Here is an exegesis that I would like to share with you guys. I wrote it a couple of months ago with the help of other brethren. Comments are welcome.
To begin with I would like to point out something very important that I think we can all agree on. The doctrine of Yeshua and the apostles was/is always based on Moses and the Prophets (Old Testament). Every word they preached was in accord with Moses and the Prophets. In fact, they could've not preached anything contrary to Moses and the Prophets, or else they would be simply false prophets, including Yeshua. But I think we can agree that every message they preached, every doctrine they taught, every word they spoke was in accord with what our holy father YHWH had already revealed through Moses and the Prophets. This truth is evidently clear in the NT writings. Here are some examples of what I'm saying,
Luk 24:27 And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures (Old Testament) the things concerning himself.
Act 17:2 And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures (Old Testament),
Act 26:22 ....I stand until this day, witnessing both to small and to great, saying nothing else than what the prophets and Moses also said was going to happen:
Act 24:14 ....I worship the ancestral God believing all things according to that having been written in the Law and the Prophets,
2Ti 3:16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
Having said that, knowing that the doctrine of Yeshua and the apostles was/is based on Moses and the Prophets (Old Testament), we can safley conclude that if we understand something in the NT in such a way that it contradicts the OT, then we must be misunderstanding it, for neither Yeshua nor the apostles would ever preach something contrary to the Word of God. Unfortunetely, there are many who ignore this truth and understand many NT passages (Acts 15 for example) in such a way as to believe (and teach) that the Torah has been abolished (or nailed to the cross, or fullfilled), and thus, is not to be obsverved by the faithful people of God anymore. But is this teaching true? Is this teaching in accord with Moses and the Prophets? Does the OT say that one day the Torah will no longer be applicable? Let us be like noble Bereans and search the OT to see if this teaching is true or false (Acts 17:11).
Deu 5:29 ....that they would fear me, keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!
Deu 12:28 Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee for ever,
Deu 29:29 ....those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.
Psa 119:152 Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever.
Psa 119:160 Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever.
These are just a couple of passages (out of many) of the OT which specify that the Torah will not be abolished but will be for all generations, for ever, a doctrine that even our Master Yeshua clearly upheld,
Mat 5:18-19 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
But despite the words of Moses, the Prophets, and of Yeshua Himself, mainstream christianity (Catholic and Protestant) teaches that the Torah is no longer applicable today, a concept that goes directly against what God has revealed through Moses and the Prophets.
So what of Acts 15? Doesn't this passage teaches us that the Torah is no longer binding anymore? Didn't Peter obliterated circumcision? Isn't the Torah considered a "yoke" that no one is able "to bear"?
Before I begin commenting on the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, I would like to remind eveyone who is reading this the importance of context. When I say context, I'm not only reffering to the grammatical immediate context, but the cultural, historical and religious context as well. Since the events of Acts 15 took place in the first century, it is of great importance to have some knowledge of 1st century judaism. If we are ignorant of the practices and customs of 1st century judaism, we will most likely err in our interpretation of Acts 15.
I have done a great deal of study in order to better understand the events of Acts 15. When I first came to realize that Torah-observance was a blessing that our father YHWH wanted for us, Acts 15 was one of the most difficult passages to understand. I mean, how can the apostle Peter "obliterate" circumcision when it's stated in scripture that circumcision is an "eternal covenant"? How can Peter state that the Torah is a "yoke we cannot bare" when scripture says it's a blessing and a light to our paths? But once I began studying the cultural and religious context in which Acts 15 was written, I now have a better picture and understanding of the reason why the Jerusalem Council took place and of the solution of the problem. And now I can clearly see that the apostle Peter did not contradict scripture.
So let's begin,
Act 15:1-2 And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small 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.
The first thing I want to point out is that the phrase "this question" tell us that there is only ONE question being disputed here, and the question is clearly stated in vs 1, and that is circumcision "in order to be saved", not circumcision itself.
