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The Model for the Messianic Community
The Jerusalem Council
This brings us now to the frequently misunderstood fifteenth chapter of Acts and the Jerusalem Council. Sha’ul and Bar Nabba were still in Antioch when “some men came down from Y’hudah to Antioch and began teaching the brothers, ‘You can’t be saved unless you undergo b’rit-milah in the manner prescribed by Moshe.’” Dr. Luke doesn’t tell us for certain who these “some men” were, and he does not specifically identify them as either natural-born Jews or proselytes. However, according the “Church father” and historian Epiphanius, one of these men was a heretic named Cerinthus who was a circumcised Egyptian, and who apparently felt that since he had been circumcised in order to be accepted into the synagogue, then everyone else should also have to be circumcised.
Unable to resolve the conflict without becoming dictatorial and running the risk of dividing the fledgling Messianic movement over the issue, it was wisely determined by the Community leaders that Sha’ul and Bar Nabba would take the issue to the Shliachim and Zakenim in Jerusalem. Three of the most influential Zakenim that were in Jerusalem at the time were Yeshua’s brother Ya`akov (who is considered by most to have been the pastor of the Messianic Community in Jerusalem), Kefa, and Yochanan.
After considerable deliberation and prayer, Ya`akov rose to announce the decision of the meeting that has come to be known as the Jerusalem Council:
“My opinion is that we should not put obstacles in the way of the Goyim who are turning to God. Instead, we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from fornication, from what is strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20)
Please note very carefully that these conditions are almost exactly the same as the conditions that we have listed previously, which had always been expected of the God-Fearers:
“But of the stranger it was expected that he would forego the worship of idols (Lev. xx. 2; Ezek. xiv. 7) and the practise [sic.] of sorcery, incest, or other abominations [which include fornication] (Lev. xviii. 26), and that he would refrain from eating blood (Lev. xvii. 10), from working on Sabbath (Ex. xx. 10, xxiii. 12), from eating leavened bread on Pesach (Ex. xii. 19), and from violating Yom ha-Kippurim [Yom Kippur] (Lev. xvi. 29).” [Compare Acts 15:28-29]
In short, Ya`akov declared on behalf of the Council that the Goyim would be accepted into fellowship in exactly the same way that Goyim had always been accepted into fellowship — simply by acting in a manner that the Jewish people considered the “minimum requirements” for any civilized person.
Then Ya`akov added a comment that, in my opinion, has almost always been misinterpreted by Bible commentators who fail to recognize the historical fact that early Messianic Judaism was part and parcel of the synagogue:
“For from the earliest times, Moshe has had in every city those who proclaim him, with his words being read in the synagogues every Shabbat.” (Acts 15:21)
For example, John Gill begins his exposition of this verse with what I believe is correct historical information:
“That is, for many years past, even from the times of Ezra, the law of Moses has been publicly expounded by them, whom the Jews call Derashim, preachers, or expounders, in every city where there was a synagogue; and every city belonging to the Jews, were obliged to build a synagogue, yea, they were obliged to do it where there were but ten Israelites: this is given by James as a reason why the Gentiles should be wrote unto concerning the above things; …”
But in the middle of his reasoning as to why the Gentile Believers should be made aware of the Council’s decision, and why the Gentile Believers should be given only these conditions for fellowship, he suddenly takes what I believe to be a significantly wrong turn when he begins to try explain why the Council has arrived at this determination. Can it be that he, like so many others, fails to accurately comprehend the “Jewishness” of the first-century “church?”
“… because that they hearing the law read and expounded every week, would be ready to conclude that they were obliged to submit unto it, as to circumcision, and other things; unless they were told that they were free from it; only in order to maintain peace with their brethren the Jews, it would be necessary for them to abstain from the above things: and it may also carry in it a reason, why the Jews need not be wrote unto, and why they had no reason to complain for thus writing to the Gentiles; since they had the law read and explained to them every week, and there would be no attempt to make any alteration in that form of service: …”
Gill, as do many others, makes the assumption, which I believe to be quite erroneous, that the Council was concerned that when Messianic Goyim heard the Torah taught in the synagogues they might “conclude that they were obliged to submit unto it.” And why should they not submit to God’s divine instruction? As we saw earlier, Yeshua taught:
“… whoever disobeys the least of these mitzvot and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)
According to Yeshua’s teaching:
• whoever [Jew or Gentile] obeys the least of these mitzvot will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven; and
• whoever [Jew or Gentile] teaches others to obey the least of these mitzvot will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven; but
• whoever [Jew or Gentile] disobeys the least of these mitzvot will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven;
• whoever [Jew or Gentile] teaches others to disobey the least of these mitzvot will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Why would the members of the Council wish to cause the new Messianic Goyim to be called “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” by failing to teach them to obey all the mitzvot? Why would the members of the Council wish themselves to be called “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” by teaching the new Messianic Goyim to disobey the these mitzvot? Simple logic alone dictates that the members of the Council would certainly not wish to go against Yeshua’s teaching. They certainly would wish to be called “great in the Kingdom of Heaven,” and they certainly would wish for the new Messianic Goyim to also be called “great in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Scripture provides us with no possible reason for exempting the new Gentile Believers from obedience to the loving instruction of God, nor is there any Scriptural precedence for the idea that after having come to faith in the Messiah there is no necessity of seeking after righteousness and obedience.
