Acts 15: The Defining Chapter, Yes. A Stand-Alone Chapter, No.
by Mikha’el Bugg
Rabbi Derek recently posted a blog entry that perhaps best encapsulates one of the two major differences between the Hashevanu Movement and Conservative Messianic Judaism: The relationship between Gentile believers and the Torah. Rabbi Derek believes that Gentile believers are exempt from what he calls “commandments of special holiness for Israelites such as circumcision, dietary restriction, Sabbath, fringes, and holy days.” It is the belief of the Union of Conservative Messianic Judaism that “There is to be one Torah and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you” (Num. 15:16). It is further our belief that while Rabbi Derek is correct that Acts 15 is a pivotal chapter in Scripture, he is incorrect in interpreting it as if it were a stand-alone chapter.
One Bride, or Two?
Let us begin with the most obvious point first: Rabbi Sha’ul (the Emissary Paul) was a man driven above all by the conviction that the Messiah has one Body and one Bride, not two (cf. Eph. 2:15). He was even willing to risk Shimon Peter’s enmity by challenging him publicly when the latter withdrew from openly associating with the Gentile believers (Gal. 2:11-21)! How then can we imagine that Paul would preach a Gospel or consider victory a beit din (council) that upheld a “middle wall of separation” that excluded Gentiles from the very mitzvot that the Jewish people have always taken the most joy in!
We have always called the Torah and the Sabbath our inheritance. If the grafted-in Gentiles are truly our fellowheirs (Eph. 3:6), should they not partake of this wonderful inheritance as well?
Controversy Without a Cause?
But more than that, Rabbi Derek’s interpretation of the passage removes it from the context of the preceding chapters. The old adage that a text without a context becomes a pretext for a prooftext must always be on our minds as we seek to understand the Sacred Writ! In this case, his interpretation of Jacob’s closing words begs the obvious question: If the purpose of the council was to separate the Gentile believers from the Torah, why did Jacob speak of the Sabbath and the Torah at all? What sparked the comment?
The answer is given when we read chapters 13-15 as a unit: It was the Gentiles coming into the synagogues in incredible numbers to hear the Good News that sparked the debate in the first place!
In Acts 13:44f, we learn that as a result of Paul’s teaching in Pisidian Antioch, “the next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy . . .” Acts 14:1-4, we again see that it was by proclaiming the Good News in the synagogue (presumably again on the Sabbath) that many Gentiles came to believe in Yeshua, resulting in not just the synagogue, but the whole city being divided. The impression that the latter part of chapter 14 gives is that this was a repeated pattern throughout southern Galatia.
It was the large numbers of Gentiles coming into the synagogues on the Sabbath that sparked the debate in the first place! And it is in that light that Jacob’s conclusion should be understood, i.e., “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who proclaim him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath,” and now the Gentiles are coming there in numbers greater than ever before—why would we want to do anything to stop that?
Further, the Beit Din’s conclusion must be understood in the light of two other historical factors: First, the history of Israel’s own redemption from bondage to freedom, and second, the ongoing struggle in Judaism to understand the nature of Israel’s unique calling.
From Bondage to the Freedom of Torah
We find in the pattern of the Exodus not only the history of the birth of a nation, but a prophecy of the redemption of the world in Messiah and a pattern of the personal redemption that all Disciples of Yeshua must undertake. For the prophetic pattern, see The Feasts and the Exodus; here, we will concentrate on the individual’s journey. Like Israel, we begin lost in bondage to the world, imprisoned through the lusts of the flesh to a cruel master (Eph. 2:2f). Like Israel, before we can be set free, our King must go to war with the gods of this world for us. And like Israel, we can only be set free from this bondage and saved from the Holy One’s sentence of death by the blood of the Passover Lamb.
Like Israel, the Holy One does not give us a few hundred rules and tell us to get them straight before we can be set free, but sets us free on the basis of a promise, commanding only that we follow Him away from our former masters. This is the basis of the first two Words of the Ten: “I am HaShem your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the abode of slavery,” and, “You shall have no other gods before Me . . .”
