A Story of Circumcision
In the beginning, the Church was only Jews. Jesus did come for the lost sheep of Israel after all. These Christian Jews accepted him as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. When the first Gentiles (a word that means non-Jews) accepted Him as the Christ, too, the Church was surprised God had extended salvation to people outside Israel: Romans, Greeks, Scythians—all tribes with foreign customs and cultures. Romans, for example, practiced homosexual sex in their armies.
Now for a Jew, what was normal and everyday was the Law of Moses. This included the Ten Commandments but also so much more. And as Gentiles joined, they didn’t assimilate to (adopt) all the different Jewish customs. One custom in particular was circumcision, that is, cutting off a guy’s foreskin.
In Acts 15, there’s a story about a church in a town named Antioch in the region of Syria. Some teachers had come from the Jewish homeland and were teaching that before salvation could even work, each man, including the Gentile ones, had to be circumcised. This made no difference to the Jews in the church, since all boys were circumcised at 8 days old, like the Law of Moses required (Leviticus 12:3). The custom of circumcision even predated the Law. In Genesis 17:10-14, God commanded Abraham and all the males in his family, from babies 8 days old to elderly men, to be circumcised (Gen 17:10-14) as a “sign of the covenant (agreement)” between them and God. A warning is even given: “Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.”
But two Jewish apostles who were also visiting Antioch, Paul and Barnabas, objected to the circumcision requirement for Gentile believers. They probably saw how big an obstacle circumcision would be for Gentiles in accepting the Gospel. Imagine for a moment, a modern young man asking to be saved. He prays the sinner’s prayer in his youth group, and as soon as he’s done, the pastor whips out a scalpel! Would that young man easily subject his member to become a member? The young man would rush out the door for sure. Now imagine ancient Gentiles who were considering conversion. There were in fact many, many Gentile groups that did not practice circumcision at all. Some even thought of it as barbaric. Remember this is an age without painkillers or germ-free surgical tools.
The Jerusalem Decision
To get to a solution, the Syrian church sent Paul, Barnabas, and some of their own members down to Jerusalem to ask the Church leadership. They debated even more in Jerusalem, and some former Pharisees even went so far as to demand Gentiles be required to follow the entire Law of Moses, including things like kosher eating. But the final decision of the church was announced by James, the brother of Jesus, in verses 19-21:
“And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write and tell them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood. For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations.”
Here then we find out that only these four customs of the Law of Moses are required for Gentiles to keep. Circumcision is not one of them. But notice that these four requirements still need to be kept “for these laws of Moses have been preached […] for many generations.”
- Exodus 34:12-17 shows that eating food sacrificed to an idol is participation in worship of that idol, which is idolatry. This kind of meat was widely sold in Roman markets.
- Leviticus 17:13 gives the commandment to drain blood from animals you wanted to eat. Animals that died by strangulation would still contain blood within. This type of animal slaughter was common for Gentiles and still is.
- Leviticus 3:17 and 17:10-14 give the commandment to not eat or drink blood. Deuteronomy 12:23 explains why: “for the blood is life itself–you must not eat the life with the meat.” Many cultures ate (and still do eat) blood products.
But what about that other requirement for Gentiles, the one about “sexual immorality”? How would the Church at the time have understood what that even meant? Is it just the capital C Commandment to not commit adultery? It’s hard enough for us in the modern age to understand. Again, “for the Law of Moses has been preached […] for generations.” So the answer must be in the Law of Moses.