The understanding of most Gentile Christian theologians is that Gentile Believers should be held to a different standard of righteousness than that required of Jewish Believers. And traditional Judaism agrees, having long held that, while the Torah is the standard of righteousness for Jews, the standard of righteousness for non-Jews is the so-called Noahide Law. Amazingly, many of the Jewish leaders within the Messianic Jewish movement agree, and some go as far as to actually discourage their Gentile members from trying to live Torah-observant (or Torah-pursuant) lives. According to the words of Yeshua Himself, these teachers will be called “least in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
According to traditional Judaism, God gave Noah and his family seven commandments to observe when he saved them from the flood. These commandments, referred to as the Noahic or Noahide commandments, are inferred from (but not specifically stated in) Genesis Ch. 9, and are as follows:
1) to establish courts of justice;
2) not to commit blasphemy;
3) not to commit idolatry;
4) not to commit incest and adultery;
5) not to commit bloodshed;
6) not to commit robbery; and
7) not to eat flesh cut from a living animal.
These commandments are fairly simple and straightforward, and most of them are recognized by most of the world as sound moral principles. Any non-Jew who follows these laws has a place in the world to come, according to traditional Judaism. The Noahic commandments are binding on all people, because all people are descended from Noah and his family. The 613 mitzvot of the Torah, on the other hand, again according to traditional Judaism, are only binding on the descendants of those who accepted the commandments at Sinai and upon those who take on the yoke of the commandments voluntarily.
However, as the following comparison demonstrates, the letter from the Jerusalem Council to the Gentile Believers did not cite the Noahide Law as the standard of righteousness or rule of conduct they were to follow.
|The Noahide Law||The Council’s Determination|
|establish courts of justice|
|do not commit blasphemy|
|do not commit idolatry||abstain from things polluted by idols|
|do not to commit incest or adultery||abstain from fornication|
|do not commit bloodshed|
|do not commit robbery|
|do not to eat flesh cut from a living animal|
|abstain from what is strangled|
|abstain from blood|
Of the entire Noahide Law, the only two requirements specifically placed upon the Gentile Believers by the Jerusalem Council were to abstain from idols and from sexual immorality. The Noahide Law says nothing of abstaining from what is strangled and from blood, yet these conditions were imposed upon the Gentile Believers. Therefore, it is just not reasonable to assume that the Council was simply telling the Gentile Believers to abide by the Noahide Law, as is generally supposed.
The Council’s determination much more closely corresponds to the conditions that had always been required of the God-fearer:
|Conditions for God-fearers||The Council’s Determination|
|forego the worship of idols||abstain from things polluted by idols|
|forgo the practice of sorcery, incest, or other abominations||abstain from fornication|
|refrain from eating blood||abstain from what is strangled and from blood|
|refrain from working on Shabbat||
these would have been clearly understood by anyone
who was actively participating in the activities of the
|refrain from eating leavened bread on Pesach|
|refrain from violating Yom Kippur|
The next step in this careful evaluation forces us to ask ourselves whether or not the traditional Jewish position concerning the Noahide Laws is correct. According to Jewish tradition, the Noahide Laws are binding on all humankind, both Jews and Gentiles, but the Torah is “only binding on the descendants of those who accepted the commandments at Sinai and upon those who take on the yoke of the commandments voluntarily.”
If Gentiles are now permitted to participate in the blessings of the Covenant, are they exempt from taking on its obligations? If obedience to Torah is such a beautiful thing as the Jews claim, why should Gentile God-Fearers be denied the right to also enjoy the beauty of obedience to Torah?
