The Church as well as the Messianic community believe that Acts 15:1-2 is about Gentiles becoming Believers in Jesus
Act 15:1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
Act 15:2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
One Messianic says this: “The issue at hand was weather or not someone who was not a Jew could be Saved”. I was reading this and it struck me that this was not the issue at all.
I have long said that Paul’s greatest battle was against the doctrine of legalism. Being legalistic does not mean that if you follow G-d’s commandments you are a legalist. Being a legalist means you believe that you can be Saved by keeping G-d’s commandments and that you are not Saved by grace. That is what a legalist is.
Keeping that in mind, many also teach that the Jews have always believed that they (the Jews) were saved by works. This also is not true. Abraham was righteous because of his faith, not because of works.
(Rom 4:9) Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.
The ancient Jews always knew that it was about a heart attitude towards HaShem (The Name) not because of circumcision or any works they might do. They knew they were Saved by faith and G-d’s grace towards them. Yes, today they believe differently. Today orthodox Jews DO believe that they are Saved by works. When did this change happen in the Jewish people? I believe it happened here in Acts 15.
There was a new doctrine being taught in the first century, a doctrine that taught that you cold be Saved by keeping all of G-d’s commandments. This was a doctrine that came to envelope the Jewish people as a whole and used Rabbinical Judaism as it’s medium.
This passage isn’t about Gentiles. I think Gentiles when they read it just automatically think it’s about them. That’s how they approach most Scripture and when Messianics try to put the focus back on the Jewish people we’re accused by them of being elitists or building walls. No, I think this passage is our clue that this is when legalism was first introduced to Paul.
They were saying very clearly here that being saved wasn’t about faith, it was about works, in this case about being circumcised. Paul didn’t argue with them about it “greatly” because he was defending Gentiles. It concerned him so much because he could see how this new doctrine he had just heard could destroy HIS people! Gentile Believers think Paul was “their guy” because he went to the Gentiles nations. They teach that Paul’s greatest passion was to go to the Gentiles and preach to them the Good News. It as if the Gentiles were the most important thing on his mind. No wonder the Gentiles think Paul is “their guy”. But this isn’t true either. There was only one issue that Paul cared so much about that he was willing to lose his soul for and no it wasn’t for the lost as we’ve been taught. The lost are EVERYBODY Jew and Gentile. Paul was very specific whom he was willing to lose his soul for…
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh (Romans 9:1-3).
His Countrymen were not the Gentiles! His countrymen were the Jews. Brethren CANNOT mean unsaved Gentiles (the lost). In order for his “brethren” to be Gentiles, they would’ve had to be Saved in order for him to call them brothers. His brethren were not unsaved Gentiles. His brethren he makes clear here are the unsaved Jews according to the flesh… not according to his faith.
Why do I relate this? Because we have to get inside the mind of Paul to understand what happened in Acts 15. Paul was hearing for the first time a doctrine that taught that his people could be Saved by works. He knew that this could be the destruction of his people. That is why he didn’t just debate with them about it, he had GREAT debate with them about it. It disturbed him to his very foundations so much so that he later stated his view on those who did not believe that it was about faith, he said:
(Heb 10:38) Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.
This new doctrine he’d just heard made him so upset that he detested those who believed it and he then RUSHED to the apostles and elders about it. This wasn’t just some doctrinal point that had come up, this was a doctrine that would destroy his own people, the people he was willing to perish for. Not the Gentiles! He wasn’t willing to perish for them. And this is why we see Paul over and over again talking about faith and works.
THIS was the doctrine that he foresaw killing Judaism and you know what? It did.
Today, Jews believe that they are Saved by works. Millions of Jews today believe that and they’ve believed it for over 1500 years now. Think of all the Jews who have perished because of this one doctrine. How many Jews dies thinking that they were going to heaven because they kept Rabbinical Law. Millions of Paul’s precious Jewish people have perished because of this doctrine he first heard in Acts 15.
My heart is torn as I think about when he heard these words from this small group of Jews teaching that it was about works, I can’t help but wonder how he felt at that very moment when he heard these words from them. As it swept through his mind and he realized either naturally or from G-d what the effects of this horrible teaching of death would do. All he could do was run to those who were closest to Yeshua and ask them what to do.
By Rabbi Stanley