The Jerusalem Council

A Global Association of Orthodox Jewish Believers in Messiah Yeshua

Understanding Acts 15:23-29 (The Four Prohibitions)

Much of Acts 15, like much of the Acronim Ketuvim, is best understood in context. It is not a maximum list of prohibitions for believers from the nations, but rather is a minimum list with which converts to Judaism need to start with in order to participate in any Jewish community.

The reasoning of Acts 15:21 is given right before the list, when it states:

“For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

That “for” is explaining the reasoning behind only the four prohibitions. In short – and I will go into detail in this later – it was expected that formerly pagan converts needed to do something with which to be able to participate in the community of Israel. This minimum list was all that was needed to be placed upon the new believers from the nations at the start of their “turning” to the Messiah, “for” or “because” it was expected that once they were in the door, they would hear “Moses …preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” In other words, it was expected that no further burden was necessary to be placed upon newly believing converts from the nations in order to begin integrating them into Jewish community. This was the answer to the charge that the believers from the nations needed to be “circumcised” ie go through the ritual of Jewish conversion before participating in “Moses.”

In short conclusion, the believers from the nations were expected to learn and do “Moses” because they were to be recognized, at least in Messianic communities, as fully co-equal participants and citizens of Israel and the Torah, with no initial entry cost or behavioral burden other than four immediate requirements which were all a direct response to their former life as idol-worshiping pagans and the practices associated with a pagan lifestyle. All four prohibitions are solidly rooted in clear Torah commandments, and engaging in such activities is contrary to Jewish community participation requirements. The expectation was that the converts would learn “Moses,” implying that there was a lot more to be done by a new believer from the nations than just these four prohibitions (After all, “love G-d” and “don’t murder” aren’t listed as one of the four, but certainly everyone agrees that at least new believers are expected to observe such). By going to the synagogues to learn “Moses,” the new believer was free to integrate more into the community and engage in a change of lifestyle – just as many do to this very day. After all, one doesn’t become 100% Torah observant overnight – especially if it’s something totally foreign to them.

G-d shows us mercy as we are “being transformed into (Messiah’s) likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). An oak tree does not sprout overnight. Neither can we expect those foreign to a Torah lifestyle to immediately pick up what many (including ourselves) have taken years to learn and apply to our lives. The Jerusalem Council recognized this, and this is what seemed agreeable also to the Spirit of G-d, who extended them the same mercy when the new believers from the nations were given the Spirit of G-d by the evidence of the Spirit upon them. This proof was recalled in the deliberations in Acts 15, along with scriptural texts proving that this was not an unknown concept to the scriptures.

Below is a paper written that examines the matter for fully:

INTRODUCTION

One of the largest riffs between Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians is the nearly 2,000 year old argument about the Torah and its relationship to believers in Yeshua of Nazareth. The central matter is “What exactly did the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 really decide regarding the Torah?” The key scriptures to be investigated are Acts 15:19-21. This paper is akin to an archaeological dig, set in Jerusalem, where a great artifact has been discovered. The desire of the archaeologists is to preserve what has been left behind, protect the integrity of the find for future learners, and interpret the meaning by examining the object and its surroundings. Through analysis of the historical and literary context, translation, and exposition through observation and interpretation, this paper will deliver an application for believers concerning the Torah’s true place in the lives of those who belong to Messiah.

CONTEXT OF THE PASSAGE

Literary Context

It has been established from patristic tradition that the author of Acts is Luke. The date of this scripture varies from the early 60s, perhaps earlier, but certainly before 70 C.E. Acts is Luke’s sequel to The Gospel of Luke and both documents are addressed to a Theophilus. Luke’s preference for sequence and order remains true throughout Acts. While the first section of Acts is focused on Peter, Luke turns his attention in 12:25-16:5 to Paul and his encounters with various Gentiles which contains the base section for this paper.

The book of Acts is unique in that it introduces over four hundred words that are not found anywhere else in the New Testament. Furthermore, sixty of these words only appear in Luke’s Gospel, which also introduces 250 words not found anywhere else in the New Testament (Elwell and Yarbrough, p. 212). Suppose, in the archeology analogy, a worker discovers an oil lamp that is completely different from any other previously found. It can be easily dated but its shape and style give no clue as to what class of person may have used it, whether it was commissioned as a gift or mass produced; even the interpretation that it was truly an oil lamp should be investigated because it could be a work of art. This is the dilemma of many of the passages in the New Testament and Luke’s uncommon vocabulary suggests that scholars should take a closer look into his writings.