When God led Kefa to bring the Gospel to the first Gentile Believers, Kefa said (Acts 10:34, 35):
“I now understand that God does not play favorites, but that whoever fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him, no matter what people he belongs to.” (CJB)
“I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” (NAS)
“Truly I perceive that God doesn’t show favoritism; but in every nation he who fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” (HNV)
“Of a truth, I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he who is fearing Him, and is working righteousness, is acceptable to Him;” (YLT)
“In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.” (NKJV)
“Truly, I see clearly that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation, the man who has fear of him and does righteousness is pleasing to him.” (BBE)
Regardless of the translation, two things are abundantly clear: (1) God does not play favorites; and (2) God accepts those who fear him and do what is right. From this we may draw two conclusions:
1. God has only one standard of righteousness, not two separate standards of righteousness (does not play favorites, does not show partiality, is no respecter of persons); and
2. God accepts on an equal basis those who fear him and live righteously (who live according to God’s one single standard of righteousness).
If God has only one standard of righteousness for all people, whether Jew or Gentile, where is that standard of righteousness revealed? In the Torah, of course! It is clear from Scripture that even though God does not play favorites, He does have a special covenant relationship with the physical descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya`akov, whether or not they are believers in Israel’s Messiah, and we need to not lose sight of that fact.
However, we must also take into account the fact that Scripture teaches that Gentile Believers are adopted into the family of God through being adopted into the family of Avraham.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to bring you back again into fear; on the contrary, you received the Spirit, who makes us sons and by whose power we cry out, “Abba!” (that is, “Dear Father!”). The Spirit himself bears witness with our own spirits that we are children of God; and if we are children, then we are also heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with the Messiah — provided we are suffering with him in order also to be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)
Now what if God, even though he was quite willing to demonstrate his anger and make known his power, patiently put up with people who deserved punishment and were ripe for destruction? What if he did this in order to make known the riches of his glory to those who are the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory — that is, to us, whom he called not only from among the Jews but also from among the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hoshea, “Those who were not my people [Gentiles] I will call my people; her who was not loved [Gentiles] I will call loved; and in the very place where they were told, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called sons of the living God!” (Romans 9:22-26)
For we are the temple of the living God—as God said, “I will house Myself in them, … and I will walk among you. I will be their God, and they will be My people.” Therefore ADONAI says, “‘Go out from their midst; separate yourselves; don’t even touch what is unclean. Then I myself will receive you. In fact, I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters.’ says ADONAI-Tzva’ot.” (2 Corinthians 6:16-17)
It was the same with Avraham: “He trusted in God and was faithful to him, and that was credited to his account as righteousness.” Be assured, then, that it is those who live by trusting and being faithful who are really children of Avraham. Also the Tanakh, foreseeing that God would consider the Gentiles righteous when they live by trusting and being faithful, told the Good News to Avraham in advance by saying, “In connection with you, all the Goyim will be blessed.” So then, those who rely on trusting and being faithful are blessed along with Avraham, who trusted and was faithful. (Galatians 3:6-9)
For in union with the Messiah, you are all children of God through this trusting faithfulness; because as many of you as were immersed into the Messiah have clothed yourselves with the Messiah, in whom there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female; for in union with the Messiah Yeshua, you are all one. Also, if you belong to the Messiah, you are seed of Avraham and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)
Now because you are sons, God has sent forth into our hearts the Spirit of his Son, the Spirit who cries out, “Abba!” (that is, “Dear Father!”). So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if you are a son you are also an heir. (Galatians 4:6-7)
It is clear from the above Scriptures that all those, both Jew and Gentile, who are in union with the Messiah (Galatians 3:26) are “children of God” and “seed of Avraham and heirs according to the promise.” Jewish Believers in Messiah are the “seed of Avraham and heirs according to the promise” because they are both the physical seed of Avraham and the “spiritual” seed of Avraham because they share his faith. Gentile Believers are the “seed of Avraham and heirs according to the promise” because they “rely on trusting and being faithful” and are therefore “blessed along with Avraham.”
Those children who have been adopted into any family as “sons and joint-heirs” are entitled to share in all the benefits of being in the family, but they are also obligated to share in all the responsibilities of being in the family.
So again we ask: if Gentiles, as children who have been adopted into the family of Avraham and into the family of God, are now permitted to participate in the blessings of the Covenant, how can they possibly be exempt from taking on the obligations of the Covenant? If obedience to Torah is a beautiful thing as the Jews claim, why should Gentile God-Fearers be denied the right to also enjoy the beauty of obedience to Torah?
Remember who it was that at this time constituted the synagogue in every city where there were more than ten Jews: Jews, Gentile Converts, and God-Fearers, some of whom were Messianic and some of whom were not! There were no separate synagogues for Messianic Believers; they met in the same synagogues as the non-Messianic Believers in HaShem. There was not one version of Judaism for Messianic Believers and another version for the non-Messianic Believers in HaShem. There was only one single, united, Judaism for all who believed in HaShem, the God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya`akov.
