Acts 15:21

These seems to be some question as to what Acts 15:21 means. But first we have to look at why the meeting was held with the apostles and elders of the church of Jerusalem.

Acts 15:1-5

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 hadgreat 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.Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to allthe brethren. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”

The sect of the Pharisees believed that Gentile believers had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Today, some say you have to follow the Law to be saved. Others say you dont need to follow the Law to be saved, but to STAY saved, you must follow the Law. When you look at the logic, there is very little difference between the two statements. IF one needs to follow the Law to be saved, obviously one needs to follow the Law to stay saved. IF one needs to follow the Law to stay saved, then it is a requirement to be saved as well. Others will say you need to follow the Law (or as much of it as you can follow) to please God. We will look at these statements later.

Peter made it clear that God made no distinction between those who had the Law (Jews) and those who did not have the Law (Gentiles) – that God had cleansed the hearts of both by faith, that they were both saved through faith. Peter was clear that the Jews should not try to put on the Gentiles that which the Jews could not handle.

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

Finally, James said, that the Gentile believers should abstain from things which were common to pagan religions: “things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.”

19 Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.21 For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

The question is what did James mean in verse 21, “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”?

Some people believe that James meant that the prohibitions were a starting point for the Gentile believers, and they were to attend synagogue for the reading of Moses’ teaching to learn the Law and follow it. But this makes no sense since James is clear that they should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God. It also was made clear that Jew and Gentiles were both cleansed by faith – apart from the Law.

This is made more clear in the letter the church sent out. They realized that some had disturbed them, unsettling their souls. They were all in agreement (including Paul and the Holy Spirit) to only burden the Gentile believers with ESSENTIALS – that is, nothing else was required.

24 “Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, 25 it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication;if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”

The four prohibitions were all associated with idolatry  (following other gods). As long as the Gentiles kept from doing those things, they were doing alright. But again, is that a starting point or is that all they need to worry about?

It can not be that the Gentile believers were to attend synagogue and learn and follow the Law, because:

1. The Gentiles who HAD a background with synagogue would have been following the teaching of Moses before having become a believer in Christ.

2. There were Gentiles who had no background with a synagogue (Acts 11:20).

3. There were churches where no synagogue existed (the Gentile towns of Lycaonia,Lystra, Derbe, Pisidia, Pamphylia mentioned in Acts 14).

We see in Galatians 3 that the Law was to lead us to Christ and teach us of our need for Christ. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the Law.

Galatians 3:2-26

 24Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

In fact, we see in Galatians 4 that we are not to follow the feasts and festivals.

8 However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.

9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?

10 You observe days and months and seasons and years. 

11 I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.

Paul is clear that His efforts at teaching salvation by faith was in vain if they were trying to return to weak and worthless things like special holidays.

In Galatians 5, we see that we were freed from slavery, but to be circumcised is to be enslaved again, being put under the obligation to be keep the whole Law.

1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free ; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law ; you have fallen from grace. 5 For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. 7 You were running well ; who hindered you from obeying the truth ?

Paul was clear that If you are led by the Spirit, then you are not under the Law.

17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh ; for these are in opposition to oneanother, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.

Since believers are not under the Law,  Acts 15:21 could not have been given to show that Gentiles a starting point of what they should obey from the Law.

It couldn’t have been for the Gentile believers to learn and follow the Law, because often Paul would go into the synagogue and preach about Christ, but that usually would eventually upset the Jews and then Paul taught apart from the synagogues (which we see in Acts 9:19-25, 13:44-46, 14:1-7, 17:1-9, 18:1-11, 19:8-10). So most of the Jewish believers and Gentiles would rarely be in the synagogues learning the Law of Moses.

So then what other possible reason would that verse have been given?

Acts 15:21 was given to emphasize the fact that the Jews had been learning the Law since practically forever and that would influence them to believe the Gentile believers must follow the Law to be saved. Because of this, and to ensure the Gentiles were NOT encouraged to follow the Law, the letter was written.

The prohibitions would separate the Gentile believers from the pagan religions they HAD been following and show the Jews that they did not follow a strange God. Additionally, two of the prohibitions reflect back to Genesis 9:4, when everything was given as food, but the people were to abstain from meat with blood in it. But the letter would also make it clear the Law was not intended for Gentile believers.

This is reiterated in Acts 21:17-26

17 After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.18 And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and allthe elders were present. 19 After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.22 What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. 25 But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.

There was rumor that Paul was teaching that Jews did not have to follow the Law (circumcising their children, etc.). So to appease the believers who were zealous for the Law, James and the elders of the church in Jerusalem wanted Paul to undergo a purification ritual with four other men. This does not state that Paul was or was not following the Law, but that he under went a purification ritual to appease the Jewish believers who were zealous for the Law.

But besides that, we see exactly what Gentile believers were required to do:  “they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.

So no, the verse was not put there to show the believing Gentiles had to learn and follow the Law. It was put there to show the need for the letter the apostles and elders wrote, since the Jews heard the teachings of Moses weekly, the Jews would likely think the Gentile believers needed to follow the Law, but in fact they did not need to do so.

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