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Lesson 8: The Jerusalem Council *

Introduction: Times change, but God does not change. Is the Church authorized to modify or reject the commands of God? My natural reaction is an emphatic, "No!" But, our study this week shows that an emphatic "No!" cannot always be correct. That should make every serious student of the Bible a little anxious because it moves the foundation of our beliefs from the solid rock of the Bible. Except for this: it is the Bible that suggests the rules can change. Let's plunge into this important Bible study and see if we can correctly understand God's will!

  1. The Problem

    1. Read Acts 15:1. Is this a true statement? Remember that at this time the Bible consisted only of the Old Testament. (Read Genesis 17:9-10 and Genesis 17:12-14. This makes clear that circumcision applies to foreigners and those who are not the "offspring" of Abraham. The text says those who fail to be circumcised "will be cut off" because they have "broken" a covenant with God.)

    2. Read Acts 15:2. Why would Paul and Barnabas disagree with this clear statement of the Bible? (This looks like a practical problem to me. We have learned that converting the Gentiles was God's plan. We studied two weeks ago about the acceptance of Cornelius and his household by the Holy Spirit. However, in none of those encounters did we find the Holy Spirit speaking against circumcision. Thus, the practical objection must be that it makes converting Gentiles more difficult.)

    3. Read Acts 15:3. Why are Paul and Barnabas traveling to Jerusalem? (They are advocates for the Gentiles and they are opposed to circumcision. They are headed for Jerusalem because that is the headquarters for the church. It is where the "apostles and elders" lived. The purpose of the trip is to ask them about this question.)

      1. Why go to the church leadership to consult when the Bible is clear on the issue? (Apparently, Paul and Barnabas and the believers in Antioch did not view it that way.)

      2. If Paul and Barnabas, and the leaders in Antioch, are confident in their views on circumcision, why submit the issue to the leadership in Jerusalem?

  2. Church Headquarters

    1. Read Acts 15:4. What kind of greeting does the leadership give Paul and Barnabas? (It seems to be a warm welcome.)

    2. Read Acts 15:5. Why does it seem that only converted Pharisees have the pro-circumcision view? (The good news is that this brings the two sides together for a discussion. The bad news is that it suggests that the leadership of the early Church was not behind the pro-circumcision point of view. I say "bad news" because the pro-circumcision group seems to have the backing of the Bible.)

  3. Examining the Biblical Evidence

    1. Read Jeremiah 9:25-26. What concerns God here? (His people are circumcised in the flesh, but not the heart.)

      1. Does this mean that literal circumcision is not enough? (Yes.)

      2. Does that mean that literal circumcision is unnecessary? (It does not. Rather, the logical conclusion is that a person must be circumcised in both the flesh and the heart.)

    2. Read Romans 4:8-10. What does this tell us about being saved? (That circumcision is not necessary for salvation.)

      1. Of course, Paul is part of the group in Acts 15 arguing against circumcision!

    3. Read Romans 4:11-12. Of what is circumcision a sign? (Righteousness by faith.)

      1. Let's say that Paul is exactly right about the timing of Abraham's righteousness and his circumcision. Let's agree that Abraham was declared righteous apart from circumcision. If he had not followed through with circumcision, what does Genesis 17:14 say should happen? (Abraham should be "cut off" as someone who is not in covenant relationship with God.)

      2. Some argue that being in a covenant relationship with God is different than salvation. But, if that is true, why does Genesis 17:14 say the result of failing to become circumcised is that you are "cut off" by God? How can that be understood any other way than as a loss of salvation?

    4. At this point you may be asking, "Bruce, what are you arguing? The New Testament is clear that circumcision is not required!" My goal is not to have you conclude that circumcision is required, I do not believe that it is. My goal is to have you see that the Bible-based argument of the Pharisee converts in favor of circumcision is strong, while the counter arguments are weak when considering only the Old Testament. Why is that important? (The inescapable conclusion for me, one that I do not like very much, is that a strong Biblical argument should not always resolve the question.)

      1. If the strong Biblical argument does not win, then how should we decide important controversies in the church today? Let's consider that next.

  4. The Resolution

    1. Read Acts 15:6-9. What does Peter argue in opposition to circumcision? (The Holy Spirit has clearly demonstrated that Gentiles are accepted by God.)

      1. Is that the question? (No. The question is whether, after the Gentiles become Christians, must they also be circumcised?)

    2. Read Acts 15:10-11. What does Peter argue here? (He first argues that circumcision is a burden, a yoke. That is the practical argument that we previously discussed.)

      1. Should a command of God be ignored simply because it is a burden?

    3. Let's look again at Acts 15:11. What new argument is Peter making here, and what does it have to do with the issue of burden? (Peter argues that Jesus makes the difference. The "burden" could not simply be circumcision, for the Jews were circumcised. The burden was the law.)

      1. This is so important that we must not miss it. How does Jesus make the difference? How does He nullify a direct instruction from God? (Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the law on our behalf. "We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved.")

    4. Before we continue on with the arguments made against circumcision in this Acts 15 meeting, explain how this argument about grace applies to other commands of God? (We are never saved by our works. We are only saved by what Jesus has done for us.)

      1. This still leaves the question about how we should live. The Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to be saved. But, should they do it as an act of obedience to God? If they should not, should the Church stop arguing in favor of God's other commandments? (Looking at this from our current point of view, we include in the Bible the New Testament. It is clear that baptism, not circumcision, is the new sign of our relationship with God. Colossians 2:11-12.)

      2. One of the burning issues in the Christian Church today is homosexual sex. Those who believe that they are homosexuals will argue that refraining from same sex relationships is a great burden - probably greater than circumcision. Should the Church view this like circumcision? (I don't think so. A major reason is that homosexual relationships are not only condemned in the Old Testament ( Leviticus 20:13), but also in the New Testament ( Romans 1:24-27) - even after the cross, after Jesus' death and resurrection. However, as with circumcision, it is true that no one is saved by refraining from homosexual sex. That "work" of refraining is no more meritorious than any other work when it comes to being saved by our works.)

    5. Read Acts 15:13-18. What argument does James make against the pro-circumcision group? (He makes a Biblical argument. He says that the gospel going to the Gentiles is a fulfillment of prophecy. He notes that the miracles done among the Gentiles which were reported by Barnabas and Paul confirm this.)

    6. Friend, the judgment of the early Church leaders was to free the Gentiles from the obligation to be circumcised. What is the lesson for us today? (We need to carefully consider controversies in the church. Just because one group has a clear "thus saith the Lord" is not the end of the discussion. We need to see where the Holy Spirit is leading. We need to look at the full treatment of the Bible on the subject. We need to accept that we are all saved by grace alone.)

      1. Are you on board with this?

  5. Next week: The Second Missionary Journey.
* Copr. 2018, Bruce N. Cameron, J.D. All scripture references are to the New International Version (NIV), copr. 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society, unless otherwise noted. Quotations from the NIV are used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. Suggested answers are found within parentheses. The lesson assumes the teacher uses a blackboard or some other visual aid.

© 2021 Bruce N. Cameron, J.D.
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