Let me give you a little background. As you may already know, the technical term for a pagan gentile, who turned away from his idols in order to serve the true and living God, was "proselyte". However, not every gentile who served the God of Israel was considered a proselyte. Only those who had undergone the conversion process were considered proselytes, while all others were considered simply as "God-fearers", like Cornelius. It's important to understand that eventhough a gentile was a "God-fearer" (like Cornelius), they were still considered "unclean" as all other gentiles were (except proselytes, ofcourse), simply because they had not undergone the conversion process, and thus, were not considered part of the covenant people.
So what we see in Acts 15:1-2 is a disputation concerning circumcision "in order to be saved" (i.e. in order to be part of the commonwealth of Israel). In other words, circumcision is not the issue here; conversion is. Many gentiles believed in the Messiah and began to follow the God of Israel, but because they were not circumcised, many jewish believers did not considered them as part of the commonwealth of Israel until they were circumcised. But as the text tells us, Paul and Barnabas disagreed. I believe the best way to demonstrate to you that conversion is the issue and not circumcision, is to demonstrate to you that even the Pharisees who lived during the time of the apostles who were not believers of Yeshua were also debating this very same issue!!! (believe it or not). No one would ever argue that the Pharisees were debating if circumcision itself was still applicable, yet, they were having the same debate between them. This debate is recorded in the Talmud.
In the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Yebamoth Folio 46a, it is written,
Our Rabbis taught: 'If a proselyte was circumcised but had not performed the prescribed ritual ablution (baptism), R. Eliezer said, 'Behold he is a proper proselyte; for so we find that our forefathers were circumcised and had not performed ritual ablution'. If he performed the prescribed ablution but had not been circumcised, R. Joshua said, 'Behold he is a proper proselyte; for so we find that the mothers had performed ritual ablution but had not been circumcised'. The Sages, however, said, 'Whether he had performed ritual ablution but had not been circumcised or whether he had been circumcised but had not performed the prescribed ritual ablution, he is not a proper proselyte, unless he has been circumcised and has also performed the prescribed ritual ablution.
Notice how one rabbi actually said that circumcision was not necesary for a gentile to be considered a "proper proselyte". But what is more important to notice is the conclusion of the Sages. They concluded that circumcision and baptism were both necesary for a gentile to be considered a proper convert. This gives us a whole lot of context regarding the events of Acts 15, because in previous chapters of Acts we see that gentile converts were being baptized almost immedietely after believing and were considered "brethren" eventhough they had not yet been circumcised. But this went against the tradition of the Pharisees, which is why the "men which came down from Judea" wanted to circumcise the gentile converts, because, holding to their man-made tradition, did not consider these gentile converts as part of the commonwealth of Israel until they were circumcised. This is the context of Acts 15. As a modern example, today many christians debate wether or not baptism is required "in order to be saved." That I know of, no christian believes that baptism itself is not applicable anymore. It's easy for us to understand that when christians debate baptism, they are debating the "intent" of Baptism, not baptism itself. Well this is the same thing thats going on in Acts 15. Circumcision itself was not the issue here, for it is a commandment from God himself, and according to God Himself, an "eternal covenant", and according to Paul, is the "seal of the righteousness of the faith". The issue is "conversion". Can a gentile be considered as part of the covenant people prior to circumcision? Or does he have to be circumcise "in order to be considered of the commonwealth of Israel" (i.e. saved)?
Act 15:3-4 And being brought on their way by the church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.
Above we simply read that many gentiles were converting, which "caused great joy". Praise YHWH for that.
Act 15:5-6 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.
This is the key verse that is always misunderstood for lack of knowledge regarding 1st century judaism. Many christians will read this and assume that Torah-observance was what the Pharisees wanted for gentiles, but this is not so, as I will explain.
The first thing that we have to noticed is that the writer of Acts specificly mentions that it was men "of the sect of the Pharisees" who were making the request for gentiles to observe "the law of Moses". From a christian viewpoint it's irrelevant who was making the request. After all, wether they were Pharisees or Sadducees or whatever, the point is that these men wanted gentiles to observe "the law of Moses". However, from a 1st century hebraic mindset, knowing that is was "Pharisees" who wanted gentiles to observe "the law of Moses" makes a huge difference. Most christians don't know this, but what the Pharisees considered "the law of Moses" was not the same "law" that we know today as Torah. I will use the writings of the 1st centruy jewish historian "Josephus" to further explain.
