points to evidence (from Acts 10-11) that salvation precedes circumcision.

10. And now, why do you tempt Eloah so that you place a yoke upon the necks of the talmidim which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
11. But by the favor of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah we believe to have life, like them.

COMMENTS: The “yoke” her in context is NOT the Torah (although often the Torah is likened to a yoke). The context here is clear. Kefa is calling the argument of Paul’ opponents a “yoke”. Thus the “Yoke” in this passage involves earning salvation by works such as circumcision.

Kefa appeals to the patriarchs as an example. Abraham for example was saved by trust first in Gen. 15:6 and was circumcised LATER in Gen. 17.

Now Kefa has given two case examples:

1. Cornelius and his house (Acts 10-11)

2. The patriarch (especially Abraham) (Gen. 15:6 & Gen. 17)

In both cases Kefa points out that salvation preceded circumcision. (although in at least one of them circumcision still came later).

12. And all the assembly was silent and listened to Paul and Bar Nabba
who were recounting everything Eloah had done by their hands: signs and mighty deeds among the Gentiles.

COMMENTS: This parallels verse 3 where Paul is recounting conversions. Paul is likening these cases to the two case examples that Kefa has presented.

13. And after they were quiet, Ya’akov stood up and said, Men, our
brothers, hear me.
14. Shimon recounted to you how Eloah began to choose from the Gentiles
a people for his name.
15. And to this the words of the prophets agree, like that which is
16. After these [things] I will return and set up the tabernacle of
David which has fallen, and I will rebuild that which has fallen of it
and I will raise it up,
17. So that the remnant of men might seek YHWH, and all the Gentiles,
on whom my name is called, says YHWH who made all these [things].
18. The works of Eloah are known from old.
19. Because of this I say, They should not trouble those who from the
Gentiles have turned toward Eloah.
20. But let it be sent to them that they should separate [themselves]
from the uncleanness of that which is sacrificed [to idols] and from sexual immorality and from that which is strangled and from blood.
21. For Moshe, from the first generations, had proclaimers in every
city in the synagogues, who read him on every shabbat.

COMMENTS: A fuller version of the ruling is given below where verse 20 is expanded so I will comment upon it there.

However it is significant that Ya’akov presumes that these gentiles will be hearing [the Torah] of Moshe proclaimed in the synagogues on Shabbat.

Ya’akov seems to say here that the gentiles would need to maintain a minimum standard of purity and learn the Torah BEFORE becoming circumcised. Remember the issue being heard involves chronology of three things:

1. Becoming circumcised
2. Obtaining salvation/eternal life
3. Instruction in the Torah of Moshe

The above chronology is that of Paul’s opponents. The beit din is determining if this is true or if another chronology should be followed, namely:

1. Obtaining salvation/eternal life
2. Instruction in the Torah of Moshe
3. Becoming circumcised

Paul’s opponents placed circumcision first in the chronology, while Paul placed it last.

The beit-din agrees with Paul.

22. Then the Emissaries and elders, with all the assembly, chose men
from them and sent to Antioch, with Paul and Bar Nabba, Y’hudah who was called Bar Sabba, and Sila, men who were chiefs among the brothers.
23. And they wrote a letter by their hands [saying] thus: The
emissaries and elders and brothers, to those who are in Antioch and in
Syria and in Cilicia, brothers who are from the Gentiles, shalom.
24. It has been heard by us that men from us have gone out and
disturbed you with words and have upset your nefeshim while saying that you must be circumcised and observe the Torah, which we did not command them.

COMMENT: Again note the chronology of Paul’s opponents:

[1] you must be circumcised
[2] and observe the Torah

Each of the three times their position is stated it is abbreviated more (15:1, 5 & 24)

If we put them altogether to get the fullest form of their argument we get:

“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of the Torah,
you are not able to have life [eternal].”
[therefore] It is necessary for you to circumcise them [first]
and [second] you should command them to observe the Torah of Moshe.

25. Because of this, all of us, while gathered together, purposed and
chose men and sent to you, with our beloved Paul and Bar Nabba,
26. Men who have committed themselves on behalf of the name of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah.
27. And we have sent with them Y’hudah and Sila who will tell you these same [things] by speech.
28. For it was the will of the Ruach HaKodesh and also of us that a
greater burden should not be placed on you, outside of those [things] that are necessary,
29. That you should abstain from that which is sacrificed [to idols]
and from blood and from[that which] is strangled and from sexual
immorality, that as you keep your nefeshim from these, you will do well. Be steadfast in our Lord.

COMMENTS: Note the phrase “a greater burden” this is not an exhaustive list but the furthest parameters. The questionable areas made clear. There was no doubt as to whether gentiles could murder or steal so these are not listed. Thus the furthest limits of idolatry would extend to include eating meat offered to idols etc. With this in mind these closely parallel the seven laws of Noach. Also thse would set purity rules which would allow these gentiles to interact with the Torah observant community while learning the Torah.

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