Like Israel, if we are truly to be free, we must follow the Sh’khinah where He leads. Like Israel, we too must pass through water as we formally leave the kingdom of slavery and enter the place of the Holy Mountain (1Co. 10:2; the Red Sea at the Gulf of Aqaba marked the easternmost boundary of Egypt). Like Israel, we are nourished by His Word (cf. Deu. 8:3) in connection keeping to His Sabbaths (Exo. 16:26-30).
Didn’t a whole mixed multitude leave Egypt with Israel (Exo. 12:38)? Were they not also immersed in the same mikveh, fed by the manna and told to rest on the same Shabbat?
The problem with classical Christianity is that it stops there. So focused on just the right way to paint the blood on the doorposts of the house and how much ocean spray is needed to be considered baptize, far too few Christians realize that they are taking a journey to a spiritual mountain to learn to walk in the ways of the Lord. Salvation was not the end of the journey, but the beginning! And if it is indeed the beginning, why should we deny those who, like Ruth, say to Israel, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16)?
Ruth’s story was doubtless on the hearts of the Beit Din, though Luke chooses the citation of Amos 9:11-12 to summarize the council’s decision. Not only is the story of Ruth traditionally read at Shavuot, the very time when the Breath descended with prophetic power on the Assembly, but tells the story of how a Gentile bride—and one from the most unclean of peoples!—worked the redemption of an Israelite woman through her relationship to Boaz, the bridegroom of the story. The parallelism with the Amos passage is striking, since Amos puts forth Gentiles being called by the Name of the Holy One as a prerequisite to the restoration of the Davidic kingdom. Boaz did not demand that Ruth have the right halakha to marry her and redeem Naomi’s land—but it is certain that Ruth fully incorporated herself into Israelite life, accepting all of the mitzvot, Sabbaths, and Feasts of her new husband!
Can We Still Be Special If We Let Just Anybody In?
And it is here that the Acts council wrestled not only with the immediate issue of the inclusion of Gentile believers, but also with its impact on Israel’s very particularity! So long as the Ruths of the world were the rare exception, Israel’s place of Goy Hakodesh, the Holy Nation, was not at stake. But when whole cities of Gentiles streamed into the synagogues on the Sabbath to hear of Yeshua, it must have become quickly apparent that simple demographics dictated that soon the number of Gentile disciples would overwhelm the Jewish ones. What then would happen to the promises given uniquely to Israel?
It must be noted that this issue arose because of Israel’s willing Diaspora. So long as Israel remained tied to the Land of Promise, the holy elements were distinctive: Only in Israel could the Feasts be kept in their fullness, for only in Israel stood the Mikdash (Holy Place) where the Sh’khinah of the Holy One Himself would dwell with His inheritance. But with the Jews spread throughout not only the Roman Empire, but Parthia, Ethiopia, and the rest of the known world, the connection to that particular promise became tenuous—as indeed it is in American Jewry today. Therefore, Judaism sought its particularity in the mitzvot, particularly the mitzvah of circumcision, which set them apart from the Greeks, whom regarded circumcision as self-mutilation. With observance of the mitzvot in decay—a fact to which the Talmud attests as much as the New Covenant Scriptures—ethnic identity and nationalism grew in importance as the primary key to having a place in the world to come. The Mishnah declares, “All Israel have a portion in the world to come . . .” (Sanh. 10:1, cf. Rom. 11:26f), but there were many who insisted that only Israel have a portion in the world to come.
What is often overlooked is that this struggle between the parties of the circumcision and uncircumcision in the New Covenant is mirrored by similar arguments among the rabbis. For example, we read the following debate in the Tosefta:
R. Eliezer says, “None of the gentiles has a portion in the world to come, as it is said, The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the gentiles who forget God (Ps. 9:17).” . . . Said to him R. Joshua, “If it had been written, The wicked shall return to Sheol—all the gentiles and then said nothing further, I should have maintained as you do. Now that it is in fact written, All the gentiles who forget God, it indicates that there are also righteous people among the nations of the world who do have a portion in the world to come. (t.Sanh. 13.2)
It was in the midst of this argument within Judaism itself that some followed Paul, teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). The follow-up argument among the Pharisee disciples must be interpreted in the light of the original argument, i.e., “It is necessary [for their very salvation] to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (v. 6)—a Law that, to the Pharisee, meant not only the written Scriptures, but the traditions, so binding that they are called Oral Torah, as well.