In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes,
It was this Jonathan who chiefly irritated him, and influenced him so far, that he made him leave the party of the Pharisees, and abolish the decrees they had imposed on the people, and to punish those that observed them... What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them...
The schism between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was very similar to the schism that exist today between Catholicism and Protestantism. Catholics hold as authorative the written Word and church traditon as well, while Protestants hold to the bible only and dismiss tradition. This was the case with the Pharisees and Sadducees as well. The Pharisees, besides observing the commandments of the written Torah, also observed the "tradition of the forefathers", also known as the "Oral Torah". On the other hand, the Sadducees held to the written Torah only. To a Pharisee, the "Torah" came not only in written form but in oral form as well. In other words, a proselyte did not have the choice as to wether or not observe the Oral Torah, because the Oral Torah was as authorative as the Written Torah. I'll once again use the Talmud to show you that what I'm saying is true.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbath, folio 31a, it is written:
Our Rabbis taught: A certain Gentile once came before Shammai and asked him, "How many Toroth (plural for Torah) do you have?" He said to him, "Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah." "I believe you with respect to the Written, but not with respect to the Oral Torah. Make me a proselyte on the condition that you teach me the Written Torah only." But he scolded and repulsed him in anger. When he went before Hillel, he accepted him as a proselyte. On the first day, he taught him, "Aleph, beth, gimmel, daleth." The following day he reversed them to him. "But yesterday you did not teach them to me thus," he protested. "Must you then not rely upon me? Then rely upon me with respect to the Oral Torah too."
Above we read how a Gentile comes up to one of the well-renowned Pharisees, Shammai, and asks him how many Toroth Shammai has. Shammai responds by saying that the Pharisees possess two Toroth: the written Torah and the oral Torah. The Gentile in response says that he believes Shammai in regards to the written Torah but not the oral Torah. The fact that the Gentile expresses such belief in regards to the oral Torah enables us to see how controversial the oral Torah was from the perspective of a 1st century Gentile. In a sense, the Gentile had no difficulty obeying the written Torah, but he was definitely unwilling to be burdened by the oral Torah. Hillel, another renowned Pharisee, also confirms this sentiment by explaining that the oral Torah must be relied on just as much as the written Torah. Both of these Pharisees lived before and during the time Yeshua lived.
In the gospel of Matthew, Yeshua remarks on the oral Toral (traditions of the forefathers) and calls these commandments "commandments of men".
Mat 15:1-3 Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders (Oral Torah)? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God (written Torah) by your tradition (Oral Torah)?
Mat 15:7-9 Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men (Oral Torah).
Noticed the contrast that Yeshua makes between "the comamndments of God" (witten Torah) and the "traditions of the elders" (Oral Torah).
My point is to show you how the Pharisees considered "the law of Moses". The author of Acts specificly says it was men "of the sect of the Pharisees" for a reason. From the viewpoint of a christian who has little/no understanding of the Judaism of 1st century it makes no difference, but from a 1st century hebraic mindset it makes all the difference. As a modern example, if I were to say "My friend is confesing his sins", one would probably think that he is in his room praying to God and asking Him for forgiveness. But if I say "My Catholic friend is confesing his sins" then one would understand that he is probably at church confessing his sins to a priest. Context is always of HUGE imporantant. In short, the request of the Pharisees was for a gentile convert to hold and obey not only the written Torah but the traditions of the Oral Torah as well, a doctrine which included being baptized and circumcised "in order to be saved", a doctrine that the apostles were opposed, as we will see.
Act 15:7-9 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
Noticed how Peter says that the gentile's heart was purified "by faith". The context has not changed, the issue is circumcision and obedience to "the law of Moses" from a pharisaic standard "in order to be saved". Thats the reason Peter says "purifying their hearts by faith", to demonstrate to the other brethren that gentiles were being "purified" prior to circumcision, not after.
Act 15:10-11 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
This is another verse that is always misunderstood. Many believe that the "yoke" spoken of by Peter is the Torah, but this is easily refutable. Noticed that Peter says neither them nor their fathers have been able to bear this yoke, yet, we know from scripture that people have been, in fact, able "to bare" the Torah. There are many examples of people "bearing" the Torah, but this time I will use the New Testament itself to prove this.
