D3.1 A mixed multitude
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.
Crises such as the one mentioned above do not happen either in a vacuum or overnight, there is usually some history to them. What the actual background was that led up to this point we are not informed.
When Israel left Egypt there was a mixed multitude that caused problems along the way. (Ex. 12:38 ; Num. 11: 4-10). Jesus Himself said that in the church we are to expect tares amongst the wheat (Mtt. 13:24-29; 37-43). So we would not be wrong in saying that there were tares from the very earliest days of the church age.
So the question we face is: what were the apostles’ reaction to all this? The first thing to state emphatically is that not once did any of the apostles preach that circumcision was necessary for salvation. If you read the early chapters of Acts it will be noticed that none of the apostles or evangelists commanded circumcision or the keeping any of the Mosaic Law. The only commands were repentance and baptism in water. We know that at the conference of Acts 15 they spoken with one voice against these Judaisers – but that point was not arrived at without some difficulty.
We read in Gal.2 that Paul communicates with the apostles the gospel he preached to the Gentiles, and they seemed satisfied with his account; we read that they saw what grace that was in him and Barnabas, and they extended the right hand of fellowship to them Gal.2:9. But what we read of in Gal. 2 is mainly to do with Peter’s behaviour, and this is because he went astray and was leading others astray too. We learn that when Paul rebuked Peter he said that he was forcing the Gentiles to live as Jews Gal.2:14, whilst he did not preach that this was necessary for salvation, he was making it a condition of fellowship. In doing so he was making the gospel message he preached, null and void. So it’s Peter’s actions we need to consider.
To do this we need to go back to the early chapters of Acts. Most of the events in the early chapters of Acts are to do with the Jews, and so circumcision would not have not been an issue, so we will look at a very significant event regarding the Gentiles and that is the story of Cornelius. This involves Peter and it will link up with Gal.2.
We are now in Acts Chs. 10-11, and this is centred very much on on Peter, the apostle to the Jews, on this occasion he is used by the Lord to open the doors to the Gentiles.
The facts are straightforward enough: Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and a God-fearer, has a vision from God to send for Peter. Peter himself has a vision from God, and in it He commands Peter to eat, what the Mosaic law called, unclean food. Peter refused saying, that he’d never eaten anything unclean. But God said that what He had cleansed Peter was not to call unclean. And the significance of this is seen when Peter arrives at Cornelius’s household.
And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshiped him. But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man. And as he talked with him, he went in, and found many that were come together. And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore came I unto you without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for: I ask therefore for what intent ye have sent for me?
Peter could now eat the once unclean animals, for all such distinctions had been done away with. This was also applied to keeping company with Gentiles. God had shown Peter that the Gentiles were no longer to be seen as unclean, no longer were they to regarded as outsiders. But rather, that the Gentiles were to be brought in and be made partakers of this salvation. The vision was given to Peter three times (Acts 10:16) and this is a basic principle with God in establishing a matter. For example.
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
When preaching to Cornelius the Holy Spirit fell on the household just as He did on the day of Pentecost. (Acts 11:15). They were then baptised in water, and Peter remained there a few days, presumably to give further teaching and encouragement to these converts. On his return the Jews criticised Peter for going to the Gentiles, those who were not circumcised, but after they heard his report they ‘held their peace’ and glorified God. We assume that they were satisfied with his explanation and had come to the same conclusion as he had.
In all this Peter DID NOT mention circumcision, nor any part of the Mosaic Law, once. He did not lay any requirements on these Gentiles either. The only command he gave, was for them to be baptised in water. (Acts 10:48). What is more, the Jews to whom Peter reported did not mention, require or ask about circumcision.
This was a major and significant event in the history of the Church: the bringing in of the Gentiles into the kingdom of God. If Circumcision, or keeping any part of the Mosaic Law, was a requirement then surely this is the place we should expect to see it! The absence of any such command here, or anywhere in the first fourteen chapters of Acts, of circumcision can leave us in no doubt that this practice, or any other Mosaic requirement is not necessary for salvation, nor living the Christian life.
So to summarise:
1. Peter was given revelation that the Gentiles were no longer ‘unclean’.
2. The OT law of clean /unclean was now void, and by implication the whole of the OT Law.
3. Not once did any of the apostles insist on the Gentiles being circumcised.
D3.3 Unravelling events
So what of Gal. 2? By considering the timescale of the first two chapters we see that the events of Gal. 2 precede those of Acts. 15. So let’s try to piece the events together into some sort of chronological order.
Paul’s conversion is recorded in Acts.9:1-22 and spends some days with the disciples and preached Christ in the synagogues. He spent time then in Arabia (not the modern one) before returning to Damascus. Gal.1:17. Shortly after Paul is forced to flee Damascus in a basket. Acts.9:23-25; II Cor. 11:32-33. Some three years after his conversion, Paul visits Jerusalem Acts 9:23-28; Gal.1:18-20. Trouble flares up and Paul is evacuated to his home town. Acts 9: 29-30; Gal.1:21.
The next we hear of Paul is after the events of Peter going to Cornelius in Acts 10 – 11. We read that Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Paul and brings him back to Antioch Acts.11:25-26. We then read that Agabus prophesied of a famine in Jerusalem and relief was sent by the hand and Barnabas and Paul. Acts 11:27-30. We read in Gal.2:1 that this was fourteen years after, we presume, Paul’s conversion.
On entering Jerusalem Paul shares the gospel with those of ‘reputation’ that is the apostles. Gal.2:2-10 where the was given the right hand of fellowship , they then returned to Antioch Acts.12:25 from which they were sent by on the first journey.
It is at Antioch that Paul finds it necessary to openly rebuke Peter, whether this was before the first journey or just at the end it is difficult to determine, however it was certainly before the conference in Acts 15 because at that conference Peter spoke up and said that they should not burden the Gentiles with the yoke that the Jews themselves couldn’t bare Acts 15:7-11. So by then Peter had this issue settled in his heart.
So why did Paul find it necessary to rebuke Peter? We shall consider this in the next study.