Peter reports his experience with Gentile salvation and argues that requiring Gentiles to keep the Law is placing an unnecessary yoke upon them (Acts 15:7-11). He first briefly reminds the assembly of his encounter with Cornelius, a conversion which was confirmed by evidence from the Holy Spirit. At the time this was a shock to Peter and his companions, as well as to the Jerusalem community. Cornelius received the Spirit before he converted to Judaism. In hindsight, this may be the reason that the Spirit comes upon him even before baptism, so that there can be no question that Cornelius was saved apart from conversion.
When Peter describes the Law as a “yoke” on the Gentiles he is not necessarily criticizing the Law. In Judaism, the idea of being “yoked” to the Law is a positive image, although there is often the implication of completeness – if you are yoked to the Law, you are required to keep it all (Bock, Acts, 501). To live under the yoke of the Torah or yoke of Wisdom was to live as God intended!
Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under (wisdom’s) yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.
PsSol 7.8-9 For you will have compassion on the people Israel forever and you will not reject (them); And we are under your yoke forever, and (under) the whip of your discipline.
Despite being given the Law, Peter says the forefathers were never able to “bear the yoke.” Luke 11:46 uses a similar phrase with respect to the traditions of the Pharisees, so it is possible Peter has traditions which go “beyond the Torah” in mind. I really cannot see the requirement of circumcision for converts to Judaism as one of these sorts of burdens, however.
What is more, Peter calls the imposition of law on the Gentiles “testing God.” The verb is often used for testing something to see if it is genuine or a person to see if they will prove themselves to be true. Perhaps this is why Luke used πειράζω in 5:9, Sapphira “tests” the Holy Spirit in order to see if he will “prove true.” But to test God is always to invite disaster! Peter already knows if God has accepted a Gentile without circumcision and given the Gentiles the Holy Spirit, then it is dangerous for the Jerusalem community to require circumcision as a proof of God’s commitment to Gentile salvation.
Peter is agrees with Paul, God saves both Jew and Gentile by faith. But God has only given the Law to Israel, not the Gentiles. He agrees with Paul’s claim that Gentiles are not converts to Judaism, although he may stop short of agreeing that Jews and Gentiles both are converts to something new, a new people of God which Paul will later call the “body of Christ” (Eph 3:1-6). Peter is not saying that Jews ought to disregard Law, but only that Gentiles should not be given the additional of the Law.
What are the ramifications of Peter’s speech here in Acts 15? In the short term, this may sway James’s mind to accept Paul’s view of Gentiles and the Law, but do you think Peter’s views were enough to change thinking of the opponents of Paul in Galatia or in Antioch? Perhaps more interesting is the application of Peter’s agreement with Paul for modern church life and practice; do we “test God” today with any modern practices?