Previously, when speaking about the striking statement that Jesus made about the perpetuity of the law of God until heaven and earth pass away in Matthew 5:17-20, we mentioned that the Jerusalem Conference of Acts 15 gave perhaps the most dramatic test of this principle. The acceptance of uncircumcised Gentiles into the Church of God in Acts 10 with the baptism of Cornelius the centurion of the Italian regiment forced upon the early Church of God an immense crisis. How that church chose to deal with the crisis is instructive. There were no fierce condemnations, not even the harsh sarcasm that would take place in Galatians when Paul openly wondered if those insisting on circumcision for the Gentiles would consent to making themselves eunuchs by cutting themselves off (see Galatians 5:12). What they did instead was conduct a conference marked by politeness and a surprising degree of unanimity that resulted from the obvious working of God’s will. Yet on the face of it, this drastic change itself would be considered to violate what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-20. But did it? And what does a conference about circumcision have to do with the Sabbath?
Let us begin to answer both of these questions by looking at what happened in Acts 15 before briefly discussing the issue of circumcision on the enforcement of the law. Let us first summarize the course of the debate before focusing on the main aspect of our study today, the Jerusalem Decree. After the initial baptism of Cornelius and the missionary efforts of Paul and Barnabas in Cyprus and Asia Minor, and the growth of the mixed congregation in Antioch that supported those efforts, some Pharisees from Judea went about preaching that Gentile converts needed to be circumcised according to the law of Moses and to obey the oral law that had been built up by human tradition around God’s law. At this point a conference was convened, where Peter spoke first and discussed his experiences with Cornelius, and where Paul and Barnabas discussed the miracles and enthusiastic response to their own missionary journeys. At this point, James, the half-brother of Christ and the recognized leader of the Jerusalem congregation that hosted this momentous conference, gave the following speech in Acts 15:18-21 that bears directly on the question of Sabbath observance in the Church of God: “Known to God from all eternity are all His works. Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
It is after these things that the Jerusalem Degree was agreed upon, as is given in Acts 15:23-29: “They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. Since we have heard that some who went out from us troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment—it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report these same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
This gracious and short letter had its intended response, leading to continued peace between the Church of God established among Gentile areas by Paul and others and their obedience to the biblical laws dealing with purity that can be found in Leviticus. Not coincidentally, the Sabbath, which the writers of the letter expected to find the Gentiles in the synagogues listening to people (like Paul) expounding on God’s law and its purposes, is also to be found not far away from the chapters that dealt with biblical standards for purity that are enforced here as the reasonable duty of believers. Paul, in places like 1 Corinthians 5, deals with some of the issues of sexual morality discussed here, and in other places discusses the problems of meat offered to idols in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. It should also be noted that those believers who were considered to be culturally Jews, like Timothy, were in fact circumcised according to the Law of Moses so that they would be able to engage themselves in the work without being hindered by the presence of a Gentile foreskin. Paul went about preaching in the synagogue as long as he was welcome there, or elsewhere when he was not, on the Sabbath, and sometimes the rest of the week as well, and for the most part the Sabbatarian implications of this passage have been nearly entirely lost, since the rise of anti-Semitism within nominal Christianity after the Judean revolts and the rise of hostility against Christians in the synagogues made it impossible for Jews and Christians to fellowship together in the next few decades, and few Christians today are aware of the fact that the early Church of God was a Sabbath keeping Church that worshipped on the Lord’s Day, the seventh day Sabbath, in accordance with the consistent biblical record.
Let us deal with one more issue. Was the fact that Gentile converts were no longer expected to be physically circumcised a nullification of the law of Moses? In Deuteronomy 5:29, it is written: “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever?” The ultimate issue for Israel, and the issue for the Church today, is not one of physical circumcision, but rather the circumcision of the heart. Abram, who later became Abraham, walked with God from the age of seventy-five, and was not circumcised until twenty-five years later, demonstrating that those who are circumcised in heart but not in flesh are able to walk with God. Circumcision was meant to be a physical manifestation of that spiritual sense of humility, a physical sensitivity that was supposed to mirror a spiritual sensitivity to God’s teachings. Yet over time, circumcision became a matter of pride, and when Paul sarcastically referred to when speaking to the brethren in Galatia in Galatians 5:12, there were many that were physically circumcised that were not in any way circumcised in heart, humble and gracious in their dealings. Let it not be so among us.