Historical Context

The entire book of Acts tells of the spread of the Gospel to far places. This means that the same salvation that had come to the Jews had also come to the Gentiles. The areas the Good News spread were not the “melting pot” of cultures that America enjoys today. Distinct lines between Jew and Gentile had been drawn.

Different kinds of opposition to the Gospel (and to Paul) are themes in Acts. While Paul was preaching that salvation was a free gift of G-d not to be earned, many Jews rejected Yeshua and His ultimate sin-sacrifice. Many theologians and pastors teach that because of this, Paul became an apostle to the Gentiles because of this rejection of Yeshua. However, the book of Acts and Paul’s own letters indicate that Paul was commissioned as an apostle to the Gentiles and that he continually attended synagogue services every Shabbat (Sabbath) where he offered the Gospel of Messiah Yeshua faithfully to the Jews (Cornu and Shulam, p. xxxv).

As Luke was writing Acts, Jewish believers in Messiah were still worshiping and fellowshipping among non-believing Jews both in the Temple and in synagogues throughout Israel and abroad. In fact, Jews and Gentiles who believed in Yeshua were called Nazarene Jews–“Christianity” was actually considered a sect of Judaism (Lancaster, p. 14). However, the Gospel was sent out from Jerusalem at a time when the Jewish people were already on guard from assimilation into pagan cultures due to the Hellenization of the area.

Bible scholar and teacher Daniel Lancaster identifies three classes of people Paul generally spoke to within the synagogues: Jews, proselytes, and G-d-fearing Gentiles (Lancaster, p. 17-18). As the message of the Gospel spread, the number of G-d-fearing Gentiles increased and they began flocking to the synagogues to learn more. Lancaster notes that to Evangelical Christians, having a crowded, mixed audience would be a G-d-send; but to the non-believing Jews, the potential of a Gentile majority in the synagogues was considered a threat to Jewish identity. What was this threat exactly? Lancaster summarizes, “They were jealous that the message of the Gospel was compromising the particularity of their theology. The message of the Gospel was throwing the doors of Judaism wide open to the Gentile world” (Ibid., p. 19).

As a final note towards the historical context of Acts 15:19-21, the information above corresponds to the stated reason the council convened in acts 15:1-2, “Some men came down from Judea and {began} teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, {the brethren} determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.”

STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS AND TRANSLATION

The point of the passage in Acts 15:19-21 is to establish a halakhah (a Hebrew term meaning “a way of walking” or rule of faith) regarding the inclusion of the Gentiles. Luke is careful to record all of the arguments–should Gentiles turning to G-d be circumcised (a ritual of conversion) and accept the yoke of Torah upon themselves in order to establish salvation? Note that the context demands verses 19-21 be interpreted as to what, specifically, Gentiles should do upon being saved in order to be accepted into a Jewish community that has placed its faith in Yeshua the Messiah.

The key words in this passage are epistrephousin “turning,” Moses gar “for Moses,” and anaginoskomenos “being read.” epistrephousin is in the Present Active Participle Masculine Plural Dative form. It means “to turn about,” or “to turn around,” and “to revert.” What is significant to this passage is its Present Tense, Active, Participle form. The Present Tense used here is descriptive of an action currently happening. Another feature of this verb is its Participle form. It appears as an Attributive Participle modifying the pronoun tois, “those.” An acceptable translation of this verse could be, “Wherefore I judge not to trouble those while they are turning from the Gentiles back to G-d.” This passage therefore should not be read as “those who have already turned back to G-d.”

The “For Moses” phrase in verse 21 is a conjunction that connects the four prohibitions in verse 20. It provides the reason, explanation, and justification for these prohibitions.

Finally the word anaginoskomenos in the Present Passive Participle Masculine Singular Nominative form is translated “being read” which modifies the noun “Moses” and speaks specifically of the Torah. This is significant here. Daniel Lancaster states that the word is typically used to signify public readings of the Torah in synagogue on the Sabbath (Lancaster, p. 815).

OBSERVATION AND INTERPRETAION

As a response to the men coming from Judea claiming that salvation comes from being circumcised (verse 1), the Apostles and elders, in light of what G-d was doing with the Gentiles according to Paul and Barnabas (verse 12), decided to stop troubling the Gentiles with the yoke of Torah which has nothing to do with salvation. In contrast, the Jerusalem Council decided to write to these G-d-fearing Gentiles and prohibit four things: idols, fornication, things strangled, and blood. Why these four prohibitions? Dr. David Stern comments, “The requirements…were primarily practical social requirements for fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers. A Gentile who did not immediately observe all four prohibitions would so offend his Jewish brothers in the faith that a spirit of community would never be able to develop (Stern, p. 278).” These changes in the Gentiles’ behavior were necessary in order to gain acceptance into the Jewish congregations so that they could, eventually, learn the Torah and live it out.

