"Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority ... the Constitution was made to guard against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters." - Noah Webster

"There is no worse tyranny than forcing a man to pay for what he does not want just because you think it would be good for him."
-- Robert A. Heinlein

Monday, February 21, 2011

Big Conference In Acts

This is post five in the series:  Why I Am Not A Christian   You can find it in the February archive.

Returning to the fifteenth chapter of Acts, we see that the debate which arose from the “party of circumcision” created enough stir among the new believers at Antioch, they determined to send Paul and Barnabas back to Jerusalem to confer with Peter, the other Apostles, and the elders in order to get a ruling on the issue.  I infer from verse two that Paul was already against the circumcision thing, but in humility agreed to go back to Jerusalem and submit to the judgment of the senior Apostles.  This would prove to be more confirmation to Peter as to the meaning of what happened to him back in Chapter 10, and reiterated by James during this conference.

Here you have a major meeting over this issue with all of the most senior elders, the Apostles, and the great learned Rabbi Paul who had been a summa cum laude Torah scholar under Gamaliel.  The apostles, and perhaps dozens of the disciples gathered there, had lived with the Master and heard Him expound on all of the Tanakh.  In my mind a question arises: If Yeshua had given them the idea that following Torah was no longer required, or even a major concern, why did they have to debate and reason out what to do?

Then comes the solution, and it is a solution that Christians just gloss over without thinking carefully about what was decided at that major tribunal.  Please note that nobody stood up and said, “Hey, come on!  This is a moot point since the Law got nailed to the cross with our savior.”  I couldn't find those words in the text.  What did happen is that James stood up and essentially said that, based on what had happened with Peter at Cornelius’ house and what had been happening with Paul and Barnabas, the Holy Spirit was telling them to accept the Goyim just as they were.  However, the gentiles needed some direction since this Judaism thing was so new and strange to them, and it wasn’t right to start loading them down with an overwhelming burden of new rules to follow, so let’s just give them four important, but simple rules to follow, and they can start learning the rest at their local synagogue where the Torah is taught every Sabbath.

Yep.  It’s right there in Acts 15:19-21.  “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Please notice that James is making reasonable assumptions here.  It was assumed that gentile converts would begin learning Torah, as gentile converts had for centuries.  James further assumes that it is perfectly reasonable to demand at least four things that can be observed immediately by the new converts and note that three of them are not in the Ten Commandments.  Note that James assumes that the new converts are going to be attending the local synagogue on the Sabbath.

In order for the importance of what James said to penetrate the “Christianized” mind, one needs to be familiar with Jewish history and understanding.  Since the Children of Israel left Egypt, it was understood that their purpose as stated in the Torah was to be a light (teacher) to the nations.  Israel’s mission as given by God was to be a priesthood that interceded for the nations and to show the example of how a people were supposed to live.  Ergo, when people of other nations saw that example and how blessed it was to follow Torah, they could become proselytes and be grafted in.

However, prior to the Messiah and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the procedure was for a gentile to study and begin living the life of Torah observance, and once the elders around him could see that he was serious about his commitment, he could then be circumcised and then after healing from that, he would undergo mikvah (baptism), immersing three times (without anyone touching him, in a pool of running water) and this was viewed as the old self dying and being washed away and the new man who rose up out of the water was considered fully Jewish, not to be treated any differently than one who came from generations that could be traced to Abraham.

But go back to what James said that became the majority opinion of the court. They didn’t throw out all of Torah for the gentiles.  All of those Apostles and disciples present had all heard the Master say plainly that they were to go and baptize all men, teaching them everything He had taught them.  James was expressing what the rest of them all understood. Perhaps up to that point, it was assumed that when the Master said to baptize, just like it had always been done, that the circumcision was also done.  But here, the Holy Spirit was revealing something new.  The things that the gentiles can start to do immediately, they can do.  As they attend the local synagogue, they will begin to learn and observe Torah with the help of the Jewish believers.

There is another important lesson here as well.  Note that even as with the Centurion Cornelius, gentiles having received the Holy Spirit, -- pay attention -- still needed to learn what to do.  You don’t get saved and suddenly have understanding about how to live a righteous life.  Peter, Paul and James wrote plenty in the New Testament to this effect.  Did you know that Martin Luther went so overboard on his "justification by faith" view, that he advocated to strike the book of James from the New Testament?  James made it clear that the way to know whether or not someone had true faith was to observe his actions.  Anyone can talk a good game, but as James knew, the Master had said, "By their fruit you will know them."

The only thing that changed with regard to Torah observance in Acts 15, was the idea that salvation depended on circumcision.  And that is not to say that circumcision was done away with.  Otherwise, how do you explain Paul circumcising Timothy? Paul never said that circumcision is wrong now and should never be done.  What he fought against was the idea that you could be saved by following a procedure and elevating such observance above the saving work of the Messiah.  I’m sure that as new gentile believers entered the Torah community and had children, eight-day-old boys were being circumcised on a regular basis, and men who wanted to be able to enter the Temple proper got circumcised and let their beards and payess grow out and put on tzitzit.  Sincere believers, so grateful for their salvation, desire to obey the Creator who shows them such love and mercy.  Following Torah is not a burden, but a blessing.

To a modern, western, Christianized mind, it may indeed seem like a burden.  Many people bristle at having to learn anything new.  It is just so damned easy to throw words around, such as, “We’re under grace and not the Law.”  Even though what Paul was saying in context is: “We have been forgiven and will not have to suffer the penalty of the Law.”  Big difference.

Christians like to say that we only have two rules: Love God and love our neighbor.  But when you start probing to see what that really means it begins to look like a shoddy façade that disguises the fact that we want to do our own thing and not be held to a visible, measurable standard.  This is why James wrote his epistle in the New Testament.  This is why the un-churched look at Christians and scream “hypocrites!”  They may not exactly know how to articulate it, but they instinctively know that there’s something badly wrong about a rubber yardstick.

We’ve only looked at two examples from Acts.  There is still more to come.  To get to the next essay, click on Lesson About Food.


  1. Interesting. I haven't seen Acts 15 explained in that way. I am a Christian and pretty much fall into the “We’re under grace and not the Law" mindset, but your position is persuasive.

    That said, with no functioning Temple, tabernacle, priesthood, etc,,, how would a modern-day believer really follow Torah?

    PS - I hope the little goat continues to get better.

  2. Thanks for asking. The answer is logical. Those portions of Torah dealing with the Temple obviously cannot be obeyed. Then again, most of those rules and protocols are for the priesthood anyway. But there is no reason why individuals cannot do all the other things that Torah calls for that can be obeyed no matter where you live in the world. Observing and keeping the Sabbath, wearing tzitzit, keeping a beard, eating kosher, keeping God's calendar and His feasts and not observing pagan or man-made traditions or holidays. This is what we do, just like millions of Jews all over the world. The idea in becoming a believer in the God of Abraham, Yitzak, and Ya'akov and His Messiah is to be grafted into the religion that HE created and following HIS ordinances. The Master said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. And at the risk of getting ahead of myself in this series, there is an understanding that goes back to Moses about positive commands superseding negative ones. These can also be understood from the teachings of Yeshua in the New Testament. I will be getting to all that.

    Just know this: God does not hold us responsible for things we don't know and things we cannot obey. He does expect us to learn and grow in relationship with Him. The Word specifically tells us that we should study to show ourselves to be rightly understanding the Word. If we believe the Gospel of John (Chapter 1) then Yeshua IS Torah. Torah IS Yeshua.


Please don't make me disable comments because you couldn't maintain decorum and civil discourse. You can disagree all you want to, just don't get nasty.