Acts 15 – Circumcision Doesn’t Matter

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Today’s PassageActs 15

As I read today’s chapter, I couldn’t help thinking: my, how far we’ve come.

It starts with some contention about whether or not a person can be saved without being circumcised. But Peter begins to address the issue by referencing his meeting with Cornelius: “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe” (7). And as I read Peter’s words, it struck me that those events were only five chapters ago. Those were the early days! They’ve already become the early days! That’s how Peter talks about them now. We’ve come a long way.

As the church determines what to do about this dubious doctrine on the necessity of circumcision that’s spreading around, they prepare to send out Paul with Barnabas again. And that’s another amazing thing: Paul has completed a missionary journey. He is able to return to places he’s already visited and “[travel] through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (41). You can’t encourage a church that’s not there. But now that churches have been established, Paul can actually, for example, go back to Antioch and reconnect with the people that he spread the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to. And deliver a letter from the apostles at Jerusalem stating that you don’t have to get circumcised.

And there’s a bit more to the letter’s message than that. Peter, in his “you know that in the early days God made a choice among you” speech, emphasizes that Jews and Gentiles alike are saved through the grace of Jesus Christ. But then James adds, “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” (19-20). And that’s what makes it into the letter!

The Jerusalem church explicitly wants it to not be a huge deal of a hassle to be a Christian. But it also makes a point “to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication” (28-29). So, yes, they’re saying, don’t sweat the circumcision. These people telling you you need to get circumcised, they didn’t run that by us, that’s not our message. And we don’t want to saddle you with onerous obligations! But don’t eat the wrong things, and don’t have the not-with-your-wife sex.

It’s a weird letter. It certainly doesn’t say that you need to do these things in order to be saved. But in fact it doesn’t seem to be about salvation at all. Despite Peter’s push for by-grace-through-faith, the words “grace,” “faith,” and even “salvation” don’t make it into the letter in any form. Apparently the no-no foods and the no-no sex are of greater importance at this point in the church’s development. I wasn’t there, not my place to make the call. And it’s important to check your practice. But it’s weird.

Point is, at this point in Acts, we’re in it. The church is taking off and going places. How far indeed we’ve come.

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