It is at this point, I believe, that many become confused because of what is commonly taught about the Pentecost event. Remember that when Ruach HaKodesh came at Pentecost, those upon whom He fell did not become “the church” as it now exists (see Chapter 6). They all remained Jews who, as we have discussed, remained part of mainstream Judaism. There was no “church” for the new Gentile Believers to join. They joined their local synagogue where they could learn to obey the teachings of Torah as explained by the Shliachim and the other Messianic Rabbi/Pastors.
Returning now to the puzzle of the Declaration of the Jerusalem Council, it should be more evident why the decision was made to allow new Gentile Believers some leniency regarding halakah and what was the intent of the statement, “For from the earliest times, Moshe has had in every city those who proclaim him, with his words being read in the synagogues every Shabbat.”
For a new Gentile Believer who was previously a pagan and who had just learned about the God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya`akov for the first time, and who had never been exposed to the righteous, Torah-observant life-style (halakah) that a faithful Jew gradually learned over an entire lifetime, the task of learning to walk halakah in a just a few weeks, or even a few months, would simply be totally overwhelming, and the new Believer would certainly be doomed to fail, and to fall away from fellowship out of sheer frustration.
The wise members of the Jerusalem Council well knew that “from generations of old Moshe has those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Shabbat.” Today the entire Torah (the five books of Moshe, Genesis through Deuteronomy) is taught in synagogues around the world in a one-year reading cycle. At the time of Yeshua and the Shliachim, it is believed that the three-year cycle was used, and Jewish children were not expected to walk halakah until they had been through the complete teaching cycle four times and had reached the age of bar-mitzvah.
Just as a newborn Jewish child was gradually exposed to “the teachings of Moshe” over a 12-year period, so every newly born-again Gentile Believer would likewise be gradually exposed to “the teachings of Moshe” over a three, six, nine, or even twelve-year period.
Gentile Believers would most certainly have been given the same options that non-Jewish Believers had always been afforded in the synagogue. They could either go through the formal “conversion” process (including circumcision) and thereby “become Jews” [Proselytes or Converts] and fully embrace all the 613 mitzvot of the Torah if they desired to, or they could remain in fellowship with the synagogue as Messianic God-Fearers and embrace whatever extent of “the teachings of Moshe” they had learned (provided, of course, that the “Minimum Requirements” were always observed).
Gill was essentially correct when he observed that the new Believers were given the very “minimum requirements” for fellowship [“that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29)], and that “there would be no attempt to make any alteration in that form of service;” but this was permitted not because the new Gentile Believers would be excused from obedience to Torah, but rather because the new Gentile Believers would be given the opportunity to learn over a long period of time to become obedient, just as their Jewish-born brothers had been given.
Consider this: If it is true (and it is) that God gave the Torah to Israel through Moshe at Sinai, and if it is true (and it is) that Yeshua is God, and if it is true (and it is) that “God is one,” then it must also be true that it was the pre-incarnate Yeshua Who gave the Torah to Israel through Moshe at Sinai. To believe otherwise, one is forced either to deny the Deity of Yeshua HaMashiach, or to depart from monotheism (only one God) and enter the world of polytheism (more than one God).
So then when Yeshua said, “If you love Me, keep My mitzvot [commandments]” (John 14:15) and “If you keep My mitzvot, you will remain in My love; even as I have kept My Father’s mitzvot, and remain in His love” (John 15:10), then He was referring to all the 613 mitzvot that He gave to Moshe for Israel to observe as an everlasting covenant.
God does not change, Yeshua does not change, and Torah does not change. Just as the Amendments to the United States Constitution do not do away with the Constitution, so the Apostolic Scriptures do not do away with the Tanakh, nor does the Talmud! I do not believe for a minute that the Apostolic Scriptures are more authoritative than the Tanakh. Nor do I believe that the Talmud supersedes the Tanakh. I do not believe that the legalistic Rabbinic system of interpretation of Torah, much of which has been carried over into the Talmud, has ever been as authoritative as Torah or as binding as Torah upon Believers in HaShem, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. In fact, Yeshua condemned that legalistic system as “the traditions of the elders” and called those who would force others into submission to its demands “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “fools and blind men,” and “sons of hell” (Matthew 23:13-33).
