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When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch to give their missionary report, they were told how God “had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” [ethnos, “nations”]. This does not mean that, in times past, non-Jews had been excluded from a covenant relationship with God. While Israel was the only nation (as a national unit) with whom God had made a covenant, the purpose of that covenant was to employ Israel in blessing all the families of the earth, as the Abrahamic covenant indicated (Gen. 12:3).
Israel had been called to testify to the nations in order that all nations might come to know God. That is why Solomon built His “house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:7; 1 Kings 8:41-43). Even so, we see missionary activity being limited up to the time of Paul and Barnabas. This indicates failure on the part of the Covenant people. In no way does this failure teach us that the seed of Abraham was superior to others, or that they were more beloved of God than anyone else.
Non-Israel people were never excluded from the covenants of God, but to partake of that covenant, they had to join with the Covenant people and become citizens of Israel. God never meant for Israel to have an exclusive relationship with God. The only serious problem was logistical. Jerusalem was localized in one part of the world, and thus the presence of God itself was localized. Most people, if they had even heard of Israel’s God or the temple, could not afford to travel that far to learn of God.
Scripture speaks of many “proselytes,” but unfortunately, the Jews kept them at arm’s length, even erecting a barrier wall in the court of the temple to keep them (and women) farther away from God. The temple was designed to unify all mankind under the one true God, but instead it became a reason to maintain disunity and inequality.
Thus, even if those afar off had the means to come to Jerusalem, their access to God was restricted by the dividing wall that had been erected according to the traditions of men.
The advent of the New Covenant changed this. God's presence left the old temple in the days of Ezekiel (See Ez. 10 and 11.), and finally left the Mount of Olives with the ascension of Jesus Himself. When His Spirit returned on Pentecost ten days later, He came to inhabit human flesh, the temple of our bodies, which, being mobile, could bring the presence of God to all nations.
The Gospel started out being preached in Judea, then to Samaria, and only then to the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8), which in those days was considered to be Britain and India. At Pentecost the Gospel was preached in Jerusalem and Judea. Philip then took it to Samaria. Joseph of Arimathea first took it to Britain. James took it to Spain before Herod beheaded him in Jerusalem in 44 A.D.
Finally, in 47 A.D. Paul and Barnabas went on their missionary journey, preaching to Jews and proselytes in the synagogues of Cyprus and Asia (Turkey). But the Gospel was largely rejected by the leaders of the synagogues, even to the point of causing Paul to be stoned to death (and raised again by God). So the revelation came that it was time to take the Gospel to “the nations,” as Isaiah had prophesied so many times.
Back in Antioch after their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas conveyed the progress and the revelation of God about how God had opened the door to the nations. Acts 14:28 says, “And there [Antioch] they abode long time with the disciples.”
It was then that certain Jewish disciples, yet steeped in the traditions of men, came up from Jerusalem to Antioch, teaching that “except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). This doctrinal point had already been refuted by the conversion of the Samaritans and the Roman centurion. Their conversion had been confirmed by the fact that the Holy Spirit had come upon them even as it had come upon the circumcised disciples on the day of Pentecost. Likewise, Paul and Barnabas had seen this happen in Cyprus and Asia through their own ministry.
It appears that this point of law was not at all clear to the believers in the Jerusalem Church, all of whom accommodated the Temple rituals in order to avoid reproach. They had simply added Jesus to their Judaism and had not really understood that a New Covenant had been established. It appears they did not even understand that the old sacrificial system had been rendered irrelevant in the sight of God by the advent of the true Sacrifice.
But the core issue at the forefront in Acts 15 was the means of salvation. Did one have to be circumcised to be saved? When these brethren arrived from Jerusalem, Peter came with them, apparently having been in Jerusalem for a time. When in Antioch, he had been eating with non-Jews regularly, in accordance with his own revelation. But in the presence of these brethren from Jerusalem, he withdrew and ate only with the Jewish believers.
Paul confronted Peter to his face for this hypocrisy, and Peter repented. Luke was kind enough not to record the confrontation with Peter in the book of Acts. However, Paul felt it necessary to write about it later in Gal. 2:3-5, when the issue resurfaced:
3 But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised; 4 But it was because of the false brethren who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. 5 But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.
A few verses later, Paul writes,
11 But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.
This was a critical juncture in Church history. Would the Church retain its Jewish separatist attitude, with the belief that non-Jewish believers were to remain as second-class citizens of the Kingdom? Would they always remain unclean in the eyes of God, so that Jewish believers had to eat at separate tables from them? Would the dividing wall in the Temple in Jerusalem be carried over into the Church as well?
Paul recognized the huge importance of this issue and confronted it directly. Peter repented, as (no doubt) did Barnabas. But the brethren from Jerusalem were not so easily convinced. So it was decided that they needed to hold a Church Council in Jerusalem. Perhaps they felt that James would take their side.
It is significant that at this Council Peter took the lead and gave the opening statement in favor of Paul's viewpoint. He reminded them of God's revelation how God had showed him not to call any man common or unclean. He reminded them that the Holy Spirit had been given to non-Jews as well, and that God had “put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9).
Then Barnabas and Paul testified by their own experiences in their missionary journey. The opposition apparently kept silent (15:12). After all, what could they say? Their doctrinal position was undermined by the clear evidence of how the Holy Spirit had already been working in the non-Jewish believers since the Samaritan revival.
James then ruled in favor of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. Circumcision was NOT a requirement for salvation. However, James did remind them that the law itself had not been put away, and that our daily lives ought to be lived in holiness and not in fornication, idolatry, and eating blood. Thus, James and Paul are seen to be in agreement, not in conflict, and those who would make them adversaries are simply wrong. Paul never put away the law, and James never said that circumcision was necessary for salvation.
The law commanded circumcision, but it also spoke of two kinds of circumcision: that of the flesh (Gen. 17:10), and that of the heart (Deut. 30:6). The outward circumcision is a sign of being under the Old Covenant; the inner circumcision is a sign of being under the New Covenant. Both types fulfill the law, but have different applications.
The intent of physical circumcision was to be placed under the Old Covenant, which obligates a person to be obedient to the law as a requisite to salvation. This was something, Peter said, “which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10). In other words, circumcision made no man righteous from Moses to Peter, nor was any man able to be righteous enough by his own efforts to obtain salvation.
Heart circumcision, on the other hand, placed a person under the New Covenant. It obligates God to fulfill the law in us and to make us righteous. No man is righteous enough to receive salvation under the Old Covenant. But God is righteous enough to save all men under the New Covenant.