To the first question, the Spirit had already given the answer: The Gentiles had received the same Spirit, evidenced by the same gifts of prophecy and tongues, and the Holy One would not allow Himself to reside in unclean vessels (cf. Acts 10:28). Furthermore, the calling of Gentiles—not Gentiles converted into Jews, but Gentiles—by the Holy Name was a necessary prerequisite to the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, and therefore to the promise that the Eternal would dwell among Israel as His special people in the Land of His Promise. Israel was not to be the only son of the Most High, but was His firstborn (Exo. 4:22), not the only nation worshipping God, but the priestly nation that would teach the other nations, atone for them, and lead the worship (19:6). In order to claim her own unique heritage, Israel would have to share her blessings!
To the second question, we return to the pattern of the Exodus: One must be first saved from bondage by trust, and only then can one come to the holy mountain to learn at the Holy One’s feet. To say that the Gentiles must not only become Jewish, but must keep the Torah, Written and Oral, as a prerequisite to salvation stood in the face of the Holy One’s own word.
Signs for Whom?
I wrote at the beginning of this essay that while Rabbi Derek is correct that Acts 15 is a pivotal chapter in Scripture, he is incorrect in interpreting it as if it were a stand-alone chapter. We have so far endeavored to show that he has not correctly interpreted it in the light of the context of the book of Acts; now we broaden our context to include the rest of the prophetic Scriptures.
Should a Gentile observe the Sabbath on its proper day?
Thus says Isaiah:
Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath And holds fast My covenant; Even those I will bring to My holy mountain And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples. (Isa. 56:6-7)
Are Gentiles excused from observing the Feasts?
Here is the matter according to Zechariah:
Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths. And it will be that whichever of the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them. (14:16-17)
In the matter of kosher, it must be noted that while one can build the case from the Torah that kashrut was never a requirement for Gentile God-fearers (and therefore, Paul was not “releasing” anyone from anything), nevertheless, one who ate of trief was still made unclean. Therefore, the foreigner who wished to make his offering at the Mikdash would have to first purify himself, eating only clean foods (Lev. 17:15f). We should also note that v. 13 implies that the ger “who dwells among” the children of Israel should limit himself to trapping only beasts and birds “which may be eaten.” We should also note the absurdity of assuming that Jews and Gentiles eating in fellowship together would put lamb and pork on the same table!
What of circumcision?
Here we must note that circumcision was never a requirement for salvation, as the examples of Namaan, Nebuchadnezzar, and the entire city of Nineveh demonstrate. For those not born to the family of Abraham, circumcision was always an option, not a requirement. That it was being used as a weapon against the Gentiles, just as Levi and Simeon used it to avenge their sister (Gen. 34), makes it obvious why Paul would take an apparently anti-circumcision position: He was trying to correct a prominent error.
Rabbi Derek’s “two laws” approach is designed at not placing guilt on our Sunday brethren who due to long tradition cannot see the joy in keeping Torah. But it is hardly necessary to take the Scriptures out of context in order to do so! Rather, one must only recognize that the Scriptures clearly state that one is judged only by the light he or she is given. The Torah does not hold one accountable for sins until one becomes aware of them (Lev. 5:3-4), and Yeshua Himself declared that one who was blind to a matter had no sin (John 9:41). Our Sunday brethren will not be judged on the basis of whether they kept kosher if they honestly believe that they shouldn’t keep kosher, but on whether they kept the commandments that they did know!
We are indeed all saved by grace, for there is no one who hasn’t sinned in full knowledge and fallen short of the glory of God. In recognizing Israel’s culpability for sinning despite having the Torah and their need for Yeshua’s atonement and forgiveness, the Apostles gave room for the blind to come into the light for the first time in their lives. The intent was neither to divide brethren nor to force Jewishness on them, but to give the Spirit who had already accepted them time to work, writing the Torah on their hearts as He was doing the Jewish disciples (cf. Jer. 31:30ff).
It is truly sad that the Messianic movement has not apprehended the Emissaries teachings. If we had done so, we would not be telling Gentiles that they can come in only if they stay at the back of the synagogue.