Please do not misunderstand. I am not suggesting for even a moment that the Talmud is “evil” or of no value to Messianic Believers, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Far from it! The Talmud contains centuries of discussion and interpretation of the Sacred Text by some of the greatest minds in Judaism. It is full of incomparable wisdom passed down through generations. It is the record of centuries of “case law” in Jewish Jurisprudence and it teaches us to look at the Tanakh through the eyes of the Sages. However, it contains the opinions of men and not the mind of God. I believe that, as a practical matter, the Talmud contains great wisdom and is worthy of serious consideration, except when it disagrees with the Sacred Text.
Neither should we think for even a moment that even total obedience to Torah can ever save us or make us righteous. Rav Sha’ul covered that idea very carefully in his letter to the Galatians. Torah observance can never take the place of our faith and trust in the Messiah, Who alone saves us and, because of our faith—not our works — declares us to be righteous.
The Temple service and sacrificial system cannot save us; the writer of the Letter to the Messianic Jews (Hebrews) makes it abundantly clear that Messiah is our only propitiating sacrifice!
The ruling of the Jerusalem Council, when properly understood, did not excuse or exempt those coming to Messianic faith from among the Goyim from any provision of the Torah except that they were not to be compelled to become “circumcised” — that is, they were not to submit to any kind of formal “conversion process” to become Jewish. Nor did it excuse the early Messianic leaders from teaching the non-Jewish Believers to be obedient to the entire Torah.
Remember what Yeshua taught:
“Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete. Yes indeed! I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not so much as a yud or a stroke will pass from the Torah — not until everything that must happen has happened. So whoever disobeys the least of these mitzvot and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness is far greater than that of the Torah-teachers and P’rushim, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matthew 5:17-20).
As Messianic Believers we are not made righteous because of our obedience to Torah. We are obedient to Torah because we have been made righteous by the shed blood of our Messiah, and His commandment is that we therefore live a righteous lifestyle as defined by His Torah!
89. Judea. [RETURN]
90. Circumcision. [RETURN]
91. Moses. [RETURN]
92. Contra Haeres. l. 1. Haeres. 28. [RETURN]
93. Cerinthus taught that Yeshua was only a man, and that at His immersion the Messiah (called the Christ-consciousness by modern New-Age cults) entered Him, and taught Him things about the “unknown God” that even the angels don’t know. During His execution the Messiah left Yeshua and returned to heaven. Yeshua, just a man, died and was buried, and will be resurrected from the dead at the last day. Cerinthus became the leader of a Gnostic cult in Ephesus, and was the “arch-heretic” against whom the Shliach Yochanan (the Apostle John the Beloved) fought so strongly. It may well have been Cerinthus against whose teachings Yochanan’s first epistle was written (see 1 John 2:22-26). For more information, see also www.latter-rain.com/ltrain/cerin.htm.
“The fullest description which we have of Cerinthus and his followers is that of Epiphanius (Hær. XXVIII.), who records a great many traditions as to his life (e.g. that he was one of the false apostles who opposed Paul, and one of the circumcision who rebuked Peter for eating with Cornelius, &c.), and also many details as to his system, some of which are quite contradictory. It is clear, however, that he was Jewish in his training and sympathies, while at the same time possessed of Gnostic tendencies. He represents a position of transition from Judaistic Ebionism to Gnosticism, and may be regarded as the earliest Judaizing Gnostic.” [www.ccel.org/s/schaff/npnf201/htm/ iii.viii.xxviii.htm] [RETURN]
94. Apostles and Elders. [RETURN]
95. Yeshua’s half-brother. See the earlier note on his name. [RETURN]
96. Peter. [RETURN]
97. John the Beloved. [RETURN]
98. “Gentile,” Jewish Encyclopedia, JewishEncyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=142&letter=G, op.cit. [RETURN]
99. Ya`akov. [RETURN]
100. The New John
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible.
101. Ibid. [RETURN]
102. Instructions or commandments. [RETURN]
104. “Gentile,” Jewish Encyclopedia, op. cit. [RETURN]
105. CJB, Complete Jewish Bible; NAS, New American Standard Bible; HNV, Hebrew Names Version; YLT, Young’s Literal Translation; NKJV, New King James Version; BBE, The Bible in Basic English. [RETURN]
106. Tzva’ot, hosts or armies. ADONAI-Tzva’ot is usually rendered as LORD of Hosts. [RETURN]
107. “HaShem” is literally “the Name” and refers to the Name that is too sacred to be pronounced. It is a common Jewish reference to God. [RETURN]
108. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. [RETURN]
109. Literally, “the walk,” i.e., walking in obedience to the Torah. [RETURN]
110. No, Olivia, the “through the Bible” concept did not originate with Dr. J. Vernon McGee; it originated in the synagogue well before the first century. [RETURN]