Luk 1:5-6 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
The above verse should be sufficient to disprove that the yoke that no one has been able "to bear" spoken of by Peter is the Torah, since we clearly see that the parents of John the Baptist obeyed the Torah "blamelessly". Therefore, we know for sure that Peter did not refer to the Torah as the "unbearable" yoke, or else he'd be straight out contradicting scripture. So what then is this "unbearble" yoke spoken of by Peter? Well the context, as I have explained, is that the Pharisees wanted gentiles converts to observe "the law of Moses" according to pharisaic standards, which included not only the written Torah, but the Oral Torah as well, which were nothing more than "commandments of men". So this must be the "unbearable" yoke. But is this supported by scripture? Is there any other place in scripture where the added commandments of the Pharisees are called "unbearable"? Luckily for us, yes, there is. Yeshua Himself tells us that these "unbearable" commandments which were being placed "upon the neck of the disciples" are, in fact, the commandments of the Pharisees.
Mat 23:1-4 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
Above we read how Yeshua says that the Pharisees bound heavy burdens which were "grievous to be borne", and were being placed "on men's shoulders". This is obviously what Peter is refering to when he says not to place this yoke "upon the neck of the disciples" because no one has been able "to bear" it. On the other hand, God's Torah is "light and easy" and the commandments "are not grievous" (1Jn 5:3).
Act 15:12-17 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.
Here we have a perfect example of what I was saying at the beginning of this essay. Notice how James quotes from the Old Testament (the only scriptures they had back then) to back up his words. Like I said before, every teaching, every doctrine, and every message from Yeshua and the apostles is/should be backed up by the Old Testament.
Act 15:18-21 Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.
Here James gives four basic Torah prohibitions that every gentile believer was to immedietely obey. A close examination of these Torah prohibitions had to with idol worshipping. Back in those days, gentiles believers were coming into the faith of Israel from a very pagan world, and they were bringing with them many pagan practices that were very offensive to YHWH. "Pollutions of idols" obviously has to do with idol worshipping and anything related to it. "Fornication" most likely referrs to temple prostitution which was a common practice among the pagans, but as the Torah tells us, it also includes sex outside marriage, homosexuality, incest. To abstain from "things stangled and from blood" are commandments found in the Lev 17. We are not supposed to eat the blood of an animal, because the blood sustains the life of the flesh. This commandments is also found in Gen. 9:4; Lev. 3:17; 7:26-27; 19:26; Deu. 12:16, 23; 15:23. And we are not supposed to eat animals that have been strangled. This command has its basis in the commandment against eating blood. An animal that has been strangled (or has died naturally or been killed by wild beasts) has been deprived of life without the shedding of blood, and thus, it is unfit for comsumption.
It's important to recognize that James does not offer his judgment for establishing what Torah commandments Gentiles must obey in entirety. Ofcourse there are other Torah commandments that gentiles must also obey (i.e. not murdering, not stealing, loving our neighbors,etc). The reason James gives these four basic Torah commandments is stated in verse 21 "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day". It was expected from James and the rest of the elders that gentiles would begin to attend the synagogues to learn and obey more of God's holy commandments, and as we can see from scripture (James 2:2) and history, believers in Yeshua continued to attend the synagogoues. However, without immediate adoption of these four rules, the Jewish believers would be forced to not take meals or socialize with their Gentile brethren. These are essentially a "crash course" in adapting to their new life in the Messiah and among their Jewish brethren. By observing these four basic commandments, the Gentiles could associate with their Jewish brethren without the need for any rituals (which the sect of Pharisees desired), and they would be able to grow and hear Torah and obey more and more. This compassionate ruling eased the transition of Gentiles, making it easier for them to sojourn among the Jews and learn and grow.
Acts 15 does not teach us that the Torah is not applicable anymore, a doctrine that would go directly against Moses, the Prophets, and Yeshua. Acts 15 teaches that Gentiles could become part of the House of Israel without first becoming circumcised (like the sect of the Pharisees desired according to their man-made tradition). They had to follow some basic rules which would prove their sincerity and prepare them to congregate with the native-born Israelites in the synagogues where the Torah was preached every Shabbath.