The four prohibitions were not to become the only Torah standards by which all Christians everywhere would be bound for all time. This is evident in the conjunction “For Moses” of verse 21. Since the context of this verse pertains to the public readings of the Torah in the synagogues on every Sabbath, the Jerusalem Council thought it good to immediately bind the Gentiles “turning” to G-d with the understanding that they would be attending synagogues with the Jews on Shabbat. Why would the Council want this? The answer is obvious–so that the G-d-fearing Gentiles, now grafted in to Israel, could learn the Torah, do the Torah, and live righteously as empowered by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is apparent in Paul’s writing in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All scripture [is] given by inspiration of G-d, and [is] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of G-d may be perfect, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

APPLICATION/CONCLUSION

Tim Hegg, M.Div., Th.M., gives a parallel summary, “The vision of the prophets is that the nations would come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), the mo’ed (appointed time) that consummates the festival cycle (Zechariah 14:16ff). They would worship the G-d of Israel, sitting together in the sukkah (booth or tabernacle). This is not some perfunctory duty, for the nations have come to seek Israel’s covenant G-d, grasping the hem of a Jewish person as an entreaty to learn of Israel’s G-d and enter the covenant. The point of this prophecy is that the Gentiles should ‘go with’ the Jew to learn and to worship, not find their own separate worship and identity” (Hegg, p. 63).

There are not two Torahs–one for the Jew and one for the Gentile. There are not two ways of salvation. Only under one name is a person saved–Yeshua our Messiah. Since He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, His ways nor His halakhah change. The beloved apostle says in 1 John 2:5-6, “By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” The Word of G-d became flesh and walked among us as a Rabbi and a Torah-keeping Jew. He ascended into heaven as a Torah-keeping Jew and He will return to earth as a Torah-keeping Jew (May it be speedily, in our day!). The picture of the Messianic reign in Zechariah, among other prophets, implies that Jews and Gentile alike will be in Israel living as “one new man” who make up all of Israel and are entitled to all of the blessings and wealth of the land but who are also subject to the King’s rules–the Torah.

During the last two thousand years, the Christian church has looked at scripture with ignorance and often times through anti-Semitic lenses. Christians have missed the point of Acts 15:19-21. These verses come to teach all who want to draw close to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that salvation is wrought through faith in Yeshua alone and further instruction comes by associating with believing Jews who can continue to instruct them, as Paul, James, Peter, John, and others did, in the ways of righteousness–the royal Torah of G-d. Modern Christians ought to delicately but purposefully clear away the rubble and debris of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ethnocentrism, and Replacement Theology from artifacts like Acts 15 and other passages like them who seem to abrogate or destroy the Torah, and seek to understand and interpret these “scriptural finds” within their proper setting–Judaism.

Believers should also consider our Master’s warning in Matthew 5:17-19, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Torah until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others {to do} the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches {them,} he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” With these words in mind how could Christians ever accuse Paul, Peter, or the Jerusalem Council of doing away with the Torah? For by Yeshua’s own mouth they would be condemned to being the least in the kingdom of heaven–a position for which not one of the twelve disciples or Paul would jockey. Why should modern day disciples settle for less? It is time the Christian church mature past the days of Acts 15 and seek to establish bonds with the Jewish people with a sincere heart to learn from them and to petition G-d as did king David in Psalm 119:18, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your Torah.”

WORKS CITED
Brook, James A., and Carlton L. Winbery. Syntax of New Testament Greek. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1979.
Cornu, Hilary Le and Joseph Shulam. A Commentary on The Jewish Roots of Acts. Jerusalem: Academon, 2003.
Elwell, Walter, A. and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
Hegg, Tim. It Is Often Said. Littleton, CO: First Fruits of Zion, 2006.
Lancaster, D. Thomas. The Mystery of the Gospel. Littleton, CO: First Fruits of Zion, 2003.
——. Thomas. Restoration. Littleton, CO: First Fruits of Zion, 2005.
Lancaster, Daniel. Torah Club Volume Two: Shadows of the Messiah. Littleton, CO: First Fruits of Zion, 2005.
Martin, Ralph P. New Testament Foundations Volume 2. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1994.
Stern, David H. Jewish New Testament Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992.

Tags